From ‘Superman’ to ‘TEACH’

Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary, TEACH, premieres tonight on CBS.

“In the new film, there are no charter schools, no teachers’ union politics, no major education debates,” reports Education Week. Guggenheim focuses on four young teachers: Matt Johnson, a 4th grade teacher at McGlone Elementary School in Denver; Shelby Harris, a 7th- and 8th grade mathematics teacher at Kuna Middle School in Kuna, Idaho; Lindsay Chinn, a 9th grade algebra teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Denver; and Joel Laguna, the Advanced Placement World History teacher at Garfield High School in Los Angeles.

Flipping the factory model

Despite national honors, long wait lists and a feature spot in Waiting for Superman, California’s Summit charter schools needed radical change, CEO Diane Tavenner decided.

. . . “we took the factory model high school and did it significantly better,” Tavenner explains. “We made it smaller, more personal, with no tracking, longer hours, more support for kids. We recruited very talented teachers and fully developed them. But it’s still a factory model and kids are moving through that system.”

In Learning Optimized on Education Next, I explain Summit’s experimental “optimized learning environment” at its two new San Jose charter high schools.

 Two hundred 9th and 10th graders at a time spend two hours a day studying math and brushing up on basic skills. They start at a work station by opening their personal guide, reading e-mail from the math teachers, and setting goals. Students can choose from a “playlist” of online learning resources, seek help at the “tutoring bar,” participate in teacher-led discussions in breakout rooms, or work on group projects, such as designing a water fountain.

When they’re ready, students take an online test to see if they’ve reached their goals. The math team, five teachers and two coaches, keeps students on track.

Nearly all Summit graduates go on to college, but Tavenner was disappointed with graduation rates for the first graduating class. Taking AP classes isn’t enough, she decided. Students need to be “self-directed learners” to handle the challenges of college. Summit is opening new schools and expanding its “optimized” experiment.

Michael Horn writes about The Transformational Potential of Flipped Classrooms, also on Education Next.

New Spider-Man awaits Superman

The new alternative Spider-Man, a black-Hispanic youth named Miles Morales, apparently will back education reform, including charter schools, notes Education Intelligence Agency. That’s causing angst for those who see education reform as a plot by the Sinister Syndicate.

In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Joe Quesada, the chief creative officer at Marvel Comics, explained the back story for the new alter ego, who replaces Peter Parker in the Ultimate Spider-Man alternative comic universe. A fan of Geoffrey Canada, who created the Harlem Children’s Zone, Quesada urged colleagues to watch “Waiting For Superman.” Art pages released so far show Morales as a child at a charter school lottery.

Will the new Spider-Man smash teachers’ unions? asks Joe Macaré of In These Times. Peter Parker was a struggling science teacher, he observes.

. . . he’s exactly the kind of person vilified by the steadfastedly anti-union Geoffrey Canada, by Waiting For Superman and by the so-called education reformers for whom the movie is a touchstone.

…Faced with this PR onslaught, vigilance is demanded of those of us who’d like to see popular culture not become further contaminated by anti-union sentiment and the insane belief that the private sector will save us all.

Elana Levin, co-host of the Graphic Policy podcast, thinks “teachers’ unions are like the X-Men,” not the Sinister Six, while “the business interests trying to privatize our education system through money and manipulation are just like the new incarnation of the Hellfire Club (as written by Kieron Gillen in Uncanny X-Men).”

Marvel Comics and Joe Quesada aren’t exactly right-wingers, responds EIA. Of course, that makes it worse.

Poll: Fire bad teachers and raise pay

The public wants to make it easier to fire bad teachers — and to raise the pay of good ones, according to an Associated Press-Stanford University poll.  Seventy-eight percent wanted to fire low-performing teachers; 71 percent said it should be easier to fire principals of low-performing schools. Yet 57  percent say teachers are paid too little.

Carmen Williams, 53, an office manager from Yates City, Ill., said the issue is simple: Pay teachers more and get rid of the bad ones.

“Good teachers are hard to find, and one of the reasons they are hard to find is because they’re not paid enough to support themselves, especially if they have a family,” she said.

Half of those surveyed want to base teachers’ salaries on their students’ performance on statewide tests and on administrators’ evaluations.

A majority blame parents and federal, state and local education officials for education problems; 45 percent blame teachers’ unions.

By the way, Waiting for Superman, which argued that school quality is determined by teacher quality, wasn’t a box-office smash, reports Rick Hess. It didn’t even do well compared to other documentaries. He makes fun of Waiting’s simple-minded insistence that “we know what works,” and that it’s “great teachers.” Guggenheim told us, “It’s not some magic; it’s about having a commitment to making great teachers in this country.”

