Delaware’s Not Waiting…

October 19th, 2010

Category: News

Waiting for “Superman” is a powerful story about the inability of America’s public education system to fulfill a basic promise to our children: that every child has the right to a decent shot at the American Dream. Tied to that, it’s a story about how the nation’s education system isn’t keeping up with those of other higher-performing nations.  The statistics are sobering, and the call to action clear.

The story is told through the eyes of five children across the country whose life choices are limited by their zip codes.  The film also unpacks why our schools were the envy of the world fifty years ago and why many don’t work for the nation’s needs of today.

Even after seven years of teaching and another 15 years in education policy and philanthropy, it is hard to understand how this country got so far off track.

The film made me cry and it made me angry.  My wife and I watched the film together and whispered to each other about how each of our three children reminded us of the children in the film.  It was heartbreaking to see how hard the parents of these children had to work to find a school that they believed in, and it made me feel guilty for the options we had that they did not.  For us, the litmus test for “good enough” is whether we would send our child there.  At this point, I’d argue that we have a way to go in terms of providing enough of the great options that parents need.

One form of choice comes in the form of our charter schools, and in Delaware our charter school community enrolls about 8% of the student population.  However, we also know that just one-third of these 18 schools made the type of academic progress that they should have made last year. Yet, because of their ability to make decisions quickly and use resources flexibly, several charters are some of the top performers in the state, and often have been first out of the gate in learning from the world’s best, e.g., by extending the school day and adopting curricular strategies that work, like Singapore Math.  Our charters offer some great options and there are some great options in our districts, just simply not enough of either. 

Some will argue that this is a movie about charters versus district schools or about unionized versus non-union schools.  I can understand that take, but I think the director, Davis Guggenheim, simply used that frame to tell a much more important story:  That there simply aren’t enough great schools— charter or district —in this country.  And driving this paucity of options is the limited supply of great teachers.  The film drove home how devastating even one ineffective teacher can be and how tough it will be to build a policy framework that ensures that we have a great one in every Delaware classroom.

Related, the film also digs into the role of unions, and I would argue that we need to accept that collective bargaining agreements—which traditionally have treated all teachers interchangeably, regardless of performance—are one part of the problem that needs to change with the times.  Yet we also have to acknowledge that there is movement on this front.  Our colleagues at the Delaware State Education Association should be lauded for being proactive in building Delaware’s efforts to reform our teacher evaluation system in a way that, for the first time, will incorporate student performance in a meaningful way.  

We must do the right thing for our children.  This nation is facing a crisis.  The needs of adults must come second to the rights of our children, and the adults in our state need to talk to each other like adults if we are to make meaningful change.  We need to see movies like Waiting for “Superman,” read books with opposing views like Diane Ravitch’s Death and Life of the Great American School System, and learn from the highest performing countries in the world.  We need to learn and debate, yet we also must act with urgency, however imperfect.  

Nothing this significant will be easy.  Yet we know it’s possible.  And we are committed to doing our part.  Our children can’t wait.

Have you seen Waiting for “Superman” yet?  If so, what did you think?  Can Delaware Continue Waiting for Superman?

Paul Herdman



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