Maya and I finished watching “Waiting for Superman” today. We have it on DVD because the father of Maya’s best friend is a documentary filmmaker and a voting member of the Academy (the people who choose the Oscar winners). I thought it would be interesting for Maya, who knows little or nothing about how schools are run, to see it.
As I expected, it is well done, but narrow in its’ focus. The argument as it is presented in the film is that inner city and lower income kids have only one way out: access to good schools with good teachers so that they can go to a 4 year college. The question is, how to give them access to those schools and teachers? Davis Guggenheim, the filmmaker, seems to believe that the answer lies in charter schools, which are independently run public schools.
I sat thinking about this for a while after the film ended. Watching parents cry when their children are not chosen in the lottery for a coveted spot at a ‘good’ school is heart-wrenching, which is the intent. But is access to a good school the way it is defined in “Waiting for Superman”, followed by attendance at a 4 year college, the only path out of poverty? The Harlem Success Academy, which is one of the charter schools featured in the film, has doubled test scores of kids in the area of Harlem it serves. These kids do better than other inner city kids on standardized tests; they do better than any middle school kids on standardized tests. Their school days are longer and they attend half days on Saturdays as well. I have no doubt that graduating high school and going to college will give most of these kids a better life than they would have had otherwise. In a district where it is more common to have a parent or sibling who has done time in prison than graduated high school or attended college, it is easy to see the benefits.
But despite footage of Bill Gates saying our country’s economic future depends on us producing ‘x’ amount of college grads over the next 25 years (this from a man who dropped out of college to become one of the world’s wealthiest entrepreneurs), I wonder. Does it have to be a 4 year college or nothing? Isn’t there any way to present other options? To let kids who love cars learn to build them or repair them? (or design them?) To teach kids who have an interest in it a skilled trade? To help them become independent thinkers, rather than just kids who do really well on tests? It is a difficult question. Homeschooling and unschooling work best when there is a stable home environment. This doesn’t necessarily mean a two parent family where one works and one stays home, although that is the dominant model. We know single parents who homeschool, and families where both parents work. Everyone has a different path, but the basic surroundings are stable. For inner city kids, or any kids with troubled home lives and a host of other issues, the road to independent learning is rougher. But is it impossible?
The reason it seems impossible is that you would need support from people willing to change their own mode of thinking about how education works. “Superman” keeps telling us that despite popular belief, underprivileged and inner city kids “can learn”. If that’s the starting point, the battle to independent learning will be long and hard. Of course all kids “can learn”. What kind of ridiculous statement is that? And yet, that is where we are. We are so low in our thinking that it is a revelation that all kids can learn. But only, apparently, if they are in a school 8 hours a day, 6 days a week…. How do we get from this point to the belief that all kids can learn independently?
I wish I had the answer.