Education insiders: No lasting impact of Waiting for “Superman”

In a segment called “Waiting for Superman: Fact or Fiction?” on the BAM! Radio Network this Monday, education historian Diane Ravitch and four members of the media (including yours truly) discussed Davis Guggenheim’s latest documentary, Waiting for “Superman.”

Our host, Errol St. Clair Smith, wanted to know whether we thought the film would lead to productive discussions about how to reform public education in this country. Is there an emerging consensus in education reform today?

If so, Diane Ravitch suggested it’s not a good one. She said that the reforms now being undertaken by the Obama administration aren’t terribly different from reforms that date back to the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Ravitch, who’s been a fierce critic of Waiting for “Superman,” says the film pushes the “conservative, right-wing [education] agenda” of the Obama administration.

Jay Mathews, of The Washington Post, disagreed. He sees many younger Democrats, even within the field of education, jumping on the Obama-Duncan bandwagon of education reform — and so he doesn’t think the agenda can be fairly labeled “conservative” or “right-wing” because those traditionally on the left are embracing it, too.

Ravitch said that she’s particularly troubled by a “false issue” that Guggenheim raises in the film, the notion that “teachers alone can turn around children’s performance.” She conceded that this does occasionally happen, but that it’s rare. Turning around how children do in school generally requires a much more comprehensive approach, which is something that the Harlem Children’s Zone (featured in Waiting for “Superman”) makes clear. Teachers are vitally important — no one denies that — but they can’t completely erase the effects of poverty (or homelessness, or lack of parenting, or insufficient healthcare and nutrition) on student achievement.

Toward the end of our discussion, Errol St. Clair Smith gave the five of us — Jay Mathews, Diane Ravitch, Valerie StraussDebra Viadero and me — a multiple-choice test on what the lasting impact of Waiting for “Superman” would be on U.S. public education. Four of us — all but Ravitch — opted for choice “D,” that the film would prove to be “another example that when all is said and done, much more will be said than done.” (Ravitch, ever the contrarian, picked “None of the above.”)

My parting thought on what U.S. education really needs was to be much more realistic in our expectations — that is, there’s no silver bullet that will magically (and quickly) cure all of our educational woes. Real reform, which is to say meaningful and lasting reform, happens incrementally much of the time. This is a reality we’d be wise to accept. The alternative is a fixation on the latest fads — doing dozens of reforms simultaneously, but never well and never thoroughly — which is also a recipe for lots of pretty rhetoric and superficial action but little lasting change.

Our best shot for getting better, I believe, is to recognize that small but substantial improvements over time add up. We should not discount incremental improvement. It might well take us a decade or two to have a radically better public-education system — but the upshot is that the progress would be dramatic and durable.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the cliché goes — and neither were the school systems in Finland, Singapore and South Korea, which everyone holds up as models to which we should aspire.

You can listen to our entire 20-minute conversation here. What’s your take on Waiting for “Superman”? Will anyone still be talking about the film in 10 years? In five years? In 2011? Will it catalyze education reform in the U.S.? What reforms are our public schools most in need of?