Is 'Waiting For Superman' An Inspiring Call To Arms -- Or A Convenient Cover For Privatizing Schools?

"I don't know whether to vote for Fenty or Gray," a D.C. friend confided to me last week. "Which candidate is backed by the white progressives?" I said. "Fenty." "Then vote for Gray." "Why?" I told him that contrary to what he'd

"I don't know whether to vote for Fenty or Gray," a D.C. friend confided to me last week.

"Which candidate is backed by the white progressives?" I said.

"Fenty."

"Then vote for Gray."

"Why?"

I told him that contrary to what he'd heard, Michelle Rhee wasn't the savior of D.C. schools and it was nothing more than the corporatization of public education. ("If you don't trust Bill Gates to sell you an operating system, why would you trust him to sell you an education system?" is my motto.)

Now that I've read this piece about "Waiting for Superman," the documentary that has the privileged classes all in an admiring tizzy (Arianna is already pushing it, along with the rest of the usual wealthy, high-powered suspects), I'm even more convinced I was right about Michelle Rhee.

The problems in our class system are systemic, going far beyond access to the "right" schools. You can't rationally hold teachers "accountable" for whether they have more students without heat or food than the teacher in the next classroom. You can't lay off experienced inner-city teachers and replace them with shiny Ivy League "Teach for America" recruits who are only passing through, gathering a hip credential on their way to a better job.

While this film may excite liberals whose kids will never see the inside of an inner-city public school (unless Mommy or Daddy brings them along while they're filming documentaries like this), the parents whose kids are in those schools are rightfully wary of Great White Saviors -- as well they should be.

Think about our past experiences with privatization. What are the odds that Superman really exists in the form of a corporate charter schools operator?

Of course, the true believers in Superguy (as charter operator) will argue vehemently that the finding that charters, on average, are average does not shake their belief… because the “upper half of charter schools is really good!, better than average, in fact!” Skeptically, I respond – isn’t the upper half of all schools better than average? If so, might Superguy actually be found in any school that’s better than average? But who am I to nitpick?

The most compelling evidence that Superguy exists was provided in Caroline Hoxby’s finding regarding NYC charter schools that:

On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten through eight would close about 86 percent of the “Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap” in math and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English.

Who other than Superguy could close the Harlem-Scarsdale gap? However, Stanford University researcher Sean Reardon explains:

Because the report relies on an inappropriate set of statistical models to analyze the data, however, the results presented appear to overstate the cumulative effect of attending a charter school.

Superguy in Gotham is also assumed to have competitive effects, lifting entire neighborhoods wherever he may be present. This evidence is often cited to Marcus Winters’ (Manhattan Institute) finding that:

The analysis reveals that students benefit academically when their public school is exposed to competition from a charter.

But thwarting this Superguy sighting is Wellesley economist Patrick McEwan’s observation that:

The statistical analysis suggests that increasing competition has no statistically significant impact on math test scores, but that it has small positive effects on language scores. The report does not conclusively demonstrate that the results are explained by increasing competitive pressure on public school administrators; they may also be explained by shifting peer quality or declining short-run class sizes in public schools.

Yes, public schools have big problems. Selling them off to unregulated private bidders will only make things worse.

About Susie Madrak

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