Neither Real nor Right

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Won’t Back Down is a feel-good film about the power of a single individual, armed with a vision and a voice, to move a bureaucracy.

Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a working class mother of a dyslexic second grader, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind). Malia has been assigned to the classroom of the weakest teacher in the school, and Jamie wants desperately to find a solution for her failing child. She asks the teacher to help Malia after school; she tries to have Malia transferred to the classroom of a better teacher; she signs up for the lottery of a successful charter school, where Malia must compete with 100 applicants for just three open slots. She even begs the administrator of her former school to take Malia back.

Eventually Jamie hears about a “parent-trigger law,” which provides a way for parents to take over a failing school. (“Parent-trigger law” is perhaps a poor choice of name, considering the level of frustration many parents experience, and the number of shootings that have occurred in schools recently!)

Parent-trigger laws are a fairly new concept in US public education. They were first introduced in California a few years ago, and six other states have followed so far. They apply only to failing schools, and require a majority of the parents to sign a petition and support the change. A successful bid can result in replacing the administration or faculty, creating a charter school, or closing the school and reassigning the students to better schools. Of course, teachers and their unions oppose these takeover bids, sometimes with threats and repercussions against the children of the most vocal parents.

Tenured teachers can’t be fired for being poor teachers, so they are moved from school to school. Woe to the children who are stuck in their classrooms for an entire year!

In the film, Jamie says “Let’s take over the school” with the same spritely optimism as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland saying “Let’s put on a show.” Through sheer force of personality and salesmanship, Jamie convinces a tired and frustrated teacher, Nona (Viola Davis), to join her, and together they work to gain the support of teachers and parents. But it isn’t that easy. They must first recruit 400 parents and 18 teachers, and file a 400-page document describing their new school — while fighting union leaders and school administrators with six-figure salaries to protect and an arsenal of dirty tricks to employ.

Along the way she cheerfully tramples the property rights of her two employers by giving away free booze to potential supporters at her bartending job and working on the school project during her receptionist duties at a car dealership. Her boss is portrayed as a sharp-nosed busybody, but she has a right to expect an employee’s full attention at work, doesn’t she? And what about Jamie’s responsibility as a mother? She complains about her daughter not getting extra help from the teacher, but shouldn’t she be helping her own child learn to read? How hard is it to read with a child at a second grade level?

The film addresses most of the right problems, with union bylaws and tenure protection at the top of the list. A teacher refuses to stay after school to help a dyslexic student with her reading; it turns out that teachers are actually prevented from staying after school by their union contract. An administrator responds to each complaint with the same tired phrase, “We are addressing that,” as a way to placate the parent while promising nothing. He acknowledges that tenured teachers can’t be fired for being poor teachers, so they are moved from school to school. Woe to the children who are stuck in their classrooms for an entire year!

(Years ago I complained about a teacher who showed movies almost every day, while she played games on the computer. When I told the administrator that she showed The Lion King that day, his face darkened. “Lion King??” he raged. “I told them they couldn’t show Lion King!” Then he shrugged and added, “I know she’s a lousy teacher. There’s nothing I can do. She has tenure.” And she was the department chair to boot. I moved my daughter to a private school. But many parents can’t afford that option.)

So why don’t more parents and teachers take over their failing schools? Time is the biggest deterrent. It usually takes three to five years to get through the process of gathering support, filing papers, writing a charter, hiring teachers, and selecting curriculum. By that time, most children will have moved on to middle school. It requires a person with genuine dedication to the neighborhood to be willing to go through this effort for someone else’s kids. In the film, one teachers’ union administrator complains cynically, “When students start paying union dues, I will start protecting the interests of children,” and he’s right about that. One of the biggest problems with the public school system is that the payer is not the recipient of the service.

Moreover, it takes skill and experience to teach a class or manage a school. That same union administrator suggests that having parents take over a school is “like handing over the plane to the passengers,” and to a certain extent, he is right about that, too. Consider the kinds of neighborhoods that harbor failing schools. Parents with good educations, good jobs, and good incomes will simply move to another neighborhood, or deposit their children in private schools, as I did. They are too busy earning a living to have time to run a school.

