Finding the Will: Can Superman Make Education a National Priority?

09/07/2010 03:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I had the opportunity recently to watch Waiting for Superman, a provocative new documentary that offers an incisive look at the dire state of public education in America today. I encourage everyone to see the film and to answer its challenge to get involved in being part of the solution.

While sobering, the movie left me with a great deal of hope for the future. I was inspired by the efforts of concerned parents and family members to provide the best possible education for their children. I was inspired by the courage of community leaders who have dedicated their lives and their considerable talent to taking on the status quo and trying to change a system that is not working for enough young people. And I am encouraged by the attention the film has brought to the desperate need to make public education a national priority.

If we work together to answer this call to action, this film can mark a turning point in the movement to transform education in America. A great deal of time has been spent over the years in identifying the problems with our educational system -- issues such as falling test scores; overcrowded schools; too much bureaucracy; low pay for teachers. But what has defined the American spirit throughout our history is not our ability to pinpoint a problem, but our capacity to take action -- to pay any price and bear any burden when called to service.

During the most challenging times in our history, education has transformed our nation and set us apart from the rest of the world. After World War II, we passed the GI Bill -- educating a generation of veterans and helping to create the great American middle class. A decade later, Sputnik spurred investment in primary and secondary education -- leading to the great technological advancements of the 20th century, from satellite communications to the Internet. As we make our way out of the great recession, in an increasingly competitive global economy, our nation faces a similar challenge.

A movie can help make a difference by focusing attention and generating dialogue. My hope is that this film will spark a response similar to An Inconvenient Truth. By addressing climate change in such a clear, digestible manner, that film did more to move our nation towards a clean energy future than years of activism and scores of scientific studies.

Waiting for Superman is so moving because it depicts the profound effect a good school and a great teacher can have on a child's entire life, along with ultimate high-stakes loss for those who don't get a lucky lottery number. One of the best parts of my job with the College Board has been the chance to reward great schools through our Inspiration Schools initiative. Inspiration Schools are public high schools from across the country -- rural and urban, traditional public schools as well as charters -- that defy the odds by opening the doors of higher education to students facing economic, social and cultural barriers. At each of the schools we have honored, there are educators whose personal dedication and faith in their students is as heroic as those featured in the film -- like a calculus teacher in central California holding Saturday tutoring sessions; a counselor in New Mexico tracking down seniors in the hallways until he knows everyone has filled out scholarship applications; and a curriculum director in the Rio Grande Valley raising money for interview clothes so her students are prepared for college interviews.

All of these schools share common traits: rigorous coursework taught by dedicated and skilled teachers; a curriculum that engages students and demands higher standards; support from local colleges, businesses or community organizations; involvement of parents and families; and an expectation that every child willing and able to do the work has an expectation to go to college. As a result, in some of the most impoverished communities in the country, I have walked down school hallways and felt a palpable sense of optimism among the students.

There is no great mystery as to what makes these schools great -- and nothing supernatural about what it will take for these model schools to go from being the exception to becoming the norm. We know what works. All that's missing is the will -- the will to reform a broken system and make education a national priority.