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STANFORD UNIVERSITY – Education spending in America has more than doubled in the last four decades – yet math and reading scores have flat-lined.

What’s the remedy? A panel of educators at Stanford cautioned against the quick policy cures implied in the explosive Waiting for Superman.

The controversial film, (directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame, with executive producer Jeff Skoll, MBA ’91), made the cover of Time, was touted on The Oprah Winfrey Show and received the audience award for best documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

The panel discussion following an Oct. 4 screening on the Stanford campus was cautiously supportive of the 90-minute film, which offers a disturbing window into the lives and hopes of five at-risk kids and their families.

The panel, moderated by Michael Krasny of KQED, included Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, an education adviser to President Obama; San Francisco’s Valerie Ziegler, one of the five 2010 California Teachers of the Year and a member of Stanford’s Accomplished California Teachers Network; and Eric Hanushek,  a senior fellow and education analyst at the Hoover Institution. Hanushek is featured in the film.

While critics charge the film with attacking unions, bashing teachers, distracting viewers from economic inequities and upholding standardized testing, the panelists took away a different message.

Ziegler took 14 of her students to see the film, and asked them for their biggest impression. “A quality teacher in every classroom – that was overwhelmingly what they said,” Ziegler said. “It’s a civil rights issue. Every child deserves that. It really has to happen.”

Darling-Hammond agreed with Ziegler.

“Clearly that’s a key takeaway,” she said. “What doesn’t come through is how we would get a good teacher in every classroom.”

The film focuses repeatedly on comparisons with Finland. However, Darling-Hammond pointed out that Finnish teachers get “10 times more professional development,” with two to three years of graduate education fully paid for, “a decent salary,” mentoring from the first day in the classroom, 15-20 hours a week of collaboration with peers, and good school facilities.

These teachers also know that their “kids would come to school fed and housed and healthy – it’s built into the infrastructure” in a nation that has a social welfare system that includes universal daycare, preschool and health care, Darling-Hammond said.

Hanushek said the film shows that “the vast majority [of teachers] are hardworking and effective in the classroom.”

“What also comes across is that a small portion of our teachers are actually harming kids,” he said.

The film showed New York City’s “rubber rooms” – the reassignment centers where teachers accused of wrongdoing show up every day, sometimes for years, doing no work and drawing full salaries while the cases against them are pending. “Rubber rooms” cost the city $30 million annually.

Hanushek, however, said, “I’m actually a fan of the rubber room. If they can’t be fired, let’s keep them away from the kids.”

He maintained that replacing the bottom percentage of teachers with teachers of only average ability “could in fact lead to a level of achievement in the U.S. comparable to Finland.”

He said that charter schools weren’t always the answer, although some of the nation’s best were hailed in the film.

“Twenty percent are doing significantly better than public schools, another 20 % are doing worse,” Hanushek said. (In a 2009 study, Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent of charter schools had better test scores than traditional schools while 37 percent were significantly worse.)

Krasny pointed out that charter schools can have high levels of teacher attrition. And Darling-Hammond said that some charter schools spend enormous amounts of time raising private money.

“What you don’t see in this film are other successful public schools that are getting results in ways that are more sustainable,” said Darling-Hammond. “You can get comparable results for a fraction of the cost.”

Hanushek said: ”Choice and local autonomy are the answers. It’s different than the regulatory answers we look at from Sacramento. I think it’s insane. That’s why we’re No. 47,” referring to California’s national ranking in student achievement.

While the film offers no new revelations, it puts a face on inequities in U.S. society and destroys the common myth that parents of at-risk children don’t care about their children’s welfare or fail to support their education. The film concludes with the heartbreaking ritual of lottery balls to determine entry into schools that often have 20 applicants for every opening.

“One of the unmentioned features [in the film] is the inequality of resources. In a lot of states, you have a three-to-one ratio” of resources between the most affluent and poorest schools, said Darling-Hammond. “You can see in the film the lack of investment in the physical plants.”

Failure occurs with the combination of “the least well-resourced kids and the least-resourced schools,” she said, “and you slap your cheeks and say, ‘Oh! We have an achievement gap!’”

“What we are looking for is how to build a system that will work for all kids – not kids waiting for a lottery ball to fall,” said Darling-Hammond.


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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Experts Caution Against Heavily Relying on Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers
  2. Teachers’ Preferences for Where They Teach May Disadvantage Urban Schools
  3. Race to the Top Makes Schools Prove Their Worth

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