To his credit, Davis Guggenheim's new documentary Waiting for "Superman" has generated real buzz far outside the usual sphere of policy wonks, professional educators, and concerned parents. Unfortunately, to his fault, his film is also a biased, revisionist, and propagandist take on what really ails public education in America, rife with self-serving anecdotes, cherry picking of data, pulling emotional heart strings, and outright distortion of the facts. For example, Mr. Guggenheim makes charter schools the answer to our public education woes despite the fact that only about 17 percent outperform traditional public schools and only accommodate 3 percent of the student population. He also makes teachers' unions the bêtes noir and the fall guys (and gals) for the myriad of problems that have afflicted public education for decades.
One of the most glaring misrepresentations of the facts is his (and many others') misreading of the research on the impact of teachers on student achievement. The widely held view of this relationship is that the quality of teachers largely determines academic performance. This misinterpretation of the data has caused teachers and their unions to be demonized and scapegoated. Additionally, considerable policy reform (and rancor) has been directed at neutering teachers' unions and using student performance (an unproven metric at best) as a means of weeding out bad teachers and retaining good teachers.
Unfortunately, the actual research on which these conclusions have been drawn doesn't support the relationship that is so frequently bandied about. What the findings actually demonstrate is that teachers are the most significant influence on student achievement within schools. But that effect (10 to 20 percent explanatory power) pales in comparison to the role that outside factors, such as family income, medical care, family composition, family communication, and early learning experiences, play in student performance (about 60 percent explanatory power).
What this well-documented finding suggests is that elevating teacher quality is likely a necessary, but not sufficient contributor to improving the quality of public education for underprivileged students and closing the achievement gap. Further, as I have argued in previous posts, a focus on improving schools is a matter of too little too late for many students who are wholly unprepared to succeed when they enter elementary school regardless of the quality of the schools they attend.
Based on this research and as I suggest in the title of this post, real public education reform must start at home. All of our efforts to elevate the quality of public education will go for naught if the precursors to academic success are not put into place before poor students begin elementary school.
To that end, I propose the American Good Parent Initiative (it's always easier to sell an initiative when it's wrapped in patriotism), a joint public and private "Manhattan Project" aimed at closing the achievement gap between the haves and have-nots (of which the have-nots are overwhelmingly African-American and Latino) and bringing public education in America back to the top of the international educational food chain. The AGPI would be comprised of five programs:
- Have President Obama and other national, state, and local leaders from government, industry, and education announce and throw their support behind the AGPI. These champions would provide the initial impetus for creating a groundswell of support that would be necessary to produce broad-based "buy in" across America for the initiative.
- Create a public-service campaign, Be the Best Parent You Can Be, that blankets old and new media with positive and practical messages aimed at parents from celebrities, professional athletes, politicians, and other notables. The purpose of the PSAs is to raise awareness, add a "cool" factor to the AGPI (OK, maybe we should leave out politicians), and offer useful tools to bring the initiative to life. It could be modeled after the successful anti-smoking campaigns of the late 20th century.
- Establish Parent for America, based on Teach for America, in which trained parent coaches educate and train poor parents on all aspects of effective parenting, including financial management, stress management, nutrition, reading, communication, life skills, and much more. This voluntary program would allow parents of children who qualify for free-lunch programs to get personalized parent coaching and support, the goal of which is to fully prepare their children for success in school and beyond. PFA would recruit recent college graduates in return for tuition assistance as well as retired citizens who are inspired to give back to their communities.
- One of the most significant predictors of academic achievement, as discussed by Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame, is the presence of books in the home. As a consequence, in partnership with already-established volunteer organizations, such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America and Reading Is Fundamental, Read for Kids' Futures would provide disadvantaged children with early exposure to books and regular reading opportunities.
- A large proportion of disadvantaged families are either led by a single parent or both parents work full-time or have two jobs. As a result, a primary cause of these children being unprepared for elementary school is that their parents have little time to devote to what it takes to ready them. And, because child care in America is expensive, underserved children are often left with extended family or subpar daycare. The AGPI would create an affordable, high-quality national child-care system that is overseen and subsidized by the federal government and run by private operators. An enriched childcare environment could provide the children of poor working parents with the learning experiences and tools that their parents are unable to give them and that are essential for success in school.
Some aspects of the AGPI are already being implemented successfully in different parts of the country, for example, in Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, much as other types of reform, both within and outside the classroom, have demonstrated their effectiveness. But these changes have only reached a relatively small number of students in need nationwide and it remains a question to be studied as to their scalability. Those reforms that have proven themselves to be empirically beneficial must be scaled outward to increasingly larger numbers of students and schools, and their value must be constantly reassessed until those that are most efficacious are deployed on a grand scale nationally.
Of course, given these times of deficit hawkishness, the inevitable question that will be asked is: How will we pay for the AGPI? As I noted above, I foresee this initiative as being a joint public-private venture with shared funding. Yes, the federal government would assume its share of the cost. At the same time, imagine if the foundations, hedge fund managers, and other wealthy supporters could be convinced that the hundreds of millions of dollars currently being devoted to public education reform would be better used by the AGPI.
Consider the alternative. The economic cost of having a significant proportion of our citizenry mired in poverty, poor education, low-paying jobs, crime, and incarceration is far greater. America will have to pay now or pay much more later. And what of the moral cost of continuing to fail a substantial segment of Americans that has suffered long enough. Isn't it time that we have the vision, compassion, and courage to institute real public education reform for their and America's future.