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Fixing Education: Lessons from Waiting for Superman & a Visit to the Harlem Children's Zone

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It's been just three days since Davis Guggenheim's much heralded documentary "Waiting for 'Superman' " opened in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. There is an enormous amount to praise in this film -- its cleverly animated factoids on the grim realities in our educational system and its heartbreaking stories of five families who relentlessly seek good public, religious or charter schools for their children. Because the schools these five families decide upon for their children are coveted, there are far fewer spaces than applicants. Admission -- thus fate of these five children -- is decided by against-the-odds-luck in lotteries. The documentary is intended to inspire us to act on the belief that "together we can fix education" and with a call-to-action web site. If ever there was a film that could move the debates about education front and center, this one can.

There are also flaws in Waiting for Superman and John Merrow of Learning Matters has done a solid job of pointing these out.

Twenty-four hours since I left the movie, there is one glaring flaw that I simply can't shake. It's the animated image of teachers opening children's heads and pouring knowledge in. It reflects a deeply held cultural assumption that children are empty vessels to be filled with facts, figures, and information -- an idea that is totally at odds with the science of learning.

In addition to presenting this inaccurate view of how children learn, the documentary argues for good teachers with little, if any, mention of what turns people into good teachers, the content and life skills that good teachers teach and how they teach! And yet these factors are also at the heart of what it will take "to fix education." I know a documentary can't do everything -- and this one has a crystal clear intent, but we cannot and must not ignore these factors if we are to make progress.

About a year ago, I spent time interviewing and filming Geoffrey Canada and his staff at the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) for Mind in the Making. Since Canada is one of the "stars" of Waiting for Superman (as he deserves to be), I feel compelled to share my observations from that visit as a brief glimpse of what it will take to fix education.

To foster good teaching -- it takes an adult learning environment where there is accountability: When I visited the HCZ, Canada told me that they look for teachers with a "no excuses" attitude:

Everybody who comes in to work for me promises me they know these kids are poor and the families have problems.

However, Canada finds that if a teacher isn't doing well, he or she is likely to begin blaming the difficulties in these children's home lives. Canada says to these teachers:

You knew [the realities of these children's lives] when you took the job -- you said you understood that was the deal -- so now you're making excuses." If you allow people to make excuses, it becomes the kid's fault, the parent's fault, the community's fault versus those of us who are getting paid. If the kids aren't learning it's our fault!

That said, the teachers at HCZ have a great deal of support for improving, including opportunities to learn more about children's learning and teaching from other more experienced teachers, from specialists, and from colleges and universities which they are encouraged to attend. I had the strong impression that HCZ was a learning community, where everyone, at every level including Canada, was trying to learn more. And that learning environment has become contagious, spilling over onto the children.

To foster good learning environments for the children, the children need to be actively engaged. I saw no "empty vessel" models of teaching/learning during my visit. Here is an example from an early elementary classroom. The children all read their favorite books and then had a discussion about what the authors did in the first sentence or two to make the children want to keep reading the story. From that discussion, the children and their teacher outlined a series of principles about writing that the children could then apply to their own compositions. In another classroom, the children were discussing the meaning of Gustav Klimt's painting "The Tree of Life" and drawing their own versions of it. In other words, teachers connected children's learning to experience and asked questions or had discussions that elaborated and extended the content the children were covering.

To foster good learning environments for the children, there needs to be high expectations and accountability, but mistakes are seen as part of the process of learning. In its brochure, Canada describes the ultimate goal of HCZ: "getting our kids into and through college." HCZ makes sure that this goal is visible and reinforced daily. For example, in the Promise Academy elementary program I observed, the children line up in the hallway every morning and state this goal as their creed. Canada says:

If kids are saying their creed, "I will go to college; I will succeed,"
if their parents are thinking that, if the teachers are thinking that, then you've got thirty percent of the work done.

In the HCZ, the children are expected to develop a good work ethic, put many hours into school, and to understand that there are times when learning won't be fun. The staff also know that it is impossible for children to succeed all of the time, which is why I like the rating system used there -- not A, B, C, D, and F but one to four, where one is an "oops." The superintendent of HCZ, Daryl Rock describes their philosophy:

We give [children] the freedom to make mistakes. We teach our
kids that failure is not a way of labeling who you are -- it's just way of identifying what you don't know and what you need to put more effort into. When kids understand that, they're not hesitant about trying something, because if they fail, it's not a reflection on them. That just tells them: "This is an area we need to work on."

To put this in another way, the children aren't just learning content, they are learning life skills, including how to take on challenges.

In a good educational program, there is family support. The five families in "Waiting for 'Superman' " seemed to me to be the unsung heroes of the documentary. Yet family support was not listed at the end of the film as one of the key ingredients for fixing education. These families persevered in trying to get a good education for their children, in many cases against great societal odds like a parent losing a job or facing an incredibly long commute to get to a good school.

Just like not all teachers are good, not all parents can be as persevering as these parents in the film are. At HCZ, they build in family support as an essential ingredient of school quality. Encompassing almost one hundred blocks in Harlem and serving over eight thousand children, HCZ includes programs for children and families of all ages, from birth through college, including programs to provide parenting education, and initiatives to improve the children's health. Their motto is that they will do "whatever it takes."

These are just glimpses of what we know about fixing education, especially for children at greatest risk. Let's use this knowledge and heed Davis Guggenheim's call to action -- "together we can fix education."