Superman and Charter Schools

Diane Ravitch has written an absolutely devastating review of Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman'”.

The review, in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, points out a few large inaccuracies in the film. For example, only about 25 percent of U.S. eigth graders –not 70 percent, as the film asserts– read below grade level.

But, Ravitch’s main critique is what she paints as Guggenheim’s relentless lack of context (I haven’t seen the film). As Ravitch tells it, and consistent with other accounts I’ve read, the educational theory behind the film can be summarized as: (1) poor teacher quality is the biggest reason for underperforming schools; (2) the biggest barrier to improving teacher quality are teachers unions that prevent principals from firing the worst 5 to 10 percent of teachers every year; and (3) expanding charter schools and making it easier to fire teachers could turn around the US public schools without the need for any additional spending.

Ravitch, however, cites “a relative consensus” among researchers (including one expert featured in the film) that “teachers statistically account for around 10-20 percent of achievement outcomes.” Teachers are important, of course, but “non-school factors” beyond control of schools and teachers, such as family background and income, “matter even more”.

As for the role of teachers unions, Ravitch notes that in Finland, which “Waiting for ‘Superman'” holds up as a model, all teachers are unionized. (Finland also has poverty rates that are far lower than they are in the United States. Schools there are fundamentally about teaching, not, as is often the case in struggling inner-city schools in the United States, about coping with an array of economic, social, and physical and mental health problems facing children growing up in poverty.)

Ravitch also raises concerns that the film does not adequately convey the true financial cost of the more prominent successes experienced by charter schools. Washington, DC’s acclaimed SEED charter boarding school, for example, spends about $35,000 per student per year. The Harlem Children’s Zone, which operates two schools, has $200 million in assets, a director that earns $400,000 per year, and assists in the delivery of a range of social and medical services to its students. (Model Finland has implemented a national curriculum that includes art and foreign languages, has expanded social welfare programs affecting children, and has also taken steps to “strengthened the education profession”.)

Even so, charter schools don’t always deliver the goods. Ravitch cites an evaluation of about 2,500 charter schools by Margaret Raymond (a Stanford economist who is married to another education expert cited in the film). According to Raymond’s findings (as summarized by Ravitch): “17 percent [of charter schools] were superior to a matched traditional public school; 37 percent were worse than the public school; and the remaining 46 percent had academic gains no different from that of a similar public school.”

If you’re interested in public education and plan on seeing the film, definitely read the whole piece.

One Comment

  1. John Schmitt - Elder says:

    It is my experience that schools in economically distressed neighborhoods deal with a raft of social problems before they begin to teach. When comparing educational outcomes, I believe you have to compare educational “inputs.” The condition of the student upon entry to the school is an important facet of the evaluation process.

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