Waiting for 'Superman': Education Reform Isn't Easy

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In the midst of a panel discussion following the Washington premiere of the education documentary Waiting for "Superman" on Sept. 15, CNN's Roland Martin breathlessly told his followers on Twitter that Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, "says they are going to look at making change to teachers tenure in their contracts. THIS IS HUGE."

Martin isn't the only one caught up in the moment. Today, the enthusiasm among education reformers is palpable. And why not? This seems like an amazing time, with NBC hosting a big education summit across its various networks to kick off the school year, a president seemingly committed to bold reform, and a feature film, Waiting for "Superman," from a major studio — made by none other than the Oscar-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth!

Although the momentum seems unstoppable, don't pop the champagne or, worse, declare 'mission accomplished' just yet. Waiting for "Superman" is a hard-hitting documentary that lays bare many of America's education problems. But despite all the attention it's bringing to education, there are still more reasons to bet against reform than for it.

For starters, history doesn't offer much cause for optimism. This isn't the first time substantial reforms have seemed imminent. Education history is littered with big promises, national commissions and task forces, summits, and surprisingly little change. Two decades ago, when then-governor Clinton and the first President Bush gathered the nation's governors in Charlottesville, Va., reform seemed unstoppable. Some progress came out of it — it helped with the development of better state education standards — but it did not herald the revolution many were predicting at the time.

One reason for the slow pace of reform is because American public schools are fundamentally conservative — and because Americans are fundamentally conservative about their schools. In other words, the bias is strongly against change rather than for it, which explains why among parents, change is popular in theory but controversial in practice. (Affluent parents, for instance, support higher standards until those measures show that their public schools are not as good as they should be given the high property taxes these families are paying.) Although opposition to reform is often laid exclusively at the feet of the teachers' unions, it is actually a broader issue.

Of course, the unions obviously have a hand in today's debate, too. Although we like to think of teachers as a breed apart, their special interest groups — the two large national teachers' unions — are basically the same as any other special interest, and the politics just as brutal. In fact, combined, the two national teachers' unions spent more on federal campaign contributions than any other interest group from 1989 to 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And that is just the national teachers unions, not the thousands of state and local ones. That adds up to a lot of money to keep various reforms at bay. And to keep various reformers at bay too. In Washington, for example, Politico reported that the American Federation of Teachers spent about $1 million in the run-up to last month's Democratic primary to help defeat Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had ushered in sweeping changes to the city's school district.

All this helps explain why John Wilson, executive director of the biggest teachers' union, the National Education Association, is nonplussed by Waiting for "Superman" and the slew of other education documentaries that have come out in recent months. "I think the films are a blip," he told the Sacramento Bee. "They will come and go, but the union will still be there, our members will still be in these schools." Sure, this may sound a little thuggish, but it's a political reality education reformers had better understand.

In American politics, concentrated special interests can do a lot to slow or thwart reform. Think about policy battles on issues as wide-ranging as energy, guns, tobacco, health care, the environment, or telecommunications and cable television. When it's the general interest pitted against an organized special interest, bet on the latter.

In addition to the cultural and political entrenchment, the process of how funding gets allocated as well as how the various federal, state, and local rules constrain schools leaves surprisingly little room for innovation in education. Coupled with American education's anemic research and development infrastructure, the reality today is that we know a lot more about what does not work than about what does. For example, it's clear from abundant research that paying teachers only on the basis of their degrees and years of experience is not in the best interest of students or teachers. As the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy organization whose board of directors I chaired for several years, put it, "the evidence is conclusive that master's degrees do not make teachers more effective." Such clarity does not mean, however, that the reforms to fix these problems are obvious. The education field still has a lot to learn about how to effectively differentiate salary and incorporate elements like performance into compensation.

Consequently, there will be a lot of trial and error along the way. Each failure provides critics with plenty of fodder and complicates the politics that much more. For example, when researchers at Vanderbilt University released a study in September showing no large improvements in student performance from a teacher merit pay pilot program, these findings were widely cited as definitive evidence of the folly of performance-based pay. But it was just one study of one program, hardly the last word. Meanwhile, the political debate about charter schools remains largely focused on the low-performing ones rather than what we can learn from those that are delivering transformative results.

So what's the takeaway? Certainly not that reformers should take their cue from Dante and call it quits. But they should realize the enormous work and time genuine reform will take. Building the capacity to deliver substantially improved education while simultaneously addressing the politics is an incredible two-front effort. Despite its promise and impressive accomplishments to date, the reform community is not yet prepared to do so at scale. Genuinely bold reformers are still more likely to lose elections than win them, and truly aggressive reform activity is still concentrated in relatively few places.

That's a problem because if there is a lesson from the last two years of education activity, it is that nothing happens absent tenacity and intense pressure for reform. Despite the rhetoric about changing teacher tenure, for example, Weingarten is still struggling to find a middle ground that satisfies her members and actually alters the reality in schools. Don't tell Roland Martin, but this past weekend there she was on CBS Sunday Morning, explaining why tenure isn't a problem anyway.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for TIME.com, appears every Thursday.