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No heroes or villains, just hard work to make schools better

The much-anticipated documentary Waiting for Superman has generated a spirited discussion about our nation's public schools. Among several compelling story lines, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim capably illustrates how neglecting the challenges faced by public schools can have tragic consequences for children.

If you care about our nation's schools, the documentary will leave you angry and sad.

The unsettling thing about Waiting for Superman is that it shows specific examples that are deeply disturbing and then leaps to the generalized conclusion that our nation's schools are failing and teacher unions are obstacles to reform. We beg to differ.

There is another side to the story. It won't make for a dramatic movie, but the fact is that in communities across the nation, school districts and union leaders work together and do what's best for children.

In Hillsborough County Public Schools we are in the first year of a seven-year school reform process that we call Empowering Effective Teachers. It is funded in part by a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Our school board, administration and union have established an effective, collaborative approach to solving problems and seizing opportunities, which is one of the reasons that the Gates Foundation chose Hillsborough for this partnership. They know that a highly functional, collaborative relationship between district management and teacher unions is essential.

What we are doing in Hillsborough County would be unheard of in some communities. Researchers from Rutgers University, Cornell University and MIT are studying Hillsborough and a handful of other districts to see how we created this climate of collaboration. To us, it is common sense.

Under our Empowering Effective Teachers initiative, we are retooling the way our teachers and principals are hired, placed, supported, evaluated and compensated, and most importantly, the way we collaborate to support one another and create better solutions to maximize student success. Our teachers are part of every design team and have had input from the start. Obstacles to reform? Hardly.

We recognize that a good movie needs heroes and villains. As the film shows, Geoffrey Canada truly is heroic for what he is doing in Harlem. But that doesn't mean charter schools are the answer, as implied by the film. There are many other components that support the Harlem Children's Zone, including substantial private funding that provides children with extensive medical, dental and tutorial services. There are some terrific charter schools in Hillsborough County and across the nation, and we support them. But the vast majority of children attend traditional public schools. That is where our attention and our resources must be focused.

Teachers and teacher unions agree: Some people don't belong in the classroom. But that doesn't mean teachers are the problem. To the contrary, teachers are the solution. We cannot simply fire or test our way to higher achievement. The opportunity for a great public education should not be determined by zip code or lottery, and it should not be left to chance. We must ensure that teachers and schools have the tools and the supports necessary to be great — not random teachers and select schools, but all teachers and all schools.

If we are going to have meaningful school reform in this country, teachers and teacher unions are going to be part of it. Waiting for Superman has taken the discussion beyond educators to a larger national audience. Now it's time to get beyond generalizations and heroes and villains. It's time to work together on solutions. What are we waiting for?

MaryEllen Elia is superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools. Jean Clements is president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

No heroes or villains, just hard work to make schools better 10/27/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 27, 2010 7:23pm]
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