November 10, 2010

Confident, But Failing

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If last week’s elections weren’t enough to make you depressed about the direction our country is headed, go see David Guggenheim’s new documentary, Waiting for Superman — a film detailing the failure of American public schools to provide a rudimentary education for the majority of youth. As you grip on to your seat with suspense watching five starry-eyed children’s futures determined by a lottery of bingo-balls, any drop of cheer or optimism you’ve managed to hide away for safekeeping will almost certainly vanish, leaving you utterly despondent and desperately wanting to move to Finland, where “high school” and “drop-out factory” are never used in the same sentence.

Waiting for Superman exposes the disastrous state of our public school system and makes your heart ache for the powerless children (and their parents) who fall victim to it. Filled with alarming, and frankly, embarrassing statistics about the vast achievement gap between rich and poor students, and moreover, the growing achievement gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world, the film tactfully articulates both the moral and pragmatic arguments as to why revamping our school system is so imperative. From a moral perspective, the most powerful and wealthy nation in the world simply cannot allow its children’s futures to be left up to sheer luck and a five-digit zip code. At the bare minimum, every child deserves a functioning school with credible teachers. The fact that most American children have been hijacked of this fundamental right is shameful.

Realistically, the U.S. will not be able to compete in the global economy if we don’t invest in our workforce, by first investing in education. Ranked 25th in math and 21st in science among industrialized nations — yet, ranked No. 1 in confidence — we are in desperate need of a reality check.

So our education system is in shambles; but who is to blame? For years, we’ve been told that failing schools are a result of failing neighborhoods; these kids are doomed from the get-go and aren’t worth our efforts.  But according to Guggenheim, we’ve incorrectly flip-flopped this equation. Failing neighborhoods come from failing schools — not the other way around — and it’s a lie that disadvantaged kids can’t learn. Challenging and disproving this deeply embedded misperception is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement.

Guggenheim highlights the success of charter schools, which are publicly funded, but whose teachers are typically not unionized. Though the film has been critiqued for being excessively “pro-charter,” Guggenheim nevertheless gets at the core of why failure is the norm and success is the exception. The fundamental difference between a successful school and a failing school — a.k.a. “drop-out factories” — is the caliber of teachers. Teachers’ effectiveness is not determined by experience or intelligence per se, but rather persistence. The renowned KIPP schools have shown that dedicated teachers who refuse to accept failure from their students can, in fact, be transformative. These teachers and this philosophy defy cynics who believe that money, zip codes and race have anything to do with a child’s ability to learn.

Despite this flash of optimism, there only 99 KIPP schools in the U.S. and charters represent only four percent of all public schools. While we hope that the KIPP philosophy can be replicated and scaled to reach more students, the KIPP schools are not a panacea on their own. At some point or another, we have to deal with “the blob” — governments, districts and the unions. This tangled bureaucratic mess is the ultimate impediment to reform.

Teachers’ unions, though well intentioned, have created a system which values the job security of adults over the learning and success of children. Public school teachers receive tenure after two to three years “for simply breathing,” making it nearly impossible to fire a teacher, regardless of his or her ability to perform in the classroom. Yet, tenure was established to guarantee the right of academic freedom in higher education; it serves to promote excellence and progressivity, not mediocrity. In preventing schools from distinguishing good teachers from bad ones, the teachers’ unions accomplish exactly that — mediocrity at best.

Teachers’ unions defend their right to tenure by arguing that public school teachers are underpaid and overworked, so at the very least, they should be able to go to sleep at night without worrying if they will have a job in the morning. Though this point is valid, the solution is not to say, “a teacher is a teacher is a teacher.” Instead, we should award the best teachers and get rid of those who underperform.

This is exactly what Michelle Rhee ’92, former chancellor of the Washington D.C. public school system, sought to do in our nation’s capital, notorious for its failing schools. After a long and treacherous battle, the Washington Teachers’ Union ratified a new contract this past June, which bases teachers’ pay on results as opposed to seniority. The D.C. public schools have since fired 241 underperforming teachers and another 737 educators face plausible dismissal this year. Unsurprisingly, there’s been a massive backlash from the unions, which oppose Rhee’s philosophy of firing your way to better schools. Rhee has since resigned.

Though the future of Rhee’s vision has yet to be determined, it is clear that education overhaul is a massive undertaking that no individual can accomplish alone. Many believe in the idea of public education, but few are willing to make the sacrifices needed to revamp the system.

Guggenheim begins his film with a personal confession. He explains he was a long-time advocate of public schools, until it came time to choose a school for his own children. He admits: “My feelings about public education didn’t matter as much as my fear of sending [my kids] to a failing school. And so every morning, betraying the ideals I thought I lived by, I drive past three public schools as I take my kids to a private school. But I’m lucky. I have a choice.”

This honest confession illustrates the fundamental problem with education in this country and why this broken system seems forever doomed. Few people with substantial money or influence are invested in the public school system. Failing schools are a problem of the poor and pitied by the elite. The rich feel sorry for these kids, but few are willing to risk their own kids’ future to level the playing field for poor children. And understandably so; if you have a choice like Guggenheim, it is inevitable that you will act with your child’s interests in mind and circumvent the public school system entirely. Whether we like the sound of it or not, public education has very much become a “rich man’s burden.”

In a conversation with Rhee, Warren Buffet said: “It’s easy to solve the problems of public education in America. All you have to do is outlaw private schools and assign every child to public school by lottery.” Imagine if Malia and Sasha Obama had no choice but to attend a D.C. public school. The school system would be transformed immediately.

Though such drastic measures are out of the question, Buffet points to the uncomfortable consequences of inequality and injustice in this country. While there will always be economic divisions, education is supposed to be the ultimate equalizer, or at the very least, an attempt at bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots. At the end of the day, public education is an issue that impacts our nation as a whole, whether or not your kids are forced to attend a “drop-out factory.” Therefore, we must change the way we think and talk about education; it is an American problem that must be addressed by America as a whole, not just the poor communities that bear the consequences.

Carolyn Witte is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at cwitte@cornellsun.com. Wit’s End appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Carolyn Witte