What Are YOU, the Parent, Willing to DO??


David Denby, of The New Yorker Magazine,  wrote what I wanted to say broadly in regards to Waiting for Superman in the 11 October 2010 issue of the magazine.  I realized the similarity in critical ideas upon  reading the review after seeing the movie.  There were a  few items, not so obvious to the untrained eye of a non- educator which need addressing and so this is the addendum (in my mind) to what Mr. Denby already stated.

I have always hoped within my lifetime America will develop the fortitude to do what is right and correct rather than what is easy in the way of education.    Most of all, I desired seeing a film which advertised itself as able to demonstrate the capacity of what charter schools could do in the field of education, in spite of my self -knowledge by experience that  not all parents, families and students have the equal commitment to change.   In this manner, I was looking forward to the movie and had high hopes it would be the salve for my soul as I have taught in public, public charter and private schools and not yet  found  a  singular or set of  consistent solutions which work. I have yet to see an exemplar of what high quality education looks like without parent involvement from birth right through college and beyond.  There is some truth to the idea that parenting is a job which never ends.

 In order for charter schools to demonstrate their inherent differences from regular public schools, they would need to demonstrate education for all, not merely education for the willing.  Knowing what works and implementing it across the board are two very different tasks which are often lost on a public enamored with the concept of charter schools. Not all parents are clear on what the qualities of a charter school are and how charter schools are similar/different from a regular public school in America. The misconceptions surrounding what a charter school is and is not and how it will forever change their life, their child’s life and family dynamics is not clear nor well elucidated – at times I believe this is purposeful.  Education is very powerful – sometimes in ways we can not imagine, and so it is important to both wish for something (a different type of educational process) and be wary of what is wished for.

The issue of proper nutrition is addressed in the opening segment of the movie with the toast, milk and juice breakfast.  Immediately I felt the tug of wonderment as to why parents who want to do so much for their children would not provide for adequate nutrition so the children can learn.  It is essential for children (and for that matter anyone in the process of using their brain) to obtain protein (not necessarily meat).   I expected this opening to foreshadow something in the rest of the movie about nutrition – it did not. I am quite sure this is one of the ideas we know works in education and is in fact fundamental to the coming obesity issue.  Imagine if families gave up something such as the cost of Comcast or what ever TV provider they pay for to buy more protein rich foods for their children.

Although it may have been implied, it was not clear the ‘thing(s)’ which were missing at the failing  public schools in his (narrator) community  and how this was an adequate explination for sending his   children to private school.  The  key and core component of parent involvement  was, in fact, barely addressed in the movie. There was little evidence of what was being done to  rally parental involvement (other than to convince parents to bring their child to a charter school) – what we all know is the singular most telling component in the success of educating a child.  In fact, I would go so far as to say in many ways this movie made the ‘charter school’ (as character)   the paternalistic factor – all knowing, all experienced and ready to help fix the problems.

In one of the many animated scenes, it is demonstrated that teachers ‘pour’ information into the open heads of children.  I am completely unclear on this message as education is a lot of work – on the part of the student.  Learning involves paying attention, studying, grinding the numbers and doing what it takes to master a concept. Education is less about what a teacher ‘does’ to some one and more about what a student DOES to learn a concept.  Great educators facilitate learning – they do not actually deliver the knowledge on a plate. This one   segment of the movie demonstrated the burden of educating a nation rests with teachers and not with parents and students – it was an unfair and uneven representation and more demonstrative of tabula rasa thinking.  Most would conclude this segment was a  limited view of the educational process and this is definitely NOT what is considered college prep. College prep is arguably about the higher order thinking skills not demonstrated on multiple choice tests. 

While the movie narrator discussed the bloat of the  education ‘system’ and how this made for bad teachers, there was no clarity as to how charter schools had figured out the  vexing problem of teacher burnout (not addressed in the movie) by having teachers work even longer days and have to teach more content as  generally students at charter schools were  less academically successful than their counterparts in a functioning school (literacy and math specifically).  The examples shown were clear enough in demonstrating Mr. Canada, Ms. Rhee and others know there is a problem and yet have not actually solved it – they have been more surgical in identifying it exists. 

At one point a ‘cookie’ was even tossed in suggesting some experts are beginning to think failing schools create failing neighborhoods and not the other way around – failing neighborhoods create failing schools.  This defies the abstract idea of how communities are raised up – around the world, through community education.  Although this is rhetorically the chicken and the egg,  the position was used to condemn public schools and paint charter schools as the saviour.  There is no point in the movie where an example of how the bureaucracy has been changed, altered,  ameliorated within regular public schools based on evidence gleened from charter schools – instead a unique and different system of bureaucracy (including the fund raising component as these are non-proift or for profit organizations) has been created by charter schools who have only succeeded in  eliminating tenure.  When one person  in the film describes KIPP, they state that KIPP will not let students fail, however, the film fails to state that KIPP has an alarming retention rate for Grade 5 and 6 students across the country according to a recent report by Mathematica (which KIPP commissioned).   Michelle Rhee (now gone) created a scorched earth trail where even the community, and not just teachers, wanted her gone. At no point are special needs students ever addressed – and this group of children make up the largest portion of the public school budget.

The movie is done in such a manner that the audience is made to feel pangs of hurt (guilt?) for each child not successful in the lottery of a better education through a charter school…….no one questions what the parents will do to improve the very school where their child currently attends – as if this whole experience was wasted and there is no sense of how to turn angst into constructive change. 

It appears in the end the only possible solution is a charter school education and yet not all charter schools are successful and not all students have EQUAL ACCESS to a great education.  Children who attend a charter school have to have at least one adult on board  (as noted by the examples in this film).  How can this be a solution?  How is it part of the solution  to help the children who have a parent who cares enough to seek out a charter school and abandon any other child who does not have even one adult in their life who cares.  

What most astounded me about the movie was the complete lack of effort on the part of almost all the parents to be involved in the school – volunteering for PTA, attending school board meetings, attending parent conferences……..the glimmer I observed was when Francisco’s mother awkwardly tried to contact the teacher but did not do anything too overt and that was when I realized these are parents who, given training on advocacy, could actually go in to the school and make a difference.  I did not see an indication where a charter school was the only answer.

Having worked with incompetent principals at all schools (the principals at charter schools are most focused on test scores and positive PR, little else – such as special ed or physical education or actually holding parents accountable to their volunteer hours) I failed to see what the charter school principals did which was extraordinary.  Charter schools also practice a brand of tough love which borders on the worst type of behavioral change – KIPP is into public shaming of bad behaviors.

This movie was posited on the idea that education is a  commodity  and you have to WANT it – which, interestingly enough, is what education has always been except in America where we offer  a basic education to everyone – even those lacking the parental desire or resources. 

By the end of the movie, I was stuck with one thought: Only in America do we use capitalism to sell education as a commodity.  Perhaps we would be better served by demonstrating education is a value system.


Update: 24 November 2010


Paragraph Five and the last paragraph.  I don’t need to make a comment – Mr. Friedman said it nicely!