The education documentary Waiting for “Superman” opened in select theaters last week. The movie’s damning indictment of public education, and its enthusiastic portrayal of charter schools, has commanded attention from the likes of Oprah and Geraldo and prompted school reformers to launch and expand efforts intended to exploit this window of opportunity.
Unfortunately, the efforts of reformers on this score aren’t yet up to snuff. Even if crowds throng to the movie, experience teaches that the adrenaline will fade when viewers get home, find themselves bombarded by other causes and obligations, and see no obvious means to really affect schooling. Leveraging Superman effectively cannot rest on the wistful hope that advocates can boil the sea of public sentiment and move the nation towards some grandiose new national level of awareness.
It’s instructive to consider the minimal real impact of two of the last decade’s biggest documentaries: Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Both did very well at the box office and made celebrities out of their central figures. But neither actually accomplished much. For all the fuss about An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s policy wins were minimal and Americans are no more concerned about climate change today than they were before the movie. Michael Moore was feted at the 2004 Democratic convention, but his polarizing theatrics probably did more to marginalize than to broaden opposition to the Iraq War.
A more helpful model is Super Size Me, which didn’t make much money or turn director Morgan Spurlock into a star, but which has been credited with encouraging McDonald’s to eliminate the Super Size option, add more salads, and post nutritional information. Notably, advocates didn’t use the movie just to build awareness that “we should eat better,” but also as a lever for specific measures.
The next steps proffered by Superman’s boosters couldn’t be farther off that mark. On NBC’s Meet the Press, advocates could only encourage would-be reformers to volunteer in their local school, put children first, and contribute more money to schools. In a sidebar to a story on the movie, Entertainment Weekly distilled the suggested steps for reform: pledge to see the movie, text “possible” to 77177 (which will get “news on education reform” sent to your phone), and write a letter encouraging your governor “to fight harder for change.”
The Waiting for “Superman” website’s “Take Action” page features ads for the companion book and the soundtrack, remarks from a “super teacher,” an interview with the movie’s director, and a pledge to see the movie. The page on what “you can do” offers: “help students succeed” by supporting All4Ed.org, “demand world-class standards for all students,” “pledge to see the film,” “help your local school,” and “attend a school board meeting.” If this is what reformers have in mind, they can relax — as there’s nothing here (other than the product promotion) that their local PTAs haven’t been pushing for decades. Independent “reform” sites are similarly long on pledges and short on action.
Here’s some advice for those who would like to see Superman actually help make a difference: Focus on the concrete and actionable, not the broad and vague. Collect e-mail addresses of departing viewers who will put up yard signs for reform-minded school-board candidates and mayors. Encourage supporters to work the phones, their neighbors, and their e-mails to push their state legislators to take the lead on specific changes in statute. Don’t settle for pledges to care more, be “engaged,” or write letters on behalf of “reform.”
Embrace the tactical doctrine of “overwhelming force.” Don’t try to get everyone to care more, much less to imagine that such a shift could be sustained. Instead, direct overwhelming force on key decision-makers while teeing up specific measures relating to charter schooling, teacher quality, accountability, and so on. Such moves will permit a few thousand motivated supporters to flood a mayor’s office or key state legislators with e-mail, mail, and phone calls.
Emphasize wins that will last and not those that can be easily swept aside. Getting the public riled up and claiming a few minutes from the blow-dried ringmasters on CNN or CBS is nice but ephemeral. The wins that matter are those that change policy, incentives, and statutes governing things like charter schooling and teacher tenure, or those that help establish grassroots outfits that will thrive long after the movie is an afterthought. Don’t get caught up in amorphous public-awareness campaigns, ill-defined partnerships, or vague requests that people “get involved.”
Finally, remember that this is a limited window. The absolute best case is probably a five- to eight-point bump in the percentage of people who say they’re deeply concerned about education — and, even then, it’s unlikely that the bump will last more than a year or two. So the key is to strike while the iron is hot and win breakthrough measures that will ease efforts to improve schooling long after the fuss is over.
— Mr. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming book The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas.