After Superman, what?

Done Waiting hopes to use Waiting for Superman as a catalyst for a grassroots education reform movement.

Education Reform Now is managing the coalition, which will advocate for “greater access to excellent public school options, like high-performing charter schools, for all families; putting a highly-effective teacher in every classroom and treating them as a valued professional; and, above all else, placing the best interests of children ahead of those of politicians and special interest groups.”

These are pie-in-the-sky goals: How should we give all kids access to excellent schools or find an excellent teacher for every class? What does it mean to put children first?

Rick Hess is dubious about the “Take Action” page on Superman‘s site, which is mostly devoted to promoting the movie and a companion book.

The page on “what parents can do” offers five items: “get local school ratings and parent reviews on,” “demand world-class standards for all students,” “talk to your teachers,” “do what’s best for kids, not adults,” and “make a teacher’s job easier.” The page on what “you” can do adds: “help students succeed” by supporting “,” which amazingly “helps ensure every child graduates from high school prepared for college and for life;” “pledge to see the film;” “help your local school;” and “attend a school board meeting.”

This is “vague, tepid, and remarkably inconsistent with their revolutionary declarations,” Hess writes. Those trying to leverage Superman‘s impact should “focus on the concrete and actionable,” he suggests.

GOOD: Getting e-mails of departing viewers who will put up yard signs for reform-minded school board candidates, encouraging supporters to work the phones, their neighbors, and their e-mails to push their state legislators to take the lead on specific changes in statute.

BAD: Pledges to care more, to be “engaged,” or to write letters on behalf of “reform.”

Instead of trying to get everyone to care more, focus on lobbying key decision makers, such as legislators who might vote for “mayoral control of troubled inner-city schools” or stripping down “licensure requirements and tenure protections.”

Voting for reform-minded politicians is all very well, writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. But educated, middle-class parents can make a direct impact on the system: Choose a diverse public school for your own children.

In schools with a critical mass of middle-class children, everyone does better. If Davis Guggenheim and his friends all sent their kids to urban schools, those schools “would improve overnight.”

. . . all around the country, affluent families are choosing to send their children to racially and socio-economically integrated schools, in places like Cambridge and Berkeley, but also in less likely spots such as Alexandria, Virginia; Stapleton, Colorado; and Miraloma Park, California.

This is no easy decision, to be sure. I live in Takoma Park, Maryland, a very diverse suburb of DC, and my wife and I are agonizing about whether to stay or go, mostly because of the schools. (Our oldest son is only three, so we have some time.)

As long as reform means fixing the schools of “other people’s children,” it’s not going to get very far, he argues.

It’s a lot easier for middle-class people to buy a Prius than it is to send little Emma and Aidan to a school with a lot of poor kids.

Not everyone predicts a Superman-inspired movement. The NEA decided against $3.5 million campaign to counter “the media propaganda of this summer’s series of anti-teacher union documentaries,” reports the Sacramento Bee.

In the end, union officials decided it wasn’t worth it, said John Wilson, executive director.

“I think the films are a blip. They will come and go, but the union will still be there, our members will still be in these schools,” he said.

Tom Lehrer warned that caring isn’t enough.

Update: “You don’t send your child to a school to improve the school,” writes Checker Finn in response to his colleague, Petrilli. “You send your child to a school that will improve him (or her).”

You should drive past bad schools in search of a better one for your kids — and the great dual crime of American education policy is (1)  there are far too few truly better schools and (2) far too many families lack the means (or, in many places, the right) to opt into those schools.

Improving bad schools and starting great new ones is hard work for educators, policy makers, political leaders and advocates, he writes. Parents’ first job is to do what’s best for their own children.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Let me see here.
    Are the middle class parents supposed to use their kids, just out ot toddlerhood, as an invading force, storming the beach heads of poor schools?
    Usually, we wait for somebody to turn eighteen before we draft him for difficult or dangerous jobs.
    This sort of discussion went on in Detroit years ago, as part of a white flight–thanks to Coleman Young who encouraged it–discussion and a pestiferous liberal, holier-than-thou clergyman who frequently told the rest of us through a newspaper column how rotten we were for not being tolerant like him–said children are not Marines to be sent into battle arranged by their elders. Even he got it.
    Do we expect glow-in-the-dark white kids in their Oshkosh b’Gosh non-hand-me-downs to be any less vulnerable to the bullying and violence that is a routine part of the poorer schools?
    Luck with that.
    You’re all heard of NIMBY when people reject some big public “good” being built in their back yards. I figure, “HAYBY”, or “how about your back yard”. Never get any takers.
    In this case, NMK–not my kid–as a scornful comment on those who won’t send their kids to a failing school. HAYK–how about your kid?
    Points to anybody who can name the only president in recent years who sent his kids to DC public schools.

