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Posted at 10:45 PM ET, 02/27/2011

How 'Inside Job" explains school reform

By Valerie Strauss

Now that “Inside Job” has won the Academy Award for best feature documentary, it seems like a good time to repost a piece about how this film about the financial crisis really does a good job explaining the problems today with school reform. It was written by Kevin G. Welner, a professor of education policy and program evaluation in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and director of the National Education Policy Center.

By Kevin G. Welner
Over the past couple months, I’ve been asked to participate in a few panel discussions about “Waiting for Superman.” The film presents a stark, moving portrayal of the denial of educational opportunities in low-income communities of color. But while the movie includes statements such as "we know what’s wrong" and "we know how to fix it," viewers of the movie are hard-pressed to identify those causes and solutions -- other than to boo and hiss at teachers’ unions and to cheer at the heroic charter school educators.

So in the panel discussions we try to make sense of that simplistic black-hat/white-hat story. We argue about whether the movie offers a fair and complete picture (it doesn’t even come close, unfortunately). But we never get to deeper issues about what’s wrong and how to fix it.

I thought about that when leaving a showing of the other prominent documentary currently showing, called Inside Job. It offers an explanation of how the current economic crisis came about, describing the securitization of mortgages; the extraordinary leveraging of assets; the regulatory capture by Wall Street leading to minimal enforcement of federal regulations -- a deregulation intended to spur innovation; and the fraud, greed, hubris and general belief among hedge fund titans and others in the financial services world that they are infallible.

The film also points out the growing and now extreme inequality of wealth distribution in the United States. "The top 1 percent of American earners took in 23.5 percent of the nation’s pretax income in 2007 -- up from less than 9 percent in 1976."

Consider those final three items: (1) the advocacy of deregulation in order to free up innovation, (2) hubris and general belief among hedge fund titans that they are infallible, and (3) increased wealth inequality.

If Superman had explored these issues instead of bashing unions and promoting charters, moviegoers might have walked away understanding a great deal about why the families it profiled and so many similar families across America face a bleak educational future.

The movie certainly showed scenes of poverty, but its implications and the structural inequalities underlying that poverty were largely ignored. Devastating urban poverty was just there -- as if that were somehow the natural order of things but if we could only ’fix’ schools it would disappear.

Rick Hanushek is put forth, saying that if we fire the bottom 5 to 10 percent of the lowest-performing teachers every year, our national test scores would soon approach Finland at the top of international rankings in mathematics and science. But no mention is made of the telling fact that Finland had, in 2005, a child poverty rate of 2.8 percent while the United States had a rate of 21.9 percent. That gap has likely gotten even bigger over the intervening five years.

Rather than addressing these poverty issues, Superman serves up innovation through privatization and deregulation. We’re shown charter schools that give hope to these families. But what we’re not told is that the extra resources and opportunities found in these charters are funded in large part with donations from Wall Street hedge fund millionaires and billionaires.

Problems of structural inequality and inter-generational poverty are pushed aside in favor of a ’solution’ grounded in the belief that deregulation will prompt innovation, all the while guided by the infallible judgment of Wall Street tycoons. It’s no wonder that Inside Job better explained the school crisis than did Waiting for Superman.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 27, 2011; 10:45 PM ET
Categories:  Kevin Welner  | Tags:  academy award, inside job, waiting for superman  
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Next: How PS 22 chorus got to sing at Oscars


Congrats on the Oscar. Hope everyone will watch the Daily Show this Thursday, March 3rd. Diane Ravitch is the guest!!!

Posted by: tutucker | February 27, 2011 11:15 PM | Report abuse

“Number one, it is very clear that even poor kids and kids of color who come from difficult neighborhoods can, in fact, achieve,” declares Kati Haycock, Director of The Education Trust. “Number two it is very clear that there are some public schools – even now some districts – that have figured out how to do that. Our task has to be to help other schools and districts achieve those same ends…and the evidence again suggests we can do this if we don't get distracted, if we learn from the high achievers, and if we act with dispatch.”

Posted by: frankb1 | February 28, 2011 1:38 AM | Report abuse

"Effective teachers and leaders are critically important to the effort to raise achievement and close longstanding gaps between groups. Abundant research evidence now makes it absolutely clear: Children who have three or four strong teachers in a row will soar academically regardless of their racial or economic background, while those who have a sequence of weak teachers in a row simply fall further and further behind.

America has many wonderful teachers. But they are not evenly distributed across different schools and districts. Low-income and minority students—the very students who could benefit most from our very best teachers—are typically taught by a disproportionate share of our least able teachers. This teacher quality gap contributes mightily to our achievement gap."

Posted by: frankb1 | February 28, 2011 1:40 AM | Report abuse

From All Kids Can Learn By Rick Young:

"The biggest barrier to academic achievement isn't the baggage the kids carry into the classroom, but the core beliefs the adults carry in. All kids can learn."

By last December, Diego was failing nearly every class, even PE, and my wife and I decided belatedly to see what could be done to straighten out Diego's academic experience. [Diego's mother helped care for my son after he was born and ever since Diego has been an important part of our family]. We requested a meeting with the principal at Diego's school, Alice Deal Junior High, and a conference was arranged with his teachers.

