Hope and despair in Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman reminded me of how lucky I am that by circumstance of birth and timing, I had access to a good public education and that I got tracked into the “academic” track as a 6th grader. It’s heartbreaking to watch parents who want their children to have more life options and get out of poverty facing few, if any choices, about the school for their child. And their option is winning the lottery or educating their child in a drop-out factory schools - even in suburbia lest you think we are exempted from this problem. Waiting for Superman is a new documentary from the people who made An Inconvenient Truth. Once again, the producers are trying to start a movement and a conversation about the American educational system. 

In this film publicity image released by Paramount Pictures, Geoffrey Canada, standing, is shown in a scene from, "Waiting for 'Superman'." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures)I wasn’t expecting to like the movie. I was expecting it to vilify teachers’ unions (they don’t look very good in the movie) and I was expecting it to herald Charter Schools (they do come out looking good). I don't believe there is a single villain or savior to this problem.  Most charter schools do worse or no better than the public school alternative. Most countries outperforming us in education have strong teacher unions. 

That said, the film provokes dialogue about the state of our educational system.  

My main takeaways from the movie are these:

1. There are no excuses for a child not to receive a great education. 

Some of these charter schools are working in terrible neighborhoods where more than 30% of the students have no parent in the home supporting their education. And succeeding. How do we replicate that?

2. Only 20% of charter schools are exceeding the performance of the public schools in their area.

These schools need to be seen as successful test labs and their methods should be adopted quickly by the others. If not, failing charter schools and failing public schools lose funding.

3. We’re over-reliant on standardized test scores.

Those tests, which don’t evaluate the skills relevant to 21st century jobs, do show that students are learning to read and do math. Considering that the other schools do not achieve those minimal goals, the tests are demonstrating improvement in reading and math.

4. Tenure is not healthy.

My school doesn’t have a tenure system – employment is at will. Teachers are evaluated and coached regularly. How else would they improve? And everyone in every job needs to continuously improve, including teachers. We also have to treat our teachers with respect so that they want to continue teaching in our school.

5. Our system is designed for the graduate job outcomes of the 1950s.  

It was designed when only 20% of students who graduated were expected to go to college.  The rest went to factories, farms or office jobs.  Today, the economic prospects for people with high school degrees are so limited – and yet we have an educational system designed to send 20% of the students to college.  Colleges report that they have to remediate 50% of their freshmen students because they weren’t well prepared. One of the reasons I love Jewish day schools is that those schools (and the parents who send their children there) traditionally aim at 100% college enrollment without remediation.

Improving school choice will start to address the problem.  The best educators I know are very comfortable with accountability for the education of children – and I wouldn’t want a school or educator who isn’t. But we must be careful not to define accountability by performance on the current crop of standardized content tests that aren’t proven to measure anything other than test taking and test teaching.

The rest of the world – especially Finland – is showing that you can measure student progress and school effectiveness with meaningful assessments that demonstrate critical thinking, communication and creativity as well as content literacy. And in virtually every country outperforming us, they do have strong teacher's unions.  

The face remains that our children and our country are being left in the dust.

Parents need to educate ourselves on what constitutes a good education and it’s not as simple as a standardized test. We must understand the implications of student tracking, IQ testing and content cramming on the education of our children. Educators and policy makers must create assessments that measure what matters across schools so that we can have accountability. And then we must allow progressive educators to experiment. Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. And spread those lessons far and wide to every school and every district. No excuses.

Start with pledging to see the movie and getting involved in the conversation. Personally, I think it is a matter of national security and our future. I’m thrilled to be involved in the pursuit of excellence in education at our school and sharing what we learn there with other schools.

What are you doing to pursue excellence in education?

Other articles on the movie:

CBS News: Waiting for Superman fuels debate over education

Why blaming the unions is counter-productive

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter on education reform under Obama