About a month ago I noticed that a movie called Waiting for “Superman” was playing at the local AMC Orpheum 7, a theater I generally have no use for even though I am a film critic by avocation. I surmised that the movie might have been an animated feature with Adam Sandler providing voice-over for a superhero that has opted for early retirement or something else god-awful.
It turned out, as you might know, that this is a documentary boosting charter schools. It is directed by Davis Guggenheim, the same guy who directed Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. That might have just been the last documentary shown at this multiplex that generally shows crapola. (Right now it is featuring Saw 3D and Paranormal Activity 2. I watched about 10 minutes worth of the original Paranormal Activity on cable TV last night until becoming bored to tears. I then switched to MSNBC and saw something truly scary: Chris Matthews making the case for voting Democrat today.)
I decided to go see Waiting for “Superman”, mostly out of an obligation to get up to speed on the charter school controversy. I also rented The Lottery from Netflix, another documentary promoting charter schools virtually identical to Guggenheim’s. A 27 year old Duke University graduate named Madeleine Sackler directed The Lottery, having only one co-directed movie to her credit before this, namely Mechina: a Preparation. This is a soulful movie profiling Israeli youths about to enter the IDF, a movie I suppose that is a good preparation in class terms for her latest. A fondness for killers in uniform and for the leading edge of privatization in education in the U.S. would seem to draw from the same well.
Both movies follow a formula that comes out of the leftwing tradition. You line up a bunch of talking heads favorable to your viewpoint and include just enough bad people on the other side to make your point. Michael Moore is a vulgar example of this, while Charles Ferguson is a much more intelligent version.
In Waiting for “Superman” and The Lottery, the heroes are charter school administrators like Geoffrey Canada and Eva Moskowitz who operate in New York City, and Michelle Rhee who ran the board of education in Washington. Moskowitz is an ubiquitous and truly unpleasant presence in The Lottery while the equally toxic Rhee is dominant in Waiting for “Superman”. Mostly they say that if the teachers unions were busted, an educational Messianic era would ensue. The only thing standing in the way of success in poverty-stricken Black and Latino neighborhoods is teachers enjoying protection against being arbitrarily fired–a basic right won through collective bargaining.
Canada, Moskowitz and Rhee are depicted as the champions of the plucky families who are doing everything they can to get their kids into a charter school. Canada practically guarantees that graduating from his Harlem Children’s Zone will open doors at Harvard, Princeton and Yale. It is hard not to feel for the underdogs they profess to fight for, whose main enemy appears to be an unfeeling and greedy teacher’s union rather than poverty and racism.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is called upon to make the case for protection against firing but is not really allowed much more than soundbites. She plays kind of the same role that Charlton Heston played as head of the National Rifleman’s Association in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, or a Dr. No in a James Bond movie: the sum of all fears.
Both movies end in a lottery that includes all the anxious parents we have been introduced to. The director’s goal is to make you feel for them as the children’s hopes and dreams rest on tumbling balls in a rotating cage. The garish ceremony held in a gymnasium is familiar to anybody who has ever seen the professional football draft. The NY Times’s Gail Collins sized up this ritual nicely, even though she sympathizes with the goals of trashing public education—no surprise for someone working at the Gray Lady:
My own particular, narrow wrath was focused on the ritual at the heart of the movie, where parents and kids sit nervously in an auditorium, holding their lottery numbers while somebody pulls out balls and announces the lucky winners of seats in next fall’s charter school class. The lucky families jump up and down and scream with joy while the losing parents and kids cry. In some of the lotteries, there are 20 heartbroken children for every happy one.
Charter schools, please, stop. I had no idea you selected your kids with a piece of performance art that makes the losers go home feeling like they’re on a Train to Failure at age 6. You can do better. Use the postal system.
Ms. Collins does not realize that this spectacle is essential to the system, since it is based on the same dog-eat-dog philosophy that governs American society in general, namely that there are winners and losers. Sending a notice by mail would not have the same dramatic effect. An atmosphere must be created after the fashion of television shows like The Apprentice or American Idol. Such contests justify class distinctions, as well as fostering the dreams of the poor that they may someday buy the winning lottery ticket that will enable them to lord over everybody else.
Fortunately, I am saved the trouble of documenting all the lies that these two movies are based on, since Diane Ravitch did the definitive job in the NY Review in an article titled The Myth of Charter Schools, a review of Waiting for “Superman”. She writes:
Some fact-checking is in order, and the place to start is with the film’s quiet acknowledgment that only one in five charter schools is able to get the “amazing results” that it celebrates. Nothing more is said about this astonishing statistic. It is drawn from a national study of charter schools by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond (the wife of Hanushek). Known as the CREDO study, it evaluated student progress on math tests in half the nation’s five thousand charter schools and concluded that 17 percent were superior to a matched traditional public school; 37 percent were worse than the public school; and the remaining 46 percent had academic gains no different from that of a similar public school. The proportion of charters that get amazing results is far smaller than 17 percent. Why did Davis Guggenheim pay no attention to the charter schools that are run by incompetent leaders or corporations mainly concerned to make money? Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes, when the filmmaker knows that there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones? Why not give an honest accounting?