  2. While I don’t disagree with Richard Aubrey, the larger issue is this:

    those schools “would improve overnight.”

    No, they wouldn’t. Does someone not remember NCLB? Middle class schools do no better at teaching at-risk populations than low income schools.

  3. No, they’re not pie-in-the-sky goals. They’re easily achievable provided there’s some impetus towards excellence which there currently is not.

    That’s why schools, without the goad of parents who are unimpressed by the local education bureaucracy, inevitably slide down hill. There’s nothing intrinsic to the public education system that biases the system towards the pursuit of excellence so as the general case there’s no pursuit of excellence.

    Locally, within an individual school district, the pursuit of excellence can overcome the forces for whom good schools are unimportant. But given the characteristics of the public education system it’s always going to be a local phenomenon occurring for local reasons and not transferable. If school district A is good and the bordering school district B sucks, school district B has no reason to improve its performance and everyone knows it.

    Looking through the “Take Action” page it’s clear that Guggenheim understands implicitly the solution to the problem of public education, parental choice.

    The page is shot through with the sort of advice a successful, wealthy parent like Guggenheim doesn’t need to be told. He won’t hold his tongue at school board meetings and he won’t sit there resignedly accepting whatever some official of the system doles out. He’ll argue for every opportunity for his child because as a wealthy, successful man he expects nothing less from his subordinates which is how he views the people who work for him, the employees of the public education system. When some employee of the system performs in a manner not to the liking of Mr. Guggenheim, Mr. Guggenheim makes certain that employee becomes a burden and an annoyance to that employee’s superior and their superior’s superior.

    Nowhere on the site though is the insight presented explicitly that parental choice is the pivotal change necessary to change the public education system from one in which educating kids is an annoying, dreary necessity to the system in which every idea, innovation, book, method and teacher is ruthlessly examined to determine whether it/they provide some tiny increment of improvement that helps convince parents to patronize a given school.

    That’s unfortunate because the point is made implicitly throughout the movie. Parents have chosen a school for their kids, are desperate to effect that choice and yet Mr. Guggenheim either doesn’t recognize the centrality of choice to the situation or flinches away from that recognition. Too bad.

    With the impeccable political credentials earned in “An Inconvenient Truth” Mr. Guggenheim neatly undercuts the traditional political divisions and thus could do even more to advance the reform of the public education system then he has with “Waiting for Superman”. Oh well, it’s a step in the right direction even if it isn’t as big a step as it could’ve been.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Mr. Guggenheim might be an annoyance at school board meetings. There are annoyances at Detroit PS school board meetings. That’s why they have cops there.
    Being outspoken doesn’t mean being a means to educational improvement.
    It means merely being loud and obnoxious.
    Any educrat can tell you about being sued or otherwise harassed by parents whose goal is not what would likely improve the school. It’s about discipline for their kid, second chances for failing, IEPs.
    Being loud means merely being loud.
    I’ve been fortunate to live in a good school district for most of my life. They weren’t good because the parents were watching the system like hawks. They were good because middle-class families have middle-class values and those are the most congruent with public education.

    The fact remains, until you put my kid (grand kid, actually) in a lousy school, there will be no parental insistence on good education. So the kids are walking point.

    One military historian said the role of the Airborne was to be cut off behind enemy lines so as to motivate their ground-bound brethren to break through and rescue them, thus moving forward. Doesn’t always work–see the Brits’ 6 para at Arnhem.
    However, if that is the model, we still have to rhrow somebody ahead, behind enemy lines so the parents can be presumed motivated to rescue him.

    Don’t want to push the military analogy too far, but the more I think about it, the more apt it seems. Still need to point out that paratroopers are generally at least in late adolescence and, by selection and training believe in God, Country, and Kicking Ass. They are not bewildered third graders.

