Thursday, October 7, 2010

Saddened by Superman

I've just returned from a screening of "Waiting for Superman," the U.S. documentary on public schooling in that country.
I left the movie feeling very sad. Perhaps it was an effective play on my emotions, but I was just floored by how schooling isn't fair-- a prospect this documentary thrusts into the spotlight as it wedges its way into the never-ending discussion on school reform. Prior to heading out to see it this evening, I had read the reaction from People for Education, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (or its former dean, anyway) and others as covered (mostly) by the Toronto Star.
Being of a certain mind, I wanted to go see the movie for myself rather than rely on the different voices that had spoken out about the movie, such as the groups above (PFE has a 'Superman' page, the Society for Quality Education has also entered the fray).
The documentary does an effective job of painting (admittedly with some broad strokes) the challenges facing the American system of public schools. Despite some of its most pointed criticism, I didn`t walk away from the film with a distaste for teachers`unions (no more than I may already have, anyway) and didn`t feel it was really that harsh towards them. It was equally harsh to the bureaucratic status quo (schools upon districts upon states upon federal) as it was about teacher tenure and a laughable teacher evaluation.
I cringed at the denouement (spoiler alert), watching Bianca as she and her mom missed out on the Harlem School lottery. In 20 seconds, that six-year-old child`s face showed her reaction and acceptance that she`d lost her last shot at having a better life than her mother. The last frames of this child show only acceptance that she, at that age, already knows she won`t get a competent education and ultimately do better. The producers are hoping that sense of hopelessness inspires change, but with battle lines so entrenched I cannot say they might be successful. This debate in the U.S., and to some extents here in Canada, has moved beyond a reasoned conversation and become a shouting match.
That any child, particularly one at that age, should have to realize they are done, educationally, is sad, no matter where it happens. I`m not that naive to think children and families don`t reach the same horrid conclusion on this side of the border, but I`d like to think it happens far less often.
Having said all that, I don`t think this is a carte-blanche endorsement of the charter-school movement. Though I have not delved into the mounds of research that are likely available, my fundamental problem with charter schools is the significant barriers to entry. I have also seen precious little attempts at taking the things that are working in the best charter schools (in and of themselves a minority of all charters) and doing system-wide reform. I have seen how some of the things Ontario has chosen to adopt from the reform movement (ex: teacher advisers / student success teachers) have been implemented system-wide. The untold story of the ministry Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat has had a more positive than negative influence on changing how core subjects are being taught in our schools.
I would agree with the film more than Annie Kidder on the role schools play in society for the underprivileged and improverished. The film stance is that bad schools contribute and are perhaps a foundational reason for why we fail those who are at the bottom in our world. Kidder says:
The solutions lie in addressing the societal issues that often put kids at risk for failure in school. The solutions lie in strong early childhood supports – good child care, strong before- and after-school programs, and integrated systems of support for children and their families.
She goes onto say strong teachers, strong schools are an essential part of that, but it leaves me straining for that vision of the integrated approach that I know Kidder supports because she has spoken about it in the past. I think the reality may be it is easier to move towards that starting with schools. Improve them and then the rest of the supports will follow or, at least, find an amenable home as they are being implemented.
It also gave me another opportunity to note the disparity between K-12 reporting in this country and that in the U.S. The Education Writers Association has a treasure trove of resources for journalists on this movie and the issues it delves into (*sigh*). I only wish we had any Canadian equivalent for any journalists up here who might have wanted to tackle this.
Lastly, if you have any interest in K-12 education, go see this documentary. Watch, ingest, digest, react. We may not agree this Superman solution is the answer, but we need to be having this conversation.


Unknown said...

I don't know if it's considered against the rules in the land of online etiquette, to comment on a column in which one is quoted, but I'm going to take a chance.
I really just wanted to say how pleased I was to find this (thanks to Gay Stephenson our fabulous webmaster). There are lots of journalists around, and their tolerance for the complexity that exists in education, varies widely. I always found Hugo to be one of the few journalists who was willing to delve into the complexity, and understand that in education, nothing is black and white.
Great blog about Waiting for Superman. Now I want to write more about integration and why at People for Education we have been talking about Schools at the Centre as a kind of start for a model of policy (or at least of thinking) for children and families. To me now it's about eco-system thinking - where there's no one particular place where things begin or end. Perhaps if we recognize that families, children and young people exist within an eco-system of influences - each with an effect on the other - we could re-frame our policy and our goals.
Thanks for the space to talk about these things.

Anonymous said...

Annie's comments stand as a perfect example of why Ontario's public system needs a shake-up to include and work in tandem with choice. If no two kids learn the same then more choice for parents is exactly what's needed. Waiting for Superman is what is needed.
People for Education isn't the only game in town any more. A quick look at the growing list of organizations championing parent advocacy and looking for ways to improve student learning down the right hand side tells me that not all parents fit Annie's model of advocacy.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 10:02am - I agree with you. Ontario lags behind the time like always. While the rest of the world opens their minds to more choice and more ways in which children can learn those classrooms will become vague memories. It's not a matter of if, but when.

How about the news and education shows we do have make some room to interview and quote more folks like you Hugo or the other more local parents and community groups instead of People for Education who simply don't resonate with us in the north. The SQE group makes more sense up here because having education tailored to our learning environment through more choice is where we're already at in the north. Neither group really represents parents....just their own agenda.

Education Reporter said...

I welcome comments from everyone, thanks for joining the fray.

To all:
A schools at the centre philosophy appears to be where Ontario has been trying to take its schools for some time now, with bumps along the way. The NDP-government-led push to put more childcare centres in schools was a first step, though stalled in the mid-1990s. The Best Start hubs, cancelled in the mid-2000s so Ontario could score political points against the federal Conservative government, was another step. The vision laid out in Pascal's report is another, as is the decision this summer to move key components out of the Ministry of Child and Youth Services to the Ministry of Education.

