November 24 — 1:37 pm, 2010

We’re not waiting

“Waiting for ‘Superman,’” which has captured public attention like few other documentary films, could have advanced the public debate around the important educational questions that it tackles. Sadly, by picking easy villains and suggesting quick fixes, it has set back that discussion.

Portraying only successful charter schools and only failing district schools, the film’s deception feeds a growing myth that charters are inherently superior academically. This despite the fact that it quotes the highly regarded CREDO study of charter schools, which looked at student progress on math tests in half the nation’s charter schools and found that only 17 percent were superior to a matched traditional public school, while 37 percent were worse; in the remaining 46 percent, academic gains were similar.

Here are other harmful myths the film promotes:

  • Increased school spending doesn’t make a difference.
    But to create more slots like the SEED charter boarding school (where 5th grader Anthony applies) would cost $35,000 per student.
  • Teachers’ unions are a “menace” obstructing good teaching.
    But student achievement is lower in non-union states.
  • School districts should just terminate all their worst-performing teachers.
    But there aren’t fully qualified staff to replace all the teachers who flee the profession each year.

The film’s misdirected focus on bad teachers and obstructionist unions prompted this edition of the Notebook, in which we take a more nuanced look at teachers’ role in school reform.

What’s of value in the film is its sense of urgency about creating good school options so that students like Anthony can have quality educational opportunities. We don’t think there’s an overnight quick fix to problems of urban education, unlike many proponents of school turnaround. But that’s all the more reason to do something now.

Actions must support the transformation of persistently low-performing public schools rather than putting increasing numbers of schools in private hands. As scholar Diane Ravitch reminds us, “Public education is one of the cornerstones of American democracy. The public schools must accept everyone who appears at their doors, no matter their race, language, economic status, or disability.”

More movies should be made about what we know works. To achieve a sustainable transformation of a school requires a comprehensive approach and cannot be top-down. Developing strong leadership across the school is a key – a charismatic principal alone is not enough. What takes time is developing a team with a shared vision and a sense of trust – connecting the staff, parents, students, and the community – with a focus on teaching and learning issues.

The School District is facing a period of financial austerity, a challenging environment in which to move forward on reform. But real progress is possible – if we dedicate attention to building the community connections and professional communities at schools.

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