  5. I think in many areas there is a middle ground between suburban schools (especially those of the Fordham public private school list) and failing inner city schools. These schools really need more middle class students to push them to be better.
    I live in Des Moines, IA. Its a relatively small city, but it has several very high poverty, high needs schools. It also has a group of schools that primarily serving blue collar students. These schools don’t receive a lot of money or attention because they don’t have the needs the other schools do. However, a slightly large core group of parents could make a real difference (without sacrificing their children).
    There is another smaller group of schools that still have a large number of involved parents (my daughter goes to one of these because of where we lived when she went to K). These schools risk slipping as the number of children in poverty increases.
    My point is there are a lot of schools that could be improved by more involved families, that won’t hurt students.

  6. I realized I didn’t address how this influx of involved parents could help these schools.

    One of the most important benefits of adding middle class parents is simply their presence in the school. They are able to talk to administrators about problems using the administrators language. The school knows that the parents are watching. They also know that the parents can complain in a way that gets the district and the community to pay attention (it helps that the parents work for major corporations, news organizations, government, etc.)

    These parents also tend to have time to volunteer at the school. Suburban schools in our area have homeroom parents (at least in the elementary school) that are responsible for helping the teacher, plan parties, teacher appreciation, etc. Some of the schools in my city can do this, but many can’t. These parents also help read with students, raise money to give to teachers to buy supplies and bring in special activities. I believe that this helps attract teachers to these schools. It also keeps turnover lower.

    Another advantage (at least at my daughter’s school) is that parents keep test prep from eating up the day. My daughter’s school is one of the last schools to have 2-3 recesses a day for the lower grades. There is still a rest time for Kindergarten. The parents are vocal about what is important to them. It also helps that her school has far fewer students that perform below proficiency.

    However, my daughter’s school may be on a downward spiral. There are apartments in the area that are attracting for families with high needs. The school has been through several administrators (in some ways this was a good thing the parents refused to accept principals that were below par). Whether middle class parents continues to stick with this school will have a huge impact on the quality of the school.

    Like I said before, there are several schools in our city that are similar to my daughters. I believe there are also several schools that could be like my daughters with just a few more involved families ( I really think 10-15 families could make a difference).

    Overall, our district doesn’t have bad teachers. There are mediocre teachers, but I think that better administrators and curriculum would more than make up for it. We do have many poor administrators (as do many of our surrounding suburban districts).

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    The school system you refer to is incomplete. The complete school system is adamantly proof against parental input.
    A jr. hi. prin, questioned about the drunk math teacher, said, “He’s got to retire some time.” Quite literally, the board and the admin do not have the time or the money to broom lousy teachers.
    It sounds like fantasy to posit a parent who’s more of an annoyance than the annoyance involved in getting rid of a poor teacher.

  8. I’m living the belief that putting middle class people in a school with otherwise lower classes will make it better. Guess what? This has definitely NOT happened. My kids are in a special program – language immersion – that is housed in a neighborhood school that is mostly filled by students living in apartment complexes. The kids in the language immersion program are held back by the presence of the regular school. The principal bends over backwards to make sure the teachers are mediocre in both programs. Everything has to be shown to be equal between the two which means holding back the education of some. It’s so sad because many of the kids in the regular school are very nice and intelligent and do have parents that care, but the standards are held very low for them. Sure, my kids are getting an opportunity to be bilingual (through a lottery), but they still are subjected to dumbed down curriculum and little to no content on a daily basis (social studies amounts to such interesting topics as “you live in a community” – boring and stupid in French and English). We are pulling the kids out after this year.

  9. I wanted to add one more thing. Very involved and very vocal parents have had no impact on the lack of teaching in social studies and science in the elementary school in the last 6 years I’ve been a parent there. Parents complain about it all the time. The only thing we at all accomplished was getting advanced math classes; however, that push was coming from the superintendant anyway. Good luck Mike Petrilli when your kid goes to school in Montgomery County (where my kids are). I recommend moving up county if you want your kids to learn anything – otherwise you’ll find most of their education will be coming from home. Since we can’t afford to live in the rich MD suburbs of DC, we are moving to VA. At least there the kids actually learn history in elementary school.

