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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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RHSU Classic: ‘Waiting for Superman': My Conversion Experience

By Rick Hess — February 10, 2020 5 min read
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This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rick Hess Straight Up, making it a propitious time to revisit some favorites from the past decade. For each of the Top 20 which run this month, I’ve offered a quick reflection or thought as to why it remains a personal favorite.

Those readers who are too young to recall the frenzy around “Waiting for Superman” will have trouble fully appreciating how much hope the “reform” community invested in the transformative power of this film. I still recall the director, Davis Guggenheim, being quoted, in all seriousness, saying that these charter schools had “cracked the code” of educational excellence. The silliness was monumental, but was embraced by plenty of “serious” people. I remember when a famed pundit leaned over to an accomplished scholar at a screening, whispering that this film “makes all your work worthwhile.” It was all silly, smug, self-satisfied, and self-defeating. I felt called upon to mock it, infuriating many friends and funders—who, somehow, never did see the problems with this little exercise in hubris. Now, on to number 15, originally published on September 22, 2010.

“In recent years, we’ve cracked the code. The high-performing charter schools, like KIPP and others, have figured out the system that works for kids in even the toughest neighborhoods.”
-Davis Guggenheim

My pal Mike Petrilli has already ably addressed the hubris, banality, and, well, painful ignorance in that quote. I’ll only add that, if Guggenheim or any of today’s reformers think they’re the first to decide that we’ve finally “solved” this challenge, they might want to acquaint themselves with the musings of Ron Edmonds or Ellwood Cubberley, or more recent, less-than-inspiring experiences with comprehensive school reform and small high schools.

An admission: I had thought about spiking the following column. I wondered whether it was too mean and gratuitous a shot at a well-intentioned exercise. But Monday’s Oprah spectacle, Guggenheim’s declarations, and the continuing barrage from would-be reformers hawking “Waiting for Superman” and promoting a goopy groupthink symbiosis with the Paramount marketing operation leave me thinking that large doses of cynicism are in order.

I’ll admit it. I’d been skeptical of the import of “Waiting for Superman,” even though it’d been made clear by plenty of self-styled reform commandants that all good “reformers” are supposed to link to, mention, and celebrate the movie as often as possible. Indeed, major foundations have decided that the movie’s release makes this “the moment” to fix American education—you know, given that director Davis Guggenheim’s “An Inconvenient Truth” already prompted us to solve our climate-change worries.

Happily, my earlier skepticism is gone. Much like Winston in 1984, I now feel pleasantly persuaded. You see, the peer pressure finally got to me and, just hours ago, I walked out of the theater with my eyes, finally, wide open.

I had to tell somebody. I grabbed the poor kid at the concession stand. “I just saw the most amazing film,” I told him. “My eyes are wide open.”

He nodded glumly. He didn’t have any customers.

“Did you know that we’re screwing over poor kids in the inner city? That their schools stink? But that it’s possible to do better?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think I saw that in my mom’s Newsweek last year,” he said. “And, come to think of it, I remember hearing in middle school about something called A Nation at Risk that came out, like, 30 years ago.”

“Yeah, me, too. But, now, with the lights and the cinematography and the music, it’s real for me. I feel it now,” I said. “We spend a lot of money, but our kids don’t do all that well. But, and this is the cool thing, there are these charter schools that do terrific. The trick is that there are not enough charter schools for all the kids. So kids have to hope they luck into a spot.”

“Sounds like we need more charter schools,” the kid said.

“Exactly,” I said. “This is what’s so great. I used to overcomplicate things. But what we need are charter schools and better teachers. Now the way forward is so much clearer.”

“So all those charter schools out there are great?” the kid asked.

“I think so,” I said. “There may have been a line in the movie that said they’re not all great, but they sure seemed amazing.”

“So why aren’t there more of them?” the kid asked.

“Exactly!” I said. “See, it’s the damn teachers’ unions.”

“So, are you going to push for more charter schools where you live?” the kid asked.

“Nah, we don’t need them. You know, most of us who go to see these documentaries are pretty affluent. I live in a tony suburb, where our schools are great, but I do feel really guilty now. Next election, I hope to support a governor who likes charter schools.”

“So, would you vote for a governor you disagreed with on taxes or abortion or highway construction because you cared so much about charter schools?” he asked.

“Man, you are one savvy kid,” I said. “Well, probably not. It won’t affect me much, but now I get that it would be the right thing to do. And, man, do I feel guilty.”

We looked at each other.

“You know,” I said, “the other thing, which really rocked my world, is that superintendents like Michelle Rhee in D.C. and Joel Klein in New York are trying to make a difference. It’s especially important that they get more good teachers.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I think I saw something about that in Time magazine a couple years ago.”

“Yeah, me, too,” I said.

“Didn’t the mayor responsible for appointing and supporting Rhee just get beat in his re-election bid?” the kid asked.

“I think so,” I said. “And, you know, I don’t really know any African American parents in D.C., or really too many working class folks in the city. And I live 10 miles outside of Washington. So, I guess I’m not sure what I might do about it.”

“You seem like someone who would’ve already heard that our schools have problems,” the kid said.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “But now, in that hushed theater with the popcorn and the killer sound system, it’s all so real. I want to do something to help.”

“So, what are you going to do?” he asked, seemingly semi-curious.

“Hmm, good question. I looked at the movie’s web site, and there’s nothing really there,” I said. Then, I surveyed the concession stand and inspiration struck. “Hey, I know what. You guys have those souvenir T-shirts, right? Give me one with the picture of the pitiable 10-year-old and the big ‘It’s for the Kids’ slogan on the back.”

“You want a medium?” he asked.

“Let me have a large,” I said, getting out my wallet. “And let me have some Jujubes, too.”

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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