Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pushing the new education orthodoxy

Geoffrey Canada at work in Harlem.

Waiting for Superman, the new and much-discussed education documentary, makes a highly emotional case for the current wave of school reform. Oddly, though, the movie is at its best (which can be very good) when its commitment to storytelling subdues its more zealous aspirations. Director Davis Guggenheim, acclaimed for his work on the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, focuses on five kids and their parents, and the closer he stays to them, the more impressive and, yes, heartbreaking his movie can be.

Watching a young girl's dejection at not hearing her name called for admission to an acclaimed New York City charter school couldn't be more wrenching. The youngster is ill-equipped to accept the cruel outcome of a lottery, the mechanism for deciding which students will get into charter schools when the number of applicants exceeds the number of open slots.

Guggenheim tells us that his documentary was born out of discomfort. Although he previously had made a documentary about public schools, Guggenheim wound up sending his own kids to private school. He wondered about parents who didn't have his resources, but also wanted the best for their children. What could they do?

Waiting for Superman has not suffered for a lack of attention. The movie already has been the subject of countless op-ed pieces and magazine stories. It has prompted television programs, and has become a focal point for the discussion of educational issues. But make no mistake: This is advocacy filmmaking. Title cards at the end encourage viewer involvement in the battle to reform U.S. schools.

Excuse me, if I don't climb aboard the reform express -- at least not based on what I saw in Waiting for Superman, which won't tell careful readers of any newspaper with good education coverage much that they don't already know. Waiting for Superman is not a balanced movie, and it helps glorify the dynamism of a small group of educators -- Geoffrey Canada in New York and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., for example. Not that either Canada or Rhee -- both of whom have had national media attention -- need more time in the spotlight.

The movie follows the reformist script in blaming teachers' unions for the lack of progress in our schools. It avidly supports the charter-school movement. It argues against tenure. It parrots the current belief in test scores as the major ingredient in educational assessment. It's mostly in line with a long list of prescriptive measures that have come to define an education reform movement embraced by the Obama administration and its Education Secretary, Arne Duncan.

I'm not equipped to refute Guggenheim's arguments, and I don't for a minute doubt the sincerity of the reformers. I also have no interest discouraging anyone from seeing Waiting for Superman; it can be a valuable experience, providing it's taken as the beginning of the discussion, not the end.

If you want to round out your knowledge about education reform, you may want to check out a few of the following links, and, no, I'm not suggesting that there's anything comprehensive about the articles I'm referencing. I offer them only to demonstrate that there's more to the story, shadings you won't find in Waiting For Superman.

I don't think it was intended, but Waiting for Superman also illustrates another point: We seem incapable of discussing any problem without taking sides: Reformers vs. unions; dedicated teachers vs. educational slugs; innovative charter schools vs. failure factories; and on and on.

At heart, the reformers blame ineffective teachers for the failure of children to learn. They also see systemic inertia as a major obstacle to change. But I wonder how long it will take for the reformist banner to fly over a new orthodoxy that's as deeply entrenched and unyielding as the old one. Perhaps this already has occurred.

And I also wonder whether -- during a time of diminishing resources -- education hasn't been asked to carry the burden of deciding who'll get society's goodies and who won't. The whole business leaves me with a question: Just where exactly is the top to which teachers and students are supposed to be racing?

Lauded Harlem Schools Have Their Own Problems, New York Times, Oct. 12, 2010

D.C. School Chief's Rhee's next move probably toward the door. Washington Post, September 17, 2010. (Rhee has since resigned.)

Despite push, success at charter schools is mixed. New York Times, May 1, 2010.

Grading Waiting for Superman, The Nation, Oct. 11, 2010

Stop Trashing Teachers, by Diane Ravitch, The Daily Beast.

Waiting for Superman Won't Fly With Some Audiences, NBC News, Sept. 27, 2010.

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