Glad we got THAT settled.

Great teachers and a chicken in every pot!

Times: Before Black, Canada said ‘no’

Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone and a star of Waiting for Superman, turned down the job of running New York City schools, sources tell the New York Times.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg then offered the job to Cathie Black, a publishing executive with no public-school experience.

Mr. Canada, by contrast, has gained international notice as the leader of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a network of charter schools renowned for its cradle-to-college approach. He grew up in the South Bronx and holds a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Unlike Black, Canada is black.

Still, while Mr. Canada, 58, may have been more palatable to some critics, his passionate defense of charter schools and his habit of firing teachers who fail to improve test scores would most likely be anathema to union leaders and many parents active in the schools.

It’s not surprising Canada wanted to stick with his experiment, which offers parenting classes, health care and other support services in addition to charter schools.

Gotham Schools reports that students at Murray Bergtram High School rioted for 20 minutes after the principal announced teachers would not give out bathroom passes for the day in response to a fight.

Finally, Superman

I finally got around to seeing Waiting for Superman.  The scenes of parents and children waiting for the lottery results were tear jerkers, but the movie was very simplistic in its depiction of education problems and solutions.  It assumed that the children of involved parents would be doomed by going to neighborhood schools but saved by going to charters. Maybe so, but reciting the statistics for all students doesn’t make that case. I wanted to see a lot more on how successful schools teach: What’s replicable? What depends on finding brilliant principals or young teachers willing to work  insanely long hours?

The depiction of Woodside High in California, the alternative for the girl who gets into Summit Preparatory Charter School, implies that the school serves middle-class and upper-middle-class whites, some of whom are tracked into low-level classes that don’t prepare them to go college.  A majority of Woodside High students are Hispanic or black; 43 percent qualify for a subsidized lunch.  All non-disabled students are placed in college-prep classes, says the principal.  The movie’s statistics on the number of students who go to college include only California state universities, not private or out-of-state colleges or universities or community colleges.

Life’s a carnival

The Education Buzz #7 is up at Bellringers with a scary Halloween/election theme.

J.M. Holland at Emergent Learner writes about Waiting for Superman. Holland has volunteered to host the next Buzz. To be included, submit here by Nov. 6.

School choice goes mainstream

When did school choice go mainstream? asks Reason.tv, which covered NBC’s week-long Education Nation.

The “summit,” held at NBC’s New York studios at Rockefeller Center, almost felt like a publicity junket for Waiting for Superman, a highly praised new documentary advocating for charter schools. A national TV audience watched as D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee chewed out teachers union honcho Randi Weingarten for spending $1 million in campaign funds to halt Rhee’s reform agenda. Morning Joe‘s Mika Brzezinski took a shot at Weingarten for resisting merit pay for teachers. And what to make of former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi working to promote National School Choice Week, slated for January 2011?

I’m amazed at the impact of Waiting for Superman on the debate. But I’m not convinced it will lead to change.

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 GreatSchools.org,” “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 “All4Ed.org,” 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.

Hubris alert!

As education reformers eagerly await the premiere of Waiting for Superman, Mike Petrilli has issued a hubris alert.  He cites a Philadelphia Daily News story by Dom Giordano, who interviewed Superman director Davis Guggenheim.

Guggenheim told me that we now know what to do to educate and advance every kid. He said, “In recent years, we’ve cracked the code. The high-performing charter schools, like KIPP and others, have figured out the system that works for kids in even the toughest neighborhoods.”

I echo this. And my mantra is – it’s a mystery? We know what to do. The only question is do we have the will to do it?

It’s not that simple, Petrilli writes.

1. Maybe we’ve “cracked the code” on making high-poverty schools more effective, but we’re far from cracking the code on how to scale them up to serve lots more kids. We have a few hundred excellent urban schools when we need tens of thousands.

2. There’s little doubt that one of the reasons these schools succeed is that they bring motivated kids from motivated families together. We know from decades of “peer effects” studies that kids learn more when surrounded by high-achieving, striving youngsters. This part of “the code” can’t be replicated everywhere.

Even the most successful charter schools aren’t “closing the achievement gap,” he adds. Matching suburban schools in “proficient” students is a huge step forward, but the “proficient” children of home health care aides and janitors aren’t earning the same SAT scores as the children of doctors, lawyers and CPAs.

Seven of the top 10 high schools in Los Angeles are charters, as are the top two middle schools, notes Eduwonk. Four of the lowest-scoring 10 schools are charters too. Aspire Public Schools, which just got $1 million from Oprah Winfrey, are basically the best large school district in the state, while the ICEF charter network in LA has “elementary school students outperforming schools in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, high performance overall, and the best SATs among charters and neighborhood high schools.”