Thursday, August 9, 2012

Waiting For Superman

I finally saw Davis Guggenheim's (also behind "An Inconvenient Truth") documentary "Waiting for Superman" on Netflix. The documentary follows the poignant stories of a few earnest kids trying (their luck) to get into successful charter schools, because of failing neighborhood public schools. To its credit, the documentary is highly entertaining, takes on a subject which is hard to talk about without attracting enemy fire, and passes the test of good story-telling - it makes us share the hope and disappointment of the kids before and after the lottery. No wonder it has a 89% rating on rottentomatoes.

Weaving fact and argument into the human story, Guggenheim tries to educate us about what is wrong with public education - the distorted incentive structure, teachers unions and tenure, the bureaucratic maze of education administration etc. It is probably fair to say that by the end of the movie, the typical audience is led to believe that more charter schools are an important part of any attempt to resolve the crisis.

Which may or may not be true.

The most cogent counter-argument was Diane Ravitch's article "The Myth of Charter Schools" in the New York Review of Books (and not this insipid rebuttal, IMHO). I like her factual tone, as she carefully destroys most of the intellectual basis of the film.

For example:
... it evaluated student progress on math tests in half the nation’s five thousand charter schools and concluded that 17 percent 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.
The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false. Hanushek has released studies showing that teacher quality accounts for about 7.5–10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes.

You should really read the article in entirety, as I find myself wanting to excerpt the whole thing.

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