Being honest about how tough ed reform is

I know I'm the last one to the party on this one but I just got around to seeing Waiting for Superman this weekend. Fordham staff have already weighed in with lots of great insight (see here, here, here, and here) but I have one comment about the film positing ?we know what works.?

I saw the movie on Saturday coming off of a multi-day conference in Nashville with leaders and key staffers of PIE Network organizations. For those of you who don't know, the PIE Network is a coalition of statewide education advocacy organizations that have made serious dents in improving education policy in their respective states. Colorado Succeeds was instrumental in helping craft and pass that state's landmark teacher reform bill, which overhauled teacher evaluations, tenure, forced hiring and placement, and seniority-based reductions in force ? in other words, precisely the types of policy changes that Waiting for Superman calls for implicitly.? ConnCAN, Advance Illinois, Tennessee SCORE, and several others have brokered equally critical policy and legislative changes. To hear from leaders of these organizations was energizing, inspiring, and humbling, to say the least.

Which brings me to my original point: Waiting for Superman's attempt to motivate audience members ? though commendable ? felt a bit misleading because it portrayed the pursuit of ?what works? as somewhat effortless.

Mike has criticized this attitude in a great post here, specifically in terms of hubris when it comes to thinking we've ?cracked the code? with a handful of top-notch charter schools serving poor kids.

At a statewide policy level, this attitude is also grossly oversimplified. Here in Ohio, we can identify which policies need to change in order for education to better serve the interests of children. We can even craft model legislation to overhaul teacher evaluations; hold principals and teachers accountable for student performance; put an end to tenure, last hired, first fired, etc.

But when it comes to actually moving those ideas from paper into action, the solution is anything but easy. Technically we sort of ?know what works,? but what we're not as sure of is how to convince everybody else of that, and to ensure that state lawmakers and leaders will take the political risks necessary to bring into these ideas into reality.

PIE Network members who have worked tirelessly to build coalitions, raise awareness, negotiate and re-negotiate, and fight an endless barrage of criticism and hostility in their states would be the first to tell you that the pathway toward implementing ?what works? is anything but easy. And we here in Ohio still have a long fight ahead of us. I can't really blame Guggenheim for not capturing all of this in the film (it's not the sexiest of topics, though he did touch on it a bit in showing the walls that Michelle Rhee came up against in DC) but as I watched the film I longed for a disclaimer or giant asterisk. ?We know what works *? ?.

*We know what works ? in theory. It is incredibly difficult to undo state laws, district regulations, and collective bargaining agreements that govern teachers' jobs and that prevent us from taking the kind of bold action suggested by this movie. It's politically risky. By seriously committing to this movement you may lose your job or even face death threats. You may work tirelessly for years, even a decade, and come out on the other end with a very different ?timeline? for your idealism. The status quo may swallow you whole before you ever complete the job. That said, it's worth it.

Doesn't that seem a bit more honest?

- Jamie Davies O'Leary

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