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Posted at 5:30 PM ET, 09/16/2010

While we wait for ‘Superman,’ let's focus on teaching

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Aleta Margolis, founder and executive director of the Center for Inspired Teaching, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that works with teachers, principals, and entire school faculties to foster the best teaching practices.

By Aleta Margolis
I attended last night's preview of "Waiting for Superman," Davis Guggenheim’s stirring film that tells the stories of five children with big dreams and limited educational opportunities. It’s a powerful film that accomplishes its goal: shining a light on the problems in education and making them impossible to ignore.

The film calls us to action and, from where I stand, there are two ways to go:

1-Choose sides. Decide if you’re pro-union or pro-reform. Pro-charter school or pro-traditional public school. With us or against us.


2-Go for long term, serious change. See Waiting for Superman as a compelling opening act. Let it move us to call for a fundamental shift in what we expect from our students, our teachers, and our educational institutions.

I’m choosing option #2, and hope others will too.

The film highlights what we know: Teachers make the difference. Conventional thinking tells us the best way to improve teacher effectiveness is to remove the ineffective teachers and replace them with effective ones. No doubt, this strategy is needed.

But if we’re going for a fundamental shift in what we expect from schools, then a wholesale cast change won’t be the fix we imagine. We’ll risk ending up with a new batch of well-intentioned, but improperly prepared players in a flawed system.

Children deserve the opportunity to learn in school, regardless of where they are born.

But the imagery used in the film to portray this message—including a cartoon teacher opening the empty heads of her students and pouring in information from a milk carton—promotes some of the old-school thinking the film purports to rally against.

We need to expect something different – something more – of teachers, and we need to teach them how to do it and support them when they do.

So what should we expect of teachers? Here’s a start: Push children to use their minds well, think critically and creatively, understand concepts in depth, and seek, find, and use information. Change from information provider to instigator of thought.

This approach to teaching is demanding of teachers and children, and there a few naturally talented teachers who do this as a matter of course. But we need millions of teachers to do this intellectual and exciting work, because, as the film highlights so well, every child, not just a lucky few, deserves an excellent education.

So, what if we ask teachers to re-think their role in the classroom – and we train and support them, from recruitment to retirement, to act as instigators of thought? Think about it.

Being a teacher would be a fascinating job. It would involve asking thought-provoking questions to push students to grapple with complex ideas, collecting data about how each student learns, and customizing instruction to meet student needs and raise student achievement. Teachers and schools could breathe life into students instead of sucking the life out of them. Classrooms could become places where teachers and students engage in complex, joyful, challenging work.

And here’s the best part: When we start asking teachers throughout their careers to be instigators of thought instead of information providers, it follows that more talented people will be attracted to the teaching profession and want to stay, and more current teachers will be motivated to excel—not out of fear or even out of a desire to earn a bonus, but out of a genuine desire to do something that makes them feel proud.

If this is the change we fight for, then the current battle that pits unions against reformers, and traditional public schools against charters will end. And all sides, including the kids, will be the winners.


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 16, 2010; 5:30 PM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, D.C. Schools, Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  center for inspired teaching, firing teachers, how to fix schools, inspired teachers, inspired teaching, professional development, school reform, superman movie, teacher development, teachers, waiting for superman  
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I think in addition to this we need to learn special strategies for helping children in high stress neighborhoods. The present administration (Obama) has no interest in doing this. We need political leaders who understand the special stresses children have in high stress neighborhoods.

As far as I can tell, no politicians that I know of have any interest in this issue.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 16, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse

Yes and don't forget that content does matter. While teachers shouldn't be solely information providers, students still need to be exposed to a wide variety of concepts (i.e., information) to be truly literate. Critical thinking is great and should be encouraged. Students also need a certain amount of background information, which can be provided by the students themselves with supplementation by the teacher. Cultural literacy.

Posted by: stevendphoto | September 16, 2010 9:12 PM | Report abuse

Brilliant post.

