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I Am, I Am, I Am 'Superman.' And So Are You!

09/29/2010 10:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Over the past several decades, we've heard many experts tell us that fixing schools isn't rocket science. That's true. It isn't. It's harder.

Let me explain why. Rocket science is complicated. A rocket has lots of interconnected moving parts, but we understand how all of those parts function. More importantly, each of those parts, be it a fuel injector, capacitor, or silicon chip, performs exactly as we expect it to. A silicon chip never decides that it just isn't in the mood. This predictability of the parts allows scientists to build rockets that work. In fact, even weekend hobbyists have the capability to propel tin cans high into the atmosphere.

By contrast, school reform is complex. It's comprised of diverse, interconnected actors -- teachers, parents, unions, bureaucrats, etc., who adapt and respond to their surroundings. These actors don't necessarily do what we expect. They're more like a herd of cats than silicon strands on a wafer thin chip. The complexity of our school systems explains why past reforms based on intuitions and good intentions -- reforms like smaller classes, charter schools, and increased testing -- have either failed or yielded only modest gains.

Improving performance in a complex system requires three mechanisms: experimentation, identifying what works, and reproducing successful practices. These mechanisms explain how species survive within ecosystems. Genetic variation and sexual reproduction ensure experimentation, identifiers like peacock tail feathers signal fitness, and survival of the fittest weeds out the weak. These mechanisms also explain how markets work. Entrepreneurs produce variation through innovation, consumers identify which products and services are good, and market forces do the rest. They kill off the unfit.

As Shakespeare wrote, there is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune. People who study complexity refer to these moments as lever points in homage to Archimedes, who said that if he had a lever to stand on, that he could raise the world.

Davis Guggenheim's aptly titled new documentary, Waiting for "Superman", details how we are situated at just such a lever point in school reform. We need not wait for a man of steel to raise our children up. We can do it ourselves. Guggenheim describes how over the past twenty years, a combination of innovative charter and public school experiments along with increased testing have combined to produce the variation necessary to produce practices that work and the information required to identify what combinations of practices work. Now all we must do is reinforce those practices.

And what does work? Evidence provides some starting points, including more good teachers and fewer bad ones, early exposure to reading, and longer school days. But what might be most important is a conviction shared by a group as diverse as Geoffrey Canada, George Bush, and Bill Gates: an unwillingness to accept failure.

We stand at a lever point, because we now have the first two parts necessary to succeed in the face of complexity: variation and knowledge of what works. Now all we need is the political and social will to put those practices in play. What does that require? It requires teachers' unions, like other unions, to be unwilling to accept poor performance.

I'm a supporter of unions. My father was a teachers' union member. I helped organized graduate students into a union in graduate school. That said, I believe strongly that unions must help encourage those who cannot succeed to pursue other interests. Other unions do. The NBA has a union, but if you can't shoot the rock or shut down your man, you're out. If not, league play would suffer. The NEA and the AFT must take a similar stand: If you cannot teach or if you've lost your jones for teaching, the union must vote you off the island.

Successful reform also requires either more charters or more local autonomy to continue to produce the variation that drives innovation. And, it requires better testing and continued collaboration to identify and encourage even better practices.

The complexity of our educational system demands that this cycle of innovating, identifying, and implementing never ceases. Go see the film. Learn the facts. Work to create the possible.

Scott E Page is Professor of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan and the author of the book Diversity and Complexity forthcoming from Princeton University Press.