Has Ravitch hurt 'Superman’s' Oscar ambitions?
Millions of words have been written about Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” and the education policies it promotes, but now we have a new line of analysis about its impact: What are the chances that the education documentary could win an Academy Award?
In a piece on Movie Line’s Web site, editor S.T. VanAirsdale asked whether education historian Diane Ravitch’s scathing review of Superman in The New York Review of Books will effectively serve to derail the movie’s chances of nabbing an Oscar. The movie is being heavily promoted, with the help of a $2 million grant that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave to market it worldwide.
In the tough review, which you can find here, Ravitch dissects the film and details its inaccuracies, one by one. Here are excerpts of Ravitch's article:
"The message of the film is clear. Public schools are bad, privately managed charter schools are good. Parents clamor to get their children out of the public schools in New York City (despite the claims by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the city’s schools are better than ever) and into the charters (the mayor also plans to double the number of charters, to help more families escape from the public schools that he controls). If we could fire the bottom 5 to 10 percent of the lowest-performing teachers every year, says Hoover Institution economist Eric Hanushek in the film, our national test scores would soon approach the top of international rankings in mathematics and science.
"Some fact-checking is in order, and the place to start is with the film’s quiet acknowledgment that only one in five charter schools is able to get the “amazing results” that it celebrates. Nothing more is said about this astonishing statistic. It is drawn from a national study of charter schools by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond (the wife of Hanushek). Known as the CREDO study, it evaluated student progress on math tests in half the nation’s five thousand charter schools and concluded that 17 percent were superior to a matched traditional public school; 37 percent were worse than the public school; and the remaining 46 percent had academic gains no different from that of a similar public school. The proportion of charters that get amazing results is far smaller than 17 percent. Why did Davis Guggenheim pay no attention to the charter schools that are run by incompetent leaders or corporations mainly concerned to make money? Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes, when the filmmaker knows that there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones? Why not give an honest accounting?
The propagandistic nature of Waiting for “Superman” is revealed by Guggenheim’s complete indifference to the wide variation among charter schools. There are excellent charter schools, just as there are excellent public schools. Why did he not also inquire into the charter chains that are mired in unsavory real estate deals, or take his camera to the charters where most students are getting lower scores than those in the neighborhood public schools? Why did he not report on the charter principals who have been indicted for embezzlement, or the charters that blur the line between church and state? Why did he not look into the charter schools whose leaders are paid $300,000-$400,000 a year to oversee small numbers of schools and students?
Guggenheim seems to believe that teachers alone can overcome the effects of student poverty, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between income and test scores. He shows us footage of the pilot Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, to the amazement of people who said it couldn’t be done. Since Yeager broke the sound barrier, we should be prepared to believe that able teachers are all it takes to overcome the disadvantages of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, poor nutrition, absent parents, etc.
The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false. Hanushek has released studies showing that teacher quality accounts for about 7.5-10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10-20 percent of achievement outcomes. Teachers are the most important factor within schools.
But the same body of research shows that nonschool factors matter even more than teachers. According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income. So while teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers. Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.
Read the whole article; there’s a lot more. Movie Line’s S.T. VanAirsdale did, and though he said he didn't see the film, he thinks “Superman’s” Oscar chances might be affected by Ravitch's piece.
He writes, referring to another documentary called “Inside Job," by Charles Ferguson, which takes a deep look into the roots of the country’s financial meltdown:
" ‘Waiting for ‘Superman’ is the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far,” Ravitch writes. “Their power is not to be underestimated.” Ouch. More importantly for our admittedly frivolous purposes, though, can I just say Diane Ravitch’s essay is the most important public-relations coup that Sony Pictures Classics, director Charles Ferguson and the rest of the Inside Job team will have at their disposal all year? Ravitch even points out the connection between the pro-charter camp and Wall Street, citing three New York Times stories “about how charter schools have become the favorite cause of hedge fund executives.” In language virtually borrowed from Ferguson’s excellent financial-meltdown exposé, she goes on to conclude:
“Waiting for Superman” is a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the “free market” and privatization. It raises important questions, but all of the answers it offers require a transfer of public funds to the private sector. The stock market crash of 2008 should suffice to remind us that the managers of the private sector do not have a monopoly on success.
"And just like that, we have an Oscar knife fight on our hands. Fun! I’ll bring the nachos."
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| November 4, 2010; 4:06 PM ET
Categories: Charter schools, Diane Ravitch | Tags: academy awards, bill gates, charter schools, davis guggenheim, diane ravitch, gates foundation, movie line, new york review of books, oscar, waiting for superman
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