Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fact-checking 'Waiting for Superman': Documentary or Urban Myth? byLeonie Haimson - The Huffington Post

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In the movie Waiting for "Superman," the following statement is made:
" Illinois, one in 57 doctors loses his or her medical license, and one in 97 attorneys loses his or her law license, but only one teacher in 2500 has ever lost his or her credentials."

While looking for the source of this claim, which is repeated without citation in the movie and its companion book, I came upon a2007 newspaper article by Scott Reeder, of the Small Newspaper Group:
During the past six years, 1 in 2,500 Illinois educators have lost their teaching credentials through suspension, revocation or surrender. By comparison, during the same period 1 in 57 doctors practicing in Illinois lost their medical licenses and 1 in 97 Illinois attorneys lost their law licenses.

"Either Illinois teachers are 43 times better behaved than doctors or they are being held to a considerably lower professional standard than other professions,'' said Jeff Mays, executive director of the Illinois Business Roundtable and an advocate for educator accountability standards. "Just like doctors and lawyers, teachers are members of an important and demanding profession. It's time that they be held to the same professional standards."

Since the movie was released, these figures have been repeated frequently, taking up five pages in the Google search engine, and were cited in The New York Times review, the British Independent, as well as on the Brian Williams-hosted television program Education Nation on NBC.
But apparently not a single one of these news outlets, or the makers of Waiting for Superman, has ever bothered to check these figures.
In an effort to verify these claims, I first consulted the summary put out by the Federation of State Medical Boards.
In reality, only 121 doctors lost their licenses in Illinois in 2009, out of 43,670 physicians, rather than 1 in 57, as the movie claims. That means an average of 0.3 percent of doctors per year lost their licenses; or 3 out 1,000 per year - about one tenth of the figure claimed in the film.
Over the last five years, the number of Illinois doctors who have lost their licenses annually ranged from 99 to 173 each year, so the rate has not varied much over time. Similarly, 161 physicians in New York State lost their medical licenses in 2009, out of 64,818; about 0.2 percent, or 2 out of every 1,000 per year - an even smaller figure.
I also checked the figures offered in the film that 1 in 97 attorneys in Illinois lose their licenses annually. According to data reported by the American Bar Association, 26 lawyers in Illinois were disbarred in 2009, out of a total of 58,457 - in some cases, by mutual consent.
So the annual rate of attorneys disbarred in Illinois is about .04 percent -- meaning that approximately four out of 10,000 lawyers lose their licenses to practice, rather than one out of 97 as claimed in "Waiting for Superman." The number involuntarily disbarred was only ten out 58,457 -- approximately 0.017 percent, nearly a hundred times smaller than the 1 percent figure cited in the film.
The total number of lawyers disbarred in the entire country, either involuntarily or by mutual consent, was 800 per year out of 1,180,386; which is about .07 percent per year, or 7 out of 10,000. The number of those involuntarily disbarred was 441 -- or about .04 percent or 4 out of 10,000 per year. This is about 1/100 of the figure claimed in the film. It is also far less than the figure inWaiting for Superman of one in 2500 Illinois teachers who lost their credentials.
I have tried hard to find independent verification for the number of teachers losing their credentials each year. According to theNY Daily News, over the past three years , 88 out of about 80,000 New York City schoolteachers have lost their jobs for "poor performance." This is an annual rate of about 30 per year out of 80,000, or .03 percent, about the same as attorneys who are involuntarily disbarred nationally.
According to the Houston Chronicle, over the last five years, 364 Houston public school teachers have been fired, out of about 12,000. "Of those, 140 were ousted for performance reasons, a broad category that generally covers teachers not fulfilling their job duties."
So the rate of teachers losing their license to teach in Houston is about 3 percent per year -- far higher than the rate of either doctors or attorneys in Texas removed from their profession each year. For example, in Texas, only 32 attorneys were disbarred in 2009 out of 75,087; an annual rate of .004 percent -- a rate nearly a hundred times smaller.
Moreover, many more teachers who are untenured and/or uncertified were removed from their jobs for poor performance. Roughly 3.7 percent of teachers in NYC were denied tenure this year, according to The New York Times.
The overall attrition rate of teachers is much higher yet -- many of whom would probably otherwise be cited for poor performance, but who leave the profession either willingly, or "counseled" out. In NYC, the four year attrition rate is more than 40 percent -- a mind-boggling figure.
In reality, one of the most serious problems plaguing our urban schools, along with excessive class sizes, overcrowding, and poor support for teachers and students, is the egregiously high rate of teacher attrition -- with the result that we have too many inexperienced educators entering and leaving our high-needs schools each year.
Can you imagine if 40 percent of physicians or attorneys left their jobs after four years? A national emergency would be declared, with a commission appointed to find out how their working conditions should be improved.
Yet instead of examining this critical issue objectively, Waiting for Superman cites false statistics in their effort to scapegoat teachers, unfairly blaming them for all the failures of our urban schools. The film features the views of Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institute, a well-known conservative critic of equitable educational funding, claiming that the best way to improve our schools would be to fire 5-10 percent of teachers each year.
To the contrary, eliminating teacher tenure and seniority protections would likely produce an even less experienced and less effective teaching force -- especially in our urban public schools, which already suffer from excessively high rates of turnover.
As a parent, I support a higher standard for teacher tenure and more rigorous teacher evaluation systems. I have seen my own children suffer as a result of poor teaching, though this has occurred as often in schools without union protections as those that were unionized. An improved evaluation system would take into account not only test score data, but also feedback from other teachers, administrators, students and parents.
But at this point, we simply cannot trust the corporate oligarchy currently making policies for our schools to create a fair evaluation system, including those who backed Waiting for "Superman," given their proclivity to misuse and distort data, as shown by the egregiously inaccurate figures cited in the film.
Rather than a documentary, perhaps the movie should be re-categorized, with an appropriate disclaimer, as an urban myth.