What Are We “Waiting” For?

This is one of those weeks that will just be abuzz with talk of education and school improvement.  The much-anticipated documentary, Waiting for Superman, is finally out in theaters, drawing good reviews and real attention from a wide range of stakeholders.  And yesterday, NBC kicked off its Education Nation effort, as it tries to leverage all of its television properties and sponsorships to provide a week of education-apalooza.

Both of these are interesting events, but they raise even more interesting questions.  Will Waiting for Superman play in Middle America?  Will Superman’s buzz continue after the reviews are done with?  Will NBC continue to focus on education issues after the week-long fest is completed?  And most importantly, what comes next?

Don’t get me wrong, both Superman and Education Nation play important roles in raising public awareness of education reform issues.  The buzz around the movie will undoubtedly draw in more than just the typical Kool-Aid drinkers.  And NBC’s commitment of airtime will be hard to avoid (though not entirely impossible).  But then what?  What happens once these two “events” are completed?  

One of the biggest challenges in education communications is moving from awareness to action.  It is (relatively) easy to share information and disseminate the latest news.  It is far more difficult to take that information sharing and transform it into a sense of urgency that generates specific activities and measureable outcomes.  

Superman’s producers are encouraging viewers to “take action” and “join the debate.”  But once you’ve submitted your contact information or sent a form letter to a policymaker, what comes next?  If we buy the movie’s premise and agree that our public schools are a scourge on this nation, what specifically can we do fix the problem?  It is easy to cast blame, but much harder to move solutions forward.  We need questions to ask teachers, principals, and politicians.  We need specific asks, be they operational or instructional, that we should demand in our schools.  And we the yardsticks to measure progress in our schools.

What comes next is an even more difficult question for NBC.  Right now, Education Nation is focused on the current week.  It’s about the Summit and the Teacher Town Hall and building on yesterday’s Meet the Press segment.  But after

Brookings declared that only 1.4 percent of national news is focused on education, is NBC committed to up its game?  Once the week has wrapped up and the Learning Plaza has been shuttered, will NBC provide an education news story on every NBC Nightly News?  Will we see a weekly segment?  Or will we simply move on to the next “big” idea?

I don’t mean to rain on the edu-parade, but we have seen far too many times efforts that stir up the hornets’ nests and point out the problems and failures of our public schools.  Unfortunately, we don’t get much talk of solutions and work plans coming out of that finger pointing.  As a result, the problems we talk about today are the same problems we talked about a decade ago and we talked about three decades ago. 

Waiting for Superman and Education Nation serve as two potentially valuable levers for school improvement.  The challenge before us is how we take advantage of the opportunity and take some real forward steps as a result of it. Otherwise, it is just another opportunity squandered as student achievement remains stagnant and the achievement gap remains a major concern.

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