Education Reform At Last?

“An Inconvenient Truth” represented a major shift in this country’s thinking about global warming.

That documentary took climate change from a niche concern to one of the pillars of the green movement (which, incidentally, has subsumed the environmentalist movement–when’s the last time you heard anyone talk about environmentalism?–yet another example of the power of re-branding).

Now, the same documentary maker, Davis Guggenheim, is back with “Waiting for Superman,” and this time he’s taking on the U.S. education system.

As this outstanding piece in New York Magazine explains, Guggenheim’s film follows five children and their families as they await the results of a lottery. Win, and they win a slot in a charter school that promises a better education. Lose, and they are forced to attend their local public school.

The New York Magazine piece points out a number of fascinating things:

1) The villain of the movie is Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. Yet as the article points out, Weingarten is responsible for helping push through a number of major reforms–which she downplays. It may be that she uses fierce rhetoric and defiance to provide the air cover she needs to quietly work for reform.

2) While Obama has failed the test of bipartisanship in many respects (admittedly, with an opposition party that decided bipartisanship would not be beneficial), the article points out that in education, he has defied the Democratic party’s traditional allegiance to the teachers’ unions (which are some of its largest donors, along with trial lawyers). It probably helps that the unions backed Hillary Clinton in the primaries. (If I were petty, I would describe that decision as the latest in a long line of bad decisions by those unions. If I were petty.)

This was actually one of my biggest hopes for Obama’s presidency–that like Nixon going to China, a Democratic president with actual backbone could bring out real change.

3) While there is much call for optimism, one statistic stands out and should scare the crap out of you:

“Whereas the best public-school systems in the world—Finland, Singapore, South Korea—recruit all of their teachers from the top third or better of their college graduates, in America the majority come from the bottom two-thirds, with just 14 percent of those entering teaching each year in high-needs schools coming from the upper third. And the numbers may be getting worse. According to a recent survey conducted by McKinsey, a meager 9 percent of top-third graduates have any interest in teaching whatsoever.”

Of course, an economist would point out that this behavior is to be expected. Any job with low pay and advancement by seniority is unlikely to attract the best and brightest. That same McKinsey study found that switching to merit-based pay with compensation of up to $150,000 for top teachers would increase the proportion of top college grads going into teaching from 14% to 68%.

I’ve long despaired that educational reform would ever happen in this country, thanks to the teachers’ unions (one of my favorite whipping boys, along with Barbara Ehrenreich and Hillary Clinton). That this day may finally be at hand is a tribute to all the reformers who have worked so hard, but also to the power of storytelling.

6 thoughts on “Education Reform At Last?

  1. There is a third option, the one my wife and I took, don't bother to wait for education reform to happen and home school your kids. My wife and I look back at our highschool experience and couldn't bring ourselves to let our kids go to public school.

    My wife graduated at the top of her high school class and got into Ivy League colleges, but public school didn't prepare her properly to succeed at those schools.

    I got labeled as mildly retarded in grammar school and tracked in the lowest levels right through high school. I assume I have ADHD to thank for the early label. Even with the label I managed to finish a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering. I guess the school system was wrong…

    We home school because public school totally failed my wife and I.

    At one point we did try to send our daughter to a local charter school but we didn't win the lottery.

  2. baldmountain,

    If you have the time and energy, I think homeschooling is the best educational option. Another great one are the Sudbury-style schools.

    But for most Americans, our best realistic hope is reform within the public school system.

  3. Imagine if reform and innovation had always been hardwired in education. If the systems, processes, and tools were all pushing towards advancement. Imagine if the government was acquiring companies (tech stratups etc) and continually trying to help push the systems evolution along. Implimenting new things, multivariate testing, and then scaling what proves to work best.

    Cathy Davidson talks about education reform and has a wonderful perspective. I recommend looking into her talks or books to anyone interested in this topic:

    It's very cool when you see tech companies contributing tools to edu. Kudos to PBW for that.

  4. Jason,

    The beauty of the startup ecosystem is that it is outcome-driven. It would be great if education were the same.

  5. Paul,

    Great video of Governor Christie, and a great example of the power of data and rhetoric. I'm now a fan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *