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Schools: The Disaster Movie


The McKinsey survey is part of an important study that the consultancy will publish later this month, based on its work in school systems in more than 50 countries. For a long time, there has been debate about what, if any, kinds of financial incentives would help create a better talent pool for K–12 teaching in America. The debate has been intense—with the unions arguing simultaneously for fatter salaries and that money isn’t the primary motivator for those who enter the profession—but hypothetical. The McKinsey study attempts to move the discussion into the realm of the empirical, by using market research to estimate what it would take, money-wise, to induce top-third grads to overcome their reluctance to teach, especially in high-needs schools.

The answers are surprising. To start with, the report makes clear that in the countries with the best schools, teacher quality is a national priority: Educators are paid competitively; education schools are highly selective; jobs are guaranteed for those credentialed; and professional development is ample and subsidized. In America, none of that holds true: Schools of education are largely open admission; credentialed teachers often can’t find jobs; professional development is pitiful; and the pay is lousy and, more important, it is seen as lousy by top-third graduates. “Most of them think they could earn more as a garbage collector than as a teacher,” says Matt Miller, a senior adviser to McKinsey and one of the study’s leaders.

Changing that perception would mean changing the reality, but the payoff would be dramatic. According to the study, a Rhee-style compensation package—starting salaries of $65,000, top salaries of $150,000—plus funding for teacher training could raise the percentage of top-third grads among new teacher hires in the one-in-six neediest schools from 14 percent to a whopping 68 percent. The cost at current teacher-student ratios: just $30 billion a year, or about 5 percent of total K–12 education spending.

By nature, such research is imprecise and imperfect, and there is no data proving that hiring teachers from the top third would boost student achievement. For some American-education gurus, those weaknesses may be a cause to doubt McKinsey’s work—an attitude that policymakers in Singapore or Finland would find dumbfounding. You want data, we’ll give you data, they would say: Take a gander at our kids’ stratospheric proficiency in math, reading, and science; how’s that for data?

For the United States, the issue of teacher recruitment isn’t just important. It is pressing. Of the roughly 3.3 million teachers nationwide, roughly half are baby-boomers approaching retirement in the coming decade. “Our ability to attract and retain great talent over the next few years is going to shape public education for the next 25 or 30 years,” says Duncan. “It presents some challenges, but it also presents an extraordinary opportunity.”

The same can be said of all of the issues raised by “Superman.” They are urgent and difficult, unquestionably, but also far less intractable than they seem—or that we’ve made them seem. “We know what works,” says Guggenheim. “What works is pragmatism. You go into a school, you hire good people, you have good leadership, and you fix it.”

Such comments will provide ample fodder for “Superman” ’s critics. Already an assortment of academics, think-tankers, and blockheaded bloggers are lining up to pummel Guggenheim as a dilettante and an agitprop peddler, and his movie as sensationalistic and simpleminded. What’s needed here, the critics say, is reasoned, careful discussion: more data, more study, more learned convocations, maybe even a blue-ribbon commission.

Guggenheim shrugs at such sentiments, for he’s heard them all before. “The chief obstacle for An Inconvenient Truth was the environmentalists, who’d become smug and complacent and had no idea how to tell their own story,” he says. “It’s the same with the education wonks. They’re gonna pick apart this aspect and that aspect of the movie, and they’re gonna totally miss the point.”

But the rest of us shouldn’t. For decades, the conversation about our schools has been the preserve of the education Establishment—and the result has been a system that, with few exceptions, runs the gamut from mediocre to calamitous. Waiting for “Superman” is no manifesto. It offers no quick fixes, no easy to-do lists, no incandescent lightbulbs to unscrew. What it offers is a picture of our schools that isn’t pretty, but that we need to apprehend if we’re to summon the political will necessary to transform them. “Nobody ever wants to call a baby ugly,” says Duncan. “This is like calling the baby ugly. It’s about confronting brutal truths.”

Looking squarely at those truths will cause the blood of some viewers to reach a roiling boil. Fingers will be pointed, and they should be—directly at the adults who have perpetuated the grotesqueries that consign generation after generation of America’s children to failure. If that leads to some hellacious donnybrooks, so much the better. “If you want to change public education, you have to do something that feels like a threat to the status quo,” says Canada. “If we don’t fight about this, if we can shake and be friends, we ain’t going to change. And if we don’t change, huge numbers of kids ain’t going to make it. There is no Superman coming to save them. All they have is us.”


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