  10. I guess my experience doesn’t mirror others. I can tell you that the parents at my daughter’s school has now pushed out two principals. I would also say that the curriculum is very similar to the suburban schools (that says more about the lack of quality of the curriculum throughout our area).
    I guess just as all politics is local, so is education.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Parents don’t push out principals, at least not legally.
    The board and the super’s office had to be pressured. Got any details?

  12. “Waiting for Superman” has debuted to some modest fanfare. As the parent of a five-year old, I’ll be “waiting for Superman” a bit longer – its DVD release, since visiting the cinema is one of those things my wife and I have learnt to live without since becoming parents.

    For those who are interested in the debate, I also recommend highly the recent book by education scholar Dianne Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which raises a lot of the questions responders here note. My own opinion, in more detail is posted here:

    but I would briefly say that widescale school reform is unlikely to yield a silver bullet solution. We’ve heard travelling medicine salesmen of all stripes offering charter schools, vouchers, more money, smaller schools, more testing, various curricular reforms…. None has provided much in the ways of solutions that are reproducible across the country.

    I think it’s worth asking the question “What is the real role of public education in a democratic country” before looking for ways to fix our broken schools. Education serves manifold purposes beyond teaching children to read, write, and do mathematics. Although of course, those items are the sine qua non. Once we are able to agree on what we want of our schools, and how we want to support those goals, arguing past each other is not going anywhere.

    PS- I was very glad to find Joanne Jacobs’s ed blog; I’ve missed her writing – first after she left the Mercury News, and then after our family left California.

  13. David, thank you for reading Ravitch’s book and taking an interest in education so early, and for recommending it.

    Richard Aubrey, empowered parents push out principals all the time. They (we) just do, though I haven’t been involved in that particular type of advocacy myself. I’ve seen it happen a number of times.

    Your view seems to be based on hypothetical speculation, while Genevieve (and I) and unfortunately Jena are parents who do have experience with resisting the “I’m not sacrificing MY child just to be PC” attitude of the dainty and entitled who drive past scorned public schools full of dark-skinned kids to ensconce their precious snowflakes among the fair-haired and privileged.

    Here in San Francisco, we have seen a resurgence of interest in public schools among educated middle-class parents, for whom the default used to be private unless they landed a spot in one of the “only five decent schools” that supposedly existed in SFUSD, according to the playground chatter. The resurgence has occurred for a number of reasons. It’s only showing up slightly in actual numbers of applications. The reason for that is that hordes of parents used to submit a token application to one oversubscribed trophy alternative school while their real focus was on $25K/year privates. Now the younger cousins of those hordes of parents seriously intend to enroll in SFUSD schools. The number of applications is not that different (a slight bump), but the intent of the applicants is.

    As middle-class families have come back to our schools, we have seen many turn around, from unpopular, struggling “ghetto” schools to oversubscribed, sought-after, yes, trophies. I would say there are now three dozen schools that were scorned by the middle class when I first became an SFUSD parent in 1996 and are now highly desirable.

    (No, not all schools are like that, and our problems aren’t solved. I’m not “saying everything is perfect and defending the status quo,” as the education reformers’ canned rebuttal has it. But I am telling the truth about the many schools turning around.)

    The big issue here is that a school that copes with a critical mass of high-need, at-risk, disadvantaged students becomes overwhelmed and struggles. Differences among schools may mean that critical mass may vary. A school that enrolls a number of high-need, at-risk, disadvantaged students that falls short of that critical mass can cope, and that’s what this whole discussion is about.

  14. Well Richard there’s the kind of annoyance a drop-out, welfare mom can manage and the kind of annoyance a rich, movie producer or partner in a successful law firm or the VP of an auto company can manage. You think maybe there’s a bit of a difference between what one can accomplish versus the others?

    Also, I’d point out the irony of asserting that it’s “middle-class families have middle-class values” that are responsible for the existence of good district schools on this web site or have you forgotten the book Joanne wrote? Care to explain how those middle-class families and their middle-class values worked their magic at DCP when they were nowhere in evidence? In fact, the literature is now stuffed with examples of schools serving the same kind of kids the DPS is failing with the same kind of parents. Yet those schools are also doing significantly better then district schools that draw from the same pool of kids. You think maybe those parents are getting a surreptitious shot of middle-class values?

    Oh, and I’d find another military historian. That guy’s a dope.

