You would have to be living on Mars not to notice all the commotion the past week proclaiming the ills of our public education system, particularly our inner city schools. From the much-hyped opening of the documentary "Waiting for Superman," two Oprah shows this week featuring the movie's director, Davis Guggenheim, along with Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerman of Facebook fame, and NBC's "Education Nation" series, the mainstream media has given a huge amount of attention to the view that our inner-city public schools are dysfunctional, primarily as a result of selfish and incompetent teachers and their unions.
The latest outrage is the panel discussion scheduled for Tuesday as part of Education Nation, originally entitled, "Does Education Need a Katrina?" Though after protests, the name of the panel was changed, it still is being described as a discussion to examine "the advantages to the New Orleans school district of starting over post-Katrina."
When Arne Duncan made a similar statement about New Orleans schools benefiting from Hurricane Katrina, he was roundly and justifiably criticized. Hurricane Katrina killed thousands of people, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. Since then, the poorest and neediest students have been increasingly concentrated in the New Orleans' public schools, while charter schools are attracting the highest achieving and wealthiest students. This two-tier educational system is a pattern that has been replicated in New York City, Chicago and elsewhere.
NBC has disinvited prominent experts from its panels who disagree with these policies, including Diane Ravitch and Yong Zhao of Michigan State, invited few if any public school parents, and has given up any pretense of providing a fair and balanced presentation of views. The panel on teacher quality will be moderated by Steve Brill, a journalist who has made a second career out of attacking teacher unions and promoting charter schools, in articles full of exaggerated claims and factual errors. (See my earlier column "Steve Brill's Imperviousness to the Facts")
Indeed, the vast majority of panelists appear to have been pre-selected by the Gates and Broad Foundations, Education Nation's co-sponsors, who by spending billions have been able to impose their rigid prescriptions on the nation's urban public schools. NBC has also asked the president of the University of Phoenix to participate, the nation's largest for-profit online chain and yet another co-sponsor, although this institution has been widely criticized for fraudulent practices. As the independent Poynter Institute commented, "it looks like the University of Phoenix bought access" onto the show, which "undermines the credibility of the project." Indeed, it is apparent that for NBC, money rather than real expertise talks.
The same monolithic cast of characters dominate "Waiting for Superman", which despite numerous cogent critiques, is likely to draw support from viewers who are otherwise ignorant of the real problems plaguing public education.
What are the rigid solutions that this film and NBC's "Education Nation" offer instead? The closing of neighborhood schools to make way for charter schools, more emphasis on standardized testing, performance pay, and the firing of more teachers, all based on student test scores.
Yet these simplistic and largely punitive policies have no backing in research or experience. There is no consensus among experts that they would work to improve our public schools, and plenty of evidence that they could make them even worse, as the National Academy of Sciences pointed out in comments on the federal program known as "Race to the Top". Why?
Evaluating and firing teachers on the basis of standardized tests scores is highly unreliable, with a recent study done for the federal government showing that there is a 25-34 percent likelihood of mislabeling the best teachers as the worst.
Such policies are likely to encourage even more mindless test prep, narrowing of the curriculum, and unfairly target teachers who working in our most disadvantaged schools. There is also not a single research study showing that teacher incentive schemes, which the US Department of Education just spent nearly half a billion dollars of taxpayer funds to support, have ever worked to improve public schools. Instead, studies out of New York City, Chicago, and now Nashville, in what is called the most rigorous experiment yet done, by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, have shown no positive results.
These top-down policies are being promulgated not by educators, parents, or experts in the field, but by corporate billionaires, including Bill Gates, Eli Broad , the Walton family of Walmart fame, and Michael Bloomberg, all of whom adhere to the sort of deregulatory, free-market philosophies that have recently found to have disastrous results in our financial system.
Indeed, given the recent recession and the resulting anger at Wall Street elites, it would be hard to find any other field of public policy in which a few billionaires have so easily controlled the dominant narrative, convinced most of the politicians in both parties and the mainstream media that they know what's best for our children.. Yet none of these moguls have ever sent their children to an urban public school, and seem totally unaware of what really ails our urban public schools.
As charter schools proliferate, they have led to more segregation, according to UCLA's Civil Rights Project, as well as a growing concentration of poor, immigrant, homeless and English language learners in our neighborhood public schools. For example, in New York City, fewer than one percent of charter school students are homeless, whereas many of the public schools in the same neighborhoods, and even in the same buildings, are composed of ten percent homeless students or more.
During the recent primary elections, the charter school lobby donated millions of dollars to candidates that supported their top-down agenda, including Adrien Fenty, DC mayor, and Basil Smikle, running for State Senate in Harlem. Yet these candidates were roundly defeated, because by and large, most public school parents and community residents would rather support candidates who are interested in improving their local neighborhood schools, instead of closing them down or forcing them to sacrifice more space to expanding charters.
