Over the past two months, education reform has become a hot topic in light of all the hype surrounding the theatrical release of Davis Guggenheim’s highly anticipated film, Waiting for Superman, which explores the current state of public education in the U.S. and how it’s affecting our children. In the weeks leading up to the film’s release, one needed only to turn on the television, log on to the Internet, listen to the radio, or open the newspaper to find yet another dialogue about the impact the film could have on education reform. When I finally had the opportunity to watch Waiting for Superman a few weeks ago, I found the film enjoyable and deeply moving, but was troubled by its underlying message about charter schools, which is best described by the following quote from Guggenheim:

In recent years, we’ve cracked the code. The high-performing charter schools, like KIPP and others, have figured out the system that works for kids in even the toughest neighborhoods.

Although I applaud and celebrate the achievements of KIPP, Achievement First, and other high-performing charter schools, I don’t believe charter schools in and of themselves are the answer to our nation’s education woes. To read what Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker have previously blogged about charter schools, click here and here. The question of scalability is one of the key reasons why I doubt charter schools could emerge as the new education model. Mike Petrilli expressed a similar concern in his blog:

Maybe we’ve “cracked the code” on making high-poverty schools more effective, but we’re far from cracking the code on how to scale them up to serve lots more kids. We have a few hundred excellent urban schools when we need tens of thousands.

The good news is that, despite what Waiting for Superman might lead us to believe, some large, high-poverty public schools are also figuring out ways to become more effective—and without spending more money. The New York Times recently ran an inspiring article about Brockton High School, which is the largest public school in Massachusetts, and one of the largest in the nation, with 4,100 students. According to a recent report, Brockton High School had transformed over the course of one decade from having only a quarter of its students pass statewide exams to outperforming 90 percent of Massachusetts’s 350 high schools in their language arts scores. How did Brockton High School achieve such a significant turnaround? It began requiring every educator in the building—not just English, but math, science, PE, and even guidance counselors—to teach good writing skills to students. These writing exercises took many forms that ranged from asking students in a science class to write out, step by step, how to make a sandwich to having students in a math class solve a math problem in their workbooks and explain their reasoning, step by step, in simple sentences. By returning to the basics, and providing teachers with the comprehensive training and support needed to teach good writing skills, the school achieved significant gains in state testing scores despite its large student body. Brockton High School’s success story is yet another example that proves small isn’t always better when it comes to education.


  • Katherine Mackey
    Katherine Mackey