Tag Archives: Waiting for Superman

The Limits of Business Writers Writing about School Reform

Back when I was a teacher at the Lower Manhattan Outreach Center, an alternative program for dropouts and near dropouts that existed for years until it was “reformed” out of business — we had to experience “Principal for a Day.”  Our guest principal was some Wall Street investment type who suggested that students who’d been overly talkative in class should be made to pound chalk erasers.

When he was out of the room, the school coordinator (technically an assistant principal, but she ran the site), rolled her eyes, and said to me, “Can you imagine if I went to Wall Street and volunteered to be an investment banker for a day?”

Joe Nocera, a business writer, known to be quite good at his job, today takes on “school reform” in a New Times Op/Ed piece entitled,  The Limits of School Reform. He gets it spectacularly wrong.  Are there no education editors who could have kept him from embarrassing himself?

First, he writes about the article in the Times Magazine two weeks ago about Principal Ramon Gonzalez of MS 223 in the Bronx and Gonzalez’s skepticism of Joel Klein and “school reform.”  What Nocera seems to miss is that Gonzalez is a true reformer, trying to make his school, responsive to the community it serves, mentoring his teachers with an awareness of best practices and encouraging them through his example of leadership to go above and beyond.

Nocera, who probably saw Waiting for Superman, buys into the idea of Klein and other corporate types as the “reformers” and places “social scientists” and of course “teacher’s unions” as the enemy of school reform.

He seems completely oblivious to the notion that there is a battle for the mantle of “reform.”  Teacher unions don’t just fight for “tenure” and higher salaries for teachers.  They fight for smaller class size, more professional development, and teacher mentoring.  The fight for the type of reforms that help keep teachers in the profession because as even Geoffrey Canada admits in Superman, no one is a great teacher their first year in the profession.  To classify “teacher unions” as being anti-reform while lauding corporate types who believe that all that is required to run public schools is business style “management” is disingenuous at best, and Orwellian at worst.

Bloomberg’s school control has led to the opening of charters often by people with a corporate business background and little knowledge of education.  Often these schools take away resources from public schools, including their buildings.   The charter movement is not pro-reform.  It presupposes that public schools are simply bad and must be destroyed.  It is a privatization movement, but one eerily similar to the prison industry in that it must depend on public funding as it grows.  True reform is about creating better public schools, the kind that even families that could somehow scrape together the money for private school would want to send their kids to.  The charter movement, however, is about creating schools for poor kids that would ultimately cost less than public schools.  Their superficial success not only owes much to the way they are funded, but also to the fact that they can remove students who are not doing well or are disruptive — an option not open to public schools.

Nocera seems unaware of these facts or even that there’s any dispute.   He takes the corporate-reformers at their word — the only impediment to true reform is those teachers and their salary and tenure demands.  His only quibble with the corporate-reformers seems to be his interpretation that the core of their argument is that better teachers will lead to better outcomes.  He buys into the idea that unions are somehow anti-reform. He’s dead wrong in his assumption that unions are NOT also in favor of best practices for teachers or that they disagree with the idea that teachers make a difference in student achievement.  Teacher unions in fact support professional development, teacher mentoring programs, and other initiatives that help keep teachers in the classroom.  Smaller class size and placing more experienced teachers in the classroom are just two of the reforms that unions promote.

Nocera points to the case of Saquan Townsend, mentioned in the article on Gonzalez’ school.  Saquan, who was living with his mother at a homeless center, was at first disruptive at his new school, but then after his teacher reached out to him — something good teachers have always done and not something the UFT is fighting against — he began to thrive.  Nocera writes that his mother “seemed indifferent.”  This was a mother who had left Brooklyn and her home because her life and the lives of her children were in danger.  Her choice was saving her sons’ lives or disrupting their education.  How is that indifferent?   She eventually found permanent living space, but it was back in Brooklyn.  Nocera seems to think this was a selfish choice on her part since it meant Shaquan would have a long commute if he stayed at his Bronx school.  He seems to be unaware that for people within the shelter system, you don’t exactly have the option of holding out for an apartment in your school district of choice.  He misses entirely that many kids in the city have ridiculously long commutes to school.  These include kids traveling over ninety minutes to the city’s elite and specialized high schools, kids whose families consider themselves lucky, because for many these schools represent their best chance of escaping poverty.

