Why Wait for Superman?

October 26, 2010
Lydia Dobyns

Lydia Dobyns

Here at New Tech Network we welcome the national attention on the crisis in our public school system; however, amid segments on CNN and headlines in the New York Times, we want to move that spotlight to show what’s working in public high school reform. By presenting charter schools as the sole solution to failing public schools, the national conversation is framed in a way that misses the point.

Remember the “It’s the Economy, Stupid” mantra that helped elect Bill Clinton? In 2010, when it comes to creating vibrant, successful high schools, the New Tech Network mantra is “It’s what happens after high school that counts.”

The schools in the New Tech Network represent 62 public high schools (two of which are also charter schools) that believe the NTN model is a powerful way to produce young adults capable of becoming highly engaged citizens in the global marketplace. We know the NTN model meets the needs of ALL students – whether they are part of a rural, urban, suburban, high-achieving or low-performing community. And we are eager to talk about how NTN school learning outcomes are reflected in student work and correlate to college and career readiness.

We coach teachers, administrators and students to build a school community centered on trust, respect and responsibility. Changing one or two variables in a high school generally does not result in meaningful sustained improvements (you pick the measurement: absenteeism, discipline problems, graduation rates or college-readiness).

Notice I didn’t cite improvements on standardized tests. It’s not that we think these aren’t important; it’s that we believe testing on content as the only measure of student success tells us little about that student’s ability to be successful in college and beyond. We value assessments that gauge academic content mastery, student creativity, and collaboration and presentation skills. Ted Sizer, one of the nation’s leading educational reform leaders, said, “We value students who can use their minds well, and who can participate fully in a democratic society.” Sizer is right.

We don’t need to “wait” for Superman.

With more than 14 years of developing high schools throughout the country, we’ve demonstrated significant successes for districts that are not waiting. One powerful example comes from our flagship high school, Napa New Tech, which opened in 1996. Students there are achieving at high levels of critical thinking, problem-solving, and written communication skills. On the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA) published by the Council for Aid to Education, seniors at the school who completed the assessment scored higher than 95 percent of college freshmen. Other, newer New Tech schools are similarly committed to promoting student achievement that far outstrips the significant but narrow outcomes currently measured by large-scale standardized tests.

In the movie, a scene from a vintage, black-and-white “Superman” TV series shows Superman stopping a school bus filled with children from speeding out of control. Superman looks at an incapacitated bus driver and notes the driver’s ability to think had been taken away.

Of course, in the real world, we know waiting for a superhero makes little sense to fix our education system. Instead, we must continue to apply strategies that work and have the patience to see it through.

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