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Demonizing Public Education

Dear Deborah,

I reviewed "Waiting for 'Superman'" for The New York Review of Books. I thought the movie was very slick, very professional, and very propagandistic. It is one-sided and very contemptuous of public education. Notably, the film portrayed not a single successful regular public school, and its heroic institutions were all charter schools.

There are many inaccuracies in the movie. One that I describe in my review is Davis Guggenheim's claim that 70 percent of 8th grade students read "below grade level." He has a graphic where state after state is shown to have only a small proportion of students reading "on grade level" or "proficient." The numbers are based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But Guggenheim is wrong. NAEP doesn't report grade levels. It reports achievement levels, and these do not correspond to grade levels. Nor does he understand the NAEP achievement levels or just how demanding NAEP's "proficiency" level really is. To score below "proficient" on NAEP does NOT mean "below grade level."

NAEP has four achievement levels.

The top level is called "advanced," which represents the very highest level of student performance. Students who are "advanced" probably are at an A+; if they were taking an SAT, they would likely score somewhere akin to 750-800. These are the students who are likely to qualify for admission to our most selective universities.

Then comes "proficient," which represents solid academic performance, equivalent to an A or a very strong B. Guggenheim assumes that any student who is below "proficient" cannot read at "grade level." He is wrong.

The third level is "basic." These are students who have achieved partial mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to be proficient. This would be equivalent, I believe, to a grade of C. Many (if not most) states use NAEP's "basic" as their own definition of "proficient." This is because they know that it is unrealistic to expect all students to be "A" students.

* "Below basic" is the category that appears to be what Guggenheim means by his reference to "below grade level." But in 8th grade reading, 25 percent of students are below basic, not 70 percent. If Guggenheim knew what he was talking about, he might have said that 70 percent of 8th grade students were unable to score the equivalent of an A, but that would not be an alarming figure. It would not be a very dramatic story had he said, in sonorous tones, "25 percent of our 8th grade students are 'below basic' in reading, and that figure includes students who are learning English and students with disabilities."

He also erred in setting up charter schools as the singular answer to the nation's education problems, especially since he admits that only one in five charters gets "amazing results." The actual number that get amazing results is far smaller. In the CREDO study to which he refers, it is 17 percent, not 20 percent, closer to one in six, that outperform a matched neighborhood public school. Not all of those one in six get "amazing results," just better results than a nearby comparable school. I was told by Professor Ed Fuller at the University of Texas, who studies Texas charters, that only a couple dozen charters out of 300 in the state get "amazing results," and that many more get "abysmal" results. But you won't hear anything about that in this polemical film.

There are excellent charter schools, as there are excellent public schools. I saw one last week when I visited the KIPP flagship school in Houston, a K-12 school set on 35 acres. But it polarizes the national discussion to treat public education as a failed institution, as this film does.

The aggressive movement to lionize charters and to demonize public schools is scary because there is so much money and power pushing this agenda. I urge you to read this account by Barbara Miner, who is deeply suspicious of the billionaire hedge fund managers and foundations behind this movement. It disturbs me that the CEO of Participant Media, one of the main producers of the "Waiting for 'Superman' " film, was previously the CEO of a chain of for-profit post-secondary institutions, a sector that is now under fire in Congress for its shoddy recruitment practices and its high default rates on federally funded student loans. The man behind the other producer, Walden Media, donates heavily to conservative think-tanks, which promote privatization, vouchers, and school choice.

How socially useful is it to destroy public confidence in an essential public institution? Shouldn't we work together to improve the schools, rather than handing over our children to the private sector? I know it is the vogue now to privatize public libraries, public hospitals, public parks, prison facilities, and other public sector institutions. What will be next on the chopping block? But why give away public schools to the private sector? The private sector does not get better results on average than the public sector, not (according to NAEP) for black students or Hispanic students or urban students or low-income students. But even if it did, we should be wary of undermining one of the bedrock agencies of our democracy. This meretricious film offers fake answers for real problems.


* Editor's note: This sentence was revised for clarification at the author's request after the blog was initially published.

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