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  • More On What "Superman" Left Out

    Written on October 20, 2010

    Our guest author today is Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University and an historian of education. In addition, she is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C..  Her latest book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

    In my recent article for the New York Review of Books about “Waiting for Superman," I praised the SEED Charter School in Washington, D.C. (one of the schools featured in the movie) for their high graduation and college acceptance rates.  I also pointed out, however, that they spend about $35,000 per student, three times as much as normal schools spend.  This fact was not mentioned in the movie.

    Nor was the school’s incredibly high attrition rate.  Take a quick look at the graph below (hat tip to Leigh Dingerson).  They start out with about 150 students in seventh grade, but their enrollment slowly declines to around 30 in grade twelve.  This level of attrition is alarming, and it makes any simple evaluation of SEED’s results impossible. 

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  • Waiting For Methodology Man

    Written on October 18, 2010

    I finally saw the entire “Waiting for Superman” movie last weekend, in a mostly-empty Georgetown theatre. I went with my mother, not just because she’s a great public school teacher, but also because I needed someone to comfort me while I watched.

    We both had strong reactions to dozens of things about the film, and you almost have to admire the chutzpah. It is about education – with a primary focus on teachers – and includes sit-down interviews with superintendents, parents, students, businessmen, economists, and journalists, but not one teacher.

    Given all the attention that has already been lavished on it, I’ll discuss just one other thing that struck me, one which I keep hearing elsewhere.  There is exactly one sentence in the whole film in which director Davis Guggenheim addresses the research on charter school effects beyond the anecdotal evidence that dominates his narrative.  He notes, “Only one in five charters is excellent," with the implication that these charters show that it can be done.

    He is presumably referring to the CREDO study released last year, which is the largest (15 states plus D.C.) and arguably the most overplayed charter analysis in history (for other multi-state studies showing no charter effects, see here, here, here, and here).  The CREDO authors understandably framed their results in a “media-friendly” manner – by reporting the percentage of charters that did better than comparable regular public schools (17 percent), along with the proportion that did worse (37 percent).

    My first point is that 17 percent is equivalent to one in six, not one in five. But beyond that, some charter advocates have taken the remarkable step of turning the finding that twice as many charters do worse than regular publics into “evidence” that the former should be expanded.  The rationale is, as Guggenheim puts it, that these “one in five” charters are “excellent," and if we can increase that proportion, we can fix our public education system. There is only one problem: That’s not what the study says. Guggenheim is either deliberately misleading his viewers or, more likely, just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

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  • It's A Bird! It's A Plane! No, It's The Superman Movement!

    Written on October 8, 2010

    Yes, it’s the Superman Movement. Most filmmakers must secretly dream of a sequel that is bigger, better, and more important than the original. The makers of Waiting for Superman are apparently no different. "For us, the theatrical release is just the start of social action," says Jim Berk, CEO of the aptly named Participant Media, the studio behind the movie (see here). "When I started the company, it was to motivate the grass roots and really get people to embrace an issue, and the idea was that the politics would follow," confirms Jeff Skoll, Participant’s founder and chairman.

    In 2009, these leaders decided Participant needed its own organizing arm, so they invented TakePart.com, a website tied to an extensive network of social action websites. TakePart, which constructs a special operation for every film, also offers advice to potential activists on their chosen issues – what to do and how to do it.

    Charter school funders gloated and applauded when an early preview clip of Superman was shown at a Grantmakers for Education (GFE) conference in Baltimore last fall. GFE is made up of a wide array of education funders, ranging from powerhouses like Gates, Broad, and Walton, to community and family foundations of every stripe. (Full disclosure: The Albert Shanker Institute is an active member.) Participant was already drawing the foundation world into Superman’s policy and action orbit, hoping its dollars would follow the movie’s message.

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  • Remorse Code (Or Comments From A Crib Strangler)

    Written on September 24, 2010

    Those who publicly advocate for the kind of education policies put forth in "Waiting for Superman" are now seeing the equivalent of a letter-high fastball down the middle. They can wait on it and crank it out, using the buzz created by a major motion picture to advance the movie’s/campaign’s arguments at face value. I'm a little late on this (at least by blog standards), but over at Fordham’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli saw this fastball, yet instead of unloading, he sacrifice bunted the runner into scoring position for the good of the team.

    Responding to an interview in which Davis Guggenheim, the film’s director, claims that charter schools have "cracked the code" on how to educate even the poorest kids, Petrilli warns against the hubris of thinking that we are anywhere beyond first steps when it comes to fixing urban schools. He points out that charters like KIPP benefit from selection effects (more motivated and informed parents seek out the schools), and that the degree to which these schools have actually "closed the gap" between poor and affluent schools has been somewhat oversold. Petrilli also notes that while some of these schools seem to have "cracked the code," there is still little idea of how to expand them to serve more than a tiny minority of poor kids.

    Thoughtful comments like these should remind those of us who care about expanding quality education that, although we may have canyon-sized differences between us on what needs to be done (Petrilli claims that those who disagree with him are trying to "strangle" reforms "in their crib"), there may be a few important respects in which we are closer than we may appear. Still (in addition to the crib-strangling allegations), I would take issue with one of Petrilli’s central points – that charters like KIPP may have "cracked the code," and the main problem now is how to scale them up. From my perspective, the "code" is specific policies and practices that produce results. And on this front, we’re practically still using decoder rings from cereal boxes.

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  • The Time Factor: It's Not Just KIPP

    Written on July 20, 2010

    In this post, I argue that it is important to understand why a few charters (like KIPP) perform better than others. An editorial in today's Washington Post points out that KIPP’s results suggest the achievement-improving potential of more school time for lower-income students – i.e., longer days and years.

    Through longer days, mandatory Saturdays, and summer school, KIPP students spend about 60 percent more time in school than typical regular public school students. That's the equivalent of over 100 regular public school days of additional time. This is an astounding difference.

    But it's not just KIPP.

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  • What Is "Charterness," Exactly?

    Written on July 14, 2010

    ** Also posted here on Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet in the Washington Post.

    Two weeks ago, researchers from Mathematica dropped a bomb on the education policy community. It didn’t go off.

    The report (prepared for the Institute for Education Sciences, a division of the USDOE) includes students in 36 charter schools throughout 15 states. The central conclusion: the vast majority of charter students does no better or worse than their regular public counterparts in math and reading scores (or on most of the other 35 outcomes examined). On the other hand, charter parents and students are more satisfied with their schools, and charters are more effective boosting scores of lower-income students.

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