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

The new documentary "Waiting for Superman" makes clear the dismal state of American public schools. But forces of change are aligned now more than ever before. Three key factors create a real possibility for education reform.

By James W. Guthrie / September 29, 2010

Dallas, Texas

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.

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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.

A growing understanding of what works

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.