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K-12 Education on the Marquee

Who would have thought that public schools would be the subject of so many movies released at the same time? I was going to write "star" instead of "subject," but the former connotes admiration and awe, which is hardly what the recent list of films has in mind. On the contrary, their intent is to depict public education in this country as a disaster, with teachers unions as the villain.

Documentaries, of course, have always come in many different flavors. But I don't ever recall a spate that is so utterly unnuanced as the present crop. The top contender for this award is "Waiting for Superman," which has been the most hyped. Time's recent cover story was essentially a promotion for the documentary ("What Makes a School Great"). This kind of publicity is hard to buy, and yet it was published.

Three points deserve immediate rebuttal.

First, teachers unions are the cause of the failure of schools serving the poor in the inner cities to improve. This count of the indictment is so familiar by now that it hardly bears amplification. But if teachers unions are responsible, then why is Finland acknowledged to have the world's best schools? Finland's teachers are unionized and are granted tenure.

Second, charter schools offer students trapped in execrable neighborhood schools a way out. The entire documentary focuses on five such children who are desperate to be chosen by a lottery to get the education they deserve. But charter schools are a mixed bag. Some do provide a superior education than traditional schools, but some do not. Once again, this issue has been covered so thoroughly before that it is redundant to cite statistics.

Third, choice is the most promising way of providing equity. But choice assumes that all parents are involved in the education of their children. This is not true. When parents do not speak English or are drug addicts, for example, it's highly unlikely that they will take advantage of the options open to them. Even if they do, will they follow through by monitoring their children's homework and respond to requests for conferences with teachers?

The same broad brush attack on public schools is evident in "The Cartel." Although it limits its criticism to public schools in New Jersey, where students are still graduating from high school unable to read, the cause of this scandal once again are teachers unions. "Teached," which is still in production, lashes out at teacher tenure and work rules that the producer sees as anti-child. There are similar documentaries out there (e.g. "The Rubber Room," "The War on Kids"), but if you've seen one, you've seen them all.

What troubles me the most about all these documentaries is that they leave viewers with the distinct impression that public education is a total fiasco. The truth is that the quality of education is largely tied to the socioeconomic conditions of the neighborhoods in which schools are located. U.S. News & World Report published a list of the top 100 public high schools nationwide after analyzing 21,786 such schools in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Since Nebraska and Oklahoma did not provide full data, they were not included. ("Methodology: America's Best High Schools, Dec. 9, 2009) The overwhelming number of the best schools were in the suburbs. None of the films, however, makes this crucial point.

That omission does a grave disservice in the ongoing debate. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense from a box office point of view. Hyperbole sells. Perhaps one day there will be an Oscar for that category. If so, "Waiting for Superman" would win hands down.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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