Education reform is back on the national agenda, and this time it comes with a movie.

Education reform is back on the national agenda, and this time it comes with a movie.


The ideas in the reform agenda aren't all that new: innovation in the classroom, turning around failing schools, celebrating great teachers and getting rid of bad ones, high standards, better assessments and accountability across the board.


What's prompting a new look is "Waiting for ‘Superman,’" a documentary by Davis Guggenheim, now opening to deserved acclaim. It ought to be seen by every state legislator, school committee member, superintendent, teacher and parent. No movie can say everything that must be said about the current state of America's schools, but it's a great place to start an important conversation.


There are some hard truths that must be told about education in America, many of them told well in the movie. Over the last 30 years, we've doubled the amount of money spent per pupil, with no improvement in performance. Seventy percent of eighth graders can't read at grade level. Thirty percent of high school freshmen fail to graduate. Half of those who attend college need remedial courses before they can do the work.


While America's schools have lost ground, other countries have gotten better. The United States used to be the world's most educated country; now we rank No. 14. Out of 30 developed countries, the U.S. ranks 25 in math and 21 in science.


But those are just numbers. "Waiting for ‘Superman’" takes the discussion out of the seminar room by putting us in the homes of five children: Francisco, Anthony, Daisy, Bianca and Emily.


Each of the five shows academic promise, each has at least one supportive caregiver and each is cute as a button. All face long odds. They live in school districts where they are on track to attend what the movie calls "dropout factories," where educational dreams go to die.


These children, and their parents, pin their hopes on the only alternative they can afford: public charter schools built on new ideas, high expectations and staff determined to make every child succeed.


But there are 10 applicants for every opening. The children's fate - or so they and the moviemakers believe - rests on winning the lottery by which new students are selected.


The lotteries are the dramatic, and traumatic, heart of the movie. They underscore the grim reality of American education. America has some outstanding schools, many mediocre ones and some that are truly awful. If your parents cannot afford to move to a place with outstanding schools, life's odds are already stacked against you.


The film touches some hot buttons that can overshadow its larger message. Educational achievement starts with great teachers, it argues, and nothing drags schools down like lousy teachers. But union contracts - more specifically, tenure - give most every teacher a lifetime appointment. The movie cites examples of bad teachers still on the job that should anger every parent.


True enough, but there's more to the problem. Because there's no money on the line, performance reviews at most schools aren't taken seriously, if they happen at all. Good teachers know who the bad ones are, but the culture of collegiality in most schools keeps them from doing anything about it.


The teaching profession isn't respected in America as it once was, and it shows up in the classroom. Here's an uncomfortable fact you won't find in the movie: The SAT scores of high school seniors intending to go into education rank below every other academic major. Tomorrow's teachers score higher than students planning to major in culinary arts, home economics, mechanics and construction trades, but that's about it.


Now consider that a third of the nation's 3 million teachers will retire in the next 10 years. Where can we find great teachers to fill their shoes?


"Waiting for ‘Superman’" focuses on a handful of charter schools that appear to be everything the "dropout factories" aren't, another hot button issue. It mentions in passing that most charters show results on standardized tests that are no better than other public schools.


A full discussion might note, as a panelist at a Harvard screening said, that the most successful charter schools are built around a charismatic visionary leader like Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone, one of the movie's stars. Not every school can have that kind of leader, and some charters have faltered when their founders moved on.


The most successful charters share approaches that should be applied elsewhere: longer school days and years, individual attention to students, more parent involvement and more creative curricula. But as another panelist, Thackston Lundy of Harvard's Kennedy School noted, the element most critical to success is creating a school atmosphere where "it's cool to be smart, it's cool to get your assignments in."


The education world is awash in ideas and techniques and curricula, but Lundy reminds educators of an aphorism from the world of corporate turnarounds: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."


The problem with America's educational culture extends far from its schools. If we value education, why does everyone - kids, parents, teachers and everyone else - consider the last day of the school year something to celebrate and the return to school in the fall something to dread?


Changing cultural attitudes may be beyond the government's purview, but there are steps that can be taken in state capitals and in Washington that can make a difference for the five kids who are featured in this movie and millions more across the country.


Some of those steps are being taken. President Barack Obama has been a consistent advocate for teacher accountability, charter schools and aid to education. He has put real money behind his education reform agenda: $4.3 billion in stimulus funds went to the Race to the Top program, rewarding states that ease restrictions on charters and other innovative schools, turning around failing schools, improving the quality of teaching and adopting high standards.


Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's competition is the exception to the narrative of the first part of the Obama presidency: It has bipartisan support, it is substantive, not symbolic and it is already showing results. Almost 30 states changed laws and rules in response the administration's incentives. The prize money was split among 12 of the 35 states that applied.


Massachusetts finished out of the running in the first round of competition, despite intense lobbying by the Patrick administration. Then Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick pushed and the Legislature adopted an education reform bill that created a new class of "innovation schools," gave the state more power to intervene in failing schools and lifted the cap on the charter schools in the state's lowest-performing districts.


One result: The state announced this week that it had accepted more than two dozen applications for new charter schools, believed to be a new record. Most of them are in the struggling districts (Boston, Lawrence and Springfield) where the cap had held back charter expansion until the law was changed in January. Many are expansions or replications of schools that have already established a record of success in the state.


There may still be lotteries for admission to the best of these new schools, but for the children in these cities who face prospects just as dire as the five kids profiled in the movie, the odds just got better.


If that's a step in the right direction - and it is - "Waiting for ‘Superman’" shows that there's still a long, long road ahead.


Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co.  He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com.