‘American Teacher’ Shows the Other Side of ‘Superman’

by Christopher Paslay

“American Teacher,” the new education documentary narrated by Matt Damon, dares to portray schoolteachers as competent professionals.    

In an age of school reform, in an age where the phrase failing schools has become boilerplate, the film “American Teacher” arrives at a surprising conclusion: schoolteachers aren’t the bums they’re made out to be.  In fact, many of them are extremely dedicated, and work really long hours.  They write lessons, and grade stacks of essays, and bond with their students.  They counsel, and mentor, and spend up to $3,000 of their own money to buy supplies.  Many do this while holding a second job.  And raising children.  And managing a home.  And maintaining a relationship with a spouse. 

As Neil Genzlinger wrote in his review of the film for the New York Times, “It quickly knocks down the idiocy often voiced by right-wing television commentators that teachers are goof-offs who work six-hour days and take three months off every year. The director, Vanessa Roth, follows several teachers through their long days at school and into their personal lives, where low pay is a constant worry that affects marriages and contributes to an alarming turnover rate.”

“American Teacher” is for the most part refreshingly free from underlying politics and agendas.  It does suggest the teaching profession should be made more attractive by increasing pay, but it never advocates performance pay.  It stays away from the subject of unions, school choice, and the achievement gap; unlike “Waiting for Superman,” this lack of controversy may very well keep it from receiving the attention it deserves. 

Its wholesomeness and respect for America’s schoolteachers goes against the grain of the message being promoted by education reformers such as Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, whose organizations have tens of millions of dollars at their disposal to paint educators in an unflattering light; Bill Gates donated $2 million to promote “Waiting for Superman,” the documentary that noted education scholar Diane Ravitch called “propagandistic” for cherry-picking statistics and test data in order to help further expand charter schools and privatize education.   

“American Teacher” shows the other side of “Superman,” which is probably enough to sink it like a stone.  This isn’t to say those interested in the real lives and careers of our nation’s schoolteachers should pass on it.  On the contrary, it’s a film the American public needs to see.

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School Choice is Twenty-First Century Segregation

by Christopher Paslay

Charter schools do not serve the neediest children—they weed them out.

Generally speaking, there are two ways to deal with a public school that is struggling to succeed.  One—you could provide that school with the proper supports, such as doing building renovations and repairs, upgrading materials, and investing in technology.  You could revamp curriculum to make it more individualized and authentic, treat teachers with respect and trust in their expertise, and expand alternative schools and programs to remediate troubled youth.  In other words, you could invest in families and communities, and create a culture of learning available to all children within the bounds of a neighborhood.

Or two—you could deem the school a failure and turn your back on it.  Throw up your hands and say, “This school isn’t worth saving.”  You could do so by pinning all the complex challenges facing students in struggling neighborhoods solely on “lousy” teachers and “good-for-naught” principals, opting to take your resources elsewhere and start over by building a brand new school.  Yes, you could funnel tax dollars away from the school you deemed “failing” and build a charter.  You could hire new teachers (although many would come from the same pool of “lousy” teachers whose schools were shut down), you could set-up your admissions process so only students with educated parents could navigate the paperwork, and you could throw out those children who don’t follow your rules and send them back to the “failing” neighborhood school to rot with the rest of the children who couldn’t get into your charter.         

You could deal with a struggling school by doing one of those two things.  Fighting the good fight, or turning and running away.  The school choice folks, those obsessed with charters, like to run.  It’s easier that way.  Finding alternative ways to educate America’s bottom third is no easy task.  America’s bottom third is quite the pain in the butt, to put it bluntly.  They are the ones with the family issues, and the health issues, and the addition problems.  They’ve been exposed to domestic violence and often can’t manage their anger or peacefully solve problems.  And charters, which have limited space and stricter rules, keep these students out.            

KIPP charters (Knowledge Is Power Program) are a prime example.  Touted as working wonders for poor and minority children, KIPP schools are indeed achieving good results on standardized tests.  However, because KIPP schools have extended school days and hold classes on weekends, the student turnover rate is extremely high for Black males—over 40 percent dropout between grades 6 – 8.  In addition, KIPP is criticized for not serving more English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

The real kicker is that despite the added advantage of weeding out struggling students, as a whole, charters still aren’t performing any better than traditional public schools.  The CREDO study proves this reality point blank, as does the fact that in Philadelphia, only 54.7 percent of charters are making AYP under the No Child Left Behind guidelines.

This is most likely due to the fact that up to 60 percent of student achievement is based on nonschool factors.  Noted education historian Diane Ravitch wrote about this reality in a review of the film Waiting for Superman that she published in The New York Review of Books:  

“. . . 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 the quality of a teacher and school are important, if the educational issues stemming from nonschool variables aren’t properly addressed—and most charters do not address them—academic progress and student achievement will be limited.               

Tragically, school choice isn’t doing much to improve achievement.  It is, however, giving parents a legal means of separating their children from the unwanted bottom third, and allowing school reformers and entrepreneurs to turn a profit at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised.

Thankfully, There Will Be No Oscar for ‘Superman’

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.