Sunday, October 24, 2010

"Waiting for 'Superman'" is Mostly Right

The talk of education world these days in the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman.'" It shows the terrible state of the worst public schools, and some of the successful alternatives that prove that things could be better. The KIPP academies and the Harlem Children's Zone schools produce tremendous improvements in terrible neighborhoods. They succeeded where the local "dropout factories" failed.

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim has made a powerful ideological indictment of intransigent mediocrity, especially in urban poor schools. His overall conclusion is that good teachers are the heart of good schools. This is mostly right. However, what his account of the KIPP and Harlem Children's Zone schools shows is that the culture of the whole school is vitally important - more important, on the whole, even than the quality of individual teachers.

You need both, of course. However, really great teachers - really great anything - will always be in short supply. A school can succeed with a few really great teachers, and the rest decent teachers willing to work hard - as long as it ruthlessly weeds out the few bad teachers. This creates a climate of achievement that can lift everyone's game, and improve learning for children.


Aric Clark said...

Here is some strong and I think important criticism of "Waiting for Superman".

In essence, charter schools are not what they are cracked up to be, and the democratic, open to everyone public school is a vital institution.

Whit said...

It seems to me that there are a few keys to good education in no special order:
1. You need an orderly, respectful learning environment so students can concentrate on their studies (stricter discipline, uniforms or dress codes, less chaotic teaching methods, etc. can help);
2. You need good committed teachers and a way to weed out the bad ones.
3. You need students who are motivated to learn, and believe that they can get ahead if they do (In middle class neighborhoods, families and friends supply this culture, but in the worst neighborhoods, the schools need to supply this by, for example, bringing in successful members of the community to speak to the kids on a regular basis. They also need to change the narrative from "racism and/or poverty keeps you down" to "you can be successful if you do the right things". Yes, the "true" narrative is somewhere in between, but accepting the former leads to failure while accepting the latter gives a better chance of success - which is the point!);
4. Concentrate on teaching reading, math, science, etc. and other skills needed in the workplace, and less on political and cultural indoctrination;
5. Show that society cares about these kids by, for example, improving the facilities, having leaders visit and so on.
6. Reintroduce "tracking" so that good students will not be held back or made subject to bad influences, and each group can get the kind of instruction best suited to that group.

Aric, as to the best form, charter, old style public, private, parochial, etc, any of these could work. But the question is whether the unions in old style public schools will let these reforms be imposed. This is not about pay and benefits (any more than any other public employees anyway) but about "work rules". School choice (vouchers) will not guaranty that a given school will improve. But if the school does not improve, it will ultimately cease to exist while better schools survive. And thus, the quality will improve over time.

And one other problem, the public school establishment, and teachers' unions, see themselves as the creators of the politics and culture of the next generation without regard for what the parents would want for their children. Why not let parents choose for themselves among schools based, in part, on the sort of moral and cultural education they want their children to have?