by Christopher Paslay
The 83rd Academy Awards are a week away and “Waiting for Superman,” the highly publicized documentary about the state of education in America, is not up for an award. Despite backing from President Obama and a $2 million grant provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote the film worldwide, Superman failed to receive an Oscar nomination.
Last November, noted education historian Diane Ravitch wrote a scathing review of the film in The New York Review of Books, an article which some believe carried enough weight to spoil Superman’s chances of winning director Davis Guggenheim his second Oscar.
Ravitch made quick work of the film in her article, bringing to light, among other things, that Guggenheim gave a dishonest accounting of charter schools:
“. . . The propagandistic nature of Waiting for “Superman” is revealed by Guggenheim’s complete indifference to the wide variation among charter schools. There are excellent charter schools, just as there are excellent public schools. Why did he not also inquire into the charter chains that are mired in unsavory real estate deals, or take his camera to the charters where most students are getting lower scores than those in the neighborhood public schools? Why did he not report on the charter principals who have been indicted for embezzlement, or the charters that blur the line between church and state? Why did he not look into the charter schools whose leaders are paid $300,000–$400,000 a year to oversee small numbers of schools and students?”
Ravitch also pointed out that Guggenheim failed to address the non-school factors that affect student achievement:
“. . . Guggenheim seems to believe that teachers alone can overcome the effects of student poverty, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between income and test scores. He shows us footage of the pilot Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, to the amazement of people who said it couldn’t be done. Since Yeager broke the sound barrier, we should be prepared to believe that able teachers are all it takes to overcome the disadvantages of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, poor nutrition, absent parents, etc.
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.”
Finally, Ravitch explained that Guggenheim blatantly misrepresented data in his film:
“ . . . Perhaps the greatest distortion in this film is its misrepresentation of data about student academic performance. The film claims that 70 percent of eighth-grade students cannot read at grade level. This is flatly wrong. Guggenheim here relies on numbers drawn from the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). I served as a member of the governing board for the national tests for seven years, and I know how misleading Guggenheim’s figures are. NAEP doesn’t measure performance in terms of grade-level achievement. The highest level of performance, “advanced,” is equivalent to an A+, representing the highest possible academic performance. The next level, “proficient,” is equivalent to an A or a very strong B. The next level is “basic,” which probably translates into a C grade. The film assumes that any student below proficient is “below grade level.” But it would be far more fitting to worry about students who are “below basic,” who are 25 percent of the national sample, not 70 percent.
Guggenheim didn’t bother to take a close look at the heroes of his documentary. Geoffrey Canada is justly celebrated for the creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which not only runs two charter schools but surrounds children and their families with a broad array of social and medical services. Canada has a board of wealthy philanthropists and a very successful fund-raising apparatus. With assets of more than $200 million, his organization has no shortage of funds. Canada himself is currently paid $400,000 annually. For Guggenheim to praise Canada while also claiming that public schools don’t need any more money is bizarre. Canada’s charter schools get better results than nearby public schools serving impoverished students. If all inner-city schools had the same resources as his, they might get the same good results.
But contrary to the myth that Guggenheim propounds about “amazing results,” even Geoffrey Canada’s schools have many students who are not proficient. On the 2010 state tests, 60 percent of the fourth-grade students in one of his charter schools were not proficient in reading, nor were 50 percent in the other. It should be noted—and Guggenheim didn’t note it—that Canada kicked out his entire first class of middle school students when they didn’t get good enough test scores to satisfy his board of trustees. This sad event was documented by Paul Tough in his laudatory account of Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, Whatever It Takes (2009). Contrary to Guggenheim’s mythology, even the best-funded charters, with the finest services, can’t completely negate the effects of poverty.”
Those familiar with the true workings of public education, such as Ravitch, can easily see past the myths purported in “Waiting for Superman.”
For Guggenheim to cherry-pick information to such a degree is simply bad movie making. Kudos to the Academy for keeping such a short-sighted project off the red carpet.