Lessons For Education In Waiting For Superman and Race to Nowhere

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In the past few years, two documentary films have been released that paint contrasting portraits of the state of American education. In Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman, low-income, prominently minority students long for educational opportunity, but are trapped in failing schools where teachers unions serve as a bulwark to reform and accountability. The solution: the style of education reform endorsed by George W. Bush that emphasizes greater flexibility in the hiring and firing of teachers, longer hours and public school choice particularly with charter schools. The second film, Race to Nowhere, not so subtly alludes to Obama’s marquee educational policy. Upper middle class students struggle with the high stakes of standardized testing and the college admission process, pressure that drives students to physical illness and even suicide. The solution: less emphasis on the sort of high stakes tests and data driven reforms that Waiting for Superman so passionately advocates.

Both films are ultimately simplistic fairy tales. When it comes to education policy, particularly in the federal Department of Education, which was designed to advocate for underserved communities like disabled, low-income, and minority students, I side with Waiting for Superman. I’m not unsympathetic to the enormous anxiety that college admissions process can provoke; I’ve seen plenty of it in my own life. But the solution to this problem would a widespread cultural recognition that getting into Kenyon instead of Harvard is not the end of the world, and that future economic prospects are best maximized by the classes and experiences of college than the name of the elite institution on a diploma.

Waiting for Superman shows students who are being failed by educational institutions, schools that serve more as dropout factories than pathways to higher education. The difference between dropping out of a failing high school and attending college after graduating from a high-performing charter school is enormous for both a student’s future income and inclusion in American society. And while disruptive market reforms advocated by the Gates Foundation and Education Secretary Duncan may be no panacea, they should part of a broader strategy to better align incentives for schools to support students inside of out-of-touch interest groups.  We need to move beyond thinking of education as a Manichean struggle between competing factions, whether billionaire philanthropists and hard working teachers or innocent kids and entrenched unions. Reform is not an ultimatum-style proposition. We can raise teacher salaries and evaluate teachers on the basis of performance. We can have the excellent national liberal arts curriculum advocated by Obama critic Diane Ravitch while supporting high-performing charter schools. And we can certainly provide more services to low-income families without diminishing the role that great schools play in breaking the cycle of poverty.

Many liberals and progressives fear that accountability and competition measures will mean the encroachment of corporate influence over the sacred sphere of public schools. They are wrong. There is nothing more progressive then trying to improve educational conditions for our most vulnerable students in an entrepreneurial fashion. As Franklin Roosevelt once said, “take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” This process of constant and radical experimentation may not be the superhero the students in the film are waiting for. But it’s a whole lot better than shrugging and claiming that certain kids can’t be taught because of where they were born or who their parents are.

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