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John Lee Evans

‘Superman’ debate: We already know what works

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How horrible would it be to pin your child’s hope for a good school on an admission lottery where only a tiny number win? Such is the case in the newly released movie “Waiting for Superman.” Kids in several cities anxiously await the results of a lottery to find out if they will be admitted to a high-quality charter school. The featured children attend failing neighborhood schools, although it is also pointed out that fewer than one in five charter schools perform better than regular public schools.

Then we hear about Finland, where students’ scores have rocketed to the very top on international tests. What is their secret? They invest heavily in teachers. Their teachers are highly qualified, compete to enter a very prestigious profession and are highly paid. But we are not about to ship our kids off to Finland.

Our educational system has failed to meet its goal of creating a level playing field. All over the country, adults are arguing about how to fix our schools, while the children are losing out. Urban superintendents come to cities to unveil their latest gimmick to improve our schools and then move on to their next gig, like professional athletes. We don’t see lasting results.

Around the country many “reformers” claim to have the answer. The problem is that as they roll out their new programs, they also toss out many things that are already working. That is why we always seem to be on a treadmill. In 2010, San Diego Unified decided to get off the treadmill and initiated community-based reform under Superintendent Bill Kowba.

What works is not a mystery. We already know what works: involved parents, effective teachers collaborating across the grade levels and individual attention for students, as well as a superintendent and principals who support their staff and hold them accountable.

Tavga Bustani, principal of Edison Elementary, and her teachers epitomize what can be highly successful in public education. Two years ago, she took over a school designated as failing by federal standards. Barely 21 percent of students were at the proficient level in reading and 35 percent in math. Within two years, 62 percent of the students were proficient in reading and an incredible 80 percent in math. Their goal is to reach 90 percent at the proficient level in math this year.

What is special about this school? It is not a charter or a magnet. Most of the students live in poverty. Many are English-language learners. They did not get into Edison by winning a lottery. This is simply their neighborhood school in City Heights.

High-poverty schools usually have high teacher turnover, but not one teacher at Edison has asked to transfer to another school. They are encouraged to collaborate and meet regularly to discuss individual students. They hold each other accountable to improve teaching. They regularly go over their testing results. The principal spends three hours every day in classrooms observing, coaching and evaluating the teachers. No longer is the teacher isolated in the classroom without support or accountability. Even parents are there on Family Fridays.