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Viewpoint: Is Superman the conversation we need?

A new film has intensified the school reform debate.

It’s hard to look away from the small, vulnerable faces of the children whose educational odysseys are highlighted in the movie Waiting for Superman. It’s hard not to sympathize with the fiercely protective, yet politically powerless parents who struggle mightily just to get their children a high-quality education. It’s hard to not want to join the parade of mad-as-hell viewers as they stream out of theaters, grab their torches en route to their local teachers union headquarters, and sprinkle rose petals on the doorsteps of every charter school they pass along the way.

Ok, perhaps the movie’s social action agenda is a bit more nuanced than that. But certainly, director Davis Guggenheim can forgive a little overstatement in order to make a point. He’s the one who claims, after all, that education spending has doubled since 1971 while performance flatlined, without considering the advent of special education laws and an increase in ELL populations and expectations for achievement. The movie longs for the good old days when U.S. education was the best in the world, without considering how content U.S. communities were with low expectations and low achievement for low-SES populations. The movie points to the 2,000 schools that Bob Balfanz called “dropout factories” to depict a “nationwide crisis in education” without mentioning that all but a few of those schools are in impoverished urban and deep rural areas where students’ challenges go well beyond academic—and well beyond the reach of schools to resolve. But we’ll cut him some slack. He’s making a Hollywood film, and in racing from Oprah to Good Morning America to NPR, who has time for nuance?

The truth is we agree with many of the points the film makes. We agree, for instance, that a small subset of persistently bad teachers indeed denigrates the whole profession. No one knows this better than the nation’s principals who often feel hogtied by policies that make it onerous, though not impossible, to dismiss ineffective teachers. And perhaps it is time to revisit tenure policies to temper a burden of proof with a burden of performance. Of course, it’s also true that the effectiveness of a single teacher is extremely difficult to isolate and measure—presuming we can even agree on the outcomes—so hammerlike methods, such as those of the film’s heroine D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, probably merit a more critical look than they receive.

Most perplexing is the treatment of charter schools as the “Promised Land” of education. Not so, protests Guggenheim, who revealed in a New Yorker interview his intention of the charter lottery as “metaphor” and his fear that the film would be perceived as pro-charter. Yet, every school the film vilifies is a mainstream public school, from which the only hope of escape is a charter school. Contrary to the movie’s depiction, there are lots of high-performing public schools out there—in fact, we honor 10 new ones every year in our MetLife Foundation-NASSP Breakthrough Schools program. These are high-poverty, high-performing middle and high schools—mostly comprehensive, neighborhood schools—that have found a formula for high achievement. Yet these schools become lost in an agenda-laden narrative of public schools as educational pits of despair from which charter schools are the only lifeline. At the moment, it seems that this narrative has everything going for it—except the data. Recent research out of Stanford University reveals that only 17 percent of charter students perform better than they would have in their local public schools—and 37 percent perform worse.

To be clear, charter schools do not offend us—far from it. In fact, you’ll find charters among the Breakthrough Schools mentioned above. They allow for small-scale experimentation in attacking public education’s biggest challenges with the hope of identifying practices that can be replicated throughout a district. Many are staffed with committed, forward-thinking educators who need restrictions lifted in order to fulfill a particular vision for education. And when they succeed, we all succeed in discovering new, effective practices.

At least that’s how they started. Somewhere along the way, however, the charter school movement—buoyed by a few high-profile foundations and corporate leaders—strayed from living laboratories of practice for the benefit of public education to private schools at public expense. They suddenly became competitive “schools of choice” aiming to supplant public schools rather than support them. Conveniently, they retained the ability to dodge public school restrictions, primarily the pesky requirement to educate all students, by virtue of transfer provisions and an application process that requires, at the least, an attitude at home that reinforces the importance of education. What of the students who don’t have that advantage? They don’t appear in the film. They don’t appear in charter schools. But they do appear in the nation’s public schools. And public school educators are accountable to move the needle on their achievement each day.

A 2009 study of Boston charter schools, for instance, revealed that less than 50 percent of students who begin as freshmen go on to graduate from that school four years later. Those students typically transfer to and graduate from their local public school. Remove that safety net, however, and Boston charter schools meet the criteria of “dropout factories.” I’m sure great things are happening with the performance of the students who remain, but so high an attrition rate does not elicit a Eureka!

I suppose we should be grateful that Waiting for Superman is broadening the conversation about public schools throughout the nation. We need an honest, productive conversation about the standards and expectations for student performance. We need an honest, productive conversation about how schools should be organized and resourced to drive the achievement we expect. But such conversations require a more genuine set of inputs than Superman provides. And with public education having to shout over a divisive charter agenda supported by unprecedented media, money, and policy, you have to wonder if the conversation will be as balanced as we need it to be to see any real large-scale educational improvement.

Gerald N. Tirozzi is the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

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Laura Ascione

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