After putting it off for months, over the Christmas break I took the time to watch the education documentary Waiting for Superman. From media reports, I was expecting it to be a long-winded attack on our public schools, which are working pretty well for many students and have already been unfairly attacked so often that it affects the morale of our students and teachers. After watching it, though, I have concluded that the issues pointed out by the film makers are critical to improving the educational system not just for our kids, but for our country’s future. I hope that you all will find a copy and watch it.
If you are like me, you will find yourself conflicted after watching the film. On one hand, it is a call to fundamentally change how we do the business of education in this country and it makes sense. On the other hand, it worries me that some people who watch it will declare everything our schools do as wrong, and call for knee-jerk-reaction-type change that could have very bad long-term consequences for our country. It should be possible to be critical of our institutions without declaring that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. While this film was very fair and balanced, it is certainly possible to take portions out of context and declare our schools a failure to score political points. When that is done, honest discussion goes out the window, everyone prepares for battle, and little gets accomplished.
It is difficult to summarize the film in a short column, but the main story was about several individual children who were trapped in failing schools based on where they lived with several side stories regarding the reasons for the failure and highlighting successful programs. The film makers place the responsibility on school structures and laws. Several minutes were spent on the problem of teacher tenure, and the terrible difficulty (or impossibility) of terminating a poor teacher amid all the union inspired laws and regulations. Hidden cameras showed teachers in class reading newspapers, kids shooting craps, and places where no learning was occurring. Other segments showed great teachers and a quote that stood out to me was from Goeffery Canada the founder of Harlem Children’s Zone who said something like, “watching a great teacher in the classroom is like watching an incredible athlete or talented artist” and showed what we all hope is happening in our children’s classrooms.
One thing that troubled me is the role of student and parent motivation received very little attention. Some of the families that were trying to get into good schools were very poor, but they really wanted to secure better lives for their children. They were willing to ride the subway across the city or work three jobs for a chance to put their kids in a good school. It would be kind of easy to design a school system where all the relatively bright kids who have motivated families were gathered in the same schools, and all the more difficult children – those who may have a learning or behavior disability, or whose Dad makes meth in the kitchen, or whose Mom would rather hang out on Facebook than help with homework – are put in another school. What about those children? Do we let them fend for themselves, become the victims of their future crimes, and build more prisons to house them when they grow up? It takes no license or training to have a child. That a child has an ill-equipped parent is not the fault of the child. This is the reason we have public schools and compulsory attendance laws; society has a huge interest in educating its next generation.
In Bullitt County, we are blessed to have few of the problems portrayed in the film and plenty of great teachers and students. But, we must continue to demand and expect higher levels of performance from our schools and our students and ourselves until every single child that passes through our doors as a new kindgergartener graduates ready to be a productive member of our community.