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Demonizing Public Education

I recently reviewed “Waiting for ‘Superman’” for The New York Review of Books. I thought the movie was very slick, very professional, and very propagandistic. Notably, the film portrayed not a single successful regular public school.

There are many inaccuracies in the movie. One that I describe in my review is Davis Guggenheim’s claim that 70 percent of 8th grade students read “below grade level.”

He also erred in setting up charter schools as the singular answer to the nation’s education problems, especially since he admits that only one in five charters gets “amazing results.” The actual number that get amazing results is far smaller.

The aggressive movement to lionize charters and to demonize public schools is scary because there is so much money and power pushing this agenda. It disturbs me that the CEO of Participant Media, one of the main producers of the “Waiting for ‘Superman’” film, was previously the CEO of a chain of for-profit postsecondary institutions. The man behind the other producer, Walden Media, donates heavily to conservative think tanks, which promote privatization, vouchers, and school choice.

How socially useful is it to destroy public confidence in an essential public institution? The private sector does not get better results on average than the public sector, not (according to naep) for black students or Hispanic students or urban students or low-income students. But even if it did, we should be wary of undermining one of the bedrock agencies of our democracy. This meretricious film offers fake answers for real problems. —Diane Ravitch


Freedom of Speech?

The latest reminder that freedom of speech for teachers in K-12 is an illusion came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati on Oct. 21. In Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of the Tipp City Exempted Village School District, the court ruled that teachers cannot make their own curricular decisions.

This is not the first time that freedom of speech for teachers has been undermined by the courts, and these cases make it clear that teachers are essentially hired hands who are expected to toe the line on policies. In the past, teachers have won their cases only when they were able to show they were punished for violating policies that school officials either never explained to them or concocted after the fact.

Ironically, the U.S. Supreme Court has been more involved in upholding the free-speech rights of students. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, for example, the high court wrote in 1969 that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” (In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court modified its ruling in Morse v. Fredericks, aka “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”)

The latest court ruling couldn’t have come at a worse time. Reformers are demanding that teachers turn out students who can think critically. But if teachers are threatened with the loss of their jobs for trying to reach this goal, then who is going to want to teach? Already teacher turnover is unacceptably high, with 50 percent of teachers leaving after the first five years. By penalizing teachers who strive for creativity, school boards exacerbate the situation. And yet we wonder why efforts to recruit teachers from the top ranks of colleges are falling short. If things are bad now, they are going to get worse in the years ahead because of our myopia. —Walt Gardner


A Sober Look at Race to the Top

If the Republicans take the House this week, as many pundits expect, it’s unlikely the administration will win its hoped-for rounds of additional Race to the Top funding. At least, that’s the signal being sent by John Kline (currently in line to chair the House education committee) and by a slew of GOP House candidates running to rein in federal spending.

Yet, even in that case, RTT will remain very much with us for years to come.

RTT is likely to be an issue in the run-up to 2012. Education is sure to be a talking point for the Obama campaign, as his efforts on schooling have long been proffered as crucial evidence that he’s a centrist. While RTT is unlikely to be re-upped in its present form, there’s a good chance that competitive grant programs will be a bigger chunk of federal education spending in years to come.

It’s worth checking out Paul Manna’s just-published white paper on RTT. Manna takes a smart, hard look at RTT as a competitive grant program—asking what we can learn, where RTT got it right, and where RTT failed to learn from previous experiences with such programs in other federal agencies.

As Manna cautions, the Education Department should keep in mind the likelihood that some winning states “were really just engaged in a ‘race to the trough’ rather than a race to the top.” He explains that for all the enthusiasm that RTT has garnered for encouraging states to change policies, “It is hard to assess whether those changes represent genuine commitments from state leaders or simple legislative gamesmanship to better position states to receive federal money.” This matters much, because the real question is whether officials will make use of these new levers, much less defend them against political pushback.

Whatever administration officials may think, public sentiment on RTT and the administration’s record is not all roses and sunshine. —Rick Hess

Vol. 30, Issue 10, Pages 14-15

Published in Print: November 3, 2010, as Blogs of the Week
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