  15. Richard Aubrey says:


    Point is, public schools without the bells, whistles, add-ons, supermen, extra funding, mentors, and so forth, do pretty well, or poorly, depending on your view.
    To do better in other circumstances, more is needed. So you have middle-class values or you have add-ons of one kind or another.
    You’ll note that some of the charters and private schools sometimes require uniforms and have extremely stiff disciplinary and behaviorial requirements. Sort of like a non-surreptitious belt of middle-class values. Every time some new effort “demands” which means selects for parents who are committed, they move from the ordinary situation to non-standard and the more they do it, the less applicable the lesson is to the rest of the system.
    How many rich movie producers are there whose kids are in lousy schools in the inner city? That’s what I thought.
    I was going around with some teachers on this subject and, referencing my daughter’s drunk jr hi math teacher, they said I should start and lead a revolt, or something. Point is, according to the mythology of public education, 1, we never have drunk math teachers, and, 2, if we do, the establishment fixes it instantly upon finding out about it. So, according to those myths, I shouldn’t have to lead a revolt.
    So, unless you can clone rich movie producers who can afford time, attorneys, public relations, and who have prominent friends, we’re left with the problem.

  16. I am so sick of this noblesse oblige guilt trip laid on middle-class parents who have chosen to put their child’s best interests first and not enroll them in mediocre government-run schools. Maybe I would consider it IF parents were actually able to have significant input over how the school was run. But no, the real power lies with the teachers’ unions and the bureaucrats hundreds of miles away in the state capitol and thousands of miles away in D.C.

  17. No Richard, “more” isn’t needed. What’s needed is the understanding among the professionals that their livelihood is dependent on being good at what they’re paid to do. Not the bland assumption that they’re good at what they’re paid to do or the angry rejection of the merest suggestion that they are, perhaps, not quite as good as they might be at what they’re paid to do but good in a way that produces the results they’re there to produce.

    That’s all that’s necessary.

    Oh, and nowhere did I say being wealthy, successful and powerful makes the local school district automatically and immediately responsive to parental concerns. Just that over time the sorts of people who expect their subordinates to do their jobs, and have the means of assuring that they do, relentlessly drive the school district in the direction they, as parents, want. When you get a continuous supply of those kinds of parents the school district is driven in the direction of producing the minimum acceptable level of quality whereas in a district like DPS that doesn’t apply.

    For those parents you get magnet schools which are the true, selective public schools. If you’re looking for cherry-picking in the public education system, that’s where it occurs.

    And I can clone rich, movie producers or at least get the same effect.

    It’s the real threat that those rich folks present that moves a school district in the direction they want. But since I can’t produce more powerful, impressive, demanding parents I can cut school districts down to a size that it isn’t such a David-Goliath struggle. That’s part of the reason charters have waiting lists; parents understand that a school that’s not too big to ignore their concerns is a school that’s much more likely to educate their kids.

  18. @CarolineSF – yes; Ravitch’s book is an eye-opener, even if I disagree with roughly half of what she offers. Her education bona fides are strong if not impeccable, and she obviously knows what she’s talking about. What I gleaned most strongly from her writing is that there is no single, easy solution.

    I don’t agree with your characterisation of “snowflakes” or your implication that racism drives parents to avoid the schools in, e.g., San Francisco. For a start, my own family is decidedly mixed-race. I would not choose to live in the SFUSD because, well, I would never have chosen to live in San Francisco. I *did* live for many years in San Jose, and several of those in downtown San Jose in the SJUSD.

    @Allen and @Richard: in my opinion, you’re both talking in adjacencies around the real issue. Yes; school boards are going to be moved slightly one way or the other by involved, perhaps noisome parents. But the x-factor here (and one that Ravitch makes in her book) is that parents who show up to “annoy” the school boards are more likely to show up and annoy their children to turn off the television and do their homework. In the case of DCP (assume you’re talking about Downtown College Prep, which opened a mere blocks from where my home in San Jose was), it’s not particularly easy to get your child enrolled. At this and other “successful” charters, parents must among other things pledge to put in extra hours, their children must do extra homework. What you end up with, therefore, is a choice selection of students whose parents are concerned about education, and students who will be motivated to work. And if either breaks down, the kid is gone. Period.