Nocera uses Saquan as evidence that perhaps the noble corporate reformers are naive in believing that their initiatives can overcome the effects of poverty.  In this he concedes that the teacher unions may have a point though of course he gets the point wrong. He ends more or less there, with the idea that the “reformers” can only do so much and need perhaps a bit of humility.  In other words, the poor we will always have with us, more or less.

But Joe, here’s something to think about: What if the true reformers weren’t just out to create some model charters for lucky lottery winners?  What if more principals in public schools were like Gonzalez?  Not corporate types looking for another career, but real leaders who devoted their lives to education?  And what if there were more  teachers like Saquan’s?  What if public schools actually supported outreach efforts like the ones made by her by making it part of the teachers’ workday?  What if moving back to Brooklyn wasn’t an educational disaster for Saquan because ALL public schools were as good as MS 223?  What if reform meant making schools more accountable to the communities which they served, making sure that they worked collaboratively with local institutions and organizations including businesses, hospitals, etc. to make learning a community endeavor with mentoring, internships and experiential learning that engaged students not only in school but in their neighborhoods?  Engagement by the way, is something that helps prevent kids from dropping out.  What if schools opened their doors to parents not just for meetings, but also for adult education, inter-generational activities, and community events?  What if the schools were so good that even middle-class parents would send their kids there as they used to once upon a time?

That’s school reform, Joe.  The real deal.  It’s about equity in education, not lotteries, or choosing between staying in a shelter or being housed.

(Marion Stein is a former New York City school teacher who has also worked as an administrator in college-high school collaboration programs, and currently works as a grant writer, specializing in education-related grants.)

Debating Education: The Narrative is the Message

Think back to the 2008 presidential campaigns.  Between the candidates and their running mates, there were four compelling and uniquely American narratives to capture the public’s imagination:

  • John McCain, who as a callow young soldier learned the true meaning of courage during his imprisonment behind enemy lines.
  • Sarah Palin, the soccer-mom plucked from near obscurity with an uncanny ability to connect with small town voters.
  • Joe Biden, the senator whose destiny changed in an instant when a tragic accident took his wife and daughter and almost killed his son.
  • Barak Obama, the culmination of our hopes and dreams.

One of these narratives was of course stronger and more compelling than the others.  It involved race, class, immigration, American dreamers who couldn’t be stopped by an ocean, and the idea that Americans could rise above and overcome the tragedy of history.

Back during that campaign, before the Citizens United decision, before the word “tea-party” became associated with elderly white people in comical hats demanding the government get it’s paws off Medicare, it wasn’t always clear what the ideological differences were between the parties.  Many on the left and right would argue there wasn’t much difference. If you listened to the rhetoric of both sides, both would tell you the same things:  they love their country, war is not a good thing, people need money to live, systems are broken, things used to better once upon a time . . .

We are now in the midst of a debate about the nature and future of public education in which the word “reform” is used by both sides.  Both argue that they have only the best interests of children in mind and both want to wear the mantle of “progress.”  But which side is the right side?  Or for that matter the left?

In the popular film Waiting for Superman, we are told that “reformers” are people like Geoffrey Canada or Michelle Rhee who want to push past the entrenched and all powerful teacher’s unions that are acting out of their own self-interest and not the interests of children.  Reformers are billionaires like Bill Gates and Mike Bloomberg, people who would never consider sending their own children to a public school.  We are told that the problem with education is that bad teachers can’t be fired, and the only hope is a charter school system where schools aren’t tied to neighborhoods, but parents, even poor parents, can choose the best schools to send their kids to.  Questions about the charter schools aren’t discussed; they aren’t even raised.  The film is an uncritical love letter to those who bravely fight the power:  teacher unions.

