America’s Education: We’re not waiting either.
By Tyler on October 26th, 2010
Today’s post was written by Dr. David Dockterman, Chief Math Officer of Scholastic, for the Math Hub blog. We thought he had an interesting take on the controversial film Waiting for Superman, and decided we should cross-post it here…
Take it away, Dock!
The film Waiting for Superman, which follows five families in desperate searches for quality schools, has quickly generated interest, passion, and controversy. I attended a packed preview screening last week hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The buzz in the informal conversations that naturally occurred during the ensuing reception captured thegut-wrenching frustration at watching the futures of lovely children and caring families rest on the roll of a lottery ball or the random selection of a name out of a box or computer. Why can’t these kids get the kind of quality education they desire? It’s just not fair.
At the same time, many in the audience, myself included, felt a bit cheated by the overly simplistic message about what needs to be done. “The path is simple,” reads the text as the credits roll. Really? Just knock down the unions and bureaucracies, open the door to charter schools, and great teachers will flow into the classrooms? While the stories of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone and the growing KIPP School phenomena are inspiring, the film admits that only 1 in 5 charter schools seem to do better than the public alternative. Getting rid of bad teachers is a great idea, but where will all the great replacements come from? It’s certainly heartening to see growth in popularity of Teach for America, the number one employer on several top college campuses last spring, but it alone can’t meet the need. Will merit pay, an approach that gets implicit endorsement in the film, provide the incentive? As someone who believes in following the research, I’m skeptical. A recent report from the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University found that merit pay alone had no impact on student test scores. The report recommended more nuanced solutions.
Okay, I’m willing to forgive the oversimplifications in the film if it indeed generates attention, constructive discussion, and, most importantly, thoughtful, individual action. The big message that we shouldn’t wait for Superman to fix the problem is right on the mark. We can and should be doing something. I’ve talked to folks who, after watching the film, considered for the first time becoming teachers. Others expressed new energy ready to be tapped. A cultural groundswell that attracts large numbers of the best and the brightest into teaching, a characteristic of the highest performing nations, would be fabulous (I recommend reading the McKinsey report on the world’s best performing schools).
And let’s not forget that good things are happening, in traditional public schools and charters. The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, for example, captured wonderful success stories of 15 public high schools from across the country. It’s not everywhere, but each success is further proof that it can be. And to be honest, it’s gratifying to find that our programs – READ 180, System 44, FASTT Math, among others – are often part of those turnaround stories. We’re doing what we can now. We’re not waiting for Superman. I hope you don’t either.
(Photo credit: Flickr photo by gematrium)