“Waiting for ‘Superman’” edited by Karl Weber

When disaster strikes in America, heroes rush in. These heroes are our policemen, our firemen, our emergency responders, our family, our friends, our neighbors.

News flash: We are Superman. We are the heroes we are waiting for.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’: How We Can SaveAmerica’s Failing Public Schools” (2010) edited by Karl Weber, id a companion book to the documentary film, “Waiting for ‘Superman’ directed by Davis Guggenheim and produced by Lesley Chilcott.

The book offers background information about the making of the documentary and the five children introduced in the film. But there hasn’t been enough time between the film and the book to find out whether Francisco, Emily, Anthony, Bianca, and Daisy have made it past their public education hurdles.

There are essays by filmmakers, chancellors, teachers, principals, and philanthropists (but no essays written by students or recent graduates). Their writings are generally positive, passionate, and realistic about our public schools. The book also offers a list of resources and tips to get involved.

Three ideas about education stand out…

1. “If we could simply eliminate the bottom five to ten percent of teachers (two or three teachers in a school with thirty) and replace them with average teachers, we could dramatically change student outcomes” (page 98), boldly declares Eric Hanushek, author and Senior Fellow at Stanford University. That is an amazing assertion, one that can only come about when teachers can be evaluated on their merits, not their seniority. Hanushek defines a good teacher as “one who consistently evokes large gains in student learning” (page 84). He also argues that teacher certification policies end up discouraging high-quality teachers and that lowering class sizes can lead to recruiting more low-quality teachers (simply to fill positions). His writing is academic, but informative and even radical.

2. “To turn around our schools and to restore the promise of education… we need to move millions of citizens off the sidelines and into the game as tutors, mentors, citizen teachers, PTO/PTA members, education activists, and even micro-philanthropists” (page 107), asserts Eric Schwarz, cofounder of Citizen Schools. We’re already tapping citizens as volunteer coaches and sports organizers; we need to encourage people to become part-time educators. Schwarz is enthusiastic and compelling, and suggests that citizen teachers commit to 10-week “apprenticeships” to mentor students in their areas of expertise.

3. “Good schooling must come before parental support” (page 173), claims Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews. Most of us think that parents need to get involved first to make a school better, but Mathews says it’s the other way around. He cites Jaime Escalante’s successful math program at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, California and Susan Schaeffler’s successful KIPP school clusters in Washington, DC that succeed on common principles: high expectations, more time for learning, standardized tests as benchmarks, and team spirit. These schools gained strong parental support only after the schools demonstrated improvement.

For more resources and to learn how you can get involved, visit www.waitingforsuperman.com/action/.

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