'Waiting for Superman' to reform education? He's already here.

Education Professor James Guthrie writes, "The recently released documentary, 'Waiting For Superman,' paints a discouraging future for America’s schools. . ."

By James W. Guthrie

The recently released documentary, “Waiting For Superman,” paints a discouraging future for America’s schools. Director Davis Guggenheim spent a year following five students in struggling public school districts, chronicling the stark failures of the education system around them.

One of the film’s trailers tells us, “In America right now, a kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. That’s... 1.2 million a year. These drop-outs are 8 times more likely to go to prison, 50% less likely to vote, more likely to need social welfare assistance, not eligible for 90% of jobs, are being paid 40 cents to the dollar of earned by a college graduate, and continuing the cycle of poverty.”

Those five students are the stories behind the statistics. Their parents desperately want a good education for their children, but their hands are tied by the system’s shortcomings – which Mr. Guggenheim exposes.

I know how he feels. I have been working for 50 years as a public school teacher, administrator, government official, locally elected official, and college professor. And while Mr. Guggenheim has an accurate and astute idea of the school system’s failings, I see something far more encouraging.

The film suggests that only a “superman” can bring about public-school change. Well, that superman has already arrived – not as a red-caped superhero, but as a set of irresistible forces that is driving education reform as never before: 1) a growing understanding of what works, 2) increasing public pressure, and 3), the necessity for making hard choices in the face of fiscal crisis.

We now have really good, time-tested knowledge of what works in education. We know that good teachers accelerate student learning and poor ones significantly impede it. Parent engagement makes an enormous difference. And with every step down the economic scale, good teachers and parent engagement matters more.

We’ve also learned that this knowledge has seldom affected the assignment of teachers, whose own preferences and protective work rules lead them to the schools whose students need them least – but whose political clout is greatest. Failing schools don’t usually attract the best teachers. And the system doesn’t place them there.

We’ve learned that, for teachers, greater experience and more college credits are a weak indicator of teacher quality measured by the all-important question of a teacher’s consistent ability in improving her student’s learning.

For school leaders – principals and superintendents – experience does matter. More experienced leaders tend to be better at their jobs. Most important, we have learned – and are still learning – just how important leadership is to the whole reform effort.

Read the full essay.

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