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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.

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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.

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In discussions about school reform, teachers are cast as either the heroes or the heels. President Obama's Race to the Top initiative is a competition for $4.35 billion, but in order for states to compete, they must develop or already have teacher-evaluation strategies that focus on student learning. As a result, many states have adopted the most popular system of assessment: value-added models. Value-added models are designed to measure how much a student learns under a given teacher each academic year. Sounds easy enough, but the math and measurement that go into the models are complex.

Sean Corcoran at New York University recently evaluated New York's value-added system and found that the measuring stick used to evaluate teachers was far from reliable. In his evaluation, he stated, "Teachers, policy makers, and school leaders should not be seduced by the simplicity of value-added." The systems in place in New York, D.C. and even states like Tennessee, which pioneered the approach, have been called into serious question for improperly evaluating teachers. As surprising as it may seem, we are a long way from a system that accurately evaluates teachers. 

Paying Teachers What They're Worth

We already know that teachers are underpaid. The average teacher in the United States made $51,329 in 2008, though salaries vary greatly by state. The big question remains: How can we increase teacher salaries and student achievement at once? Recently, merit pay, or performance pay, has gained attention as a possible solution. One highly visible advocate is D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who argued that merit pay could help teachers earn more and increase student achievement. Unfortunately, the most comprehensive study to date from Vanderbilt's National Center on Performance Incentives found that merit-based pay did not increase teacher effectiveness. In fact, the study's authors said, "It simply did not do much of anything." Paying teachers more across the board could attract talented individuals into the teaching profession in greater numbers.

Getting Paid to Study

Teachers are not the only ones who are part of the "pay to perform" movement. Children in multiple cities have been offered incentives for increased test scores. The most ambitious of these projects has been led by Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist and chief equality officer for the New York City Department of Education. The basic idea is that middle-class students are routinely rewarded for high academic performance and thus are encouraged to work their hardest and get their best-possible grades.

To approximate this reward system, Fryer paid students when they did well on tests. The experiment ran in more than 250 schools in Dallas, New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C., with the goal of raising student achievement. Despite high hopes, Fryer found that incentives had little to no effect on student achievement. However, he found that incentives did increase the time spent reading or doing other positive academic-related practices, but still had little to no effect on shifting students' performance. Despite not improving students' scores, though, this is promising, and importantly reveals that students are not underachieving because they lack effort. Rather, their performance represents real gaps in skills that come from struggling communities and schools.

The payback for investing in education must be made clear to all students, but this will take more than short-term rewards. Children continue to see the struggles of the U.S. economy and wonder if there be work available when they complete school. The curriculum that we use in our school and the methods we teach must endow students with a belief that education is still the most consistent gateway to greater opportunity.

Promise Neighborhoods

Canada's model has generated a watershed of press and an even greater deluge of private donations, leading to an endowment of $145 million. Unfortunately, Promise Neighborhoods are governmentally sponsored, and budgetary issues put into question how long such funding will be available. The first set of Promise Neighborhood grantees was announced last week; it'll be quite some time before we will see results from this approach.

From Superman to Solutions

Urban education has been failing for more than 30 years. In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education released its "A Nation at Risk" report: The report raised national concern that U.S. public education was underpreparing students for international competition. In response, cities and businesses collaborated to reform education. While there were glimmers of hope, as there are now, systemwide change failed.

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Waiting for Superman touts schools as the solution to failing education. While this is intuitive, it is almost entirely incorrect. In reality, what happens outside of schools — inside communities and in families — matters equally if not more than what happens inside school buildings. When you look at the amount of time spent outside of school and the sets of issues that young people contend with, such as poverty, violence and racial discrimination, it is no wonder that schools have a tough task in front of them. Successful schools go far beyond the traditional role of school as we commonly define it. They are able to connect strong teaching with resources to support and empower students to handle the dilemmas they face both inside and outside of school.

With thousands of failing schools nested in communities where poverty is a common feature, turning the tide of urban education will take more than a few trickles of success. It will take a wave. The success of the schools highlighted in Waiting for Superman is important to understand in a larger context. The ability to pour resources into a school or small set of schools and produce strong results is very different from turning around an entire school system. Touting a few successful schools as the cure for our educational ills is dangerous at best and disingenuous at worst.

In the coming years, it will be obvious if 2010-style education reform offers sustainable solutions to our education woes — or if they will fly by faster than a speeding bullet.

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 R. L'Heureux Lewis is an assistant professor of sociology and black studies at the City College of New York in CUNY. His research and writing specialize in education, race and inequality. Lewis blogs regularly at www.uptownnotes.com. Follow him on Twitter.