Molly McCloskey

On Superman, Oprah, and Dinner

I believe movies should be rated based on how many dinner conversations you get out of them. A top-notch film will provoke at least five conversations, the dregs produce zero, etc. And it's not always the quality of the film itself (or song, or photograph, or piece of art) but the impact it has on your thinking that makes the difference for me. It's about the questions the art provokes and the quality of conversation that can be had over the answers.

Unfortunately, and frustratingly for this career public educator, the movie Waiting for "Superman"—and the Oprah Winfrey Show episode dedicated to it on September 20—thinks it has the answers: fire teachers and start new charter schools. I haven't actually seen the film yet, so it goes a bit against my nature to talk about it, but I certainly can talk about what was shared during the Oprah episode, which I watched in fits and starts of agreement with some of the issues raised and abject anger at the inflammatory, blame-based, flat out inaccurate answers proposed.

So let's review:

1. The current public education system in the United States is deeply flawed and fails far too many young people, including the 30 percent who drop out all together and the 40 percent who require remedial coursework in college. — TRUE

2. Teachers play a critical role in the achievement and success of each child. — TRUE

3. Decisions about education in schools, school districts, and states and at the federal level too often prioritize adult wants over student needs. — TRUE

Therefore, according to Oprah and her guests we should:

4. Fire all the ineffective teachers (paraphrasing here: If we got rid of all the ineffective teachers, the United States would be number one in the world again). — Not so fast

  • There is little agreement regarding how to measure what effective teaching is beyond every parent's personal definition of what works for his or her child. My son and daughter had the same 1st grade teacher. She was absolutely perfect for one and absolutely wrong for the other because the children are different, not because she changed or was somehow less effective than the previous year.
  • Proponents of using student achievement data as a significant portion of teacher evaluation (including Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee) often fail to acknowledge that achievement tests were not designed for this purpose (and, in some cases, were not even designed to accurately measure student performance!).
  • No single staff member of any school is solely responsible for the achievement of any single student (or even class). Student achievement is influenced by interactions with many different adults—from counselors to librarians to custodians to principals to parent volunteers—throughout the school day and year and each has a profound impact on that student's achievement and success.

5. Fund and open more charter schools [so that kids don't have to attend those horrible public schools]. — Not so fast

  • Clear, consistent research indicates that charter schools are no more effective at raising student achievement (see flawed measurement system caveat above) than public schools. Some are great; some are lousy, just like public schools.
  • Bill Gates, one of the guests on Oprah's show, implied that quality public schools are few and far between and often the only viable option for any parent seeking quality for their child is a charter. That could be shocking to those folks who send their children to school districts like Arlington, Va.; Madison, Wisc.; Syracuse, N.Y.; Richmond, Va.; or Durham, N.C., each named by Forbes Magazine as one of the top 20 places to educate your child and each enrolling upward of 85 percent of students in public schools. And just this week, America's Promise Alliance, an ASCD Whole Child Partner, announced its 100 Best Communities for Young People, in part based on actions taken to prepare students to graduate from high school and succeed in college and a 21st century career.

This is the truth about education, not only in this country but also around the world: when the adults in a community (parents, policymakers, business owners, and school staff) work together and individually to ensure that each child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged, each child succeeds. It is both that simple and that complex. Evaluate any fabulous charter or public school (large, small, urban, rural, racially and ethnically diverse or not, socioeconomically diverse or not), and I promise that you will find indicators and strategies under each of those categories that range from school-based health clinics to extended hours for academic, social, emotional, physical, and artistic support and enrichment to skilled instruction across multiple adult roles of a comprehensive, rich curriculum. Conversely, examine any failing school, be it a charter, public, or private, and you will find gaps in one or more of those areas.

It's not size that matters. It's not public or charter. It's not rich or poor. It's the conscious, conscientious, and continuous attention of all the adults of the community to ensure that each child in each school is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged that will meet the immediate needs of our children and provide for the long-term success of our democracy, economy, and society.

Days after the show now, I'm still talking about this episode, and Oprah has announced that Friday's show will be a follow-up (maybe including teachers?). Perhaps, in the end, that's really what matters here and what garners this episode, and maybe the film itself, a five-dinner rating. It's the conversations, the community-wide attention to the questions, and a national effort to find the answers that will finally change education for each of our children. Whether you agree with the solutions offered by the film and by Oprah's guests or not, I do hope you will take the time to talk about it!

Read an open letter to Oprah Winfrey about the episode written by ASCD Executive Director Gene R. Carter.

Comments (2)

Van Piercy

September 24, 2010

If “Teachers play a critical role in the achievement and success of each child,” then we have an argument for teachers being the ones who run the schools.  We trust them with our kids, but we can’t trust them with the facilities, schedules, hiring and firing, and budgets?  Our objections to the idea of teachers running schools will lead to all sorts of interesting and inconvenient insights.  If we want to save the schools, we need to trust teachers to run them, and run them without all sorts of supervisory strong-arming, mandating, forcing of curricula, bureaucratic cronyism, and meddling in the educational process and relationship. Really, those are the things that are killing our schools.  We either face up to that, or we’re down the path of obsessive testing and anti-democratic, sterile technical achievement alone (something Martha Nussbaum bemoaned when she went to education conferences in India and in Chicago—M. Nussbaum, “Political Soul-Making and the Imminent Demise of Liberal Education,” Journal of Social Philosophy, V. 37, No. 2, Summer 2006, 301-313—read it and weep).

Molly @ ASCD

September 27, 2010

I watched last Friday’s “reaction” episode of Oprah as well and found myself generally agreeing more and yelling at the TV less.  Thank you Cory Booker for your reasoned response even when set up to bash teachers and unions!  Love the bi-partisan commitment in New Jersey, but find it interesting that one of the first steps involves more money.  It left me wondering how that can possibly become a national model!

I was a bit surprised by Geoffrey Canada.  I really think he has done terrific work in Harlem by engaging the entire community - families, businesses, policymakers, educators and students - in the school and community improvement process.  Yet he too seemed to get swept up in the anti-teacher, anti-union rhetoric with his call for teachers to give “just 5 more hours” a week.  Again, I’m left saying, “not so fast!”  There is great truth to the idea that some educators practically run over children in the parking lot on their way home in the evening.  Yet, my experience is that there is even greater truth in committed educators spending hours beyond the school day/week/year engaged in the work of students. 

In fact I spent some time this weekend speaking with a friend who has 32 third graders in her class this year.  From an instructional and classroom management point of view, that’s a lot of students!  But when you factor in all of the tasks that surround the six hours of classroom time, the numbers become even more overwhelming.  Consider for instance the district policy that a teacher must enter at least two grades per content area (reading, math, social studies, science, health, art, spelling/writing) per student a week so that parents may have a clear understanding of how their children are progressing.  For my friend that’s 32 students x 2 assignments x 7 content areas for a total of 448 grades a week.  If she spends only 2 minutes per assignment (grading and entering), that is nearly 15 hours per week beyond the school day for this task alone!  And two minutes is unlikely when grading engaging project based learning. 

We can keep the math fun going if we suggest that she spend 5 minutes (hardly a gold standard) engaged in some sort of communication with even one fourth of families in her class per week.  That’s 40 minutes of communication of the equivalence of one entire after school period which is supposed to be dedicated to planning engaging, challenging lessons for those 32 third graders.  Doesn’t seem like much until you factor in that another after school time is taken out by the weekly staff meeting.  Assuming the other three days are completely dedicated to planning (not collaborating with colleagues, not professional development, not making copies because the district no longer provides practice workbooks for students, not chaperoning the school dance or sponsoring the student council, etc.) and that leaves an hour and a half to plan for thirty two and a half hours of instruction. 

Which 5 hours do you suggest she give, Mr. Canada?

For more commentary from ASCD, check out Dr. Carter’s response to this episode of Oprah

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