There is no shortage of hype and animated conversation surrounding the much-anticipated release of “Waiting for Superman.” While I’m not inclined to add to the hype, I feel compelled to comment on the reactions that I have observed over the course of many conversations over the past few weeks. It seems to me that two camps have emerged…those who are committed to defending the points made in the movie, and those passionate about disputing the evidence. What I don’t see happening is an overwhelming commitment to doing what it takes – collaboratively – to make real change happen in our schools.
In our best moments, all sides of the argument recognize and admit the need for real change. Yet when feeling attacked, what does any entity do? Defend. Dig in your heels, resist boundaries being pushed, and defend the status quo. In that sense, Waiting for Superman has the propensity to impede change by putting educators at all levels on the defensive, looking for someone to blame, evidence that was misconstrued, or rationale for things being as they are…exactly the opposite state that we need to achieve.
If we take the “to change or not to change” question off the table, we are left with the common understanding that indeed, our educational system needs to change. We can then move past defending why/if the system currently works to determining how best to go about transformation. This is where “Waiting for Superman” can offer tremendous value to the conversation. The journey begins with finding the lessons that are core to success. Let’s fearlessly join in a collaborative effort to identify, dissect, and replicate the models that are working well. From the 17% of charter schools that demonstrate success to Finland’s education system, if we strategically cull the lessons for success as well as the contexts for those lessons, we will find many of the same reforms those within the educational system have been seeking for years: flexibility to effectively meet the needs of all students, support for innovation, acceptance of taking risks, and encouragement for moving beyond the norm.
To illustrate this point, let’s go back in time to the open concept schools of the 1970’s. What is it that made these schools work? It was the premise that students don’t develop at the same pace, need to receive “just in time” instruction to match their development and skill needs, and thrive best in a learning environment that readily meets a broad range of needs in a diverse student body. So why don’t we see these schools thriving in the 21st century? I believe part of the answer lies in their development preceding our readiness, both as a society and as an educational system. At that time, we were still too immersed in the factory model for education, hadn’t yet recognized the need for 21st century skill development, and didn’t have the system structures in place to fully support an individualized learning model.
This Waiting for Superman conversation may be happening at just the right time. There is widespread recognition of the need for change, we have strong evidence that tells us what we need to do to make our schools successful, and we have a number of systems that support and encourage innovation. If we can keep the conversation focused on systemically aligning our practices with what we know works, transformative change is possible.About the Author: Teri Dary is the Education Consultant for Service-Learning at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and serves as co-chair of the State Education Agency K-12 Service-Learning Network. She has been an educator for 27 years and has extensive experience in curriculum and program development, effective instructional practices, and teacher professional development.