'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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Bush administration joined both parties in Congress in 2001 to enact No Child Left Behind Act. This legislation provided an important accountability platform. The Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative uses a different vocabulary, but is pursuing a similar reform logic, and has been willing to use political persuasion and financial incentives to muscle recalcitrant states into line with reform.

Both reforms have had rough patches to work out, but both push strict accountability standards. And both parties agree on that.

Joining the accountability march, foundations, both corporate and private, have awakened from decades of philanthropic slumber and have begun to regard themselves as investors rather than sugar daddies. They look for a return on investment on their programs, and build in incentives for schools, administrators, and teachers to continue to perform well. These incentives include expanding competition, enhancing data systems, and methods of identifying and rewarding effective teaching and management.

Bankruptcy focuses the mind

Ironically, education reform’s greatest friend may be the fiscal crisis that the nation is facing. Federal government indebtedness, unfunded public-pension liabilities, healthcare costs, shrinking state budgets, and infrastructure decay all underscore the need for greater efficiency and innovation in education. We can no longer to afford to keep throwing money at the problem. In 1920, we spent $710 per student (adjusted to 2007 dollars). In 2007, we spent $12,462. America’s century-long tradition of added per pupil spending is no longer sustainable. Faced with hard choices, school districts will be forced to adopt technologies and management techniques they have long had the luxury of ignoring.

Many of us have grown gray in the quest to change public schooling. But I have never seen such a favorable alignment of forces on reform’s side: real knowledge, scientific evidence, public pressure, and fiscal constraint. The results will be good for students, good for teachers, and very good indeed for America.

James W. Guthrie is senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the George W. Bush Institute and a professor of education at Southern Methodist University. On Sept. 29, the Bush Institute is launching the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership to improve school principal performance.

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