The new documentary film Waiting for Superman packs quite a wallop. Directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth, it promotes school choice, champions charter schools, and blames teacher unions for much of what ails American public education. It has also taken the educational world by storm since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. On September 20th, The Oprah Winfrey Show focused on the film and featured a discussion including Bill Gates, an enthusiastic supporter of the project. The cover of New York Magazine asked “Can One Little Movie Save America’s Schools?” and Tom Friedman heaped praise on the film in The New York Times. American TV networks are rolling out programs based upon the film and Time Magazine is planning a full-scale conference on the theme.
Public and media reaction to Waiting for Superman in the United States has been, in a word, “rapturous.” Not so in Canada, where the film first exploded upon the scene. Indeed, the first public response by Dr. Jane Gaskell, former Education Dean at OISE/Toronto, threw cold water on the entire production. In The Toronto Star (September 16), Gaskell blew a gasket, denouncing the movie, the Gates Foundation, and all those who might think its lessons apply here in Canada.
The world premiere of Waiting for Superman sparked a mini-explosion within the Ontario education establishment. It also proved Doretta Wilson and the Society for Quality Education right, once again. http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/index.php/blog/read/if-they-could-just-get-some-kryptonite/
The call for Charter Schools in Canada always hits a raw nerve at OISE and among the usual apologists for the current system. Since the emergence of Charter Schools in the early 1990s, the official reaction has been apoplectic. The Canadian educational establishment, under stress, becomes an impenetrable public fortress beholden to its core interests, bureaucratic solidarity and union rights. Instead of fairly evaluating proposals to broaden School Choice, we are treated, time after time, to a defensive response casting aspersions on the motives of its proponents. Even though up to 33% of student learning is determined by teacher effectiveness, addressing the critical issue of teacher quality is never on the agenda.
Charter schools have been with us in Canada for over 15 years. They are publicly-funded, autonomous schools which are formed to “provide innovative or enhanced education programs that improve the acquisition of student skills, attitudes, and knowledge in some measurable way.” (Alberta Education, 2010). The first Canadian charter schools in Alberta were the result of the tireless campaigning of Dr. Joe Freedman, a fiercely determined radiologist from Red Deer, Alberta. Since March 1994, Alberta has been the only province to authorize charters. Today, Alberta continues to embrace “School Choice” in public education and to support 13 different charter schools. (www.education.alberta.ca)
Following the breakthrough in Alberta, education reform groups favouring “School Choice” mounted a campaign in Ontario and in Atlantic Canada. The Ontario Coalition for Education Reform, the Society for Quality Education, and the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS) all embraced the cause. Inspired by Dr. Freedman and American advocates of charters, the groups held conferences and published pamphlets proclaiming Charter Schools “an idea whose time has come.” The frenzied activity peaked in 1997 and then stalled when educational authorities closed ranks and attempted to out-flank the proponents by embracing a domesticated version of student testing and accountability. The Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, normally an ally, undermined the whole effort by publishing a “Freedom Index” suggesting (erroneously) that Canada’s public system already had more educational choice than the United States.
Parental choice remains very popular in Canada, in spite of the current constraints in the system. Today’s parents are very much aware of the success of Charter Schools in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and in parts of the United States. Many Canadian parents with high expectations for their children are aware of the KIPP schools thriving in the U.S.
In Alberta, the existing Charter Schools have survived, but still face surprisingly strong institutional resistance, fueled by the teacher unions. A recent January 2010 Canada West Foundation report, “Innovation in Action: An Examination of Charter Schools in Alberta,” put it best: Alberta’s chartering legislation is a straight-jacket which amounts to “the equivalent of clipping a bird’s wings and then asking it to fly.” (www.cwf.ca) Still, there is hope and a few signs of progress. Forward-looking school systems, like the Edmonton Board, the Toronto Public Board, and the Langley BC Board, have embraced school-based management and allowed more choice within their schools.
Now for the Big Question: Living as we do in a North American cultural universe, will Waiting for Superman awaken Canadians to the possibilities of school choice and the advantages of charter schools? Can a “little Hollywood movie” put Charter Schools back on the education reform agenda? And if Charter Schools are sanctioned in other Canadian provinces, how do we ensure that their wings are not clipped at birth by those ingenious educrats and their system “partners”?