Saturday, February 11, 2012

Superman, schools and kids

At the beginning of the documentary, Waiting for Superman, educator Geoffrey Canada said that finding out Superman wasn't real was worse than finding out Santa Claus wasn't real. Superman swooped in and saved everyone just in time. If there was no Superman, than no one was coming to save them in the South Bronx with all of its poverty, violence and drugs. Canada knew that education was his way out of poverty, and as an educator he wants to give that same opportunity to his students.

Waiting for Superman is an excellent, if depressing, documentary on the United States public school system. I was really distressed by the end of it, and it reminded me that I was supposed to be a teacher. The film looks at public schools around the country through the eyes of students who are trying to get a better education, their parents who are trying to give it to them, and the educators who want them to succeed. There is also a fair dose of statistics to complement the stories. Some of the more disturbing parts of the film showed teachers (I'm sure these make up a minority of teachers) who not only were bad teachers but didn't care that they were bad teachers because they couldn't be fired. It was disgusting. Even worse, was when the featured students were waiting to know if they had won, by lottery, positions in the schools that would help them get a decent education. Most of them lost. Worst of all, for each of those kids there are hundreds more just like them.

Most of the time when we think of failing schools, we think of inner-city, poor schools in bad neighborhoods. There are a lot of those. But many of our schools, that aren't considered failing, are not preparing students for the real world. Evidence for this is the increase in university-offered remedial classes, because students cannot do college-level work. Students who choose not to go to college are often not qualified for well-paying jobs.

One of the featured students lived in a wealthy family in a rich neighborhood. Most kids would love to be able to go to her neighborhood school. But her test scores weren't that great, and her neighborhood school practiced tracking. She wanted to go a school without tracking. In tracking students, schools decide if they be in the classes that will prepare them (in a nutshell) for college, or the factory, or the fast food restaurant. This student was at risk of being tracked in the middle, and there is growing evidence that these students do not receive the education they deserve. I don't like tracking; I never have. I believe in teaching a student at her level, but she must have the opportunity to move up to a higher level. When I teach, I have high expectations for all my students, and I do what I can to help them succeed. I do have a master of education degree, and tracking is foreign to everything I know about good teaching.

Before this gets anymore long-winded, the point of the film is that the public school system is not doing it's job, but there are educators and citizens trying to fix the system. It's up to each of us to be the Superman that these children are waiting for.

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