What ‘Superman’ got wrong, point by point


While the education film Waiting for Superman (WFS) has moving profiles of students struggling to succeed under difficult circumstances, it puts forward a sometimes misleading and other times dishonest account of the roots of the problem and possible solutions.

The amped up rhetoric of crisis and failure everywhere is being used to promote business model reforms that are destabilizing even successful schools and districts. A panel at NBC’s Education Nation event was originally titled “Does Education Need a Katrina?” Such disgraceful rhetoric undermines reasonable debate.

Let’s examine these issues.
 
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WFS says that lack of money is not the problem in education. Yet the exclusive charter schools featured in the film receive large private subsidies. Two-thirds of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone funding comes from private sources, effectively making it a highly resourced private school. Promise Academy, the Harlem Children’s Zone charter school, is in many ways an excellent school, but it is dishonest for the filmmakers to say nothing about the funds it took to create it and the extensive social supports including free medical care and counseling provided by the Harlem Children’s Zone.

In New Jersey, where court decisions mandated similar programs, such as high quality pre-Kindergarten classes and extended school days and social services in the poorest urban districts, achievement and graduation rates increased while gaps started to close. But public funding for those programs is now being cut and progress is being eroded. Money matters! Of course, money will not solve all problems (because the problems are more systemic than the resources of any given school) — but the off-handed rejection of a discussion of resources is misleading.
 
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WFS implies that testing is a reasonable way to assess student progress. The debate of “how to raise test scores” strangles and distorts strong education. Most test score differences stubbornly continue to reflect parental income and neighborhood/zip codes, not what schools do. As opportunity, health and family wealth increase, so do test scores.

This is not the fault of schools but the inaccuracy, and the internal bias, in the tests themselves. Moreover, the tests are too narrow (on only certain subjects with only certain measurement tools). When schools focus exclusively on boosting scores on standardized tests, they reduce teachers to test-prep clerks, ignore important subject areas and critical thinking skills, dumb down the curriculum and leave children less prepared for the future. We need much more authentic assessment to know if schools are doing well and to help them improve.
 
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WFS ignores overall problems of poverty. Schools must be made into sites of opportunity, not places for the rejection and failure of millions of African American, Chicano Latino, Native American, and immigrant students. But schools and teachers take the blame for huge social inequities in housing, health care, and income.

Income disparities between the richest and poorest in US society have reached record levels between 1970 and today. Poor communities suffer extensive traumas and dislocations. Homelessness, the exploitation of immigrants, and the closing of community health and counseling clinics, are all factors that penetrate our school communities. Solutions that punish schools without addressing these conditions only increase the marginalization of poor children.
 
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WFS says teachers’ unions are the problem. Of course unions need to be improved — more transparent, more accountable, more democratic and participatory — but before teachers unionized, the disparity in pay between men and women was disgraceful and the arbitrary power of school boards to dismiss teachers or raise class size without any resistance was endemic.

Unions have historically played leading roles in improving public education, and most nations with strong public educational systems have strong teacher unions.

In the Finnish education system, much cited in the film as the best in the world, teachers are — gasp! — unionized and granted tenure, and families benefit from a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that includes universal daycare, preschool and healthcare, all of which are proven to help children achieve better results in school. In fact, even student teachers have a union in Finland and, overall, nearly 90% of the Finnish labor force is unionized.

The demonization of unions ignores the real evidence.
 
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WFS says teacher education is useless. The movie touts the benefits of fast track and direct entry to teaching programs like Teach for America, but the country with the highest achieving students, Finland, also has highly educated teachers.

A 1970 reform of Finland’s education system mandated that all teachers above the kindergarten level have at least a master’s degree. Today that country’s students have the highest math and science literacy, as measured by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), of all the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries.
 
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WFS decries tenure as a drag on teacher improvement. Tenured teachers cannot be fired without due process and a good reason: they can’t be fired because the boss wants to hire his cousin, or because the teacher is gay (or black or…), or because they take an unpopular position on a public issue outside of school.

A recent survey found that most principals agreed that they had the authority to fire a teacher if they needed to. It is interesting to note that when teachers are evaluated through a union-sanctioned peer process, more teachers are put into retraining programs and dismissed than through administration-only review programs. Overwhelmingly teachers want students to have outstanding and positive experiences in schools.
 
