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Are School Psychologists Waiting for “Superman”?

By Kathleen M. Minke

Have you seen Waiting for “Superman?” If not, you should. Davis Guggenheim’s latest documentary is taking the education reform debate by storm and everyone involved in education should be paying attention. Some NASP staff and I went to see the movie to learn for ourselves what the movie conveys and how we fit in (or don’t) to the message. It was well worth our time.

“Superman” is compelling and thought provoking, but ultimately disappointing because its recommended solutions are both too narrow and too simple given the complexity of teaching and learning. The film follows the efforts of five families to secure coveted spots in successful charter schools that they believe are the key to their children’s success. It outlines the deplorable outcomes of the neighborhood schools available to most of these families. You are truly hard-hearted if you are not touched by the pain in the faces of the families whose children are not successful in attaining admission. (I know that the law requires random selection and a public process, but really, the game show approach to this by several of the schools seems unnecessarily cruel.) The film clearly showcases the human and economic costs of our worst schools. Its main message is that all of us must act and act now to change this state of affairs. To the extent that Guggenheim moves individuals to become engaged in school reform, I applaud the effort.

Unfortunately, in the quest to tell a compelling story, the film promotes a narrow range of solutions with limited recognition of what will be required to implement them. In Guggenheim’s view, all we need to do is replace incompetent teachers with great teachers and get bureaucracy out of their way. Charter schools are the answer. However, the “inconvenient truth” here is that charters, in and of themselves, are no solution to the very real problems the film identifies. As noted in a commentary by Diane Ravitch (Ravitch, 2010), the film acknowledges (but doesn’t investigate) the fact that only 1 in 5 charters get the kinds of dramatic results accomplished by the showcased schools. Ravitch cites the CREDO study, which examined 5,000 charter schools; it found that 37% of charters were worse than matched public school counterparts in academic gains, whereas 17% produced better results. Ravitch notes that the proportion of these successful charters getting “amazing results” is still smaller. You can read her commentary at www.nybooks.com (keywords ravitch and superman).

Moreover, Guggenheim does not fully address the costs associated with charters like the Harlem Children’s Zone schools that include extensive and intensive community wraparound services for families. Traditional public schools receiving this level of support for their communities might improve outcomes more quickly as well. Perhaps the most unavoidable truth, though, is that only 2% of American public school children are in charter schools. It is not realistic to imply that we could quickly and easily take this movement to scale with any assurance of quality. The movie’s message that we “must act now” really should compel us to make best use of our existing public schools. The real challenge presented us is how do we take the energy, leadership, and creative ideas put forth in successful charter schools (and successful traditional schools) and direct to them empower great teachers in all of our schools.

Not surprisingly, there is no magic here. There are good charters and bad charters; there are good traditional schools and bad traditional schools. What matters is what happens within those schools. Excellent schools, regardless of their governance structure, have the same component parts: outstanding teachers, focus on instruction and meaningful feedback, strong administrative leadership and support for teachers, and systematic attention to barriers to learning. There are many positive models of teacher preparation, principal preparation, and induction and mentoring; Linda Darling-Hammond describes some of these in her recent book, The Flat World and Education. I am looking forward to hearing her discuss these and other issues as our keynote speaker at the San Francisco convention.

But where do school psychologists fit in school reform efforts? We have much to contribute, especially in the areas of preventing and addressing barriers to learning, whether we are focused on individual child learning or social–emotional development, family-based challenges, or systemic/organizational difficulties at the building level. At a very basic level we need to become committed to speaking up and not accepting schools where it is “okay” to give up on kids. We cannot ignore the reality of inequitable school funding and the crushing effects of poverty on children’s ability to learn and grow. The problems are complex and the solutions even more so, but it is not acceptable to turn away from the challenge. We can attend school board meetings. We can support parents’ groups who are demanding more for their children. We can offer to help in specific and individualized ways. What is your principal most worried about? Do you know? Have you asked? Have you said, “I can help with that”? Are you at the table when reforms are being discussed at the building, district, or even state level? If not, why not? I urge you to read the Advocacy in Action and Communications Matters columns in this issue of Communiqué. They provide useful information on the new NASP Practice Model and how to use it as an effective vehicle for promoting school psychological services that can address some of these critical concerns.

At the national level, NASP is working with our partners to promote federal policies that recognize the central role that an effective, integrated system of learning supports plays in school reform success. School psychologists are key players in providing such supports. Directly relevant to “Superman’s” primary vision, the challenge of great schooling is not teachers’ to take on alone. Effective school reform will happen when whole communities are engaged in the efforts. However, within each school, we can join with teachers to support them in their commitment to all children by assessing student learning and response to instruction, helping develop supportive school climates and effective discipline programs, and working with families to help ensure that students are ready and able to learn when they come to class. More specifics on this are articulated in NASP’s policy document, Ready to Learn, Empowered to Teach, which is available online at www.nasponline.org/advocacy.

Whether or not Waiting for “Superman” is a fair depiction of the state of public schooling or offers the best solutions, it is turning a bright light on an untenable situation. It is urging individual action to bring communities together to support all children, and especially those whose lives are burdened by poverty, inequity, and lack of opportunity. As school psychologists, we should embrace this challenge. Consider engaging your colleagues in discussions about this film and planning positive action steps to address inequities in your own schools and community. You can also find ideas and other suggested books and films at www.notwaitingforsuperman.org that provide detailed critiques of the movie and a wide range of suggested avenues for action. Consider also www.rethink ingschools.org for inspiration. It is a somewhat overused quote from Margaret Mead, but I think it is true: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Kathleen M. Minke, PhD, NCSP, is a professor of school psychology at the University of Delaware and president of NASP.


Ravitch, D. (2010). The myth of charter schools. Retrieved from The New York Review of Books, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/?pagination=false