Waiting For “Superman” – Community Discussion Guide | Notes & Responses

Posted on May 6, 2012


Community Discussion Guide. http://www.waitingforsuperman.com/action/.

— VIA —

The Community Discussion Guide includes a whole host of resources such as websites, organizations, definitions, FAQ’s, and guidance for how to take action. The film does a good job highlighting and dramatizing the reality, but offers little in tangible “next-steps,” a reason to download and read the document for your own education, edification, and exhortation.

Below is a variety of thoughts from my own personal wrestling with the questions that were listed in the guide. This issue is too important to be misguided. We all need to be challenged at every level to ensure that we all, individually and collectively improve in this critical area of our society and existence.


• In Waiting for “Superman”, we travel with five families on their journey to enroll their children in public schools where students are challenged and supported in programs that prepare them for college. What is your vision of a great public school? What are the key characteristics of a great school?

The answer to this should not be difficult. It must start with a high value and esteem for both kids and education. Then, the governance and institution should be culturally committed to those values. Lastly, and most importantly, the teachers and administration must have the integrity and competence to exemplify those values through excellent results-driven education.

If we start with the premise that learning and discovery itself is intrinsically powerful, that humans are born with an innate sense and desire to acquire knowledge and experiences about the world around them in all subjects, then a great school is not so much about getting students to want to learn, or to even appreciate it, but rather removing the barriers and hindrances that prevent it. I’m reminded of a Peter Drucker quote, that goes something like, “Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.” Most of what we call “education,” especially the bureaucracy and politics, consists of behaviors that make it difficult for kids to get educated.

Fundamentally, however, the problem is not at a school, district, or state level. I believe, with a burdened sense of sobriety, that our problem is distinctly cultural to the entirety of our nation; that we don’t, as a society, value education as a whole. A great public school will by default exist if the nation as a whole values, esteems, celebrates, compensates, and legislates excellent education for our kids.

Who is responsible for creating and sustaining great public schools? What is your role – as a parent, teacher, student, administrator, community member, businessperson, city official or philanthropist? What needs to happen in your community to create more public ownership of your local public schools?

Everyone is responsible. Everyone is interdependent. And everyone is in a fight. Parents must fight for their children. Teachers must fight against their own self-preservation and self-interests. Students must fight against complacency and ambivalence. Administrators must fight against organizational entropy. Community Members must fight distraction. Business people must fight greed. City Officials must fight the politics. Philanthropists must fight against the system. We all should fight for our kids, our society, our schools, our teachers, and our nation.

• In the film we see several examples of schools characterized by a culture of low expectations and low achievement. Are there schools in your community that fit this description? What do you believe are the root causes of these chronically low-performing schools? What is being done to improve them? What should be done?

The film sets out several reasons; contracts, bureaucracy, politics, old standards and systems, etc. Fundamentally “starting over” like KIPP and HCZ may be the best examples of what to do. Second to that would be what Rhee has attempted to do with initiatives like paying teachers more in exchange for forsaking tenure for value-based compensation. The hesitation to that shift by the Teachers’ Unions was evidence that their value system was not for the kids and for education, but rather for self-interests under the facade of caring for our kids.

• Research shows that what happens outside of school – such as neighborhood violence or inadequate health care or housing – has a significant impact on classroom learning and student achievement. In your experience, what is the relationship between neighborhood quality of life and student achievement?

The problem with these “studies” is that they infrequently ask the “causation” vs. “correlation” question. No doubt these realities correlate, but the causal relationship is what is critical. As was stated in the film, educators are beginning to think that poor neighborhoods may be the result, not the cause, of poor education. That kind of thinking is a move in the right direction. It ought to challenge us to never acquiesce to a perception of reality, but rather to engage in the areas that we can make a substantive difference.

