I didn’t see “Waiting for Superman,” although I followed the chatter about it. The story had considerable buzz going into its fall release; Roger Ebert wrote a rave from Sundance last year, and it continued from there. The documentary film, about several poor families desperate to get into a handful of outstanding charter schools, had The Answer to awful urban school systems, and it was? Yes, charter schools. Also, taming the terrible teachers’ unions. And so on.
And then it was snubbed for an Oscar nomination. Hmm. On the one hand, that’s not that surprising. Documentarians — who decide which films will get the five coveted slots — are a notoriously petty and jealous crew, and while things have supposedly improved since 1995, when “Hoop Dreams,” the best documentary of that or any year, was denied a nomination, it’s safe to assume jealousy and pettiness wasn’t driven from the system entirely.
But it turns out the problems go a little deeper than that:
(Director Davis) Guggenheim edited the film to make it seem as if charter schools are a systemic answer to the ills afflicting many traditional public schools, even though they can’t be, by their very design. He unfairly demonized Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and gave undeserved hero status to reformer and former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Guggenheim compared schools in Finland and the United States without mentioning that Finland has a 3 percent child poverty rate and the United States has a 22 percent rate.
One scene showed a mother touring a charter school — and saying things such as, “I don’t care if we have to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning in order to get there at 7:45, then that’s what we will do” — that turned out to be staged; she already knew her son didn’t get in, according to The New York Times.
Interesting. My problems started with the story about how the film came to be, how Guggenheim would drive past the lousy Los Angeles public school that his children would attend if they weren’t the offspring of a wealthy filmmaker — of course they attend private schools — and be struck by how terrible and depressing the school looked, and wondered why that was. That the answer he came up with is, “because they have terrible teachers, who are protected by a powerful union” is understandable, although I wonder how much consideration he gave to the idea that one reason the schools suck is that Guggenheim’s children don’t attend.
What ails our public schools is a complex problem, and complex problems don’t have simple solutions, but for my money, there’s something so repellent in this sort of (literal) drive-by analysis it makes it hard to listen. I’ll give a more respectful ear to someone like Sandra Tsing Loh, who had the same feeling looking at her own local public school, but coped by actually enrolling her daughters, rolling up her cuffs, and wading into the pond herself.
My own child goes to public school, but a suburban one, so I don’t really have skin in the game, either. But at least I’d never say there’s a single answer to a problem as big as this one, and I wouldn’t stage a scene in a film to prove it.
Diane Ravitch, who has forgotten more about education policy than all of us combined will ever know, took the film apart in the New York Review of Books last fall. She didn’t pull punches:
The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false. Hanushek has released studies showing that teacher quality accounts for about 7.5–10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes. Teachers are the most important factor within schools.
But the same body of research shows that nonschool factors matter even more than teachers. According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income. So while teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers. Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.
But the political right loves “choice,” vouchers and the like, and hates teachers’ unions, so I expect we’ll carry on in this vein for a while. A friend of mine teaches in a Detroit charter. She says there are teachers who have been there a decade who are still not earning $50,000 a year, a nice bread-and-water wage level that should please those who think teachers are overpaid. I wonder what that’s done to the test scores.
By the way, Michigan has a modified level of school choice. Districts can choose to open themselves to non-residential enrollment, and students bring their per-pupil financial allotment with them. School districts advertise on TV — it’s freaky. Ours isn’t one of them, and our teachers are unionized and the highest-paid in the state. And it’s a first-class district. Why do you think that is?
Today is office-hours days, so skedaddle I must. A little bloggage before I go:
Rabbis tell Rupert Murdoch to make Glenn Beck put a sock in it with all that Nazi bullshit. Good for them.
Dennis Kucinich sues his country when he accidentally gets an olive pit in his sandwich. Why doesn’t he just get the tooth fixed with his no-doubt-top-drawer dental insurance and settle for an apology? Just a suggestion.
One of my filmmaking friends is celebrating a birthday today — happy birthday, Dan Phillips — and just updated his Facebook status: What better way to celebrate than to be on set doing what I love to do — cutting off someone’s legs. I can think of no better note to finish on. Happy Thursday, all.