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Waiting For Superman? Don't Hold Your Breath

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Waiting for 'Superman' indeed! Based on the response to the recent documentary film by Davis Guggenheim, it's going to be a very long wait. Watching the parade of celebrities and political leaders lionizing media darlings like former D.C. schools marm Michelle Rhee is quite literally depressing for those of us who love children. In addition to misidentifying the root causes of educational ills the film uncritically celebrates charter schools, where tough love and militaristic, data-driven practices are supposed to make things better.

Here's a snapshot of a "successful" charter school, the so-called "high-flying" Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School in Brooklyn, as reported last spring in The New York Times:

At Williamsburg Collegiate, whose middle school students annually outscore the district and city averages on state tests, Jason Skeeter stood before his math students the other day as tightly coiled as a drill sergeant. He issued instructions in a loud, slightly fearsome voice.

Mr. Skeeter place his digital Teach Timer on an overhead projector . . . When the buzzer sounded he announced, "hold 'em up!"

He moved swiftly to a second timed exercise, the 'Mad Minute,' 60 multiplication problems in 60 seconds.

"Clap if you're with me," he said, clapping twice to snap students to attention. The class responded with a ritual double-stomp of the feet and a hand clap.

This militaristic approach to learning is spreading like a toxic oil spill, aided and abetted by policy-makers and their wealthy benefactors: Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Michael Dell, the Walton family and others.

Having experienced actual military training myself, I acknowledge the grim efficiency of "drill and kill" methodology. If one's highest aspiration is to elicit rapid-fire answers to a narrow set of repetitive questions, either Williamsburg Collegiate or Army Basic Training at Fort Benning, Ga. will do just fine. The Times article also referred to another widely-praised New York City charter school (a favorite of both the Bush and Obama administrations) where misbehaving students must wear bright symbols on their uniforms, thereby requiring their peers and teachers to literally shun them for the day. All students march from class to class in silent formation. The comparison to military training is not offered lightly.

So why do they proliferate? Because, proponents claim, the methods "work," as represented by higher test scores. And the methods are cost-effective, meaning you can produce results with brutal economic efficiency and large classes. And, in education policy-speak, the systematized, highly structured methodologies are scalable, easily replicated and exported to other schools. During the war in Vietnam, similarly scalable and efficient methods took millions of young men, mostly poor and black, from all corners of America and molded them into olive drab conformity. How'd that work out?

These schools are being replicated because their unimaginative practices do indeed yield higher test scores -- temporarily. Anyone intensely drilled in facts or simple algorithms will demonstrate improved performance when tested on short-term retention. The students in programs like that at Williamsburg Collegiate are being trained to give the "right" answers, but they are learning little or nothing. Other evidence exposes the folly of these practices, as test score gains among younger students are not holding as the same students move into older grades. But the policy response to this inevitable decline in performance is reflexive, not reflective. Drill 'em more and test 'em again!

We should know better than this. Brain activity is repressed in stressful settings. Williamsburg Collegiate's insistence on silence and sitting ramrod straight contradicts the best evidence of what characterizes a good learning environment, which should be lively, engaging and filled with rich sensory stimulation. And shunning as a behavior management technique should outrage any thoughtful person.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this approach to education is that it disregards, often punishes, the qualities that matter most. Children are discouraged from expressing a point of view -- no time for that and it isn't on the test. Creativity is irrelevant. Children who are sensitive and poetic are devalued, forced into a quick, aggressive response by a drill sergeant teacher. No time or space for empathy and imagination. What about the child whose unique intelligence is the ability to visualize something beautiful, to see another way to solve a problem, to turn a history assignment into a song?

There is little evidence outside of the short term, self-fulfilling cycle of call and response that these schools are educating students at all.

Aside from the ineffectiveness of this pedagogical approach, herein rests an equally disturbing social truth: Highly regimented urban charter schools are largely for the "other" -- the underclass children of color about whom powerful people talk a lot, but seldom meet. I wonder if Gates, Broad, Dell, Walton or Bloomberg would subject their own children to such a school environment, where they would march in tight formation and eagerly parrot the answers required by the training manual? I would guess not. Of course I didn't see any of those guys at Fort Benning either.