Nevertheless, this film ends with cheering crowds and a crescendo of violins. (But is it any surprise that they manage to succeed? In a matter of months? Does Secretariat win the Triple Crown?) But there is no true victory in this film. A charter school may be better than a failing public school, but it is still based on a failing premise: although they are run by parents and teachers, these are still government schools. Salaries are still funded by local property taxes, and students are still tested according to federal standardized guidelines. The film even ends with a rap version of Kennedy’s famous message: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The first is socialism, the second is feudalism. Neither bodes well for creativity and individual success. Whatever happened to “Do what you can to take care of yourself”?

The biggest deterrent to good education — standardized testing — isn’t even addressed in this film. I could write a whole treatise on the unintended consequences of “No Child Left Behind.” We now have an entire generation of young people who have been taught that there is only one correct answer to any question: the one they have been spoonfed by the teacher. Creativity and innovation are rewarded with an F.

A charter school may be better than a failing public school, but it is still based on a failing premise.

As for the teachers? They’re getting burned out too. I attended an early evening screening. Just before the film began, several groups of women walked into the theater. All of them talked to each other throughout the screening, looked at their cell phones, and went out to buy treats or visit the bathroom. I would have been more distracted, had I not been used to this kind of behavior; I’m a teacher. I interviewed these ladies after the show. You guessed it: most were teachers. They probably didn’t even realize that they were acting like their students.

Won’t Back Down is an earnest little film, one that is well intentioned but overlong and overacted. Viola Davis looks too tired to be a fighter; and Holly Hunter, normally such a fine actress, is particularly posed and affected in her delivery, her trademark speech impediment, and her gigantic hairstyle. Maggie Gyllenhaal does her best to ignite the enthusiasm of the cast in the same way her character tries to ignite the enthusiasm of the community, brightening her eyes and smiling until her face nearly explodes with goodwill. But it doesn’t work. At just over two hours, the film is 30 minutes too long for a story with no action and little suspense.

Moreover, although Won’t Back Down claims to be “inspired by true events,” it is neither true nor realistic. I couldn’t find a single actual case in which parents have successfully taken over a school under a parent-trigger law. Some have tried, but my research did not turn up any that have succeeded.

If you are genuinely interested in films about failing school systems and want to know how to fix them, I recommend two recent documentaries: Waiting for Superman (2010, directed by Davis Guggenheim) and The Cartel (2009, directed by Bob Bowdon).


Editor's Note: Review of "Won’t Back Down," directed by Daniel Barnz. Walden Media, 2012, 121 minutes.



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Governments Finally Outsourcing

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A report out on a small Michigan city points the way for other school districts to deal with their looming fiscal problems.

The city is Highland Park, which faces a major problem with its school district, consisting of three schools and 1,000 students. The system ranks near the bottom in the state academically, and it is facing a fiscal fiasco.

In fact, only a wretched 22% of the system’s third-grade students passed the state’s reading exams, and a pathetic 10% of them passed the math exams, last year. Only 10% of its high school students tested proficient on reading, and 0% — yes, precisely none of them — tested proficient in math.

This, in a district that last year spent over $16,500 per student, which is 80% more than the average per student expenditure for the state (which last year was about $9,200 per pupil)!

Moreover, despite the fact that its student population has plummeted by two-thirds in the past five years, the district’s deficit has exploded — reaching over $11 million last year.

So the Highland Park school district has taken a bold step: it is borrowing a tool commonly employed in private industry, outsourcing — the process by which one company hires a second company to handle some part of its operations. For example, a major retailer (such as Walmart or Costco) will often hire industrial janitorial firms to handle the cleaning of their stores, rather than hiring janitors within their own companies.

Outsourcing has a number of benefits, most importantly improving efficiency and increasing accountability. It improves efficiency because the company that outsources operations will be able to hire a company that specializes in that aspect of business. It improves accountability, because if the company outsourcing doesn’t see an improvement in that aspect of its business, it can terminate the service and hire another contracting firm to do the job. This puts pressure on the contracted company to do the job properly and within the price negotiated.

Highland Park is outsourcing its entire school system to the charter school company Leona Group.

The Leona Group runs 54 schools in five states. While almost half the students in them don’t score at standard levels, that is on average better than the public schools they replace. And in Michigan, 19 of 22 schools that Leona runs do meet state standards. Moreover, Leona’s contract is for five years, so if it doesn’t dramatically improve student outcomes, it can easily be replaced. That is the missing factor in district-run schools: accountability.

Charter schools have some major advantages over district-run schools. While the charters are overseen and funded by the district, they have substantial freedom when it comes to setting union contracts, curricula development, and teacher standards. And precisely because they are not controlled by teachers unions, they are usually much less costly to the taxpayer.

