Sunday, October 24, 2010
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.