Is Waiting for 'Superman' Kryptonite for Real Education Reform?

10/29/2010 11:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John Milewski Managing Editor and Host of Wilson Center ON DEMAND, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

For weeks now the ad banner for the film, Waiting for "Superman" has been very prominent on The Huffington Post. The film has generated rave reviews (91 percent positive on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer). More importantly, it has stimulated robust conversation and debate around the subject of education reform. But will the film's ideas, fueled by its pop culture success, lead us down the wrong path?

Most films about education, dramas and documentaries alike, are drawn to the heroic model for fixing problems. If Clark Kent would just give up the newspaper job (before he's downsized?), and move his "S" to an inner city school, he could transform it into a super-powered charter school that could leap test scores in a single bound as quickly as a mild-mannered reporter can change into the guardian of "truth, justice, and the American way" by losing the tie. That's how it works in comic books. The problem, any problem, is solved when the right hero comes along.

But even though I love the world of comics, I'm always suspicious when someone suggests that the solution to long-term systemic problems involves superhuman efforts like that of heroic reformers or the teachers they show in the film working 90-hour weeks. Is that realistic on a large scale? Even if it were, would it really help our kids? A program flying under the national radar may provide the answers we seek.

For some time now I've been aware of a public-school reform movement (Project Bright IDEA) in North Carolina that retrains existing teachers and has reported truly remarkable results that have far exceeded expectations. For example, 28 percent of Bright IDEA's largely "at-risk" third-graders have been identified as gifted, three times the control group rate. Nearly one-third of at-risk kids testing as gifted? Pretty incredible. And the NC model is in many ways the direct opposite of the one promoted by "Superman." There is no teaching to the test. Extra hours and excessive tutoring or discipline are not part of the formula. And perhaps the most important difference is that all students are accepted into the program.

I called the project's co-creator, Margaret Gayle, and one of her key collaborators, Hugh Osborn, to ask them about the film and the conversation it's sparked. Both have seen the film, so I asked them to answer a series of questions.

QUESTION 1: When you spend time with young children you observe lots of natural curiosity and a desire to do and explore. Does the typical approach to public education do enough to support and encourage those natural tendencies?

GAYLE/OSBORN: No. We have learned a huge amount over the past 30 years about how babies are wired, how children learn, and how adults best work together. Humans have vast reserves of creativity, passion and social talent that can be observed at all ages. But the current factory model of schooling -- a reductionist/obedience approach which is deified in the "Superman" charter schools -- can squelch these powerful forces. However, it can work to some degree with high discipline, extrinsic motivation, chanting, intense drilling, long hours, top-tier teachers who work 90-hour weeks and the other factors seen in the "Superman" schools. It's a version of the Asian model, which works best in traditional cultures with high parental expectations. But it's very inefficient and it's shallow. It doesn't prepare kids for the complex, collaborative and changeable 21st century. And, in the vast majority of American public schools, it works very poorly, boring and/or stressing many kids, especially at-risk kids, until they are alienated from school and prone to drop out. And the same thing happens with teachers.

A far better approach is to amplify human initiative and imagination in both teachers and students. These are the most potent forces on earth and the only ones, in our opinion, with the horsepower to drive wide-scale reform. If this is done in the context of focused, standards-based achievement and natural discipline, we've got a real solution. And the 21st century "flat world" shows us how to do this, using tools like problem solving, collaboration, and advanced communications forms that have been honed for the past few decades. Wide-scale education reform is so difficult that it can only be done with extremely powerful forces. Thus we may have no choice but to learn from the Innovation Revolution how to boost human potential -- starting with a child's curiosity and initiative -- so that we can banish the factory model and transform our hidebound education system into a national treasure.

QUESTION 2: But the film is stimulating discussion. Does its success, and its focus on charter schools, help or hurt efforts at meaningful reform?

GAYLE/OSBORN: It does both. As the film points out, the KIPP Academies and other high-performance charter schools confounded experts, unions and politicians and showed that kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods can function at a high academic level. This is a vital sea change that has altered education forever and greatly helps reform.
However, charter schools are simply not a realistic vehicle for broad transformation. The majority of charter schools are no better than public schools, and the high-performing ones like KIPP have very limiting factors. They use the top one to two percent of teachers and often burn them out on long workweeks. They can expel their low-performing students, which regular public schools can't, and use this as a stick to keep other students in line. Many communities in America are too small or otherwise not appropriate for charter schools. And it would take decades to replace all 100,000 American public schools with charter schools even if it could be done.

