Chances are you will have a conversation about the state of American education this month. If so, that is a phenomenal accomplishment for the education reform movement (if not, you better get in the game!). Last year, less than 1 percent of all news stories covered education issues. But not this month. Education is having its moment in the national spotlight.
How did this happen? Bright spots of progress have produced real reasons for optimism. Twenty years of charter school investment has produced a cohort of high-performing operators, silencing any reasonable argument that a world-class education is not possible for all students, in all places. We have a federal administration that has focused on what works, replaced politics with pragmatism and created new funding mechanisms, like Race to the Top, that drive common sense reforms at the state and local level. We have seen the emergence of high-profile public-private partnerships, most recently the CEO of Facebook teaming up with one of our country's most talented and tireless mayors, donating $100 million to make Newark a national laboratory for education reform. Major media networks have begun to shine a spotlight on the issue, led by NBC's Education Nation.
Combine this optimism with a struggling economy and you get a potentially powerful window of opportunity. We have a generation of young people second guessing careers on Wall Street and an open question about where that talent goes (we don't have an answer yet, but 12 percent of all Ivy League graduates applied to Teach for America last year). An uncertain economic outlook, in the face of rising global competition, ratchets up the urgency of the question, wakes us from the complacency that got us in this situation in the first place, and gives our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, his clear and compelling rallying cry, "We have to educate our way to a better economy."
Into this moment steps "Waiting for 'Superman' ", the new documentary by Davis Guggenheim (director of "An Inconvenient Truth"), to take the conversation from endless and insular panel discussions and to put it in movie theaters across the country. The film follows five families striving to secure a high quality public education. And while the film is far from flawless, it is poised to work incredibly well. Audiences will leave movie theaters filled with a strange brew of hopefulness and outrage, a baseline understanding of the complexities of the issue and a real sense of urgency. Getting the potent mix of these four feelings to happen simultaneously in an individual, and then to get that to happen for a critical mass of citizens, is the high bar prerequisite for catalyzing a movement for change. And 'Superman' accomplishes this impressive feat. That feeling you get walking out of the theater is the last missing piece before we get true national education reform.
But here is the fear: that this feeling will not last. And if the feeling does not last, we will not have translated this moment into a movement, we will not have generated the public will required to stay the course through the tough choices and incremental victories, through the years upon years of steady and sustained effort it will take to provide a world-class public education for all American students. 'Superman' succeeds because it makes the issue personal, through the stories of five unforgettable families. Except, eventually, we will forget. If our kids do not attend these schools, we will forget. If the concentrated failure of these institutions is not stifling opportunity in the neighborhoods in which we live, we will forget. We have a very long and very impressive history of not focusing as a nation on this issue.
But it does not have to be this way. Let me propose one simple step that each of us can take this month to assure we stay engaged. We can act before the post-film feeling wears off. We can find students that needs extra support in our communities and we can work with those students.
A new cohort of quality volunteer opportunities has emerged over the last two decades, organizations using volunteer service to drive solutions to our country's most pressing challenges. This year in New York City, 1,900 working professionals will sign up with iMentor to mentor a high school student. iMentor makes it possible for even the busiest professionals to serve as a mentor and provides the support and resources necessary to make volunteers effective, assuring more students graduate high school and college. Other innovative programs utilize service to improve the educational outcomes for students, programs such as City Year, Blue Engine, Citizen Schools and Jumpstart. Over 100 Mayors have come together to form the Cities of Service initiative, developing city-wide service plans and establishing Chief Service Officers. It has never been easier to find a high-impact way to get involved.
And this is how we can carry Superman's torch. By keeping the personal connection to the issue that makes the film so effective, by focusing on the lives behind the numbers, and by getting thousands of additional citizens working directly with students and schools in communities all across the country. An increase in service has three additional benefits for the education reform movement. First, a focus on working directly with students breeds pragmatism and deemphasizes ideology. This pragmatism will inform a more nuanced understanding of the issues and decrease the influence of oversimplified talking points. Second, the sense of urgency will not go away. Nothing creates a sense of urgency like being invested in the lives of students who are moving through a failing education system in real-time. Third, as a part of the solution for the students in these programs, volunteers will know firsthand that change is possible and that the challenges facing our schools really can be addressed.
If you left this film, as I did, feeling the need to act, please take some time this month to find a way to get involved. Years from now, long after you have forgotten every fact and figure 'Superman' provided, long after you've forgotten the names of the five families profiled, you will still be energized by the students you work with. You will be inspired by their ambition, by the scope of their challenge and the strength in their resiliency. You will have become a part of their stories. And you will not forget.
'Superman' started the conversation. Let's act now, take one next step to lock in our commitment before the feeling fades.
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