As the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote, "Mr. Fenty was cheered by whites for bringing in the cold-blooded Michelle Rhee as schools chancellor. She attacked D.C.'s admittedly failing school system with an unseemly ferocity and seemed to take great delight in doing it. Hundreds of teachers were fired and concerns raised by parents about Ms. Rhee's take-no-prisoners approach were ignored. It was disrespectful."
Similarly, according to a recent Gallup national poll, support for President Barack Obama's education agenda is slipping, among members of all parties, with just 34 percent of respondents giving the president an A or B for his education policies. According to the poll, the majority of Americans oppose closing low-performing schools, and would rather improve them by providing more support.
Another national poll, financed by Time magazine, showed that the vast majority of Americans believe that test-based accountability has either not worked or has been harmful, though interestingly enough, Time omitted this finding from their coverage.
Yet perhaps in order to control the message, there are practically no public school parents or dissenting views among the scores of participants on the three day line-up for Education Nation, despite a letter sent by Parents Across America to NBC, urging them to invite public school parents, weeks ago.
Gates and Broad have also backed "Waiting for Superman", with the Broad Foundation contributing half a million dollars to its marketing campaign One of the documentary's producers is yet another billionaire, ultra-conservative Philip Anschutz, well known for financing Colorado's anti-gay marriage amendment. (Anschutz and Gates are also partners in financing another project without any research backing, the anti-evolution, pro "intelligent design" Discovery Institute.)
Attacking the teacher unions may be convenient, but is essentially wrong-headed. Well-financed suburban school systems throughout the country, as well as schools in other countries like Finland which result in high achievement levels are also unionized, with very low teacher turnover rates. No, the reason so many of our inner city schools are failing is that they are confronted with educating our neediest students in the worst, most overcrowded conditions, and given these systemic inequities, neither these children nor their teachers are given a real chance to succeed..
One of the appealing children focused on in the film is named Francisco, a first-grader from the Bronx. The movie describes how his school is overcrowded and his teacher is "overworked with too many students"-- conditions that are sadly all too common in city schools. Class sizes in New York City public schools are often overflowing, at thirty students or more, and have increased sharply in recent years, exceeding class sizes in the rest of the state by 25 to 70 percent.
Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institute and Stanford, one of the few so-called "experts" interviewed in the film, has spent much time as a witness in court, defending states when they are sued for not providing equitable education funding. Hanushek's claim, which he has personally profited from, is that resources and class size do not matter.
Yet the SEED charter school, also featured in the movie as a major success, spends $35,000 per student; about four times the average spending, requiring a special act of Congress to fund.
Another one of the stars of the movie, Harlem Children Zone founder Geoffrey Canada, has built facilities that rival that of any private school, and he caps all class sizes at no more than eighteen students. Canada is now constructing a new branch of HCZ costing $100 million, with $60 million paid for by New York City taxpayers, with another $20 million contributed by Goldman Sachs. Meanwhile, HCZ is sitting on more than $200 million in assets, and last year, reported a a $25 million surplus, while our city's public schools have seen their budgets slashed to the bone, and are facing even more cuts this year.
Alan Krueger, economist of Princeton, has convincingly shown that Hanushek's published work has consistently distorted the research, by minimizing the number of studies that show positive results from reducing class size and increased spending. If honestly reported, the research overwhelming shows that smaller classes improve outcomes for children.
This is especially true for the poor and minority children that the film so poignantly depicts, since reducing class size is one of the very few reforms that have been proven to narrow the achievement gap. And yet Bill Gates and many of his grantees, including NYC Chancellor Joel Klein, consistently dismiss the need to provide smaller classes to poor and minority children in the public schools that they control, and have encouraged class sizes to grow sharply, while they send their own children to private schools where class sizes are capped at fifteen.In the movie, Hanushek calls for firing six to ten percent of all public school teachers each year, a la Jack Welch of General Electric fame. Instead, these slash and burn policies would likely have disastrous effects, and lead to even fewer effective and experienced teachers in our highest-need schools.
In short, though the current propaganda campaign, financed and promulgated by billionaire entrepreneurs, promoting ruthless corporate-style tactics, may currently be the rage, the true experts, including teachers and parents who send their own children to public schools, realize that there's a better way.
As John Dewey wrote, what the best and wisest parent wants for his own child is what the community should want for all children. When all the hypocrisy and and furor has died down, the clear findings of research and the wisdom of ordinary Americans will hopefully be recognized once again, and the truth will emerge: that all our children, whether or not they attend charter schools, deserve a better chance to learn.