Ravitch is the author of a book titled The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education that takes aim at charter schools and supports collective bargaining. Her evolution goes against the grain of the recent trend toward privatization on both the right and left. She served under both George Bush the elder and Bill Clinton and was widely recognized at the time as a neoconservative, as the title of her 1978 book The Revisionists Revised: A Critique of the Radical Attack on the Schools would indicate.
You can listen to Doug Henwood’s April 8, 2010 interview with Ravitch here. He also followed up with a commentary on his blog:
During the interview, I mention the similarity of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s comments on Hurricane Katrina’s beneficial effects on the public school system to those of right-wing icon Milton Friedman’s. I’m not exaggerating. In January, Duncan called Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” That’s because it forced charter schools and the rest of the agenda onto the city. And here’s what Milton Friedman wrote in the Wall Street Journal in December 2005: “Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.” Well, Friedman posthumously got that opportunity. Who could have guessed that a Democratic administration would be so enthusiastically pushing the program. Obama has erased what was one of the surviving major differences between the two parties, education policy.
And second, Ravitch writes and talks about the central role played by a handful of very rich foundations in pushing this agenda. The sinister role of foundations, unaccontable bodies run by rich people and their hired hands, in public life, is rarely talked about. Part of the reason for that is that many of the people who might talk about them, and many of the forums that might publicize their talk, are on the foundation dole, or would like to be. I’m not. And I’ll never miss an opportunity to point out how toxic these things are.
I should mention another couple of valuable resources on charter schools. Rethinking Schools is a website devoted to the kinds of issues explored in a print magazine of the same name. As part of a redesign of its website, Rethinking Schools is making the contents of the fall edition of its magazine available. You will find an article by Leigh Dingerson titled Proving Grounds: School “Rheeform” in Washington, D.C., a reference to Michelle Rhee, the star of Waiting for “Superman”. Dingerson, an educational consultant who has two children in D.C.’s public schools, writes:
In her first months, Rhee demonstrated the frenetic pace of activity that has become her trademark. In the southern heat and humidity of a D.C summer, Rhee crisscrossed the city, meeting with principals and cutting through the district’s legendary red tape. Warehouses full of textbooks were emancipated, classrooms stocked. Checks were cut, paint was slapped on, and creaky gears started turning. Many—including principals and parents—were impressed. By the time school started, there was a palpable feeling of forward motion.
At the same time, Rhee was meeting privately with officials from the Gates and Broad foundations, the California-based NewSchools Venture Fund, the American Enterprise Institute, and other key players in the school reform movement. [Washington mayor] Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Rhee were their new darlings.
That spring, Rhee began firing principals. Sixty-one principals and assistant principals were fired at the end of the school year. Next came the teachers. By July of 2008, according to some reports (neither DCPS nor the Washington Teachers’ Union will release actual numbers), Rhee had fired 250 teachers and 500 teachers aides, avoiding union due-process rules by utilizing the “highly qualified” certification requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.(3)
In October, stymied by her inability to negotiate a contract with the union—she wanted, among other things, new provisions in the contract to make it easier for her to fire teachers—Rhee announced that she would implement a little-used procedure allowing principals to place teachers on a 90-day “improvement plan,” with the ability to fire them immediately after that.
You will note that the push for charter schools comes from both the right (American Enterprise Institute) and the Democratic Party (I hesitate to use the word left.) Adrian Fenty, an African-American, ran as a Democrat and was widely viewed as a politician in the mold of Newark’s Corey Booker and President Obama. These kinds of African-American centrists are essential to the task of smashing the remnants of the public sphere in American society.
Washington’s mostly Black voters apparently were not ready to give Fenty a free ride. It appears that that they put their class interests first. Ravitch wrote an analysis of his defeat on her Bridging Differences blog:
Journalists attributed Fenty’s loss to the power of the teachers’ union, but such an explanation implies that black voters, even in the privacy of the voting booth, lack the capacity to make an informed choice. When the Tea Party wins a race, journalists don’t write about who controlled their vote, but about a voter revolt; they acknowledge that those who turned out to vote had made a conscious decision. Yet when black voters, by large margins, chose Vincent Gray over Adrian Fenty, journalists found it difficult to accept that the voters were acting on their own, not as puppets of the teachers’ union.