• Public charter schools were first envisioned as laboratories of innovation, where new ideas and strategies could be tested and best practices then implemented more broadly in traditional public schools. Although some information sharing has occurred, it is not a widespread practice, due in part to the isolation and at times distrust that exists between charter schools and school districts. How can public charter and non-charter schools learn from each other so that successful programs, practices and strategies are shared and broadly implemented? What can you do to support information sharing and collaboration between public charter and non-charter schools in your school district?



• School districts and states throughout the country are exploring new approaches to teacher pay that involve rewarding effectiveness, rather than focusing on a system based primarily on a teacher’s length of service or educational attainment. A variety of measures can be used, including student academic growth, examples of student work, student and parent surveys and teacher participation in overall school improvement efforts (such as through coaching, mentoring or other leadership roles). What factors do you think should be taken into consideration when evaluating teacher performance and determining pay levels?

While academic achievement, teacher’s education, classroom management, and results are obvious, what must also be considered is a teacher’s relational engagement with their students. Attending to the affective aspects of education is just as important as the cognitive. We are, after all, governed not just by intellect, but by emotions and relationships. We ought not disdain this half of our nature and our society, and we should recognize it with compensation.

• In Waiting for “Superman”, Geoffrey Canada says it took five years to become a “master teacher.” Research suggests that, in general, teachers become more effective after three or more years of classroom teaching experience, but many teachers – especially in schools serving low-income students of color – leave schools, districts and even the profession before they hit their stride as educators. Not only does this turnover create instability, it exacts a significant financial toll on districts. For example, in a 2007 study of five districts, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future found that it costs thousands of dollars to recruit, hire and train just one replacement teacher. How has your school or school district been affected by teacher turnover? How do we create the systems necessary to support teachers in their early years and enable good teachers to gain the confidence and experience to become great?

While many technical answers could be given, I refer back to the societal culture as a whole. Pay, celebration, value, perceptions, etc., may all play a part in how teachers view their vocation.

If we apply organizational theory, people generally don’t leave jobs. Rather, they leave managers. An additional fight for Administrators, is that they need to fight for teachers, value them, celebrate them, and forgo other expenditures to compensate them more fairly.

• Studies show that the quality of a student’s teacher has more impact on his or her learning ability than any other factor within a school. Given the critical role teachers play in student success, teacher evaluation and tenure policies are receiving significant attention throughout the country. Districts and states are exploring how to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness before granting tenure and how to increase support for tenured teachers and create pathways for ineffective tenured teachers to leave the profession when they do not improve. How does your school or district evaluate teachers to determine who should receive tenure? What support systems are in place to assist struggling teachers and remove those who do not improve? If you don’t know, how can you find out?



• Waiting for “Superman” illustrates the challenges of having each state set its own often-conflicting standards. The Common Core State Standards Initiative (a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers) establishes national standards for what K-12 students are expected to learn and be able to do in order to graduate from high school prepared for college and career. What do you think are the essential skills that a young person needs to prepare for a full and productive life after high school?

While a list of subjects and disciplines could be stated here, fundamentally, a student needs to learn to value learning, and be taught how to learn themselves, to engage in this world as contributors, not as mere drones.

• Todd Dickson, the executive director of Summit Preparatory High School in Redwood City, California, explains that a college-preparatory curriculum is standard for all students at his school. “We think every kid should be able to get to the highest level of curriculum, so we want to hold them all to the same high standard,” he says. Do you think all students should take a college-preparatory curriculum? What supports need to be in place to ensure that students are successful?

The value and ethic of Summit Prep can be held because filters are already in place before students reach the school (primarily the application process). Thus, schools without these filters must re-evaluate the equity of student value, and what is just regarding student achievement. “Value-added” evaluation seems to be an appropriate first step in that direction.

• Throughout the country, schools and districts are working to link world-class academic instruction to their career and technical education programs, ensuring the same high-level standards across the curriculum and across program areas. This so-called Linked Learning approach provides students with strong academics and real-world experiences in a wide range of fields, preparing them for college and career. How are career technical education programs designed in your school or district? What changes should be made to ensure that students are engaged and prepared?



