Like many parents, my husband and I are faced with a dilemma: public or private education for our 4 year old daughter. After seeing Davis Guggenheim’s gripping documentary, “Waiting for Superman” our decision was made – it would be private education, no doubt about it. Unfortunately, our finances dictate otherwise, not unlike many of our friends, and friends of friends that would prefer to send their children to private school, but simply don’t have the means. Fortunately for us, she attends a great public school with good teachers and other bright kids. As the film so painfully exposes, this is not so for millions of kids around the country that have no choice but to attend poorly performing schools that do not equip them for the real world, by any means. Waiting for Superman is truly a heartbreaker. The desperation and pain of the kids and parents featured is a result of an all too common scenario – the neighborhood school is horrendous, but there’s a top performing charter school nearby. Unfortunately there are only 35 spaces, but a gazillion applicants, so a lottery is held. The students in the movie, Francisco, Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily, all from different parts of the county, are waiting to hear if they’ve been accepted into the school that seems to be the answer to their family’s prayers. The process is heartbreaking, but the resulting feeling of helplessness hurts even more.