    As an anecdote, when I lived in downtown San Jose, it never ceased to amaze me how many hours the kids next door spent watching television and playing video games. I don’t remember ever seeing a book opened, or indeed, more than a couple in the house. There were plenty of play station cartridges and DVDs, however.

    They were not an ESL family, but the level of English grammar spoken by the children was atrocious. The children were nice enough kids, but what struck me is how much they knew about movies and television (some of which was, in my opinion, not age-appropriate), that they could describe in detail, even if incoherently because they could scarcely put together a sentence.

    The parents could not be bothered to read to them, and did not bother to make them read.

    When my own son came along, my wife and I were less concerned about things like STAR tests or the racial makeup of the schools, and more concerned with things like whether his potential friends/peers spent hours each day glued to “Sponge Bob.” The problem is, it’s much easier to measure the former – published annually in the Mercury-News, and more difficult to capture the latter.

  19. Richard Aubrey says:

    So where do you get the good parents? Send a note home with the kids explaining the situation?
    Your plan, or the one promoted, still includes throwing the kids into the chaos and hoping some of the parents follow along.
    So, first the kids hit the drop zone, or the beach head, and the parents follow along to bail them out.
    How many years does it take to fix a school system?
    Annoying parents aren’t solely, or even most likely to be the friends of education. Butthead kids frequently have butthead parents.
    Seems to me the most useful way to motivate educrats is to have easy alternatives. To keep their student count and funding up, they’ll either have to produce, or accept smaller numbers, an uncomfortably high proportion of whom have buttheads for parents, or no parents for all intents, or uninterested parents.

  20. David, regarding your description of the next-door neighbors, that’s a perfect example of the family factors beyond teachers’ control.

    I grew up in a disheveled house full of books and newspapers and magazines, but I hung out a lot at the neighbor kids’, a good solid working-class family. They kept the house scrupulously clean and the cooking in that house was fantastic; the daughters were expected and assumed to do extensive housecleaning and were competent cooks by an early age. There wasn’t a piece of reading matter to be seen. The TV was on all day. They generously fed me frequently; the mom taught me to crochet and the proper way to iron a men’s dress shirt. I went to Mass with them sometimes. Reading a book, except when required for school, was not on the radar, anywhere, period. It was just a really different culture from mine. What do you do?

  21. …To be clear, I’m trying to temper the level of disdain for families who don’t have reading as part of their culture. (Obviously i have a lot more disdain for families like Davis Guggenheim’s, the “I won’t sacrifice my child just to be PC” elitists.)

    It’s kind of like if you told me I absolutely had to raise my children to know how to play quarterback — I wouldn’t know how, would see no value in it, would be unfamiliar with the entire culture. So again, what do we do — what do schools do, what does our society do?

  22. @CarolineSF:

    I do not disagree with anything you say. In a sense, I think we may be singing from the same hymnal, albeit one of us is singing soprano and the other baritone.

    I know very little about Davis Guggenheim, other than his famous name, his marriage to the actress Elisabeth Shue, and his involvement in the movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” I’ve not yet seen “Waiting for Superman,” because we don’t go to the cinema (was not being facetious with that comment).

    Whilst I did not grow up in a disheveled house, it was one where books, magazines, and newspapers were readily and plentifully available. My wife and I strive to make sure that our son lives in an environment where reading and literature are seen as valuable. In the sense that our country is both post-literate and innumerate, there is very, very little that the schools or the teachers can really do in many cases, which is why I am not one who blames the teachers for the poor performance of our schools. And it’s also why I think approaches like charter schools or other putative panaceas almost always fail when they are applied more broadly. As I see them, these sorts of approaches offer a lifeline to those who want to live. If you can forgive the clumsy metaphor, something like Downtown College Prep offers a lifeboat to those kids who are willing to jump into the cold water and swim to them.

    As I wrote on my own ‘blog’ about this (and Ravitch’s book):

    One area I do find particularly problematic is her conclusion that the introduction of school choice, either through vouchers, charter schools, or some admixture of the two will lead to an even worse situation than the current status quo, in large part because the results show that the benefits of this sort of reform lead to the decidedly muddled result that some students do particularly well under such a scheme, and some students show little to no benefit or even do worse.

    Her analysis asks “Who are the students who benefit?”….

