School Beat: Forget Superman

by Lisa Schiff on October 7, 2010

I haven’t seen the movie “Waiting for Superman” and I may never. Universal high student achievement and quality public education should be shared goals throughout our society and something that we discuss and work at constantly. But, it’s questionable how the particular viewpoint of skilled filmmakers really advances a deep, rich discussion on those topics, a discussion that should be grounded in rigorous analysis and solid, reliable, transparently produced data.

Certainly the film has raised the profile of a corner of the education reform debate. Interestingly, that attention seems to have amplified the attitudes and approaches embedded in No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which is still our current though very worn-out federal education policy. Strategies like a steady increase in privatization, the longing and praise for individual heroes, and an incessant Taylorization of all aspects of education are still where we’re at years later.

And “Waiting for Superman” is only one voice in this chorus. NBC’s recent “EducationNation” series of events and publicly staged conversations served as a promotion piece for President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan, whose competitive strategies in Race To The Top (RTTT) are their primary education policy. Students will receive something new and better (whatever that means), but only if their state played the game well and was one of the “lucky” few east of the Mississippi to win, the state of Hawaii being the exception that proves the rule.

What makes this so maddening for everyone who cares even just a bit is that while many kids are doing well, too many are not. Families with children in schools and education professionals and supporters know both sides of this coin intimately, especially since we have been drawn in more than ever before to personally fill critical gaps so that our kids’ schools can function at basic levels. We are well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of our schools and have not been reluctant to communicate and act on that knowledge. The list of our concerns is lengthy and familiar and includes more than the following:

• Inequities in student achievement mapping closely to socio-economic status; this ranges from uneven expectations for all students to disparities in access to and quality of educational materials and programs to an uneven distribution of skilled teachers;

• Narrowing of educational approaches, including restricted curricula, an overemphasis on simplistic assessments (i.e. standardized tests), and the decline of support for teaching as a skill and profession;

• Reductions or elimination of key educational components, including PE, music, art, languages libraries and librarians, and technology centers;

• Reductions or elimination of essential support services like school nurses, food, transportation, and counselors;

• Funding disasters, from an overall lack of funding, to uneven funding within districts, within states and across states. This is only made worse by complicated funding structures and the policies that surround them and can’t be fixed even by the more than welcome one-shot federal Recovery funds. The depths of this can be plumbed at the excellent site presenting publicly gathered education data in a user friendly way.

The list could go on, but the pattern is obvious enough at this point. Federal and state education policies and budgets have worsened these areas, not generated progress. Despite the rhetoric, providing a quality education to all children is only a priority for our past and current administrations as far as the private sector will support it.

The private sector is a convenient solution on many levels for those seeking to restrict the role of government and who want a relatively easy out for a complex social issue. If private enterprises run schools, public support for education can be decreased or at least eventually funneled into the private sector. If private enterprises run schools, then the success or failure of those schools is not the concern of policy makers; parents can “vote with their feet” and simply find another school. If private enterprises run schools, then whether or not our society’s children get educated is no longer a collective responsibility, but is simply the choice of individual families. If we stay on this current path, over time the primary purpose of schools will no longer be to educate children, but to generate profits.

This is not the future I’m hoping and working for and neither is it the vision of anyone I’ve ever met who has had a child in or taught at a public school. We don’t need or want to wait around for someone with special powers, real or imagined, to make things better. We don’t feel confident that the vagaries of the market will provide answers everywhere they are needed. We want our federal leaders to embrace our schools, not hand them over. Forget Superman, we need our elected officials to start the conversation afresh and listen to parents, students and teachers who are closest not only to the problems, but to the solutions.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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