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Reaction to “Waiting for Superman”

Waiting for Superman is a great call-to-action regarding the state of our nation’s public schools.  

I agree with many of the arguments within the movie.  For instance, it points out that good policies to improve education include: 

  1. focusing on good teaching with merit-based systems – incentivizing good teaching and good teachers, and maintaining an ability to fire poor teachers.
  2. allowing innovation “outside” the existing systems – promoting independent charter schools with innovative practices.
  3. building strong feeder programs that start really early and carry the relationship through the development of the child.

However, the film does not acknowledge that successful charter schools are actually rare, and many charter schools fail at either creating superior outcomes or building an organization that is functional and sustainable.  That’s a messy reality that the film totally omits.  I’m not suggesting that charter schools are bad, on the contrary I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the movement for charter schools.  I’m suggesting that the conversation about charter schools will have to get deeper than policy and strategy, it will have to get tactical and technological.  

“Waiting for Superman” also does not go any deeper than these aforementioned broad best practices in policy.  There are many innovations and improvements buried in strategies and tactics that can be implemented at schools, departments, within classrooms, or for individuals that create better outcomes.  The film doesn’t seem to acknowledge that these exist – it’s as if the only path for improvement are in these big policy shifts and school improvement cannot be addressed in smaller details.  

The film, in pursuit of building a set of heroes, presumes that their heroes have “found what works,” as if these truths have not been “known” for long.  This is not true.  Setting high expectations, focusing on children and great teaching, and innovating outside the system have long been discussed within education – long before KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone were ever dreamed up.  

KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone are so successful because these are organizations with good execution and strong leadership, and they have been successful because they did so much more than just talk good talk.   There are a million things they did right, a lot of it buried in technocratic details.  But, we have to acknowledge, that these million details were right only in an environment where visionary leadership is possible – in charter schools.  It’s harder to be a visionary leader in public institutions, it’s too political.  It’s possible, but wherever politics is involved, building a culture of achievement is extremely difficult.  

So, while I support the film and it’s recommendations, it’s not a good prescription necessarily.  To add my own agenda, it’s not really focused on tactical innovation – the pursuit of my life.  But then again, the film-markers objective is to influence voters and donors, and in that regard I think this film is going to achieve more in engendering and focusing our national conversation on education more than anything we’ve seen in our recent history.