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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/20/2010

The Chamber of Commerce's flawed 'Superman' school reform guide

By Valerie Strauss

In a shameless act of movie flacking, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce just published a guide for business leaders on school reform that is linked to and reinforces the skewed vision of public education portrayed in the movie “Waiting for Superman.”

Meddling in an area about which it obviously doesn’t know much, the chamber issued a guide called “The Superman Approach: A business leader’s guide to effective education reform.”

The guide mimics the movie in extolling charter schools and test-driven data while portraying teachers unions as evil. It does this in part by comparing what the mild-mannered Clark Kent would do with his more dynamic alter-ego, Superman (obviously forgetting that the two are actually one and the same and that the superhero uses both approaches).

It really does this, addressing the business leader who reads this as an 8-year-old; I’m not making it up:

What would Clark Kent do?
• Support local bond drives to provide more dollars for schools without demanding reforms in exchange
• Hold a “principal for a day” event for area CEOs to learn about the inner workings of a school
Some of these aren’t bad ideas, but they aren’t game changers.

So, what would Superman do?
• Work to increase the caliber of leader "

This would be funny if the chamber wasn't powerful by virtue of being the world’s largest business federation.

The folks at the chamber obviously think they are serving the interests of their millions of members, helping to fix broken schools so that America will have the work force it needs for the 21st century, but the way it proposes to do this will actually hurt the public schools, and, therefore, the rest of the country.

Says the guide:

“Traditionally, we in the business community, like most other partners, have taken something of a “Clark Kent” approach to helping our students and schools. We’ve been supportive and encouraging by mentoring children, sponsoring special events and field trips, donating supplies, and funding scholarships. These are all worthwhile activities that should be continued—but they’re not enough.”

The guide argues that the public school system, the country’s most important civic institution, should be run like a business, a philosophy championed by some of the most high-profile school reformers today.

It would be a good idea if it could work, but it can’t, because teaching children of all varying abilities and backgrounds and isn’t like selling shoes. Business people can wish it were all they want, but education is a far more complicated process that can’t be reduced to spreadsheets and charts of data.

The effort to do so -- now being supported by the Chamber of Commerce, some of the country’s biggest philanthropists, and the Obama administration -- is weakening the public schools and, ultimately, will make it harder to build a dedicated cadre of effective teachers and improve the achievement rates of minorities.

It has been said many times on this blog, but the key elements of this sort of reform path have no grounding in research. You can see a point by point critique of the Superman movie here, and here, a thorough analysis of what Superman would have done (and why the film’s director Davis Guggenheim really should have called it Waiting for Batman).

The guide summarizes all of the initiatives that, together, are effectively taking the public system down the dangerous road to privatization. Some examples:

*The guide portrays charter schools as the answer to education’s troubles. It takes no account of the largest study on charter schools conducted so far, which showed that most charter schools are no better or worse than their neighborhood traditional public schools.

Do charter schools have more flexibility than traditional schools? Yes, they do, but, interestingly, most of them aren’t innovative at all.

There is no reason that the traditional schools, which educate some 95 percent or more of the nation’s children, can’t be reformed to serve all children. And in fact, some of the most innovative schools are within traditional systems. The picture of regular school districts as all hide-bound disasters is a myth, just as is the notion that charter schools are the answer.

The guide points to as a fine example of a school system the one in New Orleans that has been under reconstruction since Hurricane Katrina. That system, unlike any other in the country, consists primarily of charter schools.

*The guide calls for alternative routes to teacher certification and lauds programs such as Teach for America, which takes new college graduates, trains them to teach for about five or six weeks, and then sends them into the country’s toughest schools, apparently to perform wonders on a wave of enthusiasm and optimism.

Some of these young people do, in fact, accomplish extraordinary things under the toughest conditions, but the vast majority leave teaching after a few years. It takes at least a few years for a teacher to become truly effective, research shows. So where does that leave the kids?

The continued, unprecedented assault on the country’s teachers is driving out the very best ones, and, incidentally, is exactly the opposite approach of the very countries that school reformers like to hold up as models, such as Finland.