Posted by: johnt4853 | September 16, 2010 9:53 PM | Report abuse

"So what should we expect of teachers? Here’s a start: Push children to use their minds well, think critically and creatively, understand concepts in depth, and seek, find, and use information. Change from information provider to instigator of thought."
So what is a teacher to do when they are expected to teach a scripted curriculum that does not instigate thought? Some administrators are so controlling that teachers live in fear of deviating the slightest bit from what they are told to do. This is not a healthy learning environment yet it is, unfortunately, a very common one.

Posted by: musiclady | September 16, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

A lovely article that takes the higher ground.

Re educationlover54: "We need political leaders who understand the special stresses children have in high stress neighborhoods.

As far as I can tell, no politicians that I know of have any interest in this issue."

I agree. Until we acknowledge that certain areas of our cities are War Zones - drug wars, gang wars, domestic violence,etc. with all the social fallout that accompanies them - and are willing to make some drastic changes, the schools in those areas are going to have limited success. No matter how motivated, a child that is running a gauntlet to get home, or walks into a home that is in chaos or worse, cannot possibly function optimally.

Short of bringing in the national guard, which I am sure no politician is willing to do, the only thing I've been able to think of is the creation of inner city-styled 'kibbutzes'; essentially creating discrete boundaries where schools, services and even dormatories would be right next to the neighborhoods they serve. With City-provided security, making the schools districts safe areas would give these areas a chance to develop their communities without fearing for their lives, communities that would in turn support the schools.

All children not only deserve a decent education, they deserve to be in a safe place to have that decent education.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 17, 2010 1:06 AM | Report abuse

I don't think anyone could disagree with this philosophical approach of inspired teaching and learning...and don't we all wish it would happen.

However, there is a practical side that demands systemic changes to the working conditions of teachers before we can maximize learning.

There is study after study that shows teacher working conditions affect student learning. And there are plenty of examples.

It takes more than a 30/40 minute planning time to develop "thought-provoking questions" while pushing "students to grapple with complex ideas, collecting data about how each student learns, and CUSTOMIZING INSTRUCTION to meet student needs and raise student achievement." Especially when many of those planning times are sucked-up with meetings.

And like a previous poster said, instruction that is scripted and where pacing means move on or move out makes it difficult for classrooms to become places where "teachers and students engage in complex, joyful, challenging work."

But those directives are not teacher generated, they are developed with forced implementation by Administrators...some of whom haven't been in a classroom for 30 years or more.

We continue to focus on what is wrong with teachers: How to make teachers better. Yes, there are teachers who need help...but, I have been teaching a long time....I have worked for many more incompetent administrators, than next door to an incompetent teacher.

We can change style....and we can change substance, but it will take treating teachers like professional's. Unless we address the problems with management, improvement in student learning will be minimal.

Posted by: ilcn | September 17, 2010 9:08 AM | Report abuse

Gray: If you are reading this, whom could you select to lead DCPS, quickly and strongly, toward this just and important goal?

Obama: Same question for Dept of Ed leadership.

Teachers: How can you stand up, amid all of the bad policy and pressure, to expect this of yourselves and your practice? Whom can you ask to stand with you? What choices will you make?

WTU: How will you represent teachers as instigators of thought, as coaches in the classroom?

Posted by: dcparent | September 17, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

@musiclady and @ilcn: I couldn't agree more - we're talking about systemic change, not just changing the players. What we at Inspired Teaching believe is that we're having the wrong conversation about school reform. What’s needed is a hard look at what we are asking students, teachers, and administrators to do all day: a scripted curriculum doesn't give teachers the ability to do what they know is right for the children in their classrooms, and drives good teachers out of teaching because it treats them as automatons rather than professionals; school culture that is threatening and punitive to adults (as well as children) does not foster thinking, problem solving, or collective action toward a shared goal.

