Rick Hess is Right About Waiting for Superman

by Reihan Salam

In fairness, I think Rick Hess is right about everything, but I found his take on WFS particularly astute:


Guggenheim tried real hard this fall to argue that anyone who regards WFS as an assault on teacher unions is missing the point. I’m all in favor of beating up on the unions when they deserve it (which, to my mind, is often); what rankles me is the apologia that crept into Guggenheim’s tone. On the conservative Hugh Hewitt show he explained, “You know, I come, I’m a Democrat. I’m a lefty. You know, I’m a member of a great union, the Directors Guild of America. So I actually believe that unions have a good and important place in society, and they should be there to protect their teachers.” Strikes me that, if he thought that would placate teachers, he must not have learned much about the edu-space while making his movie or else didn’t recognize how the film came across.

Finally, my favorite part of the whole WFS phenomenon was the simple-minded insistence that “we know what works,” and that it’s “great teachers.” Guggenheim told us, “It’s not some magic; it’s about having a commitment to making great teachers in this country.” And again: “The solution is great teachers. The high-performing charters have great teachers.” And again: “As complicated as we have made [the debate], it boils down to what parents already know: It’s all about great teachers, it’s all about who’s standing in front of the kids every morning.”

Glad we got THAT settled. Time to go fix higher ed! Next film: “Waiting For My Disinterested Professor at My Overpriced College to Teach Me Something.”

WFS oversimplified a number of difficult and complex issues, and it was about as constructive in moving the conversation forward as Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth. Both films persuaded very few people, but rather convinced true believers to become more rather than less self-righteous. And WFS continues to advance the social justice case for school reform rather than the commonsense, self-interested case, which can be summarized roughly as follows: our schools waste a huge amount of money, they’re not improving as quickly as we need them to improve for middle-class kids as well as poor kids, and while we don’t have a silver bullet (“great teachers” isn’t much of an answer), we do know that rigid compensation structures, lockstep promotion, a failure to embrace specialized instructional providers, and a lack of autonomy for school administrators prevent the kind of experimentation that we need to figure out what works in various different settings and for different kinds of students. 

Worse still, WFS has lent credence to champions of business-as-usual by painting with too broad a brush. School reformers need to stop overpromising. If it were up to me, they’d move away from crusading language and towards the simple idea that taxpayers deserve value for money. 

One of my favorite reform ideas comes from a series of recommendations Hess and his colleague Olivia Meeks made to policymakers in Wisconsin: 

Wisconsin would do well to start exploring a new model at the high school level. It ought to continue insisting that schools provide the 11 core credits, amounting to about 55% of the high school curriculum, but then rewrite the funding formula so that the per pupil allocation currently delivered to school districts is broken into two pieces: 55% to fund “core” mandated instruction and 45% deposited in a virtual Educational Spending Account (ESA) created for each child. Parents would have a choice. They could direct those ESA dollars to their child’s school and simply enroll their child in the usual manner, or they could use them to procure instruction from other state-approved providers.

Imagine how this approach might open up the system. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.