The notion of creating a functional, even superior, education system is not, of course, a new one. Public school reforms have come and gone and come again in waves of innovation and regulation since the Soviets beat us into space with Sputnik in the late Fifties. Nearly three decades later, President Ronald Reagan warned us that our schools were drifting in a “rising tide of mediocrity.” Since then, politicians have largely tilted their models towards business paradigms, believing that marketplace principles of competition, standards and accountability would break the government’s monopoly on public education and provide a fresh, anti-bureaucratic start for school districts.
The current reformers, then, are anything but iconoclasts. They are merely the latest and highest-octane participants in this movement—with a few new tools and icons on their desktop. They bring with them not only this blockbuster Hollywood documentary, but also a confluence of new money and political clout. They count among their legions of philosophical and monetary supporters high-profile education CEOs like New York City’s Joel Klein and D.C.’s Michelle Rhee (who recently resigned). They have also won the support of philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family, and Oprah. Together, these benefactors finance popular charter-school franchises like the Knowledge Is Power Program and Achievement First.
It is, to be sure, a show-stopping lineup, and it has captured the credulous attention of veteran broadcast anchors and national columnists. These are not pundits often found wandering among the tangled weeds of education policy. Some appear to be using Superman as their crash course in the subject, emerging from the theatre with a story line in hand and a fire in their belly—no questions asked.
Tom Friedman, for example, urged readers to see Superman in a Times column headlined “Steal this Movie, Too.” NBC dedicated a week to Superman in September, coinciding with the film’s release. Calling Guggenheim’s creation an “in-depth probe of public education in America,” the network sent its top anchors and senior correspondents to cover the story, blitzing town hall meetings, conducting interviews, and forming oddly one-sided panels. (One misguided segment was tentatively labeled “Does Public Education Need a Katrina?” before someone mercifully yanked it.)
Matt Lauer referenced the movie twice in his kickoff interview with President Obama for Today. CBS anchor Katie Couric, not to be outdone, wrote a blog post promising to explore several issues raised in Superman. Oprah dedicated two shows to the film and staged Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million giveaway to Newark’s schools—with political strings attached.
Even media mogul Rupert Murdoch delivered a full-throated policy speech inspired by Superman. “If you have not seen this film I urge you to do so,” he told an audience at the nonprofit Media Institute in early October. “[Guggenheim] portrays these rotten public schools the way we should think of them: as deadly as any heartless factory poisoning the local drinking water.”
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.
Which brings us to Geoffrey Canada, a brilliant and charismatic community organizer, but an odd choice to emerge as the voice of Superman. His groundbreaking Harlem Children’s Zone looks more like Finland than the new education reformers seem to recognize. In his book Whatever It Takes, Paul Tough describes the remarkable (and for the most part, privately funded) conveyor belt of social services Canada has created in a 97-square-block area in Harlem. The Children’s Zone provides prenatal training for parents, health care, and college prep programs—services many believe schools should not need to succeed.
By now, chinks have begun to show in the charter-school movement. Measuring the depth of a child’s education turns out to be complex and elusive. Recent reports show that even Geoffrey Canada’s schools slipped in standardized test rankings last year, along with those in other city charters.