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TC Faculty: American Education Can't Wait for "Superman"

A panel of TC faculty members react to director Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for "Superman"

TC  Faculty:  American Education Can't Wait for "Superman"

Waiting for “Superman,” the controversial documentary on the failures of America’s education system, sparked passionate debate following a September 17 preview screening at Teachers College.

A panel of TC faculty members reacted to director Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth) evocative account of five families in New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and suburban California who, in an effort to escape their neighborhood public schools, enter their children in long-shot lotteries for admission to charter schools. Guggenheim casts the lotteries, which in some cases are conducted by a random drawing of lottery balls out of a rotating cage, as the children’s last hope to become educated, productive citizens.

The TC panelists—Barbara Wallace, Erica Walker, Michael Rebell and Jeffrey Henig—and Aaron Pallas, who opened and closed the discussion, were sympathetic to the families’ plight. None of them questioned the film’s portrayal of run-down, depressing schools or the families’ desire to flee them. All of them credited Guggenheim for sparking a national dialogue on the state of America’s schools. Wallace called the film a “call to arms” for the new civil rights struggle of the 21st century -- the right of every child to get a good education.

But the panelists all described the movie as a simplistic treatment of the complex problems of public schools. In particular, they faulted the film’s central argument that charter schools—public schools that are largely free from regulation and union contract provisions—inherently are vastly superior and produce better outcomes than traditional public schools. A small number of charter schools are doing a good job in raising test scores, the panelists noted, but they questioned whether higher scores on standardized tests are the most reliable measures of success. And while successful charters do offer some models for improvement, the panelists were skeptical that they could be replicated on a scale large enough to solve the pervasive problems of American public education.

“Charter schools in themselves are not really solutions; they are Band Aids,” said Walker, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Education. She noted that only three percent of American students attend charter schools, and that, as even the film points out, fewer than one-fifth of charter schools are considered successful. (A 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that 17 percent of charter schools significantly outperform traditional public schools.) “The vast majority of children do not go to charter schools,” Walker said. “I don’t want to hang my hopes on the infinitesimal percentage of charter schools that are doing a good job. I want all the schools that our students have access to to be good schools.”

Walker questioned the widely held belief that successful schools are those that are raising standardized test scores in reading and math. The film, for example, prominently features the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) charter schools, using this measure to characterize them as highly successful. Walker pointed out that HCZ, as well as the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools—as well as some other charters and traditional public schools—have significantly increased the amount of time students spend on preparing for math and reading tests while short-changing other subjects and deeper exploration of the core subjects.

“It’s not helpful if the increased attention to math is focused on basic skills and not on rich, problem-solving opportunities,” Walker said. “The kind of time we spend on math is more important than the amount.”

Also in an effort to boost children’s performance, many charter schools hold longer school days and Saturday classes, and stay open through parts of the summer. In some cases this has resulted in higher test scores, and President Obama has been impressed enough with those results to call for more instructional time in all public schools.

But many educators and parents are bothered by the “more time on task” strategy, saying it exhausts students and teachers and is not sustainable. “There’s this model that what we need to do is recruit the best and the brightest teachers, work them really hard and build on their motivation and energy,” said Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education, “and if we can hold them for seven years, that’s enough, as long as we can keep replenishing the supply. I just don’t think that is realistic. I think we need to think about teaching as a profession.”

Rebell, Professor of Law and Education, agreed that teaching should be more professionalized and teachers paid more. He praised Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, who is shown in the film losing a battle with the local union when she proposed that some teachers give up seniority and tenure rights for a year in exchange for the opportunity to win performance-based bonuses. Rebell noted that, after the film was finished, Rhee succeeded in negotiating a contract that would give individual teachers who relinquish some job protections the opportunity to earn more than $100,000—f ar more than they make now.

Rebell praised the move, saying teachers have historically been poorly paid because theirs was one of the few professional paths open to women. But now that women have higher-paying options, school systems need to pay more for talent. “This country needs to make some fundamental decisions,” he said. “If we want quality teachers, first we have to pay them.”

The charter schools featured in the film, most prominently those run by the Harlem Children’s Zone, are not widely replicable, Rebell said, because most are substantially subsidized with private money. While the film has extensive footage of HCZ founder Geoffrey Canada explaining why he thinks his charter schools are the last hope for Harlem children, it doesn’t mention all the support services—health care, early childhood care, parenting class, nutrition counseling—which Canada has in place to support his schools. He pays for these services with substantial private donations (shortly before the film premiered in New York City, Canada announced that Goldman Sachs Gives, a philanthropic fund supported by the investment firm its partners, had donated $20 million ). Rebell said public schools, no matter how wealthy, cannot hope to replicate what Canada has done without sharply raising local property taxes—an unpopular step that almost no political officeholder is willing to take.

Pallas, Professor of Sociology and Education, pointed out that the film includes no interviews with teachers even though it suggests that teachers are the single most important factor in a school’s success. Referencing research by Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, the film suggests that removing the worst-performing teachers from schools would measurably raise test results. The problem, Rebell said, is that researchers haven’t figured out a standard for what a good teacher is. He questioned Hanushek’s implication that good teachers are simply teachers whose students do well on standardized tests.

Rebell also strongly challenged the film’s unflattering portrayal of teachers unions, in the person of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, as the primary obstacles to reform. It was Weingarten who sat across the bargaining table from Rhee when the innovative District of Columbia contract was negotiated, Rebell pointed out, and she has publicly stated her willingness to discuss changes in tenure policy, teacher evaluation, and compensation. Rebell also noted that the film ignores the National Education Association, which negotiates more union contracts and represents many more members than Weingarten’s AFT.

Walker said she thought the biggest problem with Waiting for “Superman,”  is that it unfairly ignores traditional public schools, some of which are doing a good job. “Charter schools probably are providing examples of innovation, but public schools are doing that, too,” Walker said. “I would like every school to look like a top public school, whether it’s a charter school or a traditional public school.”

To Wallace, Professor of Health Education, the film will serve its purpose if it lights a fire under educators, policymakers, researchers and parents, to find evidence-based solutions to the problems of public schools. TC’s contribution, Wallace said, is to conduct high-quality research of various curricular, strategic and financial models; to identify which models hold promise and which can be replicated on a large scale; to adopt methods and structures that work in schools in New York City and throughout the state; and to educate, prepare and support new teachers through coursework and peer mentoring and tutoring programs. “We can provide valuable national leadership that helps to establish education as an evidence-based field,” Wallace said.

Waiting for “Superman,” is named for a tale that Geoffrey Canada recounts early in the film. “One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ does not exist,” Canada recalls. “She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus isn’t real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”

Ironically, Henig observed, the film reinforces the profound disappointment of many Americans that no one person, program or piece of legislation is going to save the nation’s public schools. The solution, if it is found, will be a constellation of many solutions, home-grown and hammered out to meet local needs by people who have the political will to make hard decisions. “If we’re going to make progress on these issues,” Henig said, “it will be costly and take time.” And it will not involve waiting for solutions to magically appear. 

The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not reflect the views of the faculty, administration or staff of Teachers College or Columbia University.

Published Thursday, Sep. 30, 2010


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