On the morning of the conference, I was disappointed to find the principal wasn't there and the discussion was being led by Diego's guidance counselor. The counselor proceeded to spend most of the time criticizing and challenging Diego about his academic apathy (a reasonable criticism but not a productive one). The meeting quickly devolved into dueling accusations about Diego's classroom habits."

I strode into the main office at Deal and asked a group of unsuspecting office staff, “can I speak with the instructional leader of this school?” Silence. “Well, who is the leader of instruction here?” I tried again. Blank stares. “What about the principal, is she here?” Finally a voice rose up from a back corner of the room. “Can I help you?” asked a short, serious-looking woman. It was the voice of the Assistant Principal for Academics. Fortunately, she agreed to join the meeting, which wasn't going much better than when I'd left.

Diego's social studies teacher had arrived. “Diego is the problem,” she said with a finality suggesting there could be no other explanation for his poor performance. He doesn't do his homework. He doesn't pay attention in class. He doesn't make an effort. Later, Diego's science teacher joined the chorus of criticism. Her primary interest was in absolving herself of responsibility for Diego's poor performance. “I can't do any more for him,” she said. “I don't fail students; they fail themselves.”No one explicitly said, “Diego can't learn.” Their complaint was “Diego won't learn.” But, the underlying message was the same: We've done what we can and it's his fault he's not getting it.

I couldn't help wonder how much difference a basic core belief – all kids can learn – could make, not just for Diego, but for D.C.'s entire struggling school system.There's no question that turning all kids into learners requires quality teachers and strong school leadership, properly trained and fully supported by their districts. But, it also takes an acceptance of full responsibility by all adults for the success or failure of all students."

Posted by: frankb1 | February 28, 2011 2:06 AM | Report abuse

Frankb1, the Education Trust "declaring" something doesn't make it true.

And the "three or four strong teachers in a row" assertion is a deliberate distortion of a silly statistical trick. Every statistician sees through it right away, and no honest civilian would be tricked by it. Here's how that canard quacks:

In every statistical distribution across a population with high variance, some random draws will produce results much higher than the true value for the population, and others will produce results much lower. That is a mathematical certainty.

All you have to do is call whatever teacher draws the winning hand "highly effective", and then fire her next year when she draws a losing hand.

No actual researcher would assert that the result of such sampling errors changes the actual situation of any individual student wihtin the sample. If it did, researchers would see individual students' scores actually rising over several years, and they don't, in the most "successful" Education Trust examples.

In fact, we find NOWHERE, in any of these "successful" programs, any such accumulated advantage for individual children who stay in the program for 3 or 4 years. The average scores are made to rise by manipulating the student pool, which is another deliberate falsification of research.

The actual accumulated student progress results for individual students in the for-profit scripted programs or the TFA cohort results are more or less flat, or even downward.

Posted by: mport84 | February 28, 2011 6:35 AM | Report abuse

The story about Diego is touching. I have heard all of that before. "He doesn't do his homework." He doesn't pay attention in class." "He doesn't make an effort." My question is: how is a teacher in a class of perhaps 30 students explicitly going to change this behavior? I'm not suggesting it is not possible, I'm asking what the technique would look like, and do Diego's guardians who acknowledge they waited until late in the game to show up in the school, bear any responsibility for getting him to do his homework? I see far too much discussion in this blog which I have followed for some time now, about the merits and demerits of measuring teacher quality and the merits and demerits of particular kinds of curricula and too little about how a teacher gains the attention of his/her students in the first place so they can do what all children are capable of--learning.

Posted by: mcnyc | February 28, 2011 9:12 AM | Report abuse

It's not surprising that the leftists affiliated with nominations were not interested in nominating a film that points out failures of big government. We've poured a lot of money into public education and the results are not good. When an organization (e.g. government) does not have to compete to stay in operation, when it has built in conflicts of interest to sustain itself, and when it does not involve individuals with financial skin in the game, you end up with the failure that us US public education. It seems to me that more choice and freedom to choose how you spend your money on education is more appropriate. The solution may not be charter schools exclusively, but perhaps tax credits for sending your kids to private schools (or a tax credit if you don't have kids in school at all).

Posted by: smith4321 | February 28, 2011 1:00 PM | Report abuse


The film that won the Oscar is about the failure of government to regulate the financial industry. So all those "leftists affiliated with nominations" apparently didn't have a problem giving the award to a film documenting the failure of government; they just had a problem giving it to a film that distorts reality.

By the way, your statement about "the failure that us US public education" ignores the following fact, taken from the "Debating Michelle Rhee" post on this blog today: on the 2009 PISA exam, "15-year-old Americans in low poverty schools (those with less than 10 percent of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch) scored 551 on reading, higher than the overall average of any participating country. By contrast, students in schools with more than 75% of students from low-income families, scored 446 on average, second to last among the 34 nations in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)."

The problem is not public schools. The problem is poverty, and the unwillingness of Americans to do what needs to be done to reduce it.

Posted by: jefferyjmiller | February 28, 2011 8:31 PM | Report abuse

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