TED and school

Last Friday, Simon and I were debriefing his talk at TEDx Philly. These types of events are becoming increasingly common. The basic idea is to get a bunch of smart, dynamic, creative people in one place at the same time, have them share their work, and see what happens. The format varies a bit (TED is more presentation based, whereas events like the Aspen Ideas Festival offer more unstructured time for discussion), but what they have in common is the belief that this kind of cross-pollination of people and ideas is generative. Continue Reading

The Ludic Fallacy

I’ve been reading a lot of Nassim Nicholas Taleb of late, first Fooled by Randomness and now The Black Swan. The gist of both books is the same: we don’t know a lot more than we do know, yet we tend to think the opposite is true and behave accordingly. The logic of quantitative analysis exacerbates this problem. Statistical models (and Taleb is especially harsh on economists), are premised on estimates of error. A relationship is found to exist with a p value of .05, meaning that there is a 5% chance the relationship is attributable to chance or randomness. Even if that is true, what happens within that 5 percent can be vastly more important than the cumulative impact of everything that happens within the more predictably charted 95 percent. These low-probability, high-impact events are what Taleb calls Black Swans. Continue Reading

Leadership, Governance, and Teachers

There’s an interesting interview here describing what it would mean to “flip the script” and put teachers in a leadership position in schools. I liked the tone — this isn’t an immediate, magical solution — as well as the awareness that teachers already work hard and are mostly looking to spend their hours doing activities that actually help students.

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Wrong about everything, except what matters most

It’s pretty hard to argue with Aiden’s criticism of Waiting for Superman. (As a nice complement, Diane Ravitch has written a less philosophical but very persuasive critique of the film’s claims about both what’s wrong with schools and how to fix it.)

Sitting here on November 4, however, two days after a major shift in who gets to make decisions about schools, I can’t help but feel that in the bigger debate, the one where we ask ourselves whether or not we care about poor kids, Guggenheim and Co. are on the same team we are. For all of the film’s oversimplifications and distortions, all of the magic bullet rhetoric we hate, all the union bashing, all the charter promoting (though to be honest this is not as bad as I expected it would be), and all the mania about test scores, at the end of the day the purpose of Continue Reading

A Convenient Lie

A Convenient Lie
By C. Aiden Downey

Waiting for Superman is a misnomer, as director David Guggenheim not only finds Superman (played by Jeffry Canada) but also Wonderwoman (Michele Rhree), both of who are already trying to saving children from what Rhee, chronically tangled up in her own truth lasso, confesses to be a “crappy education.”  “Documentary” is yet another misnomer, as this movie is more an emotional informercial full of feckless heartstring yanking that would make a weepy Sally Struthers smile.  In a nutshell, Guggenhiem follows the quickly curdling storylines of five families’ plights to get their kids a less crappy education, all the while splicing in entertaining yet inane cartoons and film clips to go along with mercilessly massaged charts, graphs and histories meant to incite rather than inform us, to get us mad as hell at ________.

Waiting for Superman is like one big test prep course aimed at getting us to fill in this blank correctly.  First, though, Guggenhiem tries to get us to see fixing education in America as akin to a breaking the speed of sound, as having already been figured out by Canada, Rhee and other members of the Hall of Superheroes, and therefore something we as a country must get up the guts to do.  According to Guggenhiem, fixing schools is all about ferreting out who is failing kids.  To this end, the charts, cartoons and blurbs running like commercials in between cute kids hurdling towards an educational cliff form one big giant finger pointing at-drum roll please- bad teachers and the unions that protect them! Together, these two entities make up the League of Doom for Guggenhiem, an educational Al qaeda in which the union supports “sleeper” cells of bad teachers who carry out indiscriminate attacks on innocent students.

Take Guggenheim’s use of a film clip from the original Superman television series in which the man of steel saves a school bus full of children careening down a steep road, only to find the the driver asleep at the wheel.  Shown beside footage of teachers sleeping in the infamous New York rubber room, the clip makes no bones about who is asleep at the wheel and what this is doing to kid’s futures.  Throughout the movie, Guggenhiem spares all complexity to frame teachers as the problem, and unions as doing nothing more than protecting these teachers, who he animates as little dancing lemons principals toss between schools.

Even more telling is his cartoon of a teacher opening up student’s empty heads and pouring in knowledge that looks strangely like alphabet soup. This scene inadvertently opens up Guggenhiem’s head to us, revealing a dangerously impoverished understanding of not only teaching, learning and for that matter the purpose of public education in a democratic state.  Instead Guggenhiem layers in dubious research about our education system’s falling behind the rest of the world to deliver a message as simple-minded as it is self-sealing: kids go to school to get filled with knowledge to go to college to get good jobs that we must now give to better educated foreigners.  This “A Nation at Risk” redux is the runaway ideological train steaming through the whole movie; the train is never examined but highly endorsed by American aristocrats such as the technological robber baron turned uberphilanthropist Bill Gates.

Public education in a democracy must serve more than the economy.   Education must  prepare citizens to be critically engaged participants in their community, society, government and globe.  This engagement involves learning to collectively question the assumptions underlying movies such as Waiting for Superman, as this kind of education is our only safeguard against people like Guggienheim trying to opening up our heads and pouring his answers in.

A telling irony lies in the fact that we do not hear from teachers in a movie that is, for all practical purposes, all about them.   While teachers show up in clips of good teaching (which in case you did not know is standing in front of a classroom chalking and talking knowledge into kid’s heads) and as buffoons in the videos and cartoons, they do everything but speak.  Instead, everyone speaks for and about them.  Guggenhiem, who cannot get enough of his own voiceovers, treats teachers like nineteenth century women and children- best seen but not heard.  For their perspective might sully Guggenhiem’s tidy story, making it less politically palatable and therefore less easy to pour.

Waiting for Superman is as close as I have seen to an educational adaptation of the spaghetti western  Continue Reading