Waiting for Superman is charming, emotional, and misguided: Part two (Why pressing for privatization isn’t a smart or scaleable strategy)

When Waiting for Superman rolls out in cineplexes across the country this September, many moviegoers will leave their theaters convinced that teachers’ unions are criminally responsible for building and defending a bureaucracy that denies many students a good education. The only recourse, audiences will conclude, is both to eliminate teachers’ unions and to look to privately run charter schools, the only beacons of hope for the vulnerable kids in the movie.

I like charter schools. I teach at one that is singled out and celebrated in Waiting for Superman, and I give that charter school my blood, sweat, and tears. I’m not a member of a teachers’ union.

However, liking my charter school (and many other good ones) doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to make the expansion of charter schools the centerpiece of education reform in America. Charter schools are little islands. Like other kinds of private companies, plenty are terrible and shouldn’t be in business. Also like other kinds of private companies, they aren’t scaleable enough to meet the needs of enough students to truly take over public education— the way Waiting for Superman guides us to believe it must.

Some numbers: There are about 55 million K-12 students in the U.S. Only about 1,536,000 are enrolled in charter schools. That’s 2.8% of all students.

KIPP, the charter school network famously started by two Teach for America teachers, is everywhere in the education media. Bill Gates is a huge fan.  KIPP has 82 schools serving about 21,000 pupils.  That’s great news for those 21,000 students. It also leaves out 99.96% of American students. The answer is not to multiply KIPP or a similar private model. It’s not scaleable.

There’s no special educational magic in non-unionized business models for schools. What makes schools work is an ability to provide what students need.

Students need the following things: a safe and stable environment for working hard and taking risks, appropriately rigorous academics, a sense of belonging, exposure to new ideas, LOTS of reading, individualized opportunities (conferences with teachers, counselors, and tutors), and teachers who are competent, supported, and accountable. Extensive standardized test prep is not on the list.

These things can and do exist in public schools across the country.  Pressing a pro-charter/ anti-public school ideology doesn’t help our nationwide need for mass improvement in schools. The just-released “Evaluation of Charter School Impacts” by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education, found: “On average, charter middle schools that hold lotteries are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress.”

Many members of the power class (Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim, pop star John Legend) support individual charter schools and can point to inspiring work. That doesn’t mean it can or should sweep out the infrastructure and human capital in our public system.

Last month in the Washington Post, principal and executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy George Wood explained it best when he spelled out how his school improved over his 18-year tenure. I wish Wood’s ideas got airtime in Waiting for Superman and in the national discourse. His points speak so concisely that I don’t want to edit them:



For the past 18 years I have worked as a high school/middle school principal alongside a dedicated staff and a community committed to improving a school.

In that time we have increased graduation and college going rates, engaged our students in more internships and college courses, created an advisory system that keeps tabs on all of our students, and developed the highest graduation standards in the state (including a Senior Project and Graduation Portfolio).

But reading the popular press, and listening to the chatter from Washington, I have just found out that we are not part of the movement to ‘reform’ schools.

You see, we did not do all the stuff that the new ‘reformers’ think is vital to improve our schools. We did not fire the staff, eliminate tenure, or pay teachers based on student test scores. We did not become a charter school. We did not take away control from a locally elected school board and give it to a mayor. We did not bring in a bunch of two-year short-term teachers.

Nope, we did not do any of these things. Because we knew they would not work.

There is no evidence that firing staffs and using the turn around strategies that failed when Education Secretary Arne Duncan was in charge of Chicago’s schools is suddenly going to work (here’s the evaluation from Duncan’s supervisors).

Tying teacher pay and tenure to scores on the current batch of narrowly constructed tests has never worked and will not work now, as Thomas Hilton, former researcher at the Educational Testing Service notes.

Charter schools do not do any better than good old public schools. And there is no evidence that eliminating democratic involvement with our schools through elected school boards improves educational opportunities for kids.

While I applaud the commitment of the young people who see programs such as Teach for America as a way to serve the nation, it is a shame that we think the best we can do for kids in our most challenged communities is a steady diet of inexperienced short term teachers. (And it might not be all that effective, according to a new report examining the academic achievement of students under the instruction of TFA staff.)

So would somebody please explain to me why the new reform agenda is made up of so many unproven or failed strategies?

Everywhere I turn the mantra is the same—fire teachers, close schools, start charters.

Even from people who should know better.

One more thing, I also find it interesting that some of the more powerful pushers of these ideas are the so-called titans of Wall Street—the Broad Foundation, Bill Gates of late, and Democrats for Education Reform (a bunch of well-funded venture capitalists). Hey, private capital did such a great job with the economy (and oil wells), why not turn over our public schools to them?

While legislators and opinion writers seem to have drunk deeply from the ‘reform’ Kool-Aid, I believe the people who work with kids at the school level know better.

What we know is this: To turn around a school and keep that success going requires a commitment to staff development and teacher support. You cannot just keep hiring rookie teachers or threaten veteran teachers with ‘death by test scores’ and hope somehow to create a culture of learning and engagement.

At our school we rely on weekly if not daily staff development activities, school wide learning strategies, and staff evaluation focused on improving instruction and cultivating the leadership skills of teachers to help and coach their colleagues.

There is no incentive linking pay to performance or threats of termination; rather we rely on collaboration and the collective wisdom of the teaching staff to improve student achievement.

Ensuring that every young person learns means constant reassessment of the curriculum, multiple measures of student achievement, and support systems throughout the school.

We cannot rely on the archaic standardized tests we use today to judge student learning as they dumb down and narrow curriculum. And we must make sure that every student has equal access to the conditions to learn in every school.

For every student rise to his/her potential we must use our communities, through internships, mentoring, and, yes, school boards that hold educators accountable to the local community.

I know this is no longer thought of as reform. And as I get ready to shake the sweaty hands of my 18th graduating class, I have to admit to being part of the educational establishment.

But would somebody please explain to me how the success of my staff, and many schools just like ours, is no longer of value to a nation that seems to still want a good public education system?

Maybe we just don’t have a good press agent.