    ….The issue with Ms. Ravitch’s proposal is what is called the crab pot analogy. Simply put, if crabs are captured and placed into temporary holding pots, some may struggle towards the top and escape, but will ultimately be pulled back into the pot by others at the bottom, and thus, none escapes.

    Trapped in terrible schools are students who truly want to learn, who will do as they are instructed by their teachers, will put in the extra effort over their books, who will eschew television to complete their work, and whose only real means of escaping poverty is education. Students who, if not offered the scholarships/vouchers/charter schools will in all likelihood be condemned to remain in the crab pot.

    Ultimately, our public schools should have a vision of providing the best education to as many students as they can. But is there not room for some sort of help for the poor who value education and are willing to put the time and effort into obtaining it? If I were the parent of a bright, motivated child whose only crime was being poor, I would be somewhat angry at the misplaced concern of the upper middle class about democracy in my neighbourhood.

    As to what I do – I’m a mathematician.

  23. Charter schools were initially intended to pioneer innovations that could be emulated by public schools. That entire concept has gone badly awry for numerous reasons.

    One thing that some charter schools do, and that appears to include Downtown College Prep, is give low-income students who are more motivated, compliant and willing to focus on school an environment relatively free of the unmotivated, oppositional, disruptive students who, when their numbers reach critical mass, can turn a school into chaos.

    That doesn’t solve the problem of how to engage and educate the unmotivated, oppositional and disruptive, but it does provide a big advantage to the motivated, compliant and willing.

    This system is something that could theoretically be replicated in public schools. How about a pilot project? I envision a setup wherein every family (in perhaps designated low-income areas) had guaranteed access to one of two schools: one that was specifically by request, with no one ever enrolled by default; the other a default school. Perhaps the by-request school could impose some additional admissions hurdles, like signing commitments to attendance, dress code, homework, volunteering. Then just track the academic achievement.

    A big hurdle to this is that the entire world of charter-school advocacy vigorously (and blatantly dishonestly) denies that this self-selectivity is going on. So if they would just cut that crap (the lying, that is) out and acknowledge reality, maybe we could start actually learning from it: How much of the success of whatever charter star is based on that self-selectivity?

    Some tidbits about some of the schools in “Waiting for Superman”:

    The SEED school kicks out 70% of its students between enrollment and graduation (source: a New York Times Magazine article on the school).
    The LA KIPP school featured has 50-60% attrition between 6th grade and 8th grade (source: my own research in the Calif. Dept. of Education database).
    The Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy expelled the entire 8th grade one year (source: blog accounts of Paul Tough’s book on HCZ — I haven’t read the book myself)

    So you can see that I’m not just spouting off here; this is serious stuff about selectivity. It’s not helpful that whenever I say this — I’ve proposed it before — charter advocates rush to dispute it (falsely).

  24. @CarolineSF:

    As I said, I’ve not yet seen Guggenheim’s movie, so it would not be fair for me to comment on it. I think it *is* fair for me to comment that, generally, I am sceptical when the well-connected, the well-to-do, or the well-known (i.e., celebrities) offer their “solutions” to the problems faced by the rest of us. Here, Guggenheim seems to be able to tick all three boxes. Doesn’t mean he has nothing of value to say, or that he is necessarily wrong, only that the obverse (that his family, money, celebrity do not necessarily grant him credibility on this or any other issue, pace global warming.)

    I’m not pro or anti-charter school. As someone who earns his money thinking about psychometrics and how to design experiments to mitigate sampling bias, I think it’s dishonest to deny that selection bias is not a prevalent factor in the performance of charter schools. Plainly, self-selection plays a big role here.

    My issue is this: What do we do to help the “disadvantaged” who are motivated? I think in some respects, the charters fulfil a need here by extending an opportunity to the kid who is, as you put it, motivated, compliant, and willing. It’s not that I have no concern for the behavioural problem or the kid who would just as soon be standing around on the street corner with his friends, but our society seems far, far more concerned with the latter and not at all concerned with the former.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, I am the product of the public schools. I attended solidly (some might say relentlessly) middle-class schools. They were not spectacular (e.g., Palo Alto High School); they were not horrendous (I won’t name any names, but am sure we could both come up with an example easily). A significant number of us – though not the majority; not close – went on to four-year colleges. A kid two years in front of me got in to Harvard, the first from my school of graduating classes around 250 per year, in 15 years. The typical family was typically blue collar – the largest share of families earned their money in the auto industry building engines or parts.

