'Waiting for substance' | Arkansas Blog

'Waiting for substance'



Special for Luke Gordy, Jim Walton, Walton U. school reformers, Walter Hussman and other members of the Billionaire Boys Club, all busily flogging "Waiting for Superman," the emotional but factually undersupplied documentary on the effort of kids to get into some highly touted charter schools.

A tough review from Columbia Journalism Review.

I sobbed alongside my graduate students as we watched the ending of Waiting for Superman, the heat-seeking documentary that has garnered rave reviews and generated an uncommon level of discussion about public education in America. We all wept—the young men, too—despite our awareness that the filmmakers had manipulated us with misleading and lopsided arguments.

...Stripped to its essence, the film’s solutions are seductively simple. Officials should fire bad teachers, close down failing public schools, and replace them with charters—schools funded with public dollars and run by private boards. This is Guggenheim’s master narrative, set against a backdrop of broad crisis in public education. Teachers unions are the villains here; charter schools the heroes.

... Had these journalists probed a bit deeper, they might have been more skeptical—or at least asked better questions. A recent Stanford University study (pdf) showed only a small percentage of charter schools (17 percent) performing better than traditional schools, while 37 percent performed worse, and the rest resulted in no significant change. An analysis (pdf) of the National Assessment of Education Progress exams by researcher Richard Rothstein found that African Americans are now scoring higher in math than white children of a generation ago—without the aid of charter schools.

As for Finland, its uncanny climb from the pedagogical cellar is a tale that turns Guggenheim’s ideas upside down. Its teachers are unionized and highly trained for years at state expense. Assessment is designed by classroom teachers, not mandated by cookie-cutter exams or national standards. And all Finnish children enjoy cradle-to-grave social services, from health care to free early childhood education.

There's lots more. Again, to be clear, this simply isn't the binary equation the rich boys would have you believe — charter good, others bad. I also understand that the money dictates the charter movement will only grow. But it should not be allowed to harm schools that work and it should be held accountable, which has not been much the case until recently in Arkansas. More to come, by the way, on Jim Walton's purchasing of the legislature's education committees with campaign contributions to pass his charter school bill next year. Believe it or not, some legislators have been offended — some by the nakedness of the transaction, some (less attractively) by the low price.

PS — Clay Fendley, a lawyer for the Little Rock School District working on the court pleading that the state's open-door policy on charter schools in Pulaski County has run afoul of the desegregation settlement, adds a comment:

People seem to have forgotten that charter schools are not the only schools that have waiting lists and lottery off available seats. LRSD’s magnet schools do this as well, and 90% of the kids waiting are black. The magnet schools also have empty seats because of a shortage of non-black students.

The magnet schools have lost non-black kids to charter schools. Why? It’s not because charter schools are doing a better job of educating kids if you accept data prepared by the U of A, Office of Educational Policy. The OEP data was statewide. [Note correction on source below.]

I broke out Pulaski County and sorted by percentile rank. According to OEP’s value-added analysis, Pulaski County charter schools fair poorly overall; Pulaski County’s other “schools of choice” did very well. For high schools in 07-08, LRSD’s Parkview performed better than both LISA Academy and Academics Plus. For K-8 in 08-09, Carver (98th Percentile) and Gibbs (94th Percentile) were found to be two of the best schools in Arkansas and performed better than LISA Academy (85th Percentile). Academics Plus was bad (4th Percentile), but Dreamland was the worst K-8 school in Arkansas (0th Percentile).

A note from UA

Your blog post titled "Waiting for Substance" contains an inaccuracy. In section where you quote Clay Findley, he claims that the OEP prepared the value added analysis. This is simply not true. I ran the value added analysis, and I am not associated with the OEP. I understand that you and Clay dislike Gary and the OEP, but that is no excuse for this kind of sloppiness. I would appreciate it if you corrected the post.


Josh B. McGee

Research Associate
Ph.D. Candidate in Economics
201 Graduate Education Building
Department of Education Reform
University of Arkansas

The OEP is part of the UA Department of Education, not the Department of Education Reform, but their political outlook on education issues is quite similar — charter schools, merit pay and similar.

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