charter schools are not the revolution

by marjorieingall on November 8, 2010

I haven’t managed to see Waiting for Superman yet. I know I should, but I go to the movies so seldom, I want to use my sitting-in-the-dark-with-popcorn time for pure frivolity. The only current films I actually WANT to see are The Social Network and Megamind. OK, and maybe Let Me In. I like vampires.

So lemme share my mishegas about Waiting for Superman. I’m already suspicious about documentary as a genre. (I should talk to my bro about this, since part of his job involves funding documentaries.) I’m wary of anything presented as “true,” ’cause COME ON, we know that every narrative has a point of view. If we’re suspicious of the motives of TV news and of pundits on the left and right, why do we take documentary films at face value? And while I know that many American schools are massively fucked up, I’m not at all sure charter schools are Moshiach, if you know what I mean.

Waiting for Superman’s director, Davis Guggenheim, presents charters as the only salvation for the winsome, desperate kids he profiles. Of course we want them — and all our kids! — to get the best education possible. But are charters really the answer?

Real-life data — quite a lot of it, from the left and from the right, from all kinds of sources — show that charters as a whole actually perform WORSE than public schools. Buh? Why not make a movie about WHY successful charter schools are successful? What do they have in common, if anything? Are their approaches and teaching methods “scalable,” as the nerds say? How much of their success is attributable to selection bias — the fact that the kids who apply to charters tend to have more involved families who value education and achievement, a very different pool from the one failing public schools serve? How much of the accomplishment of charter schools is due to their tendency to counsel out kids with learning differences or challenges? What happens to kids with special needs and kids who aren’t native English speakers in the privatized world of charters? Do we throw them to the wolves (and warehouse them in crappy written-off public schools)?

I’m not a blind booster of teachers’ unions. One of my children once had a teacher who SO should not have been in the classroom. I saw her have a temper tantrum and kick and punch a door. No lie. My 5-year-old came home with a bruised nose and a note from the nurse about a nosebleed — turned out she’d been punched in the face, with a closed fist, by another child. The school repeatedly and explicitly blamed “bad kids” in the class — by name! — for the chaos in this teacher’s classroom. Um, no. But I also think that not allowing teachers to unionize at all — SOP for many charters — isn’t right or fair. My 9-year-old and I are both fascinated by the history of the labor movement in the United States — we forget how dreadful the workplace was when workers had no rights.

My big worry about charters is that too many of them “teach to the test” — they feed into the culture of standardized testing that’s fucking over good, multifaceted, multidisciplinary, individualized education AND kids’ creativity. I’m not opposed to standardized testing — it can provide a good big-picture portrait of how a given school is doing. But I’m opposed to single tests deciding a child’s future (the way one test can cause a kid to be held back a grade here in NYC) and I’m opposed to tests being used in ways they weren’t designed for, which is a huge problem (and a subject for another post).

And a fact I think doesn’t get discussed enough: THE TESTS THEMSELVES ARE ASS. On this site I’ve taken a number of my daughter’s standardized tests (look for the “standardized tests” tag) and been horrified. They are godawful. I couldn’t confidently answer some of the 3rd grade questions, and I’m a friggin magna cum laude Harvard grad with a double concentration in the reading-and-writing-heavy disciplines of English lit and folklore & mythology. Let’s leave aside (valid!) questions of racial and economic bias in the tests. I’m saying that hey, I find it problematic that some of the questions are frequently semi-coherent.

Now it’s been discovered that Davis Guggenheim staged scenes in the documentary, a big no-no. In another scene, with another kid, he fudged the truth. And educational historian Diane Ravitch (not at all a reliable pal to the American left) points out a bunch of examples of Guggenheim’s misuse or misreading of educational data. (That link is a must-read, BTW. Ignore the rest of my spewage, but read that Washington Post piece as well as Ravitch’s essay in the New York Review of Books.)

Look, we all come to art with our own biases. My bias is that I love my kids’ public school. I wish people like Guggenheim and Joel Klein HI CATHIE! would come see WHY our school is as good as it is. It’s incredibly diverse, racially and economically. We do OK on standardized tests, raw-score-wise (though far less impressively when run through the NYC Department of Education’s arcane filters, which is also a subject for another post) but more importantly, our kids learn to think creatively, value learning for learning’s sake, scorn bullying and appreciate community, citizenship, collaboration and human differences. I LOVED LOVED LOVED this New York Times magazine piece called “Building A Better Teacher.” It looked at attempts to quantify what makes for terrific teaching. What makes great teachers great? Can those skills be taught? That’s what I wish Guggenheim had focused on.

I also wish Guggenheim had talked about the fact that teaching is just one factor that goes into students’ success. Having enough to eat, having parents who are engaged and concerned about your future, having health care and a safe place to live — those things are even more important. (According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by non-school-related factors.) I also see how hard my kids’ teachers work, how caring and thoughtful they are and how multi-disciplinary and …well, MORAL … their teaching is, and I get so sick of public schools and their teachers being demonized.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carole November 9, 2010 at 3:21 pm

“the fact that the kids who apply to charters tend to have more involved families who value education and achievement, a very different pool from the one failing public schools serve” — you nailed it. I have seen this happen over and over in SF public schools. A failing school in an up-and-coming neighborhood gets “adopted” by bright, motivated parents who shake up the PTA and start writing grants for extracurricular instruction and equipment. Before you know it, that school is a “hidden gem”, and the next year it is hotly in demand. The problem I’ve observed is not so much people in SF choosing charters over public schools, it’s that these same parents and families who have it in their power to fix our broken public schools are moving out of SF to the suburbs. And that’s because of our wackadoodle school assignment system that feels completely arbitrary and doesn’t take choice or geography into account. (That’s supposedly changing next year. We’ll see about that.)

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