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WFS says charter schools allow choice and better educational innovation. Charters were first proposed by the teachers’ unions to allow committed parents and teachers to create schools that were free of administrative bureaucracy and open to experimentation and innovation, and some excellent charters have set examples. But thousands of hustlers and snake oil salesmen have also jumped in. While teacher unions are vilified in the film, there is no mention of charter corruption or profiteering. A recent national study by CREDO, The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford, concludes that only 17% of charter schools have better test scores than traditional public schools, 46% had gains that were no different than their public counterparts, and 37% were significantly worse.

While a better measure of school success is needed, even by their own measure, the project has not succeeded. The recent Mathematica Policy Research study comes to similar conclusions. See http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2010/0629/Study-On-average-charter-schools-do-no-better-than-public-schools. The Institute of Education Sciences — The Evaluation of Charter School Impacts (.pdf download) concludes, “On average, charter middle schools that hold lotteries are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress.”

Some fantastic education is happening in charter schools, especially those initiated by communities and led by teachers and community members. But the use of charters as a battering ram for those who would outsource and privatize education in the name of “reform” is sheer political opportunism.
 
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WFS glorifies lotteries for admission to highly selective and subsidized charter schools as evidence of the need for more of them. If we understand education as a civil right, even a human right as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we know it can’t be distributed by a lottery.

We must guarantee all students access to high quality early education, highly effective teachers, college and work-preparatory curricula and equitable instructional resources like good school libraries and small classes. A right without a clear map of what that right protects is an empty statement.

It is not a sustainable public policy to allow more and more public school funding to be diverted to privately subsidized charters while public schools become the schools of last resort for children with the greatest educational needs. In WFS, families are cruelly paraded in front of the cameras as they wait for an admission lottery in an auditorium where the winners’ names are pulled from a hat and read aloud, while the losing families trudge out in tears with cameras looming in their faces — in what amounts to family and child abuse.
 
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WFS says competition is the best way to improve learning. Too many people involved in education policy are dazzled by the idea of “market forces” improving schools. By setting up systems of competition, Social Darwinist struggles between students, between teachers, and between schools, these education policy wonks are distorting the educational process.

Teachers will be motivated to gather the most promising students, to hide curriculum strategies from peers, and to cheat; principals have already been caught cheating in a desperate attempt to boost test scores. And children are worn out in a sink-or-swim atmosphere that threatens them with dire life outcomes if they are not climbing to the top of the heap.

In spite of the many millions poured into expounding the theory of paying teachers for higher student test scores (sometimes mislabeled as ‘merit pay’), a recent study by Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives found that the use of merit pay for teachers in the Nashville school district produced no difference even according to their measure, test outcomes for students.
 
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WFS says good teachers are key to successful education. We agree. But WfS only contributes to the teacher-bashing culture which discourages talented college graduates from considering teaching and drives people out of the profession, According to the United States Department of Education, the country will need 1.6 million new teachers in the next five years. Retention of talented teachers is one key. Good teaching is about making connections to students, about connecting what they learn to the world in which they live, and this only happens if teachers have history and roots in the communities where they teach.

But a recent report by the nonprofit National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future says that “approximately a third of America’s new teachers leave teaching sometime during their first three years of teaching; almost half leave during the first five years. In many cases, keeping our schools supplied with qualified teachers is comparable to trying to fill a bucket with a huge hole in the bottom.”

Check out the reasons teachers are being driven out in Katy Farber’s book Why Great Teachers Quit: And How We Might Stop the Exodus (Corwin Press).
 
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WFS says “we’re not producing large numbers of scientists and doctors in this country anymore… This means we are not only less educated, but also less economically competitive.” But Business Week (10/28/09) reports “U.S. colleges and universities are graduating as many scientists and engineers as ever,” yet “the highest performing students are choosing careers in other fields.” In particular, the study found, “many of the top students have been lured to careers in finance and consulting.” It’s the market, and the disproportionately high salaries paid to finance specialists, that is misdirecting human resources, not schools.
 
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WFS promotes a nutty theory of learning: that teaching is a matter of pouring information into children’s heads. In one of its many little cartoon segments, WFS purports to show how kids learn. The top of a child’s head is cut open and a jumble of factoids is poured in. Ouch! Oh, and then the evil teacher union and regulations stop this productive pouring project.

