Thompson: Lessons From "Superman" from This Week In Education by john thompson

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Before he started Waiting for Superman, non-educator Davis Guggenheim read and reread the definitive but tedious Organizing Schools for Improvement, and went on to study the entire body of work of the Chicago Consortium for School Research. Guggenheim became an expert in economic regression studies so that he could parse the language in papers for and against value-added models. Starting with the work of Larry Cuban, he became an expert on education history.

I kid Guggenheim, of course.

Alexander Russo’s How Waiting For Superman (almost) Changed the World, published by American Enterprise Institute, tells the real story about a pro-union, pro-teacher award-winning filmmaker making a documentary that Jay Mathews described as “one of the most anti-union I had ever seen.”

Russo’s narrative on the making of the film that so deeply offended so many is consistent with my experience. Guggenheim had a lot compassion and he made some political inquiries, but he seemed to have the same disinterest in social science that has long been shown by outsiders seeking to reform schools. It is a testament to the disrespect bestowed on teachers by non-educators that they are consistently uncurious about academic education research. Surely the sponsors of An Inconvenient Truth would not have endorsed that film if Guggenheim was similarly uninformed about global warming.

Worse, Guggenheim and other reformers show even less interest in studying more than one side of the story before pontificating about the cure for inner city educational underperformance.

Russo’s outstanding paper requires at least two posts to do it justice. This post will focus on the first half of his study, the making of Waiting for Superman.   

Russo explains that Guggenheim began with informal lunches where he supposedly talked with  education experts from all backgrounds. I wonder, however, if Guggenheim was just speaking with experts from all backgrounds that he was aware of. Nowhere in Russo’s account is there a discussion of research which was not embraced by the contemporary reform movement.

Russo’s narrative bears a striking resemblance with the theme of Six Degrees of Separation. Guggenheim apparently made six types of contacts that resulted in the film.   

It is poetic justice that the first step was inspired by Op Ed columnist Tom Friedman, whose lack of knowledge of education has never tempered his taste for simplistic sound bites. Without having an inkling of what is right and wrong about urban education, Friedman wrote, “There is something wrong when so much of an American child’s future is riding on the bounce of a pin pong ball.”  Technically speaking, Friedman was not incorrect, but the implication was that choice is the only solution for failing schools.  These words inspired the meme of the lottery for admittance to a charter school as the salvation of poor children of color.

The second connection (or should I say second degree of separation from reality?) brought Guggenheim to the sub-theme of “the Folly of Adults.” That meme presents the worldview of Michelle Rhee.

The third step moved Guggenheim to the theme of “Other People’s Children,” which became the emotional core of the movie. The problem is that the filmmaker portraying other people’s children’s had no direct knowledge of those children's worlds, and his education advisers who sought to close that degree of separation were in the reform camp.

The fourth step was the movie shoot, which was done in cooperation with Eva Moskowitz and other charter school leaders. Not all were as stridently antagonistic to unions as Moskowitz and Rhee but, apparently, many were. Certainly, the logistics did not create environments for rubbing shoulders with traditional public school teachers.

The fifth degree of separation was the “social action campaign,” which developed about the same time that as the moviemaking process. Apparently, at that stage, the team belatedly recognized the complexity of education. But, they still focused on politics – not the reality of what it would take to improve schools for poor children of color.

The sixth degree of separation was the embrace of Bill Gates. By then, Guggenheim seemed to realize that teachers and unions would be offended, but Russo doesn’t indicate if Guggenheim had yet begun to understand why the substance of his film would outrage educators.

Russo then quotes Diane Ravitch who described the outcome of this process as “a fairy tale, based on half-truths, exaggerations and misrepresentations.” I’d say she nails it.

I’m glad Russo is so evidence-driven in his narrative. The facts as he tells them seem very similar to my experience. I have communicated with dozens of scholars and cross-examined them on their methodology. When reading the evidence and logic of the Chicago Consortium or Larry Cuban, for instance, it immediately becomes obvious that their knowledge of education research and history dwarfs mine. When conversing with too many non-educators writing on school reform, the opposite immediately becomes apparent.

Many times, I have discussed evidence and methodology with brilliant non-educators and been struck by what they didn’t know that they didn’t know about inner city schools. I would also be convinced of their sincerity.

So, I have made it a habit of asking pro-reform non-educators why they have contributed their scholarship to that side of our education civil wars. I repeatedly ask scholars why they would conclude that their findings should be read as more supportive of the reformers’ policies than those endorsed by teachers and unions. I rarely get an answer.

Russo’s excellent paper reinforces my suspicion that many non-educators have joined the reform movement because they were recruited into that camp. Had educators and social scientists invited them first, many or most would have gladly joined the teachers’ side. In Guggenheim’s case, I wonder if there were just two degrees of separation before he was firmly in the Rhee-Moskowitz scorched earth political camp. As anyone would, Guggenheim became attached to children and families who are mostly condemned to awful schools. He then was recruited by market-driven reformers, who either disrespected or (more likely) were equally ignorant of the large body of social science research on school reform, and he was then socialized into the anti-union, teacher-bashing school of reform.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.    

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