Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Tentative Retraction

A few weeks ago, I wrote a quick "review" of the movie Waiting for Superman, which I watched with free tickets from the company K-12, an online educator. I was moved by the movie and found it both compelling and depressing, and, overall, it left me feeling uneasy about much in the American public school system but grateful that my own children are safely learning in a very good charter school here in Los Angeles. This morning, I opened up my new The New York Review of Books to an article by Diane Ravitch called The Myth of Charter Schools. Ravitch proceeds to eviscerate Davis Guggenheim's movie in a careful argument, concluding that the movie is simplistic, sometimes patently untrue and, above all, an assault on public education as a right and cornerstone of American democracy.

At risk of seeming all over the place or impossibly fatuous and impressionable, I feel far less enthusiastic about the movie and my probable superficial interpretation of it. The weird thing is that the company who asked me to write the review, K-12, and then sent me an American Express giftcard to buy the tickets, is a company started by William Bennett, the very conservative blow hard who I happen to know through my brother-in-law. I won't tell the story, here, but a long time ago I had an actual verbal argument with him at a wedding (my sister's) -- suffice it to say that I still find him insufferable and if the company hadn't been sold a while ago would have refused to do the review. I found it curious that they were part of the promotion process but only after reading the Ravitch review do I really understand why. According to Ravitch, "Waiting for Superman is a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the 'free market' and privatization. It raises important questions, but all of the answers it offers require a transfer of public funds to private sector."

When I first heard Guggenheim interviewed on NPR, before I actually saw his movie, I was driving around Los Angeles, and when he mentioned that the impetus for the movie was the occasion of passing three "dismal" public schools on the way to dropping off his own children at their private schools, here in Los Angeles, I felt irked. I thought to myself what the hell does he actually know about the public schools here in Los Angeles, other than the sensational stories he hears? I imagined that he probably lives in a neighborhood where the public schools are probably excellent, but due to his social status and the general allure of the private school system, he would shun it and make himself feel better by equating all public schools as "bad." I myself live in a district with the best elementary school in the city, and most of my friends, if they can afford it, choose to send their children to extremely expensive private schools (upwards of $20,000 for K-5 and nearing $30,000 for middle and high school). Why? I don't know. Do they know anything at all about public schools? Most don't and all appear to have been seduced by the notion that the public school system is horrendous here in Los Angeles. And while they might pay lip service to the "good" ones that their property taxes support, they wouldn't dream of sending their children to them. Guggenheim himself said in that interview that he felt guilty about not supporting his local public school.

Anyway, I went into the movie feeling conflicted and worried, a bit, about the inherent elitism of the movie. I am also aware of my own very conflicted feelings -- my children are in public school, a local charter that was started only six or so years ago by concerned parents who wanted an alternative curriculum for their children, but if I were to suddenly be able to afford a private school, would that change my decision? When I look at the private schools and the incredible facilities, the field trips, the teachers, the extras -- well, it's hard not to wonder what my own children are missing. However, what I also see is excess, lots of material excess and an education marked primarily by entitlement -- and I'm sort of relieved that I don't have to expose my sons to that any more than they already are. I also hate that these private schools have no responsibility toward those with disabilities -- that's a no-brainer for me -- and why would I want my sons to attend a school that wouldn't accept my daughter?

But enough rambling. The review has knocked me over a head with a sledgehammer and underlined the necessity of really studying an issue, backwards and forwards. Above all, the reviewer emphasizes that poverty, not bad teachers is the indicator of poor educational outcomes, and this was an important reminder for me, if not startling (given the work that I do in healthcare, I am already aware that poverty is a primary indicator for developmental disability and poor outcomes). Ravitch points out that while the movie extols Finland as a country whose educational system is to be admired, it fails to point out that Finland seldom tests its students and has a completely unionized teaching force. Finland also has a national curriculum and has strengthened its social programs for children and families -- only 5% of children live in poverty in Finland while 20% do so here in the United States. That's the BIG BAD SOCIALISTIC STATE, any trolls out there reading this.

I'm off, now, booting Superman with at least one foot and looking for more edification.


  1. Interesting post, Elizabeth. I heard about this movie on Oprah, but I haven't seen it yet. It probably won't make it to my one-horse town. :-)

    I have a serious problem with people who make sweeping generalities (as you may have guessed from some of my past comments). Yes, our country has SOME bad schools/teachers, but to say that ALL public schools are horrible in America is just ridiculous! I live in a small town in Louisiana and both of my children and both of my sons-in-law graduated from these excellent public schools. They are all now professionals with college degrees and entered college well-prepared by their public school educations. My two daughters are excellent, hard-working public school teachers who were inspired by their own teachers. And I don't think my city is the exception to the rule, either.

    Thanks for sharing this. Blessings!

  2. Comparing the social systems of countries with fairly homogeneous and certainly much smaller populations than the US with our size, variety and relatively short history has always seemed problematic to me. And I can't dismiss what an educational turnoff a bad teacher is for a kid trapped in a boring classroom, not to mention what a mind-opening miracle a gifted teacher can sometimes inspire under difficult circumstances. I haven't seen the film (never go to movie theaters, it's Netflix only) but most reviews I've read and discussions I've heard have been highly critical of Guggenheim's approach-- not to take anything away from the transformative work of Geoff Canada, with his unusual and charismatic energy.

  3. In the county I live in, the schools are so bad that it limits the number of people who move here. It's a Catch-22. The schools have no funding because there's such a poor tax base. Either you live in Jefferson County and have enough money to send your kid to Leon County to private school or your kids get an abysmal education. Those who don't have the money but who won't accept a horrible school system just won't move here if they have children.
    Or else they home school.
    It's a huge issue.
    But I lived in another county when my kids were in school and they all went to mostly great public schools. And I feel very fortunate for that.
    What in the world are more important than schools? What is more important than our children getting a good education?
    It's a daunting problem.

  4. this is all very interesting.
    and as an aside I wouldn't choose to put my children in private school even if I could afford it.
    although there are things lately that have me wondering if I was just starting out , if my youngest was my oldest ... how much more thought I'd seriously give to the homeschooling option. which is terrifying to me on many levels, so there truly are things that are not sitting well with me.

  5. One of the things I admire about you is that, unlike most people, you are open to new views and perceptions. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind when someone presents a perspective you haven't thought of.

    As far as choosing between public and private schools, a child's educational achievement is influenced by many factors, including parental involvement, and I think some of your neighbors might be overlooking that aspect. One of my students, when I taught at the local community college, was a woman whose husband died suddenly of a heart attack a few years after they immigrated here from Nigeria, leaving her with 3 children, who all attended public schools in San Francisco. She worked full-time, went to school at night, and still managed to oversee her children's studies and activities. All 3 of her children were honors students, because she valued education and taught those values to her children.

  6. Hi again - sorry I was too busy working for a Republican majority in the house to visit your lovely site. So your answer to the hard facts in the movie is to suggest that our diverse nation be more like Finland? OK - we first need to get rid of about $295,000,000 people, impose a state religion, and make sure the group is ethnically homogeneous and wallah a perfect educational system. Such intellectual absurdity. At least your heart is in the right place. May we continue on a path of real freedom and smaller government! Resident Troll



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