Superman is in the House (Huffington Post)
By David E. Thigpen, Vice President for Policy and Research
Published on October 14, 2010
It's been a long time since anything in the education world has generated as much excitement as "Waiting for 'Superman' ", the new documentary film that has sparked legions of newspaper editorials, cable TV talk fests, and for the first time in recent memory -- a ray of hope that public outrage over school failure might finally shape itself into a focused movement for change.
There is already plenty of disagreement about the film itself, and that is a good thing. Whether viewers believe the answer to the public education mess will come through building more charter schools, taking down teachers unions, raising teacher pay or turning loose more scorched-earth administrators like Washington D.C.'s Michele Rhee, "Waiting for 'Superman' " has Chicagoans and the nation debating some of the thorniest issues at the heart of the public school crisis.
The timing could not be better. As with the rest of the nation, Chicago faces difficult choices in the months ahead. With a change in leadership coming to City Hall next year for the first time in two decades, and with only modest results to show for the mayor's signature Renaissance 2010 school reform initiative, a new direction is called for. In the short term, mounting fiscal shortfalls will surely result in even further cuts to Chicago Public Schools skin-and-bones educational budget, leaving administrators to grapple with the same persistently failing schools and low graduation rates we've seen for years. Only now economic circumstances will be even more deeply unfavorable. And once again, poor and minority children will be the first to get shortchanged.
But the buzz among parents, administrators, reformers and teachers over the merits of "Waiting for 'Superman' " may illuminate a point that has become all but lost in the endless squabbling over who's to blame. The point is that success within the four walls of the classroom will never come until we also find a way to bolster the communities outside of it. Superman is not a teacher, not a charter school, not a principal, superintendent or a mayor. He is not another research study or a speech. He is all of us -- students, teachers, principals, parents, communities, businesses and government -- working in concert, on an broad scale.
Geoffrey Canada understands that point. The Harlem Children's Zone creator and one of the stars of "Waiting for 'Superman' " positively transformed a section of Harlem through an extraordinary -- and expensive -- net of wraparound services. Delivering children from the grinder of poverty requires attention to the health of the home and the family. It requires building cohesion in communities, and it also depends on something that has become an increasingly scarce commodity these days -- good wages and good jobs. Not every city will produce a Geoffrey Canada or be able to tap the private sector money that allowed the Harlem Children's Zone to flourish. But make no mistake -- if we find the resources, and invest them in proven tools such as teaching, improving community support, leadership and spreading early childhood education, results will follow. That is the reason why Chicago Urban League is suing the Illinois State Board of Education -- to dismantle the discriminatory and inequitable system of school funding. For their part, communities, government and the private sector must find ways to help troubled communities get back on their feet. The lesson is clear: with broad cooperation, poor and minority children can succeed just like suburban kids. Strip away the dysfunction and deficits that they are burdened with and they too can thrive. But they cannot do it alone.
And this brings us to a lesson that we hope the next mayor of Chicago will take to heart when he or she takes office next year. Strong communities make strong schools. You want to build your schools? Then build your communities. True school reform in Chicago will require a new and more tightly coordinated collaboration between the schools, communities, government and the private sector. It will be both top down and bottom up. None of this is a secret. The challenge will be making it work. It won't take Superman to rescue our schools. Just us.