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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.

Education Opinion

Some Constructive Advice for Superman’s Fans

By Rick Hess — September 27, 2010 7 min read
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Last week, as was much remarked, I had some fun expressing my concerns about the cult of Waiting for ‘Superman’. A couple folks asked if I might have anything constructive to say about how the attention the movie is generating might be put to good use. Heaven knows I’m skeptical about claims that Waiting for ‘Superman’ is going to have an outsized impact on school reform. And I’m borderline nauseous from constant urgings to praise and promote the flick. All that aside, though, I think it’s a fine movie, a useful contribution, and could do some good—if the short-term bump in energy and enthusiasm are channeled well. The key is to use its energy in a constructive way before education is once again relegated to back-burner status by Oprah, Geraldo, Katie Couric, and Entertainment Weekly in three to six months.

Seizing that window requires being smart about leveraging this kind of media spectacle. Unfortunately for those eagerly helping Paramount get viewers to the multiplex, those two hours getting outraged in a darkened theater won’t do much for anything except Paramount’s bottom line. Why not? Because that anger quickly dissipates, as viewers fight their way out of the parking lot, remember the press of other obligations, and go home to cut checks for hurricane victims and Greenpeace. People have limited bandwidth. Using Superman effectively means the objective should not be to boil the sea of public opinion and aspire towards some grandiose new national level of edu-awareness; it should be about pushing discrete, game-changing measures that will outlast the booster shot of enthusiasm.

It’s instructive to consider the minimal real impact of two of the last decade’s biggest documentaries: Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Both did very well at the box office and made a lot of cash. They made celebrities out of their central figures—Al Gore and Moore. But neither actually accomplished much. For all the fuss about An Inconvenient Truth, cap-and-trade has gone nowhere, and Americans are as concerned about climate change today as they were before the film. Michael Moore was feted at the 2004 Democratic convention, but a number of analysts think the paroxysm of rage actually cost John Kerry more votes than it won. If the objective of the Superman spin machine is to do more than make Guggenheim a frequent guest on Oprah Winfrey and such, the key is to translate the movie’s message into real points of leverage.

A more inspiring model is Super Size Me, which earned less money than these two efforts and did less to make director Morgan Spurlock a star, but which has been credited with helping prod McDonald’s to eliminate the Super Size option, add more salads, and post nutritional information. Now, first off, it’d be a big mistake to attribute all this to the movie—but the movie was credited with playing a big role in pushing McDonald’s to take these concrete steps. Second, crucially, the advocates didn’t primarily use the movie as a chance to build awareness that “fast food is bad” or that “we should eat better"—or even that “our kids deserve to eat well"—but as a lever for pushing specific, lasting changes.

Right now, advocates seem to conceive that the next steps for Superman converts, as best I can tell, are to support your schools, support standards, demand improvement, and care more. It was painful watching host David Gregory feebly try to elicit suggestions from his guests on Meet the Press yesterday as to next steps; the best they could come up with was to volunteer, get enthused about the national effort to serve our kids better, and contribute more money to schools. Or, consider the three reform steps as distilled in Entertainment Weekly this week: “take the pledge” (to see the movie), text “possible” to 77177 (which will get “news on education reform” sent to your phone), and write a letter (to encourage your governor “to fight harder for change”).

The Waiting for ‘Superman’ website’s “Take Action” page had six items this weekend: an advertisement for the companion book, another ad for the score, remarks from a “super teacher,” a debate on whether to evaluate teachers, an interview with the movie’s director, and a pledge to see the movie. The page on “what parents can do” offers five items: “get local school ratings and parent reviews on GreatSchools.org,” “demand world-class standards for all students,” “talk to your teachers,” “do what’s best for kids, not adults,” and “make a teacher’s job easier.” The page on what “you” can do adds: “help students succeed” by supporting “All4Ed.org,” which amazingly “helps ensure every child graduates from high school prepared for college and for life;" “pledge to see the film;" “help your local school;" and “attend a school board meeting.”

As somebody who’s been a “reformer” since before it was cool, I find the entire range of next steps offered by advocates to be vague, tepid, and remarkably inconsistent with their revolutionary declarations. In fact, if the website and Meet the Press advocacy are the goal, then would-be reformers can relax, as there’s nothing on the website—other than the self-promotion for the film and its ancillary products—that their local PTAs haven’t been pushing for decades. Even sites that aren’t primarily oriented towards ramping up Paramount sales and revenue show a disconcerting gentleness and lack of concreteness. I won’t bother picking on any in particular; I’ll just say that they’re long on people taking pledges and short on courses of action.

If I were advising those trying to leverage the potential impact of Superman, what would I suggest? Four things:

First, focus on the concrete and actionable, not the broad and vague. GOOD: Getting e-mails of departing viewers who will put up yard signs for reform-minded school board candidates, encouraging supporters to work the phones, their neighbors, and their e-mails to push their state legislators to take the lead on specific changes in statute. BAD: Pledges to care more, to be “engaged,” or to write letters on behalf of “reform.”

Second, take a page out of General Colin Powell’s manual and focus on the doctrine of “overwhelming force.” Don’t try to get everyone to care more, much less to imagine that such a shift will be sustained. Instead, focus on using the energy to direct overwhelming force on key decision-makers to make discrete wins. These will allow a few thousand motivated supporters to flood a mayor’s office or key state legislators with e-mail, mail, and phone calls. GOOD: Teeing up and then aggressively pushing bills for mayoral control of troubled inner-city schools, and supporting legislative votes to strip down licensure requirements and tenure protections. BAD: Thinking that one can boil the sea of public opinion in a manner that will have any meaningful impact on sprawling, massive federal efforts like ESEA reauthorization.

Third, focus on wins that will last and not ones that can be easily swept aside. Getting the public riled up and claiming a few minutes from the blow-dried masters of short-attention-span-theater on CNN or CBS is swell, but it’s ephemeral. After all, if a quick burst of dramatic rage was enough to solve problems, Huey Long, George Wallace, Michael Moore, and Glenn Beck would be triumphal heroes of social change. The wins that matter are those that change policy, incentives, and statutes. GOOD: Focusing on changing laws and institutions governing charter schooling and teacher tenure, and building grassroots outfits that will thrive long after the movie is an afterthought. BAD: Focusing on amorphous public awareness campaigns, vaguely encouraging people to “get involved,” worrying about ill-defined partnerships.

Fourth, remember this is likely to be a limited window. The absolute best case is probably a five-to eight-point bump in the percentage of people who say they’re deeply concerned about education. Even in that best case, it’s unlikely that this bump will last more than a year or two. So, the key is to strike while the iron is hot. For those of us who still expect to be pushing to rethink teacher pay, create room for stellar charter schools, and fuel uncompromising reformers, the question is what we can do to use this bump to help that effort. GOOD: Pushing discrete measures that will deliver lasting change. BAD: Imagining this window will linger and that any uptick in enthusiasm is likely to be permanent.

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.