The film-makers betray no understanding of how people actually learn, the active and engaged participation of students in the learning process. They ignore the social construction of knowledge, the difference between deep learning and rote memorization.

The movie would have done a service by showing us what excellent teaching looks like, and addressing the valuable role that teacher education plays in preparing educators to practice the kind of targeted teaching that reaches all students. It should have let teachers’ voices be heard.
 
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WFS promotes the idea that we are in a dire war for US dominance in the world. The poster advertising the film shows a nightmarish battlefield in stark grey, with a little white girl sitting at a desk in the midst of it. The text: “The fate of our country won’t be decided on a battlefield. It will be determined in a classroom.”

This is a common theme of the so-called reformers: we are at war with India and China and we have to out-math them and crush them so that we can remain rich and they can stay in the sweatshops.

But really, who declared this war? When did I as a teacher sign up as an officer in this war? And when did that 4th grade girl become a soldier in it? Instead of this new educational Cold War, perhaps we should be helping kids imagine a world of global cooperation, sustainable economies, and equity.
 
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WFS says federal “Race to the Top” education funds are being focused to support students who are not being served in other ways. According to a study by Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and others, Race to the Top funds are benefiting affluent or well-to-do, white, and “abled” students. So the outcome of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top has been more funding for schools that are doing well and more discipline and narrow test-preparation for the poorest schools.
 
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WFS suggests that teacher improvement is a matter of increased control and discipline over teachers. Dan Brown, a teacher in the SEED charter school featured in the film, points out that successful schools involve teachers in strong collegial conversations. Teachers need to be accountable to a strong educational plan, without being terrorized. Good teachers, which is the vast majority of them, are seeking this kind of support from their administration.
 
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WFS proposes a reform “solution” that exploits the feminization of the field of teaching; it proposes that teachers just need a few good men with hedge funds (plus Michelle Rhee with a broom) to come to the rescue. Teaching has been historically devalued — teachers are less well compensated and have less control of their working conditions than other professionals — because of its associations with women.

For example, 97% of pre-school and kindergarten teachers are women, and this is also the least well-compensated sector of teaching — in 2009, the lowest 10% earned $30,970 to $34,280; the top 10% earned $75,190 to $80,970. By comparison the top 25 hedge fund managers took in $25 billion in 2009, enough to hire 658,000 new teachers. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/les-leopold/why-do-we-save-billionair_b_558213.html
 
Waiting for Supermancould and should have been an inspiring call for improvement in education, a call we desperately need to mobilize behind.

That’s why it is so shocking that the message was hijacked by a narrow agenda that undermines strong education. It is stuck in a framework that says that reform and leadership means doing things, like firing a bunch of people (Michelle Rhee) or “turning around” schools (Arne Duncan) despite the fact that there’s no research to suggest that these would have worked, and there’s now evidence to show that they haven’t.

Reform must be guided by community empowerment and strong evidence, not by ideological warriors or romanticized images of leaders acting like they’re doing something, anything. WFS has ignored deep historical and systemic problems in education such as segregation, property-tax based funding formulas, centralized textbook production, lack of local autonomy and shared governance, deprofessionalization, inadequate special education supports, differential discipline patterns, and the list goes on and on.

People seeing Waiting for Superman should be mobilized to improve education. They just need to be willing to think outside of the narrow box the film-makers have constructed to define what needs to be done.

Thanks for ideas and some content from many teacher publications, and especially from Monty Neill, Jim Horn Lisa Guisbond, Stan Karp, Erica Meiners, Kevin Kumashiro, Ilene Abrams, Bill Ayers, and Therese Quinn.

Rick Ayers is a former high school teacher, founder of Communication Arts and Sciences small school at Berkeley High School, and currently Adjunct Professor in Teacher Education at the University of San Francisco. He is author, with his brother William Ayers, of the soon-to-be-released Teaching the Taboofrom Teachers College Press.

This article was reprinted from NOT Waiting for Superman, a new website initiated by Rethinking Schools to talk back to the film and support efforts by teachers, students, and parents to improve and preserve public education. The article originally appeared on the Washington Post Educational Blog.

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