We don't need to wait for Superman here

Fiona Millar's picture
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Interesting blog here by Helen Flynn , describing an alternative model of system-wide school improvement being tried in America, one that is very different to the highly publicised charter school experiment, currently being given millions of dollars by the Obama administration and now the subject of a full length feature film 'Waiting for Superman'. Any one who has seen the film will have noticed that, rather than offering system wide change, charter schools are clearly part of a policy that  works for the few rather than the many. The film ends with a sequence in which the featured children all wait in huge halls, like aircraft hangers, while school places are allocated in a lottery ( each child a numbered ball in a drum). One of the schools - the Harlem Success Academy - should have been re-named the Harlem Failure Academy since it clearly let down most applicants by refusing them a place in a very publicly humiliating display of failure.
I found the film fundamentally dishonest, picking on the very worst of public provision to highlight against the very best of charters, although barely mentioning that, as this academic study by Stanford University clearly shows, a significant proportion of Charter schools do worse than their public equivalents.Many have gone bust or been caught up in financial scandals and even the Harlem Children's Zone , started by 'Superman' himself, Geoffrey Canada, has patchy results in spite of spending $16000 per pupil ( almost twice that spent on most public school students) and being much more than a collection of schools, rather a cradle to grave network of social services.
Nor does the film mention the very high attrition rates ( students dropping out or being dropped out) in charter schools and the self selection involved in their admissions.It was clear that the families applying for charter schools in the film were, while less well off, knowing and aspirant for their children and prepared to travel some distance every day to get their children into 'better' schools. British political philosophers Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift described this in a recent essay, about English and American school choice policies, as 'dregs sifting'.
Overall I felt it provided few clues to what we should be doing over here. The American system is different in so many respects to ours, in particular when it comes to teachers pay, conditions and  capability; public accountability; the type of inspection regimes and the governance of schools. In a way the Americans are where we were 15 years ago before the real focus on school improvement started in this country. Even the best charter schools just reminded me of good local primary schools over here, many of which didn't need to become ' free' or privatised to offer high expectations of all pupils, longer days, extended services and work with families, although much of this will be cut now as local councils move swiftly to axe non statutory services. Too much time is spent casting around abroad for gimmicky ideas, as I pointed out in this earlier column for Education Guardian, when we could be celebrating what works at home, and building on that.
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