"Waiting for Superman" Doesn't Have Any Magic Bullets

There isn't any argument that education in America needs to be improved. Politicians on all sides of the spectrum agree. The discussion is not about whether it should happen but how it should happen.
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The release of the DVD of Waiting for Superman means that many more people will see this excellently made propaganda film extolling the virtues of charter schools.

There isn't any argument that education in America needs to be improved. Politicians on all sides of the spectrum agree. The discussion is not about whether it should happen but how it should happen.

President Obama's "Race for the Top" demands that states raise the cap on how many charter schools they have. Charter schools, the filmmakers insist, are the ultimate answer to all that ails education today.

There are excellent charter schools and not so excellent charter schools, just as there are excellent public schools and not so excellent public schools. Not once in the film do the producers show any successful public schools. They do state, however, that only one in five charter schools is performing at a high level.

Charter schools were supposed to be educational learning laboratories, which were benchmarked for best practices. To envision them as the sole universal answer to the ills of American education is as foolish as believing that high stakes tests would, by themselves, raise America's achievement level.

All that the testing achieved was to confirm what we already knew -- that children of low-income families do worse on examinations than children of high-income families. It then rewards high-achieving schools and punishes low-achieving schools.

If we wish to improve America's schools, we need to systemically improve all aspects of America's schooling. We need to improve early childhood education and make it available to every student. We need to level the playing field of school spending so that schools in affluent areas get as much funding as those in the inner cities. If children do not learn with the way teachers teach, then teachers need to teach the way students learn.

We need to have colleges validate high school degrees by not accepting students who are not prepared to enter college and stop accepting and remediating those who are below college admission standards. We need to have schools of education train teachers with the skills they need and not what the schools of education want to teach. Politicians need to stop coming up with sound-bite solutions to highly complex educational problems.

The enemy in the film is not Lex Luther, but teachers unions. If teachers unions were the evildoers then union-less states like Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi would be high performing, and we know they are not.

Finland, which is the top rated country on the Organization of Co-operation and Development's TIMSS examination, has a strong teachers union.

High performing countries of Finland, Korea and Japan operate schools as "state monopolies."

Teacher tenure at the university level means life-long employment. In the K-12 system, it simply means due process. Teacher unions do not hire incompetent teachers -- administrators do.

The same administrators have three years to get rid of poorly performing, non-tenured teachers. If anyone should be blamed for poor teachers in classrooms, it should be school administrators. "No Child Left Behind" calls for "highly qualified teachers" but we need teachers to be highly effective as well. We have all had knowledgeable teachers who knew their material but lacked the capacity to teach it.

There are two kinds of errors -- errors of omission and errors of commission. The filmmakers commit both. The film emphasizes the failing of public schools and fails to show any of the successful public schools or teachers.

Charter schools don't seem to be doing any better than regular public school and tend to be much more expensive to operate than regular schools. One of the most successful charter schools is shown to achieve high results but the writer of the film fails to indicate that they spend $16,000 per student (more than the amount that New York City spends on its public school students).

I have visited a charter school in Florida (which has since closed) where the graduation rate was 17 percent. Another charter school failed to invest that money in the classroom or to provide required financial disclosures.

Are charter schools really Supermen capable of sweeping needy students out of harm's way? Innovation is frequently confused with improvement. Americans embrace whatever is believed to be "new" more readily than what already exists.

What makes charter schools so attractive to so many parents? Most charter schools are operating at capacity and have waiting lists. And the film plays on the heartstrings by showing the disappointment when children are turned away because of lack of room in one high-performing charter school.

Obviously all parents want the best for their children and are willing to do whatever it takes to get the best education for their child. They have been led to believe that charter schools provide the answer. Maybe, like Superman, it really is fiction.

At the very least, the film has opened a dialogue about how to improve schools.

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