If you have not seen “Waiting For Superman” yet, go see it. The “docu-movie” is filmed as a documentary about the American education system but delivers a powerful emotional punch that will make anyone with a pulse want to get up and “do something” about education. Ok, so what does “do something” mean exactly? Well it depends on who you ask! Many people saw the movie and came away with completely different views of what needs to happen. (Kudos to the director for igniting a passionate discussion, hopefully we can arrive at a dispassionate decision-making process)
To some people “do something” means we need to build more charter schools, to others, it means we need to provide more effective training to our teachers. There a many other actions that the audience may believe we need to do as well, such as fire ineffective teachers, decrease class sizes, increase parent involvement, decrease the emphasis on standardized testing and cut wasteful spending to list a few. All these actions are aimed at one singular goal; to reduce the randomness associated with a student’s intellectual and economic future by reducing the randomness of the quality of education they are provided with.
For example, let’s say there is one really great public school in your district. Unfortunately, if a student does not live in a school zone assigned to that school the chances of the student going to that school are slim to none. The student is then required to attend a school of lesser quality. Depending on the school, the quality can be so low that only 10 percent of the students graduating from that school go on to complete college. Having grown up in a low-income neighborhood these numbers do not surprise me since I witnessed my classmates and neighbors drop out on a fairly regular basis.
What is surprising, as the film states, is that the public k-12 education system has been rotting for the past 40 years and continues to rot today. This film has not ignited a discussion that we as a society have not had before. But hopefully it brings knowledgeable and influential stakeholders to the table to craft the most effective solution. By the way, you do not need a million dollars to be knowledgeable or influential. As a well-known American anthropologist, Margaret Mead, once said “never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Of course, if the student’s parents or guardians can afford to send the student to private school the likelihood of a positive educational outcome is dramatically increased.
Given enough time many people would generate massive to-do lists that would look the same. Where the discussion becomes interesting is when we are asked to prioritize the order of each action to take. Obviously there are only a limited amount of funds (although the rate at which money was printed to stave off the last recession might mislead some to think otherwise), resources and human capital that can be deployed. The argument rages on regarding how to most effectively utilize the resources we have. As the film states, the U.S. spends more on education per pupil on k-12 education than any other developed country but is ranked near the bottom in terms of academic achievement. Clearly, spending more resources is not the answer.
But to think that solution to our education woes only is only due to poor management of resources would be naïve. A fundamental shift what we value must also occur.
The film emphasizes how every president since the Regan administration vowed to be the “education president” (i.e. the Superman we are waiting for). In fact, each President has enacted some law or another that was supposed to greatly improve the education system. Perhaps the most influential is the infamous “No Child Left Behind” which hoped to reform education so that 100 percent of American public school students would be proficient in the basic subjects by the year 2014. Unfortunately, the emphasis the bill placed on standardized testing has provided education administrators with a reason to finagle achievement results for their schools and districts with the wizardry of an accountant at Enron, out of fear of losing their job or credibility if their schools are depicted as failing.
For example, a district can “improve” its test scores by labeling a sub-sector of students as dropouts and thus eliminate the lowest performing students from the performance calculation for the district as a whole. The emphasis on test scores has also eliminated arts and music programs to focus more on preparing for the exams that “No Child Left Behind” mandates in order to measure student performance (For more on this subject read “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” by Diane Ravitch). Ironically there is almost no correlation between a student’s standardized test scores and their success in life.
Unless we place less emphasis on high test scores garnered by summative assessments and place more emphasis on knowledge acquisition, we risk repeating history and incorrectly treating students as empty vessels as the film did. There was a scene in the film that showed a teacher opening a student’s head and pouring knowledge into it. However, we know from research in the education field that knowledge is acquired through ACTION and not simply through passively consuming facts.
As Herb Simon a Nobel Laureate from CMU once said, “Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance the learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.”
However, changing the education system is easier said than done. As one of the film’s protagonists, Michelle Rhee, former Superintendant of the D.C. Public School System pointed out. Although she is widely vilified for her perhaps draconian methods of firing principals and teachers and closing down schools, she did what she believed was necessary in order to change the entire system. Perhaps it was easier for her to act so decisively and fire personnel at will because she had no intention of pursuing a career as a superintendent. Like a kamikaze, she collided head-on with her opponents, the teacher’s union, in hopes of ending its iron-clad grip on one of the most important resources our nation has to improve the education system, its teachers. Only time will tell if she was successful and her approach appropriate. Likewise in a few short years, we as a country will find out if we had the resolve to reform education and pass on the dream to the next generation. For the sake of my friends and family, I hope we do.
Questions for Geoffrey Canada
- The success of Harlem Children’s Zone exemplifies the hard work that an entire team of people including you, the students, the parents and the community must dedicate to provide a quality learning experience. Is the problem that our education system is looking for a quick fix instead of putting in the countless hours it takes to coordinate efforts across all grades and schools to provide individual students with a quality learning experience?
- What techniques are you using in the classroom to help students learn and successfully complete the standardized exams? Are you focused on test taking strategies?
- How do you define a successful teacher or student? What evidence to you look for to demonstrate their success?
Also check out this great video.