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Professional Opinion

Wanted: Supermen and Superwomen

Waiting for Superman portrays an unrealistic view of the nation's public schools.

You can't walk away from the movie Waiting for Superman and not be convinced that public education in the United States is a dismal failure, that it's the sole fault of the teacher unions, and that the only solution to this obvious crisis is more charter schools. Wrong on all counts. The film depicts the classic "simple solution to a complex problem" by featuring a few examples of successful charter schools. It delivers a huge but unwarranted condemnation of the nation's public schools.

Every single day, public school teachers and administrators across America grapple with the myriad of challenges children bring to school and create success stories bordering on the miraculous. From the sidelines the naysayers yell for more accountability while reminding all that U.S. students are way behind in academic achievement when compared to other countries in the world. How convenient to forget that those same countries have weeded out their poor students well before secondary school. In contrast, American schools educate all who walk through the door, wealthy or not, deserving or not, disciplined or not.

There are failures and all kinds of challenges to be sure, but the vast majority of educators are caring and committed to doing more with less. Each year, about 2.5 million public school students still graduate from high school, go to college, attend military academies, receive postsecondary training, join the workforce, defend our country, and contribute their fair share to society. There are incredible problems in many schools, especially in the inner cities, but simple solutions don't work. While Clark County School Districts Deputy superintendent, I visited an English- as-a-second-language class with the principal of Rancho High School. The public high school of almost 3,000 students had made great strides in improving academic achievement. I observed a young first-year teacher was teaching a class of 42 students with 28 language backgrounds other than English. There was no computer-assisted instruction, but plenty of teacher-prepared worksheets. This unbelievable scenario and others like it occur frequently in our schools. Opening a charter school in the same building wouldn't alleviate this situation. Adequate financial support, smaller class sizes, and teacher training might.


Teacher unions have become a scapegoat. Of course they advocate better salaries, benefits and working conditions. This is America. Many also have become less adversarial and engage in "win-win" bargaining that benefits both sides. You simply can't place the entire blame on the unions.

The demographic and economic changes in our society reflect more challenges to American families than ever before, including crime, poverty, single parent households, households with both parents working, language barriers, lack of child care and more.

Everyone shares in the blame, from Main Street to Wall Street. Parents, governments, businesses, schools administrators, all need to step up to the plate and do what's right to improve education for all students. The "no more money," "increase accountability," and "too many administrators" laments of the last 40 years have not solved a single problem and have done nothing to improve student achievement. There are excellent charter schools doing a great job. But there is plenty of evidence that a large number of these schools do no better than public schools or even fail. When a charter school fails, where do its students end up? Back in the public schools they left, minus the state financial allocation the charter school used up. This is no solution.

Call to Action

Waiting for Superman does accomplish one thing and does it well. It is a call to action to get people involved and increase commitment to guarantee the life of our democracy and the education of its people. If this statement is too abstract for some, how about this? We need an educated workforce that creates economic success for American business and industry, which are falling way behind in a global economy.

The recent economic troubles in our country have devastated thousands of schools and school districts. It will take years to recover. This is no time to be waiting for Superman. Public education needs to be preserved, cherished and returned to the venerated place it once was in the hearts and souls of all who benefit from the richest resource our nation has—its kids. DA

Agustin Orci is the executive director of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS). He was the deputy superintendent for instruction in the Clark County (Nev.) School District, and has served as superintendent in Tempe (Ariz.) School District 3 and Northside (Texas) Independent School District.