Monday, September 06, 2010

Schools: The Disaster Movie

STOP THE PRESSES!  RUN, don't walk, to read this brilliant article in New York Magazine about Waiting for Superman.  It's important (and timely and long) enough to warrant its own email.


It's not just a review of the movie, but a well-done overview of the titanic struggles going on in American education.  It has some great quotes from Arne Duncan, Geoff Canada, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and Eva Moskowitz, but what makes it such a great article is that it's also fair to Randi, showing the incredible tightrope she has to walk.  I almost feel sorry for her...seriously!


Here's an overview of the anticipation around the movie (which I think is going to be a GRAND SLAM!) and the impact it might have:

Among leaders of the burgeoning education-reform movement, the degree of anticipation surrounding "Superman" is difficult to overstate. "The movie is going to create a sense of outrage, and a sense of urgency," says Arne Duncan, Barack Obama's secretary of Education. New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein concurs. "It's gonna grab people much deeper than An Inconvenient Truth, because watching ice caps melt doesn't have the human quality of watching these kids being denied something you know will change their lives," Klein says. "It grabs at you. It should grab at you. Those kids are dying."

The education-reform crowd is not alone in waiting for Waiting for "Superman"—though for those on the other side of the ideological fence, it would be more accurate to say that they are bracing for "Superman." Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a character in the film, complains that it is "unfair," "misleading," and potentially "dangerous." Indeed, not long ago, United Teachers Los Angeles posted on its website a flyer describing "Superman" as "scathing" and "attacking U.S. teachers" and calling for volunteers to appear in a TV ad to give "the other side of the story."

The excitement and agitation around "Superman" might seem hyperbolic, overblown. Yet both are symptomatic of a signal moment in the annals of American education, when a confluence of factors—a grassroots outcry for better schools, a cadre of determined reformers, a newly demanding and parlous global economy, and a president willing to challenge his party's hoariest shibboleths and most potent allies—has created what Duncan calls a "perfect storm." It's a moment when debates are raging over an array of combustible issues, from the expansion of charters and the role of standardized-test scores to the shuttering of failing schools and the firing of crappy teachers. It's a moment ripe with ferment and possibility, but also rife with conflict, in which the kind of change that fills many hearts with hope fills others with mortal dread—and which gives a movie like "Superman" a rare chance to move the needle.

Eva with a spot-on comment of why the film is so powerful:

This cascade of lefty-yuppie guilt led to Guggenheim's first epiphany: to put himself in the film as its narrator, which would let the piece take, he says, "the tone of an op-ed." His second was to make in effect two separate movies, welding them together only at the last minute. Movie No. 1 would be the story of the kids and the charter-school lotteries, while Movie No. 2 would deal with what Guggenheim calls "the folly of the adults"—from the parade of presidents of both parties pledging fundamental change but delivering none, to the administrators shuffling bad teachers from school to school, to the union bosses chanting "It's all about the kids" while working feverishly to protect their members' every contractual right and privilege.

"I would compare it to the muckraking of the early-twentieth century," says former New York City Council member and current Harlem and Bronx charter-school operator Eva Moskowitz. "But the thing that distinguishes this film from a simple exposé is that it gets at the political underpinnings of why we're in the crisis that we're in."

I LOVE Geoff Canada!

Among the reformers in "Superman," Canada emerges as the brightest star: His blend of intelligence, charisma, and moral urgency is impossible to resist. As the founder and the guiding hand of the Harlem Children's Zone, Canada is engaged in a vastly ambitious social-development project, an attempt to transform 97 hardscrabble square blocks of the city with a comprehensive set of services for the poor, from a "baby college" for new and expectant parents to two charter schools—though he is no charter purist.

"I didn't want to do charter schools," Canada tells me. What he wanted was a chance to run the public schools within the HCZ in partnership with Klein, to hire his own principals, fire poor teachers, pay the better ones more and the inferior ones less. Klein laughed at him: "It ain't gonna happen. If you want in on this game, the only thing you can do is start a charter school."

…"But this is what drives me crazy. Folks are absolutely furious that we want to innovate. 'This guy wants to say public schools are failing!' Well, they are. 'He wants to say some teachers are lousy and should be fired.' Well, they are and they should be. The fact that people get mad when you say that stuff, it's amazing to me. People have no intention of having this business change. None."

Among those to whom Canada is referring are superintendents, politicians, and the people who run schools of education. But Canada makes it clear that he believes the biggest impediments to innovation are the teachers unions. During the session in the theater, he noted drily, "I'm sure there are things the unions have done to help children. I just can't think of any."

Here are some excerpts about Randi:

But Canada is too sharp not to know that the story is more complicated. In recent months, the AFT has taken a series of steps that were once unthinkable, and that might open the door to the types of innovations for which Canada pines. The steps have come haltingly, reluctantly, but they have come—largely as a result of one of the most complex characters in education or politics today.

The character in question is the AFT's Randi Weingarten. If Canada is among the heroes of "Superman," Weingarten comes across as its villain. Though Guggenheim would dispute the characterization, a reviewer for Variety wrote that the movie renders the union boss as "something of a foaming satanic beast."

In person, Weingarten doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The longtime head of New York City's United Federation of Teachers before taking over the national union in 2008, she is relentlessly precise, wicked smart, more a hardheaded pragmatist than a wanton ideologue—and also a shrewd and crafty pol keenly attuned to her own image. As one friend of hers observes, "Randi wants to be seen as the inheritor of the mantle of Albert Shanker," the heralded AFT president from 1974 to 1997 who was an early and apostatic proponent of charter schools. "She wants her legacy to be that of a reformer."

Weingarten has always been willing to talk the talk of reform, and of late she has done so forcefully, urging her members to accept more-stringent evaluation systems and declaring that the unions shouldn't be in the business of protecting awful instructors. "Teachers don't want to teach with bad teachers," she tells me flatly.

Weingarten's increasing willingness to walk the walk of reform has been even more impressive…

…Many of Weingarten's arguments here don't remotely pass first inspection. Whatever its flaws, "Superman" casts no aspersions on teachers, only on their unions. (The idea that criticizing the latter isn't the same as knocking the former cuts no ice with her: "Teachers and their union are essentially the same," she says.) More to the point, her contentions fly in the face of the progress in which she has had a hand.

What explains Weingarten's apparent schizophrenia is the balancing act she is forced to pull off by a membership split between moderates and militants. (Asked by Politico, Proust-questionnaire style, to name her favorite body part, she said, "Legs—because I have to walk a tightrope most of the time.") In her stint at the UFT in New York, she honed a signature style whereby her substantive compromises were coupled with rhetorical ferocity. Now, on a grander stage, she is doing the same thing again, attacking reformers and "Superman," and even distancing herself from her own achievements, to maintain her authority with her people while at the same time giving herself space to move in the direction of reform.

For some of the "Superman" co-conspirators, this is one of the main values of the film. "It gives Randi cover to say to her membership, 'Guys, if we don't concede on some of this stuff, we're going to lose a lot more,' " Canada says. One of his allies makes the same point differently: "Everything is Hegelian here, and the dialectic has to be driven by pushing her hard. When Davis's film comes out, people will get agitated, and she'll have to tack even more to the center. Randi knows how fast the ground is shifting under her feet."

Here's the part on Obama:

…the epicenter of the ed-reform earthquake isn't in Hollywood—it's in Washington, at the White House.

When Obama took up occupancy there, neither side in the ed-reform debate was sure what to expect. For decades, Democrats at the national level had been a wholly owned subsidiary of the unions. But Obama was booed on the campaign trail for supporting merit pay, and secured his party's nomination without the support of the AFT, which sided with Hillary Clinton. His choice of Duncan, who'd run the Chicago public schools with a penchant for consensus between reformers and the unions, to lead the Department of Education was seen as a signal that Obama would seek to chart a middle course.

Yet over the nineteen months of his term, Obama has done nothing of the kind. Rather, he has unfurled an education agenda that has delighted reformers, upset the unions, and in the process delivered more on his promise of transcending partisan divisions in the service of pragmatism than he has on any other issue.