QUESTION 3: Most Hollywood or popular culture style solutions focus on heroic activity, a crusading principal, parent, or student. While such examples make for dramatic storytelling, they don't suggest a model for reform that is easy to duplicate or sustain. What can work for the most schools over the long haul?

GAYLE/OSBORN: Luckily, we don't need to rely on hero-based reform. We believe we can work with most of the teachers already in place. Before KIPP, most people had given up on educating poor kids from distressed backgrounds. This prejudice has now been shifted to teachers, who are seen as being largely incompetent, and their unions, who are bearing the brunt of the blame for the system. Certainly the unions have to answer for overprotecting their members. But we've learned that the vast majority of teachers can succeed at a high level if retrained in the right model and supported by a competent principal. These teachers get very motivated when they see the growth and enthusiasm of excited young learners for the first time in their careers; it drives them to collaborate, improve and innovate.

This provides the ingredients for a real and broad-based solution. First, superintendents intent on change offer teachers training that transforms them into fully competent, creative professionals with much higher job satisfaction. Since we know from Bright IDEA that at least 75 percent of teachers can go through this transformation effectively, the unions should support this new opportunity to truly professionalize their members. Our results indicate that dramatic increases in effectiveness are possible. So the next step is the growing market pressure as the model's effectiveness increases. We have seen this in North Carolina, where several of our districts see Bright IDEA as a ticket to economic revitalization. Let those communities that most want to succeed in the 21st century step forward and transform their teachers into innovators. As they do so, they will evolve the methodology, which is very flexible and open to new ideas but still quite embryonic.

We have seen the beginnings of this sort of market-based, teacher-powered reform happen in our districts. It shouldn't take much to realize the last and most important step of our solution: getting this phenomenon to "tip," to kick off an innovation spiral with explosive productivity growth like those seen in many industries driven by creative professionals. Once this happens, reform will take care of itself.

QUESTION 4: What's the best evidence that you can offer to support your belief that Bright IDEA can work on a large scale?

GAYLE/OSBORN: We have seen excellent results: improved test scores, very high gifted identification rates, superb writing samples, strong observational evidence of student enthusiasm, excellent parental support and more. This has happened in all grades with a wide variety of students, so Bright IDEA appears to be a universal model. But the strongest evidence of scalability is the rate at which districts have virally adopted its methodology after the study ended, despite the severe economic conditions of the recession. These educators have seen all the fads and hundreds of programs and clearly Bright IDEA is something different.

Our impression of the KIPP founders, Geoffrey Canada and others, is that their primary goal is helping kids. If we or anyone else demonstrate a better pedagogy than theirs, our guess is that they will embrace it. However, right now there is a belief among the education elite that, "we know what works." This notion, which is so widely accepted that it has been featured in multiple adoring cover stories in the New York Times Magazine and the Atlantic, is simply wrong. As seen in the scene in the film where the animated teacher opens kids' heads to pour in the knowledge, the approach that supposedly works is right out of the 1950's, if not the 19th century.

Given the exponentially increasing problems in the world, we have very little time to move to a truly effective model, and the misconception that our leaders know what works, amplified by the movie, is really dangerous. The bottom line is that you can't solve a problem if you don't define it correctly. Murray Gell-Mann, the great American Nobel-prize-winning physicist said, "American education is like taking children into the best restaurant in the world and making them eat the menu." That is the problem we have to solve, and sugar-coating the menu, as most of our education reform efforts are trying to do, won't work. Bright IDEA has found Superman, or rather millions of super-people: our children. They are ravenous for real learning, and we now know that American teachers can be trained to become the super-teachers our children need and deserve. But the sugar-coated menus seen in "Superman" are Kryptonite to our children and to our nation's future. We must do better.

"Superman" has done an extraordinary service by raising consciousness about our nation's biggest problem. Now we just need to get reform on the right track.

In addition to thanking Margaret Gayle and Hugh Osborn for their time and responses to my questions, I offer the following links and information to those of you wanting to learn more.

And if you want to learn more about the program, I'd encourage you to dial direct. Bright IDEA was created and is still managed by The American Association for Gifted Children at Duke University and the Exceptional Children Division of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. For more information, contact Margaret Gayle (AAGC) at 919-801-2384 or Mary Watson (NCDPI) at 919-807-3969.

I'd also recommend Diane Ravitch's essay in The New York Review of Books. She reacts to "Superman" in a piece titled, "The Myth of Charter Schools". You can find it here: