Just steps from the State House, a group of S.C. House members, mainly Republicans, crunched popcorn in the darkened Nickelodeon Theatre, watching the new education documentary “Waiting for Superman.”
South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a group fighting for seven years to convince lawmakers to offset the cost of private school tuition, rented out the theater and invited the crowd to the private movie showing. SCRG’s hope: The emotional film, which throws stones at failing, public schools, paired with shifting political winds might spell success for their movement.
No word on whether SCRG charged the standard $18.50 for the large popcorn-and-Coke combo. If they didn't, does the popcorn and Coke count as a campaign expenditure?
No word, either, on whether the lawmakers were moved by the film -- did they laugh? did they cry? did they sleep through it?
But the film has now reached the shores of Australia. And from such an objective distance comes a review that bears note for its quizzical response to American right-wing critiques of public education.
The film tells the heart-wrenching story of five children in urban schools in the US and their quest to succeed in the public lotteries that stand between them and entry into privately run public schools, known in the US as ‘charter schools’.
It’s a seamless piece of neo-liberal propaganda that points to the deficiencies of the public school system, the demonic force that teacher unions represent and the capability of the private sector to save poor children from the fate-worse-than-death that mainstream public education represents. Like all good propaganda, there are a few assumptions that underpin the action that go unarticulated, and as it happens these are some of the big questions that we are currently grappling with on a global scale when it comes to education.
You know, critics in America called it 'propaganda,' too, but they were shouted down by the film's producers, and by Oprah Winfrey, as John Legend sang inspirational songs softly in the background.
Is it propaganda? Let's see: The dictionary definition of propaganda is "information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc." That about covers it. But the Australians explain why it's propaganda:
The first of these is that poor teaching is to blame for educational systems and structures that fail to prepare young people adequately for life.
The truth is that teachers are neither society's heroes nor society's villains. There are some life-changing teachers and some that should probably be on nil-by-mouth. Both of these groups are in the absolute minority. It's the same for GPs, accountants, social workers, shop assistants and lawyers.
The point is that what we need are structures that support all teachers to develop in their professional practice over the course of their careers, and structures that support the very small minority who are unsuited to teaching to exit the profession in a dignified manner. The best way to improve the learning of our children is to support the learning of the teachers who teach them. Blaming the kids or the teachers won't actually fix systems that are outdated or broken, and strategies that will fix the system are expensive and intensive and so it's far easier to go for the quick fix. Enter the next iteration of teacher standards and a series of administrative hoops for teachers to jump through that do nothing to improve the quality of their teaching but make it look to us all like something is being done.
The important thing is that our kids leave school with a passion for the acquisition of knowledge and the skills to make it happen.
Apparently, Australians have also heard of America's test-fetish of the past decade, and they are skeptical of its introduction to their own system.
The fact is that focusing on test scores isn't the way to make children better learners, or to equip them for life, either before or after they leave school. Teachers know that the most efficient way to get good results on standardized tests is to teach to them, sacrificing actual education to test scores. Unfortunately that's counterproductive when it comes to preparing students for life. The countries that do the best on the much-lauded OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores – like Finland – do so not because a ‘default curriculum’ has taken over schools as teachers teach to standardized tests (like it has in the US and is in danger of doing here: you might see this in your local school as NAPLAN season arrives upon us shortly) but rather because they put resources into teacher development, have very limited standardized testing and have a broad curriculum that goes out of its way to engage students and develop understanding.
And Australia apparently views its teachers differently from us:
It might not be common sense but believe it or not, good teachers have some knowledge of how to 'do' education that goes beyond what you pick up as a school student, even if you're at it for 13 years.