Monday, September 6, 2010

Would Superman really stand in the way of improving the system as a whole?

See the NY magazine article by John Heilemann about “Waiting for Superman,” the new documentary by Davis Guggenheim and the latest example of charter school porn.

The article retreads the well-worn points made by countless other articles in the mainstream media, predictably focusing on the teacher unions as the scapegoats, adds in the tired nostrum of how "adults" are being favored over the kids, ignores all the factors that go into low-performance in our urban schools, and drools all over Geoffrey Canada.

But it also contains a startling quotation from Joel Klein, about the students who remain in the regular public schools:

“It’s gonna grab people much deeper than An Inconvenient Truth, because watching ice caps melt doesn’t have the human quality of watching these kids being denied something you know will change their lives,” Klein says. “It grabs at you. It should grab at you. Those kids are dying."

It's amazing to me that Joel Klein says the kids in the schools that he is responsible for running are "dying." If he feels that way he should resign immediately and let someone else be in charge -- preferably an educator who knows something about how to improve schools.

Geoffrey Canada's charter schools have class sizes of twenty or fewer in all grades, and yet the administration refuses to reduce class size to similar levels.

The Bloomberg/Klein administration has consistently refused to provide class sizes comparable to those in Canada's charters, despite hundreds of millions in state funds supposed to be used for that purpose. Essentially, by Klein's own malfeasance, he is creating a system in which many charters will outperform the schools he is responsible for improving.

Canada also claims that teacher unions have not added anything to the quality of education, yet without unions, class sizes in NYC would be essentially uncontrollable -- rising to 30 or more in all grades. The only thing that is keeping them from exploding are the union contractual limits.

Charter schools enroll far fewer special education, immigrant, poor and homeless kids than the districts in which they are located -- another reason for their relative success. Teacher attrition rates at charter schools tend to be sky high, because of lousy working conditions. This is not a model we want to replicate, as experience matters hugely in terms of teacher effectiveness. Student attrition also tends to be very high. I doubt that the Guggenheim film explores any of these factors.

Altogether this article, like the movie it profiles, is a simplistic and one-sided look at a complicated problem. For a far more informative and balanced perspective, check out Prof. Bruce Baker's analysis of charter schools at "Searching for Superguy in Gotham". As he concludes:

"...we might be better off spending this time, effort and our resources investing in the improvement of the quality of the system as a whole. Yeah, we can still give Superguy a chance to show himself (or herself), but let’s not hold our breath, and let’s do our part on behalf of the masses (not just the few) in the meantime."


Frank Krasicki said...

Class size arguments are red-herrings. That's not the problem.

Schools are complex and saddled with industrial revolution teachers unions, a rabid get-tough political meme, weary taxpayers, and misguided philanthropists.

That's right, teachers unions are as much a part of the problem as Obama/Bush. Instead of denying it, they need to re-invent what they stand for. I'm not hopeful.

Class size *can* matter in grades four and lower. After that schools need a complete re-imagining of what education is about. But in all cases it depends on teachers who have talent for the desired environment. A certification is just decorative if the talent is missing. We have too many paper idiots spoiling the soup as it is. Smaller class size only makes the failures more expensive.

Frank Krasicki

Chaz said...

Mr. Krascki:

I believe you ideology is interfering with your understanding of the classroom. Almost every independent study shows two factors affect the classroom. Class size and quality teachers. You seem to ignore the first and have no comment on the second with the high turnover rate that are associated with Charter schools.

To blame the teacher unions is just ignorance on your part. You should blame it on the non-educators Bloomberg & Klien who have failed to narrow the achievement gap in their tenure.

Anonymous said...

Frank Krasicki,

Our union in NYC has been giving in and/or colluding for some years now with the deform movement. It is hardly industrial revolution era; it's post-NCLB era!

Class size ALWAYS matters, right up through college, though the more lecture-oriented the students are, the less it matters. The more social promotion (now replaced by assessment fraud, same effect) there is, the MORE class size matters.

Aside from that, are you suggesting a solution or just venting? Have you read Diane Ravitch's latest book?

Anonymous said...

Class size matters in all grades. You teach Trig or Chem to classes of 34 and tell me that it is the same as a class of 20 or 24.

Pogue said...

Joel Klein: The Educational Undertaker of New York City Schools

escalante blogger said...

Perhaps, students in new generation are intelligent enough to face difficult new lessons.

Elisabeth said...

Please don't fall into this trap of universal criticism of NYC Public schools - there are some extraordinary teachers, cheerful, quality environments, high expectations in many inner city schools - it's very discouraging to hear these wild generalizations. Dedicated teachers never give up, no matter what the prevailing theory being foisted upon them. of course they can always use some help, smaller class size, and teachers aides in lower grades. But they are still there, and they still care!

Liann said...

Dear Frank Krasicki,
How many years have you spent in a classroom of 30 poor, non-English speaking, transient children of gang members?
Yeah, that's what I thought.

So I'll take your uninformed comments about class size for what they're worth.