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Opinion

'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.

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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.

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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.

We know that strong state accountability systems elevate achievement. We know that certain computer-assisted instructional programs abet learning to read in a highly cost-effective way. We know that other kinds of spending are not cost-effective in boosting student achievement: Teacher aides and additional ed-school credits. We know that small class size in primary school may assist learning, but that there is no magic number for smallness. We know that that class size appears to matter less or not at all at the upper grades.

Intensifying public pressure

There is discernible public impatience with educational stagnation. Voters and parents are demanding results. Polling shows much higher support than ever before for competitive or market-oriented reform measures such as charter schools and performance pay. Increasing numbers of our most able college graduates exhibit interests in teaching, especially when they can bypass education schools and enter programs such as Teach For America. And the media exhibit a growing interest in exposing and publicizing unproductive education labor practices.

Political pundits proclaim that policies have become overly partisan – but this is not true when it comes to education reform. All stripes of politicians have long been singing a single melody, and the coalition is getting broader. A recent study praises Texas, North Carolina, and Florida, who have long led other states when it comes to education reform. Now, other states, including "blue" ones, are following.

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