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Is Arizona Waiting for "Superman"?

by Expect More Arizona

Expect More Arizona has partnered to help promote the film Waiting for “Superman” in Arizona, because we recognize its potential to elevate the conversation around education across the state, the nation, and world. Those who have seen it, and even many who haven’t, have strong opinions about the film’s message. We want to help turn those opinions into a constructive dialogue that ultimately benefits the students of Arizona and our state as a whole.

Below, we are presenting two reactions to the film. Publishing them on our blog shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement of either view by Expect More Arizona or our Board, but rather as a venue for the dialogue. And, we’d like to hear your opinions as well. Post your reactions to the film in the comments below, or if you would like us to consider your opinion for a feature on our blog, please e-mail it to us.

Arizona Isn’t Waiting for Superman
By Dr. Deb Duvall

The movie Waiting for “Superman” sends a message that urgent reforms on a massive scale are needed to save public education.  However, this is nothing new to Arizona’s public education system. We have been marching to the reform drum beat for nearly twenty years.  Citizens, legislators, school districts, state agencies and associations, businesses and the philanthropic community have had collective success in changing policy and practice in Arizona’s schools.

The 1994 legislative session passed a package of education reforms that some states are only now enacting: open enrollment, charter schools, site-based school councils, school report cards and funding for at-risk students.  Recent legislative reform action includes an early graduation diploma, stringent third grade reading requirements, plus principal and teacher performance based evaluations. The state established minimum facility standards and building standards for future school construction. Voter sales tax initiatives provided additional funds for classrooms and teacher salaries and pay for performance through Propositions 202 and 301; in 2006, we created an early childhood health and development program by passing Proposition 203.  High school graduation requirements have been increased, science has been added as a state tested content area, the school year was increased by 5 days and kindergarten was increased from a half day to a full day program.

Arizona used to be identified by the 5C’s – Cotton, Cattle, Copper, Citrus and Climate.  Now and in the future we are relying on the ABCD’s of Aerospace, Biotech, Computer chips, Data and Solar Energy to define the state of education in order to be globally competitive.

District, school, business and government leadership have embraced a plan to move Arizona forward despite some of the recent setbacks in school funding due to the current economic situation.  The plan envisions Arizona’s students among the highest performing in the nation and recognizes the importance of the classroom teacher and school leaders to create structures that will provide great teachers and leadership in classrooms and schools across the state. Our children’s futures depend on the success of this plan that provides accountability through rigorous standards and assessments at every grade level.

We know that Arizona has much room to improve its offerings to students.  However, we cannot let 5% of Arizona’s low performing schools shape the image of the other 95%.  The plan addresses this issue and provides direction and support to these schools.

Unlike the fictional Superman, the successful implementation of our plan relies not on super powers, but the very real power of parents, students, staff and the community to heed the call to action and demonstrate the support necessary for the systemic changes to take place in our schools and districts today.

Dr. Duvall (dduvall@azsa.org) is Executive Director of the Arizona School Administrators Association, Inc.

Film Exposes Inconvenient Truths About Education Status Quo
By Matthew Ladner

Davis Guggenheim, winner of a 2006 Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth, weighs into the education reform debate with his new film, Waiting for Superman. Center-right moviegoers might be inclined to dismiss Guggenheim for his association with Al Gore, but that would be a mistake. Guggenheim’s new film uses unimpeachable sources to make a powerful point about the need for effective change.

Waiting for Superman is an extremely moving documentary that derives its title from a story from Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone charter school.

Canada relates in the movie that one of the most disillusioning moments of his childhood came when he learned that Superman was not real. Canada noted Superman always protected the good people, and ensured justice would prevail. As a young Geoffrey pondered the implications of a world without Superman, a deep fear overwhelmed him.

Playing Rawls’ Lottery

The unseen hero of Waiting for Superman is not a comic book character but the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls, a Harvard professor whose thinking profoundly influenced the American center-left, advocated a provocative view of societal ethics.

Rawls created a thought experiment known as the “veil of ignorance”: Imagine you could restart the world, but you would have no knowledge of your starting point in your new life. You could be the brilliant child of a high-tech billionaire, or you could be born to a low-income single mother. Rawls argued that, under the veil of ignorance, the present “you” would want to leave a path out of poverty for the future “you,” just in case you lost the cosmic lottery.

Rawls’s views evolved over time and were subject to many interpretations, but the passion for equality of opportunity resonates strongly throughout his writings.

His unseen hand moves throughout Waiting for Superman as the film focuses not on theoretical lotteries but on real lotteries held by several high-performing charter schools. In instances where student applications exceed available places, state laws typically require charter schools to select children randomly for admission.

Beyond the Inner City

Waiting for Superman follows several students seeking to escape underperforming inner city schools in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. The filmmakers weave heartbreaking personal drama into an overall presentation of the flaws of the nation’s education system. Together, these themes are incredibly powerful and mutually reinforcing.

To their credit, the filmmakers examine educational issues outside the easy pickings of dysfunctional inner city schools. They also spend some time following a middle-income charter school applicant from a suburban district school reeking of money but offering only academic mediocrity. This portion of the film drew from the “Not as Good as You Think” research of the Pacific Research Institute, and it ably demonstrates the pervasive nature of our K-12 education crisis.

Guggenheim skillfully weaves short interviews with experts such as Michelle Rhee, Howard Fuller, Lance Izumi, and Geoffrey Canada into the narrative of the film. As the documentary reaches its conclusion, the cameras fix on the faces of the students and parents waiting in quiet desperation at the lotteries. More and more numbers are called, and the odds against the protagonists grow longer and longer.

It feels incredibly wrong to have the future hopes and dreams of children decided in such a fashion.

Urgent Need for Change

Waiting for Superman poses a stark Rawlsian question: If you were born as a disadvantaged child, would you want to be assigned to a school based on your ZIP code regardless of its record of academic failure? If inner city schools aren’t good enough for you in theory, they aren’t good enough for disadvantaged children in practice.

There is no Superman—only us. As this film vividly shows, our children need the adults to pull our heads out of the sand and get about the urgent business of improving the nation’s embarrassingly dysfunctional system of education. They have been waiting far too long already.

Matthew Ladner (mladner@goldwater.org) is vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute.

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