How many times have you heard that we should do what Finland did to improve our system? Well, if we did that, we’d stop blaming teachers and we’d elevate the profession, not tear it down. That’s what the Finns did.

There is much, much more that is wrong with the guide and the approach it takes to reform; for example, it calls for paying teachers according to student achievement, for example, even though there are many other factors that affect a student's progress beside the teacher.

But but read it for yourself, here. And then start to really worry, because the forces arrayed against traditional public schools are getting stronger every day.

And don't let anybody fool you. That's not a good thing.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 20, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  batman, business leaders, business leaders and school reform, chamber of commerce, charter schools, clark kent, davis guggenheim, effective teachers, finland and teachers, reform guide, school reform, superman, superman and clark kent, teach for america, waiting for superman, what superman would do  
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'It would be a good idea if it could work, but it can’t, because teaching children of all varying abilities and backgrounds and isn’t like selling shoes. Business people can wish it were all they want, but education is a far more complicated process that can’t be reduced to spreadsheets and charts of data.'

And 'business' is far more complicated than spreadsheets and charts of data.

Might I suggest you check out a little Peter Drucker - specifically some of his work on the 'knowledge worker'.

Here in Howard County, our schools have won awards from the local Chamber of Commerce for being the 'best run large business' - and I would stack our academic achievement up against anyone's.

Posted by: FYIColumbiaMD | October 20, 2010 8:01 AM | Report abuse


The Howard County school system is successful because the schools do not have to deal with a large population of low income or English language learners that a lot of other school systems do. A business that has the high quality inputs that the Howard County school system would likely yield better results than one that has lower quality ones. Howard would not be able to achieve those same results if most of the students lived in poverty and were English language learners.

Posted by: sammann | October 20, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I am more aware of business than educational issues. However, one thing appears to be clear to me. Putting the fed in charge of education and throwing more money to it does not improve it. You are critical in your opinion yet you give no counter choices. What has been proven over the past decades? Federal Government and local education do not mix. All businesses will strive to do what is necessary to produce the best product or service. How is that a bad strategy to attempt? There is proof it works. I didn't intend to raise it here but your opinion is quite liberal and detrimental yet again. God Bless us all and a big thank you to all businesses in this great country. If we allow these types of local issues to be controlled by the Federal Government, we're more doomed than we already are.

Posted by: Sequoianats | October 20, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Business is in the process of destroying the middle class, do they want to destroy education also?

Posted by: jlp19 | October 20, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

There is so much dishonesty in comparing business products and education. Some of these business leaders would fail within a day if they went into an inner city classroom. And all of them would fail within a week.

I guess destroying the middle class isn't enough for business, they need to destroy education also.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 20, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

I think they should call the movie "Waiting for Stupidman."

Posted by: jlp19 | October 20, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Publicly funded yet privately managed – Charter School fraud is an easy concept. Charters can be succesful it depends on the “agenda” of the the managing company. Accountability has not caught up to the growth of the Charter movement. In the USA we have an Islamic Imam – Fethullah Gulen (Gulen Movement) that manages over 130 US Charter schools they have taken over $1 billion in Educational monies in the last 10 years and are growing like rapid fire.
The Gulen schools have a network of foundations and instutitions layered over the schools and much of our educational money is going to non-educational expenses such as: Turkish Olympiads, trips to Turkey for the students and local politicians, H1-b Visas of over 2,000 uncredentialed teachers from Turkey (while American teachers are handed pink slips) this money is to fuel the grand ambition of Fethullah Gulen who lives in exile (for a reason) in the Poconos, PA area with his $25 billion in wealth from inflitration in: education, media, police, poltics and military. Seems the same model works very nicely in the USA. Do your research!!!

