How Many Supermen Will It Take?

The documentary Waiting for Superman has the potential to ignite another round of media bashing of public education.  By all the commentary I have heard and read, it is a very heart-tugging tale of the plight of some urban students and their caring parents who want the best schools for their child’s education. Limited slots are available in these schools and more students seek admission than these schools can handle.

First, it is great to see these parents so involved in their child’s future education. My question is — how do we capture that enthusiasm and instill it in a larger number of parents who do not demonstrate that same interest in their children’s education?  Ask any urban teacher or principal about the percentage of parents who fit that category, and they will tell you it is very small. All our students need the interest and support from caring adults to turn low-performance around.

Our challenge  is to motivate other parents to yearn for the best for their children and then deliver schools that meet that expectation and perception of the schools highlighted in the film. There are slots for all children in our schools, and by combining the will and advocacy of  parents, educators, community and business leaders, each school should become their community’s school of choice. Communities should be known by the schools they keep.

We have proof that great schools are working every day. Success stories abound. Just go to the website of the Learning First Alliance (www.learningfirst.org) and you will see for yourself the wonderful turnaround stories of previously failing schools and the new heights they are reaching for their students and communities. Some are public school charters, others are magnets, while most fit the category of the local public school. They give public education a good name.

Another point to make is that some folks claim that public education is the worst it has ever been and then they take shots at today’s educators and our programs. If anyone happens to stumble upon the facts, they will see that public education is actually better than it has ever been. We have our problems, but our overall results indicate that we graduate more students who are better educated than ever in the past. Jamie Vollmer in his new, must-read book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone, even coined the term “nostesia.”   Vollmer defines “nostesia” as fifty percent nostalgia and fifty percent amnesia. In other words, when critics tell us that we should go back to the way that they did it in their day, the facts prove that schools were worse in their good old days. (Read Vollmer’s book for these and other interesting facts. Go to www.nspra.org/store.)

Now if you fall into the growing segment of educators that say, “We’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore,” you may want to soon start using the upcoming elements of a new campaign to be launched by my colleague Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) . Dan and his team will soon announce a 95-5 campaign which points out that the public’s perception of public education is driven by the 5 percent of the lowest performing schools. The remaining 95% of schools are performing at much better rates, but yet the perception of public education is driven by the 5 percent with high drop-out rates, low graduation numbers, and dismal test scores. The good news is that Secretary Arne Duncan,the collective  foundation world, and urban educators are focusing on the poorer performing schools to help them improve. They can’t  turnaround overnight. It is not fair to paint all of public education with such a broad negative brush based on the performance of only 5 percent of our schools.  A tip of our hat to AASA for this campaign. Learn more about the AASA 95-5 campaign by going to www.aasa.org.

In  addition to  Waiting for Superman, more than 12 additional documentaries will have flooded the public market through this fall. We can all predict the type of media attention it will bring us.  Use this spotlight as a triggering event to tell your school story.  Talk about the success you are having, show results, invite key leaders to see for themselves that you are doing better than in the past, and how you are also focused on rasing achievement for low performers. Seize the opportunity to engage parents and others to share expectations for your schools, actively listen, and forge new collaborative partnerships to make your schools better.

More than 6.2 million k-12 staff members work in our public schools. There is no need to wait for superman. We should be the superman models all our children need.

Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director

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