The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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I am not Superman

Last night I watched Waiting for Superman, the much vaunted documentary on the education system. It was a powerful, emotionally-driven film. While it certainly did help me solidify my feelings that I want to dive into these trenches, I don’t think it did so in the way the movie intended.

On my top list of things that I find distasteful: being the recipient of an emotional argument for a very legitimate purpose, when the analysis part of my brain is simultaneously screaming disingenuous!

Now, I am not an educator or in the field of education, so perhaps I don’t have the firsthand perspective. However, given my potential (I would even dare say probable) imminent career change and the research I have done pertaining thereto, I would consider myself at least more informed on the subject of the documentary that the average viewer.

Here is what I liked:

  • Increasing public awareness of education as an important issue.
  • Sparking a debate on what it means to have a good school and a good teacher, thus prompting the further question of what that actually means.
  • Pointing out some of the glaring blemishes of the teachers unions’ claim that they are the staunch defenders of a noble profession. (Note: this is worthy of its own blog post or five, so I won’t get into details, but say that I *do* in fact view teaching as a noble profession, I just disagree that the unions are presently helping that cause).
  • Making the social conditions in which some of these kids are growing up visible to the largely educated, suburban, and insulated populace that governs the country and controls the flow of information and money.
  • Arguing against the idea that kids who fail are failing due to circumstances within their control (e.g. they should just be working harder, their families are just lazy or don’t care, etc).

Here is what I didn’t like:

  • Making all (or most) public schools appear to be failing “dropout factories” and all (or most) charter schools to be a highly successful proven solution. Firstly, the whole concept of failing or succeeding is based completely on a flawed (or at best, incomplete) metric, standardized test scores. Further, most studies on charters are likely flawed, many (including KIPP) have been accused of counseling out poor students from continuing or even applying, resulting in a pick-and-choose, and finally, even with these biases, the studies don’t actually even show that charters are more effective on the whole anyway but probably worse.
  • Extrapolating from the known fact that there are bad teachers to the conclusion that metrics exist to accurately quantify good teaching, and that we should be using these metrics to fire teachers.
  • Asserting that teaching is like other professions (e.g. lawyers, doctors, etc) and therefore should be treated the same. (Ironically, the anti-reform side uses this same logic to argue that traditional schools of education are better than alternative entry programs in terms of quality… “Would you trust a surgeon who never went to medical school?” Highly disingenuous as well.)
  • Glorification of Michelle Rhee as some kind of hero, when she was closing schools (the only stable thing in some of these communities) and firing teachers (at a time of enormous need for them) based on metrics which are inconsistent and unreliable at best.  I mean, I don’t want to vilify her as some have, but I’m just saying the portfolio on her is at least mixed, and this documentary doesn’t seem to give any balance to that.
  • Using emotional (and, as it turns out, staged) content to encourage activism on behalf of the corporate-supported charter movement, which is even further harming the ability of our public schools to make the reforms they need to make.

More on many of these sub-issues later…. or this will be a really long blog post.