The year 2008 was supposed to be the Year of Education in our national civic life. Despite a $60 million “Ed in ‘08” campaign funded by the Gates and Broad Foundations, we never really had a broad public debate about public education during that election year.

Maybe Hollywood’s ability to tell a compelling story will be more successful at putting the spotlight on public education in America.  “Waiting for ‘Superman’”, a film by Davis Guggenheim, Academy-award winning director of “An Inconvenient Truth,” opened in New York and Los Angeles on September 24, and will be released more widely on October 8. 

“Waiting for ‘Superman’” is one of several documentaries about education released this year; others include “The Lottery”, released last May, and “The Cartel”, released last April.

I hope “Waiting for ‘Superman’” will succeed in provoking a broad, vigorous discussion about public education in the U.S.  (Full disclosure: United Ways across the country are sponsoring screenings of the film and encouraging people to pledge to see it, as one way to spur community conversations about what we all want for our children.) The role of charter schools and improving teacher effectiveness will be central issues in that discussion, in part because the fate of five children hoping to win a lottery to get into oversubscribed charters is the dramatic hook for the film, and because there are plenty of portrayals of teachers, from bad to heroic, that emphasize the importance and availability of excellent teachers. People on either side of the charter and teacher effectiveness movements will find things to confirm their biases about those issues or Guggenheim’s perspective. Viewers not steeped in those policy debates, though, likely will see gut-wrenching stories about parents seeking the best for their children, and about children feeling the full, unfair impact of chance on their fates.  Those kids and millions of others like them can’t wait for a solution, they need it now.

I hope more of us can come to this discussion with open minds. Education reform is one of the most contentious arenas in civic life, for education professionals, policy makers and funders. It also generates a lot of passion in the wider world; it is very important to parents, and even among those of us who don’t currently have “skin in the game,” because we’ve all been to school, we’re tempted to think we have informed opinions about education.

In the spirit of trying to keep an open mind, here are some questions and comments about our education challenges that I hope may be helpful:

  • Do our accountability processes take the full measure of what we want our children to learn? “What gets measured, gets done,” as Peter Drucker famously observed. Do we want children to learn much more than simply math and English? If so, how are we evaluating those broader learning goals? Everyone’s for accountability, of course, and even teachers’ unions, agree that student progress on test scores should be an important factor in evaluating teachers, as well as schools. But the system we have now seems to have been no one’s first choice, as Diane Ravitch describes in her review of the history of the standards movement in chapter 2 of The Death and Life of the Great American School System .
  • Does our emphasis on testing encourage gaming of the testing system, from teaching to the tests and defining “proficiency” downward, to outright falsification?
  • Do most teachers care first about succeeding in the classroom, or are they more concerned about keeping their jobs? I’m often reminded of what my friend Steve tells his shop steward every couple of years– “I’ll join the union when the union agrees to help get rid of the teachers who suck, because you and I know who they are, and when their students come into my class, they make my job harder.”
  • Are teachers unions the problem, or the key to potential solutions? In “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” Newsweek commentator Jonathan Alter observes: “Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers’ unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform.”  The counterpoint to Alter’s view is that in recent years, teachers’ unions have been pushing to include assessment and evaluation in contracts.
  • Do we need to distinguish (1) how public schools are serving moderate and upper income communities from (2) how public schools serve low income and English language-learning students? Demography is not destiny for students and schools, but it’s pretty close.  For example, a 2008 Stanford University paper found that out of 8000 California schools from K-12, only 400 so-called “beating the odds” schools outperformed what would be predicted by their percentage of poor and English-language learning students, and only 100 of them sustained that over a four-year period.  (Four of the five students profiled in “Waiting for ‘Superman’” are low income children of color living in troubled urban districts.)
  • Does money matter? Is increased funding part of the answer? Why do so many private schools, charter schools and public schools in comfortable neighborhoods spend significantly more than average public school per pupil expenditures? Presumably they must think that extra spending is worth it.

At bottom, the question is, are we still committed to providing a world-class public education for all our children?

Guggenheim says posing that urgent question is why he made the film. Let’s hope this powerful dramatization will lead us to rededicate ourselves to ensuring all children in America have excellent educational opportunities.  It is a fundamental civil right. And, what may be more important to some, it is also the key to our nation’s future.