A few days ago, I wrote this e-mail to Clarence Page in response to his recent "Waiting for 'Superman' " essay:
It was disappointing to read your echo of Arne Duncan's charter school hedge in your defense of "Waiting for 'Superman' ". Duncan has been saying "I don't support charter schools -- I only support good charter schools" when asked why he promotes charters so hard when their national success rate is a dismal 17 percent. Right.
To suggest that the movie only targets bad teachers is simply off the mark. The movie is a piece of propaganda designed to turn the public against teachers' unions, and to put the best possible face on the charter school movement, period.
Teachers unions are made up primarily of good teachers.
What's a bad teacher? The recent court ruling in favor of the Chicago Teachers Union against the Chicago Public Schools is independent proof that CPS did not do a good job identifying bad teachers for dismissal.
The newest research on using student achievement data to evaluate teachers is also negative.
Most teachers unions are in favor of developing a fair, scientifically-sound evaluation process. The ones that seem to work best are peer evaluations.
It would be great if you would include some of these facts in any future commentary on this subject.
I had a very gracious e-mail response from Page, which led to a flurry of mutual "like"-ing and "fan"-ing. I was surprised and pleased that he knew about PURE and commended our work with parents (one of his major points was the need for more parent involvement in the schools).
He also reasonably questioned my characterization of charters' "success rate" as a "dismal 17 percent."
The 17 percent percent figure represents the percent of charters that the Stanford/Credo study found outperformed traditional schools. I probably should have used my usual phrase, which is that only 17 percent of charters outperform traditional schools nationwide.
How to judge charter "success"?
If the standard for charters is that they only need to be as good as traditional public schools, which have, according to "Waiting for Superman," left the US in the global dust educationally, well, then, I guess the success rate for charters is perfectly adequate.
But I tend to think that the standard for charter success should in fact be to outperform public schools, since that's what they were designed by law to do. Then there's Fed Ed Head Arne Duncan's "dramatically better" standard, which is how he always describes the charter and other Renaissance 2010 schools which opened during his time as Chicago Public Schools CEO (they're not). By such standards as those, charters actually do look pretty dismal.
The real reform: more truth and democracy
Page and I agree that the need to reform public schools is real and critical. As I've said before, though, the biggest problem we have right now is a failure to honestly identify the problems. Instead, we're drowning in flashy new "reforms" with million-dollar PR campaigns to convince the public that they are working.
Schools have been through enough -- reconstitution, re-engineering, turnaround, closing and "charterization". These fads have not worked and won't work without a proper, honest analysis of the problems, a process which must include the students, parents, teachers and community.
Our schools can only be saved by massive doses of truth and democracy.
Truth-telling has to get louder here in cyberspace and out in the neighborhoods, starting with this ridiculous "Waiting for 'Superman' " mess. Democracy in education requires real, meaningful site-based management of our schools, as with Chicago's local school councils.
We truth and democracy lovers may not have our own wide-screen movie, but we can succeed. Dramatically. Just ask Chicago's now-famous Whittier parents!