The question I still struggle with when it comes to school choice is that no one appears to have found a balance between offering the choices that are best suited to a particular student while maintaining equity of access to that choice. Offering the full range of choices in programs at every school is untenable for this province's political and fiscal climate. Alternate schools, charter schools, etc. etc. may offer that choice, but only to the lucky few who make it past the barrier to entry.

We're also not, I don't think, at a point yet where the agents in the education system are so entrenched that they're unwilling to discuss, accept and implement system-wide change. I must admit I was unaware of the impact of teacher tenure prior to viewing this movie, and to my knowledge we don't have that in Ontario. I'm in no way saying it's easy to fire a bad teacher here, but we don't appear to be shackled by that element.

But, hey-- we're having the conversation, at least.


Anonymous said...

"Offering the full range of choices in programs at every school is untenable for this province's political and fiscal climate. Alternate schools, charter schools, etc. etc. may offer that choice, but only to the lucky few who make it past the barrier to entry."

Actually the balance of which schools within the public system can offer choice is more related those who can make it past the barriers to entry than to charter schools which are NOT private schools but work within the public system. Just as those parents who have the means to send their children to the best choice of public schools because they have the means and their kids do fit the criteria of that particular specialty school. That's right Hugo, visit the TDSB site and understand that not all students can get into those publicly funded and schools - some have prerequisites, interviews, and expect excellent grades and portfolios. Not exactly a level playing field.

Perhaps this is why Chris Spence, TDSB is working to offer more schools of choice rather than less which cater to specific populations?

He sees the same writing on the wall as you do I think. His vision is more choice...not less.

The schools at the centre makes no sense to some rural and small town schools with dwindling populations of children. We don't need a principal for every school for every school or a school board for that matter.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you've already made your decision on choice and charters based on the myths that groups like Annie's like to move forward.

As long as we're in a talking mood, let's have and informed debate here from both sides - Annie(People for Education) and Doretta(SQE)??

Let's get the facts from both sides and let other observers and participants here make up their own minds.

What I really struggle with Hugo is that no one elected either Annie or Doretta to represent their organization's points of view yet they're considered advocates for parental involvement.

Now that we've got both those organizations contributing here let's get the discussion started and based on fact and not spin...something media is supposed to do but often fails to reflect both sides effectively.

Education Reporter said...

Anon 11 Oct. 14:27
I think you've misinterpreted part of what I said. I've acknowledged that some public schools have barriers to entry. Show me a charter school that doesn't-- I have yet to learn about one and would love to see a model for a charter school where everyone who wants in is given a spot.

Neither model -- alternate or specialty schools within a public system or charter schools -- offers an equitable approach to entry. And yes, I do understand what charter schools are and that they do receive public funding and that they're not private schools. Neither also populates the conditions that make each a more successful environment for learning to a degree they become system wide in scope.

I'm still optimist enough to think schools at the centre concepts can work in all communities. The rural communities that plead for their schools to remain open (so the "heart" of the community is not torn out is a common refrain) certainly already see their schools as 'in the centre' of community life. Arguably, all schools play this role within the community of families whose children attend. Some of the supports offered in urban aren't needed in rural settings, but we shouldn't eliminate the concept altogether. A rural school can still offer plenty of community programs and serve as a hub-- perhaps even more effectively than some urban schools.

Anon 11 Oct. 16:30
I can't speak for why PFE and SQE have evolved to the point where they speak for parents. I know parents support both organizations, so that does provide some legitimacy to do so, in ways independent of school boards and government.

I would gladly moderate such an exchange of ideas as you're proposing, if Annie and Doretta (or Malkin, or whomever) were willing. It's not at all difficult to get a livechat going (one that could be embedded on both websites and elsewhere) where this conversation could take place.


Anonymous said...


I can tell you as a freelance journalists I've used both SQE and P4E for quotes to show both sides of the school choice argument.

Both organizations have an agenda they're pushing. Parents need to know that right up front. Similarly both organizations can seem out of touch depending on where you are in Ontario. Both in my opinion depend on those large markets and parents in urban districts and both aren't as tuned in to rural/small town concerns.

I would welcome a live chat with both organizations to once and for all put to bed the myths of school choice.

I would also like to ask both women what choices they have made for their kids and if they feel that other parents have that capacity and knowledge to do the same?

What does each organization offer parents and how specifically do they help parents who have kids in the public system or soon will have?


Doretta Wilson said...

Quickly to clarify some misconceptions. 1. Charter schools are public schools that cannot discriminate against students except where they have a particular focus, i.e. an all-girls charter school. 2.SQE does not speak for parents, nor do we claim to.
To learn about us, read Why We do What We Do:

and Why our Critics Fight Us So Hard

Anonymous said...

I've never heard of your group doretta but we hear the annie kidder group sometimes too much. Maybe your group needs the kind of public relations focus that the public education support group has gotten.
Seems to me that both sides need equal billing in the media. Your group must be Ontario's best kept secret.

Bill G. (from Essex)

Anonymous said...

Quite good information from the SQE organization. Many thanks to Doretta for providing.

Do you have an arm of your organization that will speak to us here in Brantford or London because your groups philosophy mirrors that of many parents I know in Middlesex.

With small schools closing the idea of schools of choice and establishing charters would fit our community now.

It's time rural Ontario got the kinds of choice that urban areas get.

Doretta Wilson said...

Interested readers may contact us directly. Please see our website for information by clicking on my name in the posting, then go to the Contact Us page.