    Given this background, I find it incredibly patronising when people condescendingly whisper implicit racial motivations for why parents bypass struggling (failing) schools because “[they are] not sacrificing MY child just to be PC” attitude of the dainty.”

    I understand you reserve your disdain for the likes of Guggenheim, but one thing a lot of educational (and other reformers) fail to grasp is that we are talking about real people; my son is not an avatar in a computer screen or a faceless token on a board game. My choices (and those of Genevieve and others) have real consequences for his life. He has one life, and it’s not my position to be magnanimous to make a martyr of it for some hoped-for social good. I and others choose to provide for our children what we hope is the best set of circumstances for their development. If he wants later to make sacrifices to improve public schools in Detroit or San Francisco, then as an adult, he is free to make them.

  25. Jeez Richard, keep in mind who parents are.

    They’re the people who will kill and die to protect that child and who other people won’t think are being particularly unusual for doing so. They’re the folks who are willing to risk their own lives when educating their children is a serious crime.

    They’re the people who right now make $40 or $50 a month of which they’re willing to part with $2 per child per month for an education. Google Dr. James Tooley.

    Your complaints about parents are about parents who are as thoroughly trapped in a education system that places no value on education as are their children and the teachers who are under the mistaken impression they’re supposed to teach those children. It’s a situation that’s as artificial as a zoo environment is for animals so aberrant behavior becomes the norm. It’s just a tribute to human adaptability that all involved, kids, parents and teachers, don’t act crazier then they do.

  26. Richard Aubrey says:

    Parents, if they exist, will kill for their kids, die for their kids. That’s practically biological.
    What’s not part of human evolution is putting a six-year old behind a desk and expecting him to stay there for twelve years. Parents either know what to do, or they don’t. Those who don’t are frequently either confused, unmotivated, or distracted.
    I dealt with an adult high school admin who made home visits. The National Enquirer was, he said, the only reading matter in most of those homes.
    We all know families with differing views of what education is supposed to mean, supposed to mean for their kids. We know parents who are more, and less, skillful in getting their kids to use the school system for the best results.
    Unfortunately, the parents who are less skilled, or motivated, or who aren’t, you know, actually present tend to be concentrated in the lower SES and in some minorities.
    A guy talking on NPR years ago referred to visiting his old neighborhood. Apparently there was a new, smooth sidewalk with a long, gradual slope along one street. Full of skateboarders. Hispanic. Happened to be near the library. Full of Asian-Americans with their kids.
    And recall that Arne Duncan said that disciplinary actions which are disproportionate as to race will be subject to unspecified penalties.

  27. I’ve been anxiously awaiting the arrival of this movie hoping it would confirm my belief that the system is beyond repair and it needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

    And then I clicked on Joanne’s irritating clip of Folk Song Army, not the first time she’s shared that with us. (I just got back spending time at Alice’s old church. Alice, Arlo’s old friend.)

    But now I’ve just returned from the movie’s website and I haven’t wanted to gag so much since I heard Debbie Boone sing You Light Up My Life.

    And now I see the connection to Folk Song Army.

    How sad.

    I like most protest songs, except for Universal Soldier which makes no sense at all.

    But this movie seems like it’s Debbie Boone singing Universal Soldier, if you can imagine that.

    I’m a teacher. I work hard. I bust my butt. The system is designed to perpetuate itself, not to educate children. I don’t like it.

    But that doesn’t mean I’ll like this movie.

    After seeing the video clip of the movie maker, I feel like I want see test scores plummet, for classroom roofs to leak, for the free lunch program to be discontinued, and for the drop-out rate to soar.

    If this movie is education reform, give me out-dated textbooks.

  28. Richard Aubrey says:

    My wife taught HS Spanish in the early seventies, took some time off for kids, taught at the university level, and went back to HS in the Nineties. Even allowing for going up in SES in a new school district, she said the new textbooks were less rigorous than the ones she’d used in a rural district twenty years prior.
    So outdated would work better, is my guess.


  1. […] After Superman, what? — Joanne Jacobs Filed under: education — coopmike48 @ 5:32 am After Superman, what? — Joanne Jacobs. […]

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