Indeed, Leona Group will charge the district only $7,100 per student, plus an annual management fee of $780,000 — dramatically less than what the district is currently paying.

Public school outsourcing is a growing trend. Highland Park is the second district in Michigan to outsource its schools to charter schools. Several districts in Georgia have also done the same thing. Of course New Orleans has already converted most of its schools to charters (which has already produced a dramatic increase in graduation rates) and even allows its students to use the newly issued state educational vouchers.

Other districts are now eyeing this novel idea — novel, that is, only in the world of government; it has been a staple of private industry management forever. In Michigan alone there are 48 districts in fiscal peril (with a collective $429 million in annual deficits).

Naturally, the teachers unions are fighting outsourcing fang and claw, but given the looming financial disaster, the pressure for extensive education outsourcing is increasing rapidly.

Outsourcing district-run schools to charter school companies is a tool that many districts can and should consider, especially as more and more of our cities declare bankruptcy.




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OMG! The Free Market Works!

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An unintentionally hilarious piece recently appeared in the Pravda of contemporary progressive liberalism, The New York Times.

This lachrymose report laments the fact that major public school districts around the country are losing customers — oops! students — and the result is layoffs. Of teacher union members, no less! Quelle horreur!

Between 2005 and 2010, Broward County (FL), Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus (OH), Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Bernardino, and Tucson have all lost students, some massively.

The article tells some tragic tales. LA let go of 8,500 teachers in the face of an enrollment drop of 56,000 students. Mesa Unified District lost 7,155 students and had to close four middle schools and lay off librarians — the ultimate evil.

The cutbacks are threatening offerings in art, foreign languages, and music.

But to what do the authors of this mournful article attribute this decline? They mention declining birthrates, unemployed parents moving elsewhere to find work, and illegal immigration crackdowns. But they also mention — tentatively and skeptically — the movement of students from regular district schools (essentially run by the teacher unions) to charter schools (run more or less autonomously, i.e., not under the unions’ thumb).

In Columbus, enrollment in charter schools rose by 9,000 students while enrollment in the public school district dropped by 6,150. One honest parent explained, “The classes were too big, the kids were unruly and didn’t pay attention to the teachers.” So she sent her dyslexic daughter to a nearby charter school, where — GASP! — “one of the teachers stayed after school every Friday to help her.”

In an institution where pleasing the customer is actually important, it’s no surprise that her daughter received the help she needed.

Nationwide, while the number of kids in regular public schools dropped by 5%, the number in charter schools rose by 60%.

Naturally, the public school system special interest groups — greedy unions, self-righteous teachers, callous administrators, and so on — are hysterical. For example, one Jeffrey Mirel, an “education historian” at the University of Michigan, bleated that public schools are in danger of becoming “the schools nobody wants.”

Wrong! Public schools have been for some timethe schools that nobody wants. Before the 1960s, teachers unions either didn't exist or — where they did — didn't exert the control they assumed in the 1970s. Teachers unions run schools for the benefit of their members only. So the problems started accelerating.But what’s happening right now is that some few lucky kids are being given the choice to get out — and they’re taking it.




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State Tests vs. School Choice

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A few months ago, Richard Phelps attracted attention with an article in The Wilson Quarterly called "Teach to the Test?” Its argument is that "most of the problems with [school] testing have one surprising source: cheating by school administrators and teachers."

Last week an investigative report published in Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution found indications of standardized test cheating in school systems throughout the US.

Certainly cheating of various types is a big problem in education. But it is not really that surprising. Where else would the highest stakes of evaluation be left up to the individuals or groups being evaluated? But these articles proceed from the unquestioned assumption that state tests are an appropriate way to hold schools accountable for quality. For instance, Richard Phelps wrote, “Without standardized tests, there would be no means for members of the public to reliably gauge learning in their schools.”

The state tests are wrong both for what they leave out and for what they include.

I agree that the purpose of education is to increase academic skills. I agree that tests ought to be used to determine what students have learned. I agree that more learning is better. I do not agree with folks who say that testing is bad and that schools should not give tests because that stifles teacher creativity. I do not agree with the proposition that tests can’t measure what is important in education.

Neither do I agree, however, with the use of state-constructed tests to attempt to hold schools accountable for quality. It has taken me several years to come to this position. I have three main reasons.

