Monday, October 25, 2010

Ravitch is Mostly Wrong About "Waiting for 'Superman'"

In my previous post I praised the new documentary "Waiting for 'Superman'" as mostly right.

Diane Ravitch, a well-known education policy scholar and former Education Department official, criticized the film.

This is Ravitch's summary of the film's point:
"The only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor black and Hispanic children, is escape from public schools."

The film, though, is not an indictment of all public schools. It is an indictment of the strategic minority of truly terrible public schools, the drop-out factories. They are concentrated in a few large urban districts, where the unions and the public officials close ranks to protect the status quo. Not all public schools. Not all public school teachers, nor even all teachers in the bad schools. The film criticizes schools that protect bad teachers.

The film's main message is that it is possible to create schools even in the worst neighborhoods for the worst-off kids that teach well and produce excellent results. The fact that such schools are possible should drive us to make them more common. Charter schools are a mechanism within the public system that creates competition for specific lazy monopolies. Not all public systems are lazy monopolies, and as Ravitch rightly notes, most public school parents are satisfied with their own children's schools. But a few schools are terrible, and the main indictment of the film is of principals and districts that do not make those few better.

Ravitch thinks filmmaker Guggenheim's aim is to"propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes." I do not see that at Guggenheim's aim. He cites the same statistic Ravitch does, that only a fifth of charter schools do noticeably better than their other public counterparts. (Ravitch, for some reason, does not wish to count charter schools as public schools, though most are.) Instead, Guggenheim's aim is to show that some schools can do well in rough settings. Chartering isn't magic, and Guggenheim doesn't say it is. He doesn't even focus on that mechanism as much as Ravitch does, who entitles her critique "The Myth of Charter Schools."

Ravitch charges that "Guggenheim seems to believe that teachers alone can overcome the effects of student poverty." I do not see him showing that. Family background matters more than schools for all classes of children - see my Education and the American Family for documentation. However, Guggenheim does show that good teachers in good schools can do a great deal to teach even the poorest children.

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