Sunday, October 24, 2010

"Superman" offers right question, fractions of the answer

Beau and I (and five other people) saw "Waiting for Superman" this afternoon in Lexington.  Like David Guggenheim's earlier "An Inconvenient Truth," the film aims to convert a giant policy issue into a giant popular mobilization, this time focusing on public education.  I'll share my thoughts as pluses and wishes, hoping that both can be helpful in thinking about the movie and the issues.

As a reflection of children's potential and parents' concerns, "Waiting for Superman" does quite a good job.  It tracks a set of children hoping to be admitted to charter schools, four to avoid deeply troubled urban schools and one to avoid the hazards of tracking in a functioning suburban high school.

As a presentation of great teaching, it also does a good job.  In fact, it makes it clear that the founders of the famous KIPP academies got some of their best strategies from their public school colleagues, and Bill Gates' brief interview includes a clear statement (wish I had that sentence on tape) about the role of teachers pulling together to figure out how to deliver.

As a statement of a civic issue, it's also sturdy: how do we provide stronger schools for all students in a situation where nearly all current schools fall a bit short of what we need and some are alarmingly weak?

"Waiting for Superman" makes it too easy to imagine that most elementary schools have teachers who overlook students' actual reading success and ignore parent phone calls and that most high schools are dropout factories that fail to graduate 40 percent or more of their entering students.  I wish that there had been a clearer distinction between the relatively rare calamity schools and the vast majority of schools that need to pick up their game to meet rising economic challenges.

The film doesn't quite say "the solution is to have many more charter schools."  It does say that only one in five charter schools delivers great results.  But all the schools it holds up as worth attending are charter schools.  I can only remember only one model of innovation inside existing public schools--and that consisted of calling for an end to tenure.  The main emphasis is, in fact, on escaping from places where current teaching is not strong enough.  That's a shame.  I deeply wish the film had been more interested in how individual teachers grow in their craft.

Finally, the film simply didn't see what strikes me as the most important piece of the whole education puzzle: creating the shared cultures in which all teachers develop fully effective skills.  You could ask me to design a bridge and give me a stack of engineering books--and you know perfectly well I'd need years and classes and coaches and colleagues to be able to do it.  Same thing for setting bones or removing gall bladders.  Same thing for creating 3-D computer animations.  No one masters any profession without ongoing learning, and no one reaches excellence in any craft without sustained support.  The educators in Kentucky's schools that beat the poverty odds deliver by working together and being that support for one another.  I'm willing to bet the one in five charter schools that make a big difference do it the same way.  Most of all, I wish the film had gotten to that key point: the work that raises achievement and closes gaps happens in teams, or it does not happen at all.

As a nation, we've tried less money, more money, teaching subjects separately, teaching them in combination, open classrooms, closed classrooms, tests with no stakes, tests with high stakes, state mandates, and local options.  What works is direct, hands-on, in-school commitment to teachers who collaborate to study student results, figure out instructional solutions, and develop their skills together.  The key issue is figuring out how to ensure that it happens in one, two, one hundred, one thousand, and eventually every school in the country.


  1. Thanks for giving some context to the film and adding some nuance to the conversation about it, Susan. As tempting as it is, we shouldn't throw deeper thoughts about what makes a good teacher under the bus of moral outrage.

  2. Though I have not had access to the film yet, I recently heard a well-known out of state speaker, recognized for his "born again" focus on and support for public education, after once being totally negative, say that the film was going to do tremendous harm because it painted ALL public schools as failures. I am glad to have an additional analysis of the film so that I can see it with a more educated eye.

    Fannie Louise Maddux

  3. Susan, this is the best review of this film that I've read yet. You hit the nail on the head. Charters are not a reform strategy, they are a way to create alternatives that may or may not be good. It's the quality and effectiveness of the learning community in the school that makes the difference. According to Tony Bryk's new study (with several others), Organizing Schools for Improvement, there are five key factors. If any one is missing, no sustained reform. They are: Leadership, instructional guidance (PD), professional capacity of teachers, school climate, and family and community ties. These are the essential pieces of what you're talking about.


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