Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Not waiting for Superman

If you haven't seen the documentary "Waiting for Superman" you should. It makes a powerful statement about public education in this country, one that I'm sure would resonate with you. But I hope it makes the right impression, for the right reason.

The film is about the need for education reform in America, and it paints a pretty grim picture of the current state, focusing on a group of parents trying to get their children into better schools. I was impressed by the fact that the children understand the importance of getting a quality education and recognized when they weren't. The fact that so many children are forced to depend on a lottery for entry into quality schools, something featured in the film, is a shame. I would hate to have to tell my child he has to go back to a crappy school because his number wasn't called. Or, have to move to the 'hood so I could afford to send him to a private school.

I did have a couple of problems with the film. One is that it comes across as anti-teacher and anti-union, playing up the facts that tenure, in many cases, protects poor performing educators and that labor protects teachers from being measured on student performance. Of course there are some bad teachers in pubic schools, as the film points out and hammers home. I know I had a few in my day.

However, the reality is that good teachers don't want bad teachers around either, and there are a lot of variables affecting student performance that have nothing to do with what goes on in the classroom. Students need support from parents and caring adults in their lives, and they need home environments that allow them to thrive. When they're hungry, don't have lights at home, or have parents that can't help them or won't help them, they are going to struggle in school.

Successful programs like the Harlem Children's Zone highlighted in the film, make progress because they help families with basic needs, in addition to offering quality teachers and curriculum. I’m a huge fan of the HCZ and the results it has produced. But there is a reason it hasn’t been successfully replicated. It takes tons of money, the right leader, and a lot of collaboration (public and private sector). I can’t see the stars aligning around here in a similar fashion.

I do agree that no superhero is going to save students in our community schools. It's going to take all of us, because we do have an obligation to be caring parents and volunteers for the sake of our young people. It will be the mini-heroes who lead the way around here. I know some, and I'm sure you all know some of them as well. I think we (the collective community) need to do a better job of lifting up their work.

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