Sunday, March 20, 2011

Waiting for Superman - Issues in the public school system...

I just finished watching “Waiting for Superman,” (been meaning to watch it for ages, and just never found the time) and had a few thoughts on this documentary (and education, in general).
The filmmaker follows 5 children (all across the US) through the course of a school year. These children, and their parents, see problems in the education they are currently receiving in public schools, and are hoping for a change. The parents have all selected charter schools that they hope the kids will get into. The problem with that is that charter schools have very few openings, with hundreds of kids applying. One little guy only has a 5% chance of escaping his public school and making it into a charter school.
The parents know that their children stand a better chance of success in life if they get out of the public schools (most live in very urban areas with high rates of high school dropouts, and high rates of crime), and they pin all of their hopes into a lottery system. Can you imagine telling your 6 or 7 year old child that their only hope for getting a decent education comes in the form of a BINGO ball – the *right* BINGO ball – being pulled out of the big cage of bouncing balls? Most of the kids went with their parents on their lottery day and sat by, waiting and hoping with fingers crossed, as their future was determined by luck. The tension was so high during the drawing, with kids looking as stressed as their parents. Of the 5, only 2 actually got into the charter schools they had hoped for. Parents and kids were crying over their loss, and left feeling hopeless.
All of these parents clearly care about their children and the education they receive. I know a lot of people think that parents in urban areas don’t care about education, in general, but I don’t think that’s the truth. I think the parents want better, they just don’t have the resources to obtain better for their kids. How can the achievement gap be closed when the education system we currently have is broken? All of the “teaching to the tests,” fighting with unions, money issues, and other problems distract the teachers from being able to do their jobs and “teach.” We keep hearing how schools need more money, but in reality they are spending more than 2x the amount per student now than they were in the 70’s – and the education has gotten no better. What can solve the problems?
The charter schools showcased in this film did things that public schools can’t – or won’t – and with less money. Some had more hours in the school day; others had more days in school, home visits were made to get to know the families on a better level, strict standards were enforced, and the charter schools had more freedom to try innovative methods for reaching kids once thought unreachable. The results were amazing – the same demographic who were 15%-30% proficient in reading and math in the public schools were 60%-90% proficient in the charter school. There was a charter who didn’t see the huge increase in test scores (they had only been opened a year or so), but they saw an enormous reduction in the number of dropouts in their school. High standards were set, and the kids lived up to them. I think kids understand the expectations around them, and will live up – or down – to what people think they are capable of.
I would love to see the parents in this film homeschooling their children – each of these parents could have done a far better job than the public schools – but I know it’s not realistic to think that all parents would choose to homeschool. That being said, parents like these need better options, but how do they get them? I say get rid of NCLB, and the unions, and return the power to educate back over to the local levels. One-size-fits-all education just does not work with children, and schools can do a better job of offering what their children need if they didn’t have to worry about jumping through so many hoops to please the government.
Also, schools need to be able to actually do something about the discipline problems within their schools. This is one area the charter schools have a clear advantage – you can be kicked out of a charter if you do not obey the rules. How would you solve the discipline in the public schools? Or, better yet, how would you solve the education issue in general? Or, is American public education pretty much hopeless at this point?
Education should not depend on a system of "chance."

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