September 19, 2011

A Teacher Waits for 'Waiting for Superman, Part 2'

Original article in SchoolBook by Todd Sutler

The results of the recent New York Times poll reflecting dissatisfaction with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s leadership of our public schools reminded me of a call to action Bill Gates offered education reformers last September.

“The status quo can be changed, but it takes outrage and good examples,” Mr. Gates explained in Davis Guggenheim’s education documentary, “Waiting for Superman.”

At first glance, this challenge seems simple enough. Americans are bombarded with reports in the news media that are full of depressing statistics and wrenching personal narratives — as in “Superman” — that paint an appalling picture of our public school system. The distressing state of public education is ever-present in the public consciousness. In fact, though, Times polls from the 1990s reflect the same frustration with the mayor’s predecessors as exists today.

Though news stories have inspired our outrage for some time, they have not inspired action because they generally lack the second ingredient in Mr. Gates’s recipe: the good examples of successful, high-quality instruction that already exist in schools across America.

Six years ago, I interviewed for a job with Geoffrey Canada, the founder of Harlem Children’s Zone and star of “Superman.” I had recently left my international investment-banking career to work in youth development, and was sure that I could persuade him to hire me. I dreamed of becoming his right-hand man.

As soon as I sat down for the meeting, Mr. Canada effectively ended it when he took a look at my résumé and said, “I see you had success on Wall Street, but I don’t see how you can help us better serve the needs of our children.”

Humbled, I realized that before I would have anything to contribute to education reform, I needed to learn from experienced teachers who had mastered their craft as educators. So I became an apprentice teacher and slowly learned (and am still learning) how many different ways children learn and how challenging it can be to design creative ways to support, nurture and educate these ever-changing beings.

Unfortunately, the loudest and most powerful voices driving today’s education debate have not learned a similar lesson. They often celebrate successful schools without explaining the pedagogy and the instructional strategies their educators employ to produce these results.

These leaders have impressive marketing, managerial and financial résumés. Yet they lack teaching experience. The three most prominent reformers — the United States secretary of education, Arne Duncan; former Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein of New York; and former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee of Washington — have three years of teaching experience combined. The founders of America’s leading charter school networks offer little more.

These leaders have the business acumen, the organizational skills and gravitas that the education system needs. And our movement would not exist without these pioneers. But something critical has been missing. Their bias has been to emphasize the product, while, however inadvertently, de-emphasizing the process.

Perhaps Mr. Guggenheim should take another swing and share the untold story of the successes of the master teachers effectively educating children across America. Don’t just tell us what’s broken. Let’s also talk constructively about what is working and why it’s working.

Watch Maryland’s National Teacher of the Year, Michelle Shearer, teach science concepts using a variety of strategies tailored to the different learning styles and needs of her high school students.

Analyze the comprehensive teacher collaboration program that the struggling Sparks Middle School in La Puente, Calif., implemented to avoid shutdown, later leading to its No. 1 ranking among its 100 peer schools in the state.

Visit the Chicago New Teacher Center that is profoundly increasing teacher retention while improving student performance as well.

Best practices like these should be publicized, scrutinized and used to create blueprints for struggling schools to improve themselves.

We can all benefit from a little more learning. Imagine if every parent entered their parent-teacher conference with research-informed questions about how their child’s teacher was meeting the specific needs of their child.

What if families began to investigate why the school down the street was, by every metric, a strikingly superior school to their child’s, yet both schools received and spent the same amount of money each year?

If families developed a stronger sense of both what to expect and what to demand from their children’s educators, then teachers, principals, superintendents and elected officials would be forced to make improvements to the services they provide or risk losing students and votes.

It is up to us to demand that our leaders effect change by replicating and institutionalizing what works. The education reform movement will take a significant step forward only when our consciousness catches up to our outrage.