In the post-election analyses, the most common complaint about Fenty was that he was arrogant and out-of-touch with black voters. Rhee spoke about her failure to communicate, though it is hard to think of any figure in the world of American education who had as much media attention as she has had over the past three years. Certainly, she did not lack for opportunities to communicate. Her critics say that her fundamental flaw was arrogance and an indifference to the views of parents and teachers.
As good as Ravitch and Bridging Schools are, the best journalism I have read on charter schools has come from Danny Weill, author of the soon to be published Charter Schools. When I decided to write this article, the first place I went was Counterpunch where a search on “charter schools” turned up not only his article, but also a host of others. As I pointed out in my recent exchange with Alexander Cockburn, I truly value Counterpunch even if his occasional peregrinations into cloud cuckooland put me off. In the first of a three-part series of articles on charter schools titled The Charter School Hype and How It’s Managed, Weill writes:
As I sat reading the article about the pay-off to the Reverend Al Sharpton for his support for the expansion of charter schools in New York, I could not help but recall the time when Jay P. Greene, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and a leading spokesman for the privatization of every and all aspects of public schooling, appeared in 2006 on NPR, CNN and PBS to put forth his Hollywood thesis on ‘the drop out crisis’ in public schools (Greene, 2006). The interviews might as well have been staged ‘infomercials’ for his claims, for he was never challenged nor were any alternative points of view introduced to foster debate or cross swords with his key assumptions and claims. In fact, Greene’s claims on the matter (the problem was due to lack of teacher incentives and systemic rot) were later inherited by Oprah Winfrey as a newsworthy story. Winfrey then went on to cite Greene’s work as evidence on her TV show, which has an estimated 49 million viewers; yet nowhere did she present any alternative point of view to challenge Greene’s thesis, nor were there any challenges to Greene’s reasoning and claims (Kovacs, 2007). The whole thing was a staged exercise in propaganda and of course the public was never told that at the time of Greene’s interviews and press rounds that Greene had recently been appointed head of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville’s new Department of Education Reform. The Department was created and then given $20,000,000 dollars from Arkansas’s other favorite son, Sam Walton and the Walton Family Foundation, a strong supporter and major contributor to charter schools.
This is classic investigative journalism of the sort that Counterpunch remains a trusted outlet for. May it live long and prosper.
I will conclude with some autobiographical material that—alas—could not fit into the memoir I worked on with Harvey Pekar. In 1968, shortly after becoming radicalized by working for the Welfare Department in Harlem and before starting my first job as a programmer at Metropolitan Life, I was a schoolteacher at an Intermediate School 201 in Harlem, right near Morningside Park. After taking a mostly worthless Intensive Teacher Training Program that summer, I was assigned to teach 5th grade.
School was delayed for three weeks that September since the Albert Shanker-led UFT went on strike against the school board in Ocean-Hill/Brownsville that was trying to exercise its right to dismiss 13 teachers and 6 administrators. The Socialist Workers Party described this a racist strike and supported the school board, even though on the surface it simply seemed to be doing the same thing that Eva Moskowitz or Michelle Rhee stood for.
Politics tends to be complex, especially Marxist politics. It was correct to support the board in 1968 because it was an expression of the desire of the Black community to control its own destiny. Shanker’s union was hostile to Black demands and fought bitterly to retain its death grip. Although the UFT is a roadblock to Black aspirations even today, the charter school movement is not the proper vehicle for community control struggles even if someone like Al Sharpton demagogically makes that case. As Deep Throat (Donald Sutherland) said in All the President’s Men, follow the money.
After the strike ended, I reported to work and lasted all of 5 days. I used to return home each day to my upper west side apartment, lie in bed shaking like a leaf. I had neither the training nor the temperament to teach 32 children. Indeed, I was expected more to control them than anything else.
One child in particular was making my life miserable. Dolores was the ringleader of a group of 10 other kids who was very creative about how to disrupt the class. In some ways, she reminded me of myself in 5th grade. My boredom led me to act out.
When things were unraveling out of control on the 5th day, I went to the principal and told him I was finished. He escorted me back to the classroom, clapped his hands, and said “Children, sit down”. As an authority figure, he knew how to subdue a scene out of Zero for Conduct. I had no intentions of ever being an authority figure.
Just before leaving I told Dolores that I thought she was very bright and hoped that she could figure out a way to get a proper education since she could offer the world a lot. In other words, she was just the kind of kid featured in these two documentaries about charter schools.
A few minutes later, just as I had bundled my belongings together and headed for the door, she motioned for me to come to her desk and look at something she was feverishly writing on a piece of paper. It turned out to be a drawing of a horse that showed remarkable talent.
As I left the classroom, I reflected on what was needed. A socialist revolution would transform the slums into beautiful housing with all the cultural advantages. Class sizes would be no greater than 10 or 15. In fact if I could have taken any 10 kids out of my class, including Dolores, I am sure that I could have given them a first-rate education. That remains my hope for the future.