Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Teacher Madness", or, I watched Waiting For Superman

Don Wheeler

Having a bit of time on my hands and a Netflix subscription, I decided I should at last view the mockumentary "Waiting For Superman".

Yeah, I know it is the pride and joy of the Rephorm Privateers, but as an on again off again political operative I know opposition research is important.  The film did not disappoint in its baldness.

The filmmakers show their hand early.  We start out all feel-good.  The narrator shares that he filmed a story about public schools in 1999.  We see short scenes of earnest and patient teachers working with earnest and attentive students.  All seems well.

But abruptly the narrator says that ten years later (when it was time to send his kid to school) his fear of failing schools leads him to drive past three public schools to drop his offspring off at a private one.  I  wondered, what could have happened in the intervening years?  Will Waiting For Superman be an explanation of it?  Turns out, not so much.

It's just the set-up for a series of (pretty clumsy) manipulative attempts to legitimize the claims of the education "reform" (read privatization) proponents.

About twenty-five minutes in, we are riding past a prison.  It is pointed out that it costs $33,000 per year to house an inmate.  BUT (it goes on) the average private school tuition is a mere $8300 per year.  I guess we're supposed to conclude it makes more sense to send people to private schools than to prison.

I happened to be fortunate enough that I attended one of the very finest public High Schools in the United States - Evanston Township High School (Illinois) in the early 1970s.  There I learned that the above comparison is a "false choice".

You find lots of stuff like that in this film, and in some ways it seems like they don't take their own arguments seriously:  There are lots of cartoons, and animated graphs, and repeatedly, "It should be simple..."

Here are some more whoppers.  An ineffective teacher covers only 50% of the course work in a given year.  A highly effective teacher covers 150% of the course work.  There is the obvious problem that one can't possibly cover 150% of any given material.  And the equally obvious problem that comparisons like this are only informative in controlled study groups.

Also, there was a claim that Howard Fuller couldn't fire teachers (who clearly committed malfeasance) "due to a provision in the (teachers') contract called tenure - which guaranteed a job for life".  Call me skeptical.  Even university professors don't get immunity for stuff like that.

Another claim:  We can't do what needs to be done because of teacher contracts.  Here's a flash, the teachers' union negotiates with another party before the contract is agreed to.  Think provisions need to be changed?  Negotiate, don't whine.

We're later told that if we "eliminated" the bottom 4-6% of teachers, our students would reach the achievement levels (test scores) of Finnish students.  The producers seem to not know that 1) The Finns don't think test scores are very important 2) That teaching is a very high status job in Finland 3) That teachers have nearly complete autonomy in Finland.... etc.

There are the wet kisses for KIPP Corporate Charter Schools - who don't outperform public schools, and Michelle Rhee - whose much ballyhooed "turnaround' of the Washington DC school system turned out to be a smoke and mirrors kind of thing...  They must wish they could take those back.

Waiting For Superman is a steady stream of misinformation and disinformation.  Two years out it is very obvious, but at the time it probably fooled a lot of folks and got them focused on strategies which are not helpful.

We rightly think Finland has shown real success in public education. Does Finland have long school days?  Nope.  Does Finland have school six days a week?  Nope.  Does Finland have anyone involved in teaching or administration who is not a trained academic?  Nope.  You get the idea.

This movie enjoyed some box office success and something of a cult following. But when the producers tried to spike the football this past fall with a film called "Won't Back Down", it disappeared from theaters nearly immediately - despite a hugely splashy launch.  You can fool all the people....

If you want to see a film that rationally discusses the real issues, I'd recommend the reply movie "The Inconvenient Truth About Waiting For Superman".

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