Our call to action is to stop blaming and arguing over who is most at fault, and start thinking deeply about what it is we want children to be able to do -- and then to provide students, teachers, administrators, and parents with the ability, freedom, and tools to make it happen.
-Aleta Margolis

Posted by: Aleta1 | September 17, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

I am anxious to see the film. What we really need is for politicians and business people to stop telling teachers what they need to do. Teachers have been crippled in their own critical thinking and creativity by the standardized testing movement, high stakes tests, and fear of failure. We do need some massive changes in education if we are really going to teach and support the skills of critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving. We need to look at the current school and classroom design, especially at the secondary level. Classrooms, including the furniture, technology enhancements, and open space requirements do not currently support collaborative learning, whole body learning, or use of technology to learn in most of our classrooms. Most secondary schools would have huge problems with the idea that some members of a particular class are learning in the classroom, while other class members are learning outside the classroom and all on themes that the students have selected to study. This will require a major paradigm shift for teachers as well. Teachers, however, have the experience with learners, and the creativity to find ways to teach successfully in such a changed environment, if we allow them to create without so much fear of failure. Where is the teacher's voice in this nation?

Posted by: believeinteachers | September 17, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse


Yes, the media is involved in the wrong conversation....and they are controlling the dialogue. There are external factors and internal factors affecting school reform....and public school success. However, the conversations ALWAYS circles back to teachers. I watch the talk shows and read the criticisms...never have I heard the media address the internal issues like working conditions...the only internal issue addressed is teacher "effectiveness," which has yet, as far as I'm concerned, been adequately defined.

More discussion needs to focus on the real stories behind those school doors and inside those administration buildings.

Thank you.

Posted by: ilcn | September 17, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse


You raise such an important point - "teacher effectiveness" is inconsistently defined and we are hoping that the new version of the ESEA will include language that better describes the complexity of factors that go into making a teacher effective.

Check out this recommendation we submitted to the House and Senate education committees earlier this year. Teaching ESEA Recommendations.pdf

Posted by: Jenna4nel | September 18, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

@Aleta1: "start thinking deeply about what it is we want children to be able to do." We also need to start listening to what children want, and how they want to get it. Kids know the focus on AYP has nothing to do with them as individuals. The focus on "college ready," “accelerated,” and “rigor” minimizes the value of arts, entrepreneurial and vocational education which leads many to higher ed. For many students, following their passion makes education relevant, but we've taken that out of the equation. And continuously missing from the conversation is the role of parents. Education is a fully collaborative effort – kids need inspired teachers, parents and peers.

Posted by: jbmomto3 | September 18, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

NBC’s Education Nation facebook administrators have thrown me off their page FOUR TIMES NOW since Thursday….

They remove me and all the critical commentary, the references, the statistics, the research, the (critical) film reviews for the pro corporate takeover of public education movie Waiting for Superman they’re pushing, the links, the videos from experts on what actually does work in eduction, the diagrams of who’s funding/pulling the strings in this push, the correction of inaccuracies they post, the challenges relating to who they’ve invited to their “SUMMIT”… all gone….

Censorship, by a bought and paid for news organisation, whose ethical duty once was to present all the sides of an issue….

If you dont like this, spread the word….. facebook, twitter, blogs, talkback radio…. I’ve posted it on Daily Kos and put it forward as a story idea on the Jon Stewart Daily Show page….

Update – make that BLOCKED OFF THEIR PAGE FIVE TIMES – only took them half an hour this time, in response to a post repeating that Diane Ravitch – the country’s most informed and well known anti-education reform expert offered to provide a taped segment cos she couldnt be there in person, but was turned down, and to a question asking where all the dissenting posts had gone….

Have run out of energy, nom de plumes and alternate email addresses… but just the fact that this is being controlled to such an extent makes me physically sick and quite determined not to let them shut me up..

Am thinking of trying one more time using the name Mother Jones… but that means creating another email account!

And its not just me they’re doing this to… its almost everyone who posts something critical of the agenda of the SUMMIT and the invitation-only people who are on their ‘panels’, people who are integral to the education ‘deform’ programme that is almost completely implemented around the country….

Posted by: SahilaChangeBringer | September 19, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse


Another person who was banned from the NBC Education Nation facebook page has set up an alternative page:

Posted by: SahilaChangeBringer | September 19, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

If a single fix could be manufactured, it would have happened by now. Rather than wait for "Superman," policy makers need to find ways to nurture teacher creativity. The move to "instigator" for teachers will require proactive thinking at all levels of the totem pole. Without that structural change, teaching-by-the-numbers will persist in too many schools. To read about my teaching journey this year, check out my blog at

Posted by: dcproud1 | September 19, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

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