The issue of education reform has gained considerable traction in the media, thanks in no small part to the documentary that Dan mentioned about a week ago called “Waiting for Superman”. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently the scene on which the film’s raw emotional power hinges takes place in a school auditorium where, as New York Times columnist Gail Collins writes, “parents and kids sit nervously…holding their lottery numbers while somebody pulls out balls and announces the lucky winners of seats in next fall’s charter school class. The lucky families jump up and down and scream with joy while the losing parents and kids cry. In some of the lotteries, there are 20 heartbroken children for every happy one.”
This is one of the scenes that were previewed on an episode of Oprah last week. I saw it. And Collins’s description doesn’t quite do what I saw justice. There was every bit of nervousness; of exultation; of disappointment; of despair, sure. But what Collins’s description lacks are the more nuanced emotions of apathy I saw on many faces, before the lottery and after; of confusion over why a lottery was being conducted in the first place; of quiet resolve contoured with contentment—all feelings nurtured in an atmosphere that is only suitable for escaping.
I’ve heard lots of talk about the schools—their lack of funding or excessive funding, their short years and short hours, how their manacled by the teacher’s unions, their lack of innovation in the classroom—but little talk about the reason parents are compelled to resort to putting their children’s names in a lottery in the first place. People didn’t go to that auditorium because the public schools were failing their children, per se. People went to that auditorium because the streets were all too successful. And yet, as Dan rightly mentioned, this point seems to have been entirely overlooked in the national discussion that “Waiting for Superman” has provoked.
Mediocre schools just aren’t very powerful incubators in neighborhoods where poverty rates hover over sixty percent. The winning question, in turn, should be how can schools in low-income neighborhoods, where most “dropout factories” and many poorly performing schools are clustered, make their students as street-repellant as possible? The answer won’t just come out of thin air. And you’re just as unlikely to get it from the people running things, as Geoffrey Canada discusses in this enlightened clip. Reform, if it’s to work, will require a community approach; an all hands on deck effort from citizens and nonprofit organizations and community development corporations and business people…In other words, Superman isn’t coming—change is up to you.