• Many students enter kindergarten without the early literacy skills – such as knowledge of the letters of the alphabet and their sounds – necessary to be successful in school. Research shows that a high-quality preschool experience provides children with a strong start and prepares them for academic success. Not all families can afford a high-quality preschool for their children, however. Do you think universal preschool should be a priority for districts and states? How is your state supporting the availability of high-quality preschool opportunities for all children?

Absolutely. The intensity of development begins very high and declines proportionate to the age of the person. In other words, the greater learning and societal/cultural acquisition is happening in the earliest stages of a human’s maturation. Some studies have even suggested that college can even be fairly accurately predicted of a child under the age of five.

• Researchers have identified a strong link between school environment and student achievement. What can a school community do to create an environment that values and prioritizes reading? What is the role of parents, school staff and community members in fostering a culture of reading at school and at home? How might you foster a reading culture at your school?

This is answered in one word: leadership. It is necessary for schools and communities to put the right people in the right places, and then empower them to make the right decisions and moves.

• Many believe that the ability to speak, read and write in more than one language – or “biliteracy” – should be a goal for all students so that the United States can be competitive in a global marketplace. Yet only a small percentage of students graduate with dual-language skills. What is your school or district doing to promote these skills? Should the ability to read and write in more than one language be a standard for districts and states?

The joke goes, “What do you call someone who only speaks one language? An American.” The research clearly shows that being fluent and literate in more than one language maps stronger and more complex neural pathways, increases intelligence, broadens biases and perspectives, and a host of other benefits. Absolutely should this be a priority in schools, however, it should be taught with very thoughtful and specified language acquisition theories, such as total immersion. Text-book language classes have, and will continue to fail us.


• Daisy Esparza wants to be a doctor or a veterinarian. Although she is only in the fifth grade, she’s already written to college admissions offices. Her teacher and her father both believe unequivocally that Daisy can achieve her dreams, even though neither of her parents graduated from high school. Nakia Whitfield, Bianca’s mom, says her daughter “will go to college.” What role do high expectations of parents and of school staff play in student success?

The expectations of parents must be from the bottom up and inside out, not the top down or outside in. In other words, the expectations of a parent should be of an encouragement and coaching standpoint, not from an authoritarian “I’m in charge” standpoint. It should cause intrinsic motivation within the student, rather than extrinsic pressure and stress.

• Maria Regalado says her son Francisco’s elementary school is the third most overcrowded school in the Bronx. A security guard greets students, staff and parents at the front door each day. How does the physical environment affect school climate and student achievement? What responsibility do we have to provide students with clean, safe schools that are not overcrowded?

Safety, security, belonging, etc., are all part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Strip the foundation, and you’re left with survival not thrivance. All of us have an imperative responsibility to keep school environments safe and clean.

• Bill Strickland from Pittsburgh talks about how many of his buddies wound up in prison, where the state pays $33,000 a year for each inmate – the majority of whom never graduated from high school. By comparison, the average amount spent per K-12 student in the U.S. is approximately $10,000. What do you think would be the impact of spending more money to provide all students with preschool, longer school days or universal college-preparatory classes? How might this change the so-called cradle-to-prison pipeline?

This seems like a “duh” question. The implication and the question itself is the answer.

• Maria Regalado says she is “stuck” because of where she lives and applies for the lottery in a school an hour away so her son Francisco will get a better education. Gloria McGee enrolls her grandson, Anthony, in a boarding school so he will receive a quality education. What do families and communities lose when students have to travel outside their neighborhood to attend a great school? What do we gain by providing families with high-quality public school choices in their immediate neighborhood?

The paradox is that nothing shall get in the way of a determined family to provide the very best education, and yet, everything that hinders slowly chips away at the efficaciousness of the end product of education. Time, money, energy, health, travel, etc., will all take its toll. It behooves us to work towards minimizing these hindrances to maximizing the actual education achieved in our students.

Many insights are found in Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin.