Thursday, September 30, 2010


Nick Lemann, Dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, tries to make the argument that our educational system – both K-12 and post-secondary – isn't as broken as the current consensus view, and that Waiting for Superman is too simplistic.  He's completely wrong on the former, as it relates to our K-12 system – it's actually MUCH worse than most people think – but he's right that our post-secondary system, for all of its flaws, is still the envy of the world.  As for Waiting for Superman, I think he mischaracterizes it.  The movie does NOT focus solely on charter schools.  Rather, the movie is quite comprehensive, showing, for example, the societal costs when students aren't educated properly, and how utterly impossible it is to fire even the worst teacher, resulting in travesties like the "Turkey Trot" (aka, "Dance of the Lemons" and "Pass the Trash").  Nor does the film claim that charter schools are the solution to all that ails public education.  Instead, it shows that high-performing schools serving low-income, minority kids CAN change life trajectories and that parents are desperate to get their children into such schools (contrary to the popular belief that "those" kids can't learn and "those" parents don't care about their childrens' educations).

It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers' unions, and a familiar set of heroes, including Geoffrey Canada, of Harlem Children's Zone; Wendy Kopp, of Teach for America, the Knowledge Is Power Program; and Michele Rhee, the superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools. The details of this story are accurate, but they are fitted together too neatly and are made to imply too much. For example, although most of the specific charter schools one encounters in this narrative are very good, the data do not show that charter schools in general are better than district schools. There are also many school-reform efforts besides charter schools: the one with the best sustained record of producing better-educated children in difficult circumstances, in hundreds of schools over many years, is a rigorously field-tested curriculum called Success for All, but because it's not part of the story line it goes almost completely unmentioned. Similarly, on the issue of tenure, the clear implication of most school-reform writing these days—that abolishing teacher tenure would increase students' learning—is an unproved assumption.

…We have a lot of recent experience with breaking apart large, old, unlovely systems in the confidence of gaining great benefits at low cost. We deregulated the banking system. We tried to remake Iraq. In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken. We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are—like subpar schools for poor and minority children—and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don't demonstrably do that.



by Nicholas Lemann September 27, 2010 

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