…Those states were ecstatic with the injection of cash into their depleted coffers, but Duncan believes that the reforms instigated by RTTT will outlive the momentary windfall—and are likely to stick even in states that didn't finish in the money. "My prediction is that when the last [RTTT] dollar is spent, you're not gonna see states dumbing down their standards again," he tells me. "I think we've crossed the Rubicon."

Equally salutary in the eyes of reformers has been Obama's willingness to defy his party's education orthodoxies in other ways. Perhaps the most notable example involved an appallingly underperforming high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island. When the school's board of trustees decided to sack all of its 77 teachers after the local union rejected a plan that included a longer school day and after-school tutoring, Obama supported the mass firing. "If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability," he said.

"You cannot overestimate or overstate the power that comes with a Democratic president saying things like, 'Choice and competition are good,' and, 'We should put more money in charter schools,' and, 'If teachers are ineffective, we should fire them,' " exults Rhee. "Never did I expect in my lifetime to hear a Democratic leader saying that, let alone a president."

The positive fallout from Obama's policies and his new vernacular has been tangible. "When we rolled out our new teacher-evaluation program last year, we said 50 percent of the teachers' evaluations would be based on how much student growth they saw," Rhee says. "People went nuts. 'How is that possible? Why 50 percent? How are you gonna measure it?' Now stuff like that is taking place all over the country. Two or three years ago, if you had said that would happen, people would have told you that you were high on crack. But here we are. And that's huge."


I can't wait to see this McKinsey study:

The McKinsey survey is part of an important study that the consultancy will publish later this month, based on its work in school systems in more than 50 countries. For a long time, there has been debate about what, if any, kinds of financial incentives would help create a better talent pool for K–12 teaching in America. The debate has been intense—with the unions arguing simultaneously for fatter salaries and that money isn't the primary motivator for those who enter the profession—but hypothetical. The McKinsey study attempts to move the discussion into the realm of the empirical, by using market research to estimate what it would take, money-wise, to induce top-third grads to overcome their reluctance to teach, especially in high-needs schools.

The answers are surprising. To start with, the report makes clear that in the countries with the best schools, teacher quality is a national priority: Educators are paid competitively; education schools are highly selective; jobs are guaranteed for those credentialed; and professional development is ample and subsidized. In America, none of that holds true: Schools of education are largely open admission; credentialed teachers often can't find jobs; professional development is pitiful; and the pay is lousy and, more important, it is seen as lousy by top-third graduates. "Most of them think they could earn more as a garbage collector than as a teacher," says Matt Miller, a senior adviser to McKinsey and one of the study's leaders.

Changing that perception would mean changing the reality, but the payoff would be dramatic. According to the study, a Rhee-style compensation package—starting salaries of $65,000, top salaries of $150,000—plus funding for teacher training could raise the percentage of top-third grads among new teacher hires in the one-in-six neediest schools from 14 percent to a whopping 68 percent. The cost at current teacher-student ratios: just $30 billion a year, or about 5 percent of total K–12 education spending.

The conclusion:

For decades, the conversation about our schools has been the preserve of the education Establishment—and the result has been a system that, with few exceptions, runs the gamut from mediocre to calamitous. Waiting for "Superman" is no manifesto. It offers no quick fixes, no easy to-do lists, no incandescent lightbulbs to unscrew. What it offers is a picture of our schools that isn't pretty, but that we need to apprehend if we're to summon the political will necessary to transform them. "Nobody ever wants to call a baby ugly," says Duncan. "This is like calling the baby ugly. It's about confronting brutal truths."

Looking squarely at those truths will cause the blood of some viewers to reach a roiling boil. Fingers will be pointed, and they should be—directly at the adults who have perpetuated the grotesqueries that consign generation after generation of America's children to failure. If that leads to some hellacious donnybrooks, so much the better. "If you want to change public education, you have to do something that feels like a threat to the status quo," says Canada. "If we don't fight about this, if we can shake and be friends, we ain't going to change. And if we don't change, huge numbers of kids ain't going to make it. There is no Superman coming to save them. All they have is us."


Schools: The Disaster Movie

A debate has been raging over why our education system is failing. A new documentary by the director of An Inconvenient Truth throws fuel on the fire.

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