First there is the issue of alignment. Whatever the state chooses to put on the test becomes, in essence, the required curriculum of all the schools in the state, even if it is wrong. The state tests are wrong both for what they leave out and for what they include. For example, state tests for elementary age students in reading and math ignore fundamental areas of the curriculum. I refer to accuracy and fluency in decoding the meanings of words, in the statement (memorization) of mathematical facts, in mathematical calculations, and in spelling. State tests simply don’t bother to measure these pillars of an elementary education, even though they are critical to future educational success.

I run six charter schools, which due to our use of a trend-bucking curriculum called Direct Instruction (DI), mostly achieve better test scores than the school districts in which we reside. DI is a specific, scripted, sequential elementary curriculum (grades K through 5) that takes much of the guesswork out of teaching. The lessons are carefully crafted to be easily understood, build only on what has been taught in earlier lessons, and prepare students precisely for what is to come. There are programs for reading, math, spelling, and writing. All but the very lowest special education students can learn from these programs and emerge from elementary school with average or above average skills. DI is hated by the progressive educators at universities, but we love it, and so do our students and parents.

Curricula such as DI that focus on bringing all the fundamental student skills to mastery (including the ones not tested) must do so on top of teaching the things that are measured on the test — while other schools focus all their efforts on the test material. A majority of American elementary schools no longer teach spelling, for example, simply because it is not measured on the state tests. While learning how to spell is an essential skill, the state tests have pushed it out of the curriculum. Not to mention all the other critical content not tested and no longer taught.

Conversely, state tests focus strongly on a number of things that, although they sound good, are not skills to be taught but attributes of intelligence that we desire. These attributes are such things as the ability of bright elementary students to make inferences from unfamiliar texts, to write interesting imaginative stories, and to find creative solutions to unique word problems in mathematics.

These attributes, and their application, are not an emphasis of the very strong DI elementary curriculum. But if schools that use DI, such as my own, taught what is in our curriculum (what kids need) and ignored the less relevant, they would get lower state test scores and be branded as poor schools. Schools ought to be able to use their own tests to measure what their own curriculum plans to teach, and be evaluated on how well the school does what it claims it will do. Parents, of course, could select schools according to the nature of their claims as well as their performance.

Second, people forget important facts about state tests. One is that the results have no consequences for the children. Another is that these are children taking these tests. Children are subject to wide swings in their performance, often depending on testing circumstances. In our schools we have found children who have been well taught but who for years have failed the test. Yet they can reach not only "proficient" but “exceeds proficient” if their teacher sits next to them and makes them read the test aloud and gives them breaks when they get tired. Essentially we are making certain that they actually do their best on what to them is a very long test. This is not cheating. These practices are specifically allowed by the state rules for students who need them; they are called an “accommodation.”And it is an appropriate accommodation. It just shows the best that the student can do. Guess what? Children don’t always do their best. Sometimes they just guess their way through the test to get it over with. If those children go to another school, where no one they know or care about is monitoring their test performance or where they are allowed to do fun stuff when they are “done,” they will probably turn in a failing score the next year.

If we expect teachers and administrators to want to work with populations that are below average in some way, we have to stop proclaiming that those who teach the smarter students are better teachers.

Third is the issue of students' ability. Obviously, the more able students are, the easier it is for them to learn. The less able they are, the harder the teacher and the school must work to teach them. Scores on state tests are as much a measure of how smart the student body is, as they are a measure of how well the teachers teach. It is ridiculously unfair to ignore this fact and proclaim that high test scores mean a school is good and low test scores mean it is bad. That would be true only if the student bodies of the schools were evenly matched in IQ — which is never the case. It is a heavier lift to raise test scores in a school that enrolls many students with low ability, or learning difficulties; and until we begin to measure the weight of the load, we cannot claim to know who is stronger. If we expect teachers and administrators to want to work with populations that are below average in some way, we have to stop proclaiming that those who teach the smarter students are better teachers, just because their students get higher test scores.

We would be far better off if the states stopped giving their tests, instituted more school choice, and left it up to schools to find a way to prove they were doing a good job for the consumers — just as it happens in every other service industry. We could do it easily in our schools, without a state test. If we gave aligned end-of-year final exams for each of our DI programs and shared the results with parents, they would be blown away by what we teach. Few students outside of our schools could match that performance. That’s how you prove quality, not with bogus, we’ll-decide-what’s-important-to-learn, state tests.




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