While the filmmakers did give one union leader a chance to speak, it didn’t allow her to directly answer the particular charges leveled against unions by the filmmakers.  It didn’t talk about resources being taken away from good public schools in order to support the growth of these semi-private institutions, or about public education success stories, the advantages of building strong community-based schools and the way that innovative public schools are working in collaboration with  neighborhood organizations  to strengthen entire communities and engage young people.

Instead, by focusing on the lottery for spots at a few particular charters, and telling the story of a small group of kids going through the selection process, the film presents a simplistic, but compelling narrative.  It builds a story around the idea that if these individual youngsters “win,” they will get into a charter school and have a positive future.  If they “lose” and wind up in public school, they will not.  We can’t help but get caught up in the story and the myth it creates, to the point where even an alert viewer doesn’t have much time to formulate the unasked questions: What are the attrition rates for these schools? What happens to kids who can’t make it in a charter?  What about parental involvement and input?  Are the teachers actually better trained?  What’s teacher attrition like?  What are the procedures and protections if a parent has a concern?  How does allocating resources for these schools impact on local public schools in the districts in which they are located?

A new film is coming which does examine these issues.  The Grassroots Education Movement a group of public school parents and teachers, has put together its own film which is still in its final editing stages, but has already been screened at some community gatherings, and is called, called, The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. The film takes a clear stand in discussing “real” reform versus the corporate idea of reform (the privatization of the school system).  It shows the ways in which resources have been taken from community public schools and given over to charters.  The filmmakers hammer home their main points about what encompasses true reform and what has actually been shown to make a difference for kids.  They point out that the two “reforms” consistently shown to increase student achievement are smaller class size and more experienced teachers.  These are reforms that unions push for.  They  inform us that the states with the lowest public school achievement happen to be the ones that don’t allow collective bargaining for teachers.   They point out that Finland, often lauded by the corporate reformers as an example of a working school system, is a unionized one.

Ideologically, the film is not simply “pro-union,” but pro-child, community and parent as well, defining true reform as an equitable system in which parents don’t need to arrange hour or longer commutes for their young children in order to secure a good education for them.  It’s a short film, and one devoted to answering the attack on public schools, rather than showing examples of the best ones, or the many ways in which “community” schools not only educate children, but help revitalize communities. (For a decent article about the difficulties of trying to run a great school under the a regime that has been consistently working to undermine and politicize public education, see this article on a Bronx middle school.)

Both Waiting for Superman and The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman are polemics.   The difference is that Waiting for Superman is a slick Hollywood production that manages downplay its bias, while The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman is an impassioned answer to some of the questions the first film doesn’t even raise. In Waiting the narrative is front and center, the ideology covert.  It doesn’t seem like its attacking public school, but the only alternative it offers is a charter system.  Truth is much less narrative driven.  In answering the charges against teachers and unions, the tone can’t help being defensive.  It’s pro-union, pro-grassroots rhetoric while stirring to its constituency, at times feels anachronistic, as though one is listening to a special on the Pacifica Radio network.  Many people tune out when they hear the words “corporate interests” even if, in fact, the battle is about corporate versus public needs.

What Truth, which was not made by a Hollywood director, or even a professional one, fails to do is create the kind of narrative suspense of Waiting.   I watched Waiting at home.  My better-half got bored about half way through and went to sleep.  The next morning he asked, “Who won the lottery?”  He remembered the individual stories and how much seemed to be at stake.  What’s needed is an answer to Superman, that doesn’t just lay out the case and the facts, but tells us a story equally as powerful.  Sometimes the narrative is the message, and in this case, The Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, though valiant in its attempt, fails to capture the narrative.