Waiting for School Reform

Thanks to the highly hyped documentary Waiting for Superman, and President Obama's recent plug for education, making over our country's troubled schools is the topic du jour. Problem is, there's no one formula for success.

Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Education reform is a hot topic these days, thanks to the recent release of the much hyped documentary Waiting for Superman. Directed by the same team that produced the award-winning An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary takes a hard look at the dilemma of American educational failure. Viewers get a heart-tugging tour de force that spotlights issues plaguing low-performing American public schools. What viewers do not get, however, is an education on the realities that hamper real reform. The problems that our schools face are complex, but director Davis Guggenheim and crew tell viewers that the solutions are simple and “we know what works.” While that’s a powerful statement, there is little research — or reality — to back up that claim.

The truth is, when it comes to implementing education reform, we don’t know for sure what works.

Charter School Success?

Waiting for Superman has been hailed by critics as a no-holds-barred look at American education; it highlights the success of charter schools like the Harlem Success Academy and the SEED School in Washington, D.C. However, by highlighting these high-flying schools, the directors gloss over the fact that four out of five charter schools do no better than public schools. In fact, research suggests that many do worse than traditional public schools.

Stanford University’s CREDO National Charter School Study Program found in 2009 that charter schools often are more aspiration than achievement. Over an eight-year period, researchers at CREDO tracked the progress of charter and traditional public schools across 16 states. They found that the majority of charter schools do not outperform traditional public schools in areas like reading and math. In fact, 37 percent perform worse than traditional public schools, 46 percent performed no better and only 17 percent of charters outperformed their traditional public school counterparts. While charters are often suggested as a magical alternative to failing public schools, they are often just a substitute. Nationally, less than 5 percent of students attend charter schools, and of that small percent, few are excelling. Among the schools that do excel, replicating success is no easy task.

As Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute has demonstrated, when schools do find success, it is often short-lived. The “success” that such schools enjoy is often a result of unique dynamics that can’t be duplicated at other schools. Several factors are associated with good charter performance: dynamic principals, engaged teaching staff, extra instructional time, individualized educational supports and copious financial resources. But even the presence of all of these elements does not guarantee success. It’s an issue that’s been studied exhaustively, but thus far, research has failed to pinpoint why some schools with similar practices succeed and others don’t.  In short: There’s no one formula for success.

Money Matters

Economists send a complicated message to education reformers: More money does not mean better scores, but money matters nonetheless. Despite steady increases in spending, average achievement in reading and math scores has not jumped. This has led fiscal conservatives to clamor for the government to stop “pouring” money into urban schools. But the highest-performing urban charters often draw from exceptional financial coffers. Harlem Children’s Zone costs between $3,500 and $5,000 per participant, and the Children’s Zone boasted a budget in 2009 of more than $40 million; the SEED School costs $35,000 annually per child. Both projects receive government allocations but also benefit from generous private donations. If we are impressed by these schools’ success, we should also be willing to spend what they spend to achieve what they do.