Posted by: SalesA1 | October 20, 2010 9:36 PM | Report abuse

I see the corporatists and Wall Streeters do know how to read something other than the Wall Street Journal and listen to Larry Kudlow. They still don't get the point. Schools are not businesses. Little Johnny is not Donald Trump. When kids walk in the schoolhouse door, the teachers have no idea whether the kids have been fed, whether they have been up all night listening to their parents argue, or whether it was goodnight and sweet dreams when they went to bed. Public school teachers have to take every kid that walks in the door, from the highest IQ on down to the highly challenged kid, and try to educate them as best they can. A business can fire workers who don't perform, but the public school teacher has to educate, has to continue trying, unlike a businessman. And yes, if you live in a racially homogeneous, affluent district, you are going to get different results than if you live in a multicultural poverty-stricken area. I don't know the Howard County that was mentioned above, but when you mention Chamber of Commerce in the same sentence, I sense elitism, I visualize Mercedes and BMW, and I'm betting on an upper middle-class white district. If businessmen want to be involved in education, I don't want them in the supervisory roles. Put them in the classroom and pay them starting salaries of $35, 000 a year; most of them wouldn't last a Michelle Rhee minute.

Posted by: rtinindiana | October 21, 2010 2:33 AM | Report abuse

First of all, #sammann, Fairfax County has plenty of English language learners and still manages to be one of the best school districts in the country.

More importantly, however, while Waiting for Superman might be imperfect in its focus on charters, so, too, is this commentary. The increased attention to the U.S. education system will benefit all of us. It has led to a significant increase in dialogue from everyone involved - students, parents, teachers and communities, which, like it or not, include businesses. The solution must include a wide variety of commitments from those same groups. It is short-sighted to suggest that businesses have no business supporting education or calling attention to problems with the system.

At the same time, any solution will require a focus on the positives of all systems - even charters - and the negatives - even teacher performance. It isn't good enough for any of us to sit on the sidelines and say the system is broken any more. As a parent of school age children, I take my responsibility in that equation very seriously. So, too, should school systems, teachers unions and teachers. If the film does nothing else, it raises the stakes on a critical issue for children now and the competitiveness of our nation for generations to come. We should all feel a sense of responsibility to fixing it along side any partners willing to do so.

Posted by: cmcfairfax | October 21, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

I grew up watching Steve Reeves' portrayal of "Superman." In almost every episode Superman crashed through a wall or ceiling and punched out the bad guys. He then flew them directly to jail. This over-simplification of problem-solving is deeply written into our USA culture. anyone involved, thoughtfully, in education knows that providing quality educatoin to every child is, in no way, simple. Testing alone cannot do it. Great teaching alone cannot do it. In fact, test-driven education is probably the worst possible approach. Inevitably, it results in "teaching to the test" when students need to learn analytical and creative thought processes. Children need to learn how to learn and we need to nurture their love of learning. The blind, head-long drive for test results makes almost impossible real education. The sacred cow of charter schools is proving to be no better than and usually worse than public schools. Many public officials who advocate charter schools are either blinded by worship of "free-enterprise-competition" or they are simply abdicating their responsibility for education. Competitive testing in education produces a stratified education in which a few, easily taught, students whose primary gift is test-taking receive the bulk of educational resources. Those students, who may be brilliant, but test poorly, are relegated to poor schools and dispirited teaching. Students who who have special needs or whose learning style simply does not strike the fancy of condescending educators end up with something that barely qualifies as education. It almost seems that there are forces in this country who want no education so they can dictate to a population ignorant and easily manipulated. We need education far better than what the puveyors of the "business model" of education can produce.

Posted by: drkrmdr7 | October 26, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Canada has followed the U.S. in the adoption of the business model to its schools. I believe a lot of tax dollars thus channeled to business rather than being applied for educational purposes. Real educators have been struggling against this model for years. I remember an American named John Gatto came to Alberta to talk about charter schools 10-12 years ago. Little has improved since and every administration talks about making education better. Just as the Chamber of Commerce talks about making government smaller they talk about making education better. They are the biggest lobbyist in Washington, they could make government better if they wanted. Likewise their interference in education is the problem not the solution. Business has a strangle hold on every aspect of "democracy" and it is shaking the humanity right out of democracy. OGO POGO said, I have seen the enemy and he is us." (U.S. business.)

Posted by: berneredfeather | October 26, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

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