Tuesday, October 19, 2010

If not Superman, Who are We Waiting For?

All of the recent controversy regarding the documentary 'Waiting for Superman' reminded me of this scene from 'The West Wing'...

'...schools should be palaces...', '...teachers should make six figures...', '...I just haven't figured out how to do it yet...'

All of these are sentiments that many of have uttered at one time or another. The apparent eagerness of most of us to get lost in the tall weeds of blame and assignation when it comes to education reform. The extent to which we are willingness to go over and over again, whose fault it is and the endless defense of adults - all adults - at our failure to produce a system that prepares our children for meaningful participation in society post secondary school is amazing.

Obviously adults have a stake in an effective public school system. Jobs are at stake. Careers are on the line. We are concerned about how radical reform impacts every adult who is a part of the system (with the exception of cafeteria workers who, at least in Dallas, are on the lowest rung of the economic pie, many of whom are paid so low they qualify for public assistance. But that's another post.). But, in the end, no adult is successful if, at the end of 12 years, we continue to produce minimally literate (and in some cases illiterate) young adults, not ready for college, not ready for work and socially dysfunctional. This is not every graduate. But it is the case with enough children who go through the public education system that it is cause for national alarm. And it defies logic how everyone, from politicians on down refuse to admit the fact that the crisis calls for something other than a system designed to protect and perpetuate itself.

To me, that was the actual point of 'Waiting for Superman.' And I think its a point that has gotten lost in the arguments about charter schools vs. public schools; teachers unions; campaign contributions, etc., etc., etc.

Former Washington D.C. Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhees' efforts at reform may have been strident. But, to her credit, she didn't simply aim at the shell game of 'increasing test scores'. She probably appeared to take aim at long tenured institutional icons within the system or neighborhood schools which were the object of great community sentimental attachment. Closing schools can have a devastating impact on neighborhood which have been stripped of most of their assets to begin with. On the other hand, we're either in a crisis or we're not. And schools that have histories of decades of failure have to undergo extreme scrutiny, as do the professionals who have run them.

Does this absolve parents of their obligations? Of course not. Parents are, in my estimation, the most important factor in the equation. But we cannot blanketly accuse parents of 'not caring', anymore than we can blame every teacher of being ineffective. To simply blame single families as a source of the problem is neither intelligent or productive. We have to learn how to teach the children that we have, from the families that produce them in environments that are more conducive for care and learning than the environments from which they come. It's a tall order, but there is literally no strata of society or culture that does not depend upon our success in this area. None.

We have to have schools that are neighborhood education centers for adults and children. There must be intentional, strategic collaborations with religious institutions, local business, major corporations, alumni, service organizations, non-profits, neighborhood leaders and post secondary schools.

Parents need to be responsible - required, if necessary - to provide the necessary support for their children, in return for the free public education they receive, but schools have to continue to be flexible to meet special circumstances. Some parents work. Some are in school. Some have not had successful educational experiences themselves. Some children are reared by grandparents and even great-grandparents, because some parents are no longer alive or some are incarcerated, others are sadly lost to addiction or lifestyles that make them unavailable to their children. PTA's, school centered education councils, parent-teacher conferences and the like will have to be creative in outreach and opportunities for participation to meet diverse domestic circumstances.

We have to address economic development and neighborhood redevelopment in ways that diversify the make-up of communities. Neighborhoods with concentrated poverty effectively frustrate the very intent and spirit of Brown v. Board of Education by re-segregating public schools, robbing them of experienced teachers, money and technology necessary to provide children in low income neighborhoods with the great education they need and deserve and necessary to live productive lives in the 21st century.

Finally, we have to free teachers to teach and expect them to teach. It's wonderful to talk about 'great' teachers. But, honestly, every teacher isn't 'great'. The pool of 'great' anything in any profession, is always a shallow one. But every teacher can be provided a 'great' atmosphere in which to work and a 'great' opportunity to ply his or her craft. We must stop paying them like clerks. We must also adopt more creative measures of classroom accountability and effectiveness than standardized tests. We have to promote education as something else than just a pathway to well paid employment, leading to greater consumerism. Education is a pathway to a greater quality of life and an expanded notion of citizenship. How children interact with one another and with adults, are also signs of exposure to real education. We must have greater and more expanded notions of what we expect from teachers and students in this process of public education. Teachers need an environment in which they can do the very best job of teaching possible, whether they are 'great' or not; students need as broadly safe and nurturing environment as possible, whether they are 'great' students or not. If we provide that, I'm willing to take the results.

When I was a pastor, one of my members who had grown up in the church, got her degree from Southern Methodist University and became a teacher. Her first job as a teacher was in a South Dallas school. I went to visit her in her classroom one day. It was after her last class and we sat in her classroom and talked. She was frustrated. She talked about how difficult the children were, how they came to school unprepared. How the parents weren't cooperating. On and on she went. When she finished, the only thing I could say was, 'Well, Vickie, it's not as if these parents are keeping their best children at home and sending their worst one's to school. These are the only kids they've got. We have to figure out how to teach them...'

Schools should be palaces. Teachers ought to make six figures. We haven't figured out how to do it yet.

We've got to get to work doing it. Too much depends on it not to.

Below, is one of the best conversations I've heard based on 'Waiting for Superman'. Listening to it will be a well spent hour of your time. But after that, it ought to be time to get to work.

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