Where the Hell is Superman?

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, EPI International & Educational Policy Institute

If you are an educator, and unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past month, everyone is talking about Waiting for Superman, the new documentary by Davis Guggenheim, the producer/director of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which won an Oscar a few years back.

Superman has brought much-needed focus on critical education issues in the United States, while concurrently stoking controversy because of its brazen support for the charter school movement.

Yesterday, EPI hosted former US Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, on the EPI Book Club to discuss her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Dr. Ravitch, who served under President George H. W. Bush between 1991 and 1993, was a solid supporter of No Child Left Behind and has been considered a fairly right-wing observer of education. But much has changed in the past few years, as she acknowledged yesterday. “I was wrong,” said Ravitch. She realized that the testing emphasis created by No Child Left Behind has only hurt education, taking focus away from the real work of teaching and learning and instead, turning school districts, administrators, and teachers toward the gaming of testing. In the end, learning hasn’t changed, even if the scores did.

But Ravitch is not impressed with Guggenheim’s film or his take on education in America. Waiting for Superman uses the stories of five youth who hope to get a spot in exclusive charter schools in the US. The film builds up until they show the public lottery system, where some make it and some don’t. Great theater, even if there is a very voyeuristic ickiness about watching dreams stop cold. Live, on screen, at a theater near you.

For years I have suggested that charter schools, as they now exist, are not the answer to educational reform, let alone closing the opportunity gap in public education. Data have clearly and consistently illustrated that charter schools do worse than the public schools they attempt to replace. Ravitch cited data from the CREDO study, which showed that while 17 percent of charter schools exhibited significant student test gains in mathematics compared to matched public schools, 46 percent did the same, and 37 percent did worse. Put another way, only 1 in 7 charter schools did better than their public counterpart. Or, alternatively, over one third of charter schools did worse than the public schools they were meant to replace. Not so good. These schools that are being championed by the political left AND right are worse off, on average, than the public schools.

Yet Guggenheim takes it upon himself to suggest that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes. He’s wrong.

The film also takes a hit at teachers, suggesting that they are the problem. The premise is that if we simply get rid of “bad” teachers, we will fix the problem and students will all learn at a high level. He’s wrong again.

Think about it. Teachers are important, for sure. I served as a middle/junior high school teacher for seven years. And I was good at it. Perhaps more importantly, I wasn’t the only one who was good at it. There were many of us. And yes, there were teachers who did not teach very well. But they were the exception, not the norm.

Let’s face it, the charter school movement started as a substitute for vouchers. Republicans wanted vouchers, because they, more than Democrats, send their children to private schools. For two decades, the Republicans have pushed for taxpayer support for vouchers, allowing parents a tax break or credit to send their kids to private schools. But the Democrats controlled Congress during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and never allowed the conversation to move. So the conversation morphed into charter schools, essentially a public voucher program. The Dems came on board because charters tend to focus on low-income, disenfranchised youth. And that’s their game.

So we end up with a coalition of Elephants and Donkeys supporting this movement. As Ravitch acknowledges, even Albert Shanker, former head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), supported charters at one time, but only because they were to be an experiment, not the answer. Charters were initially designed to be laboratories for change, using their findings to improve public schools. But there has been little learned from charter schools, and the movement has changed into “charters must be the answer.” They are not.

This is not to take away from the charters that work. KIPP Schools (EPI conducted an evaluation of KIPP schools back in 2005) are an example of charters that seem to work, although there is no real external evaluation that shows this to be the case (student data are very closely held to the KIPP jacket). So, 1-in-7 work and work well. How does that make the case for expanding the program to more charter schools?

But that is exactly what Secretary Duncan and President Obama are doing through Race to the Top (RTTT) and other programs via the U.S. Department of Education – helping push the charter movement forward. It is most interesting because the past two federal administrations – Bush and Obama – are very focused on data-driven decision making and empirically-based models or reform. So why aren’t they looking at the data? These schools aren’t working. At what point do you cave and say, as Diane Ravitch did, “I was wrong?”

So we can continue to wait and wonder who Superman is. I know who Superman is. He is every teacher, every parent, every lawmaker, every business person, every curriculum designer, every professor, and every student in America. There are no magic bullets, of course. That is a common refrain in education reform. But we know the answer is better preparation, better professional development, better facilities, better parenting, and better policies from our elected officials at the federal, state, and local levels.

We don’t agree on everything that needs to be done, but we agree on most of them. Let’s agree that charters aren’t the solution, albeit they can still play a significant role as laboratories for educational research; research that will help change how we do public (and private) education.

Superman lives. But not among us. Within us.

To Read Diane Ravitch’s New York Times critique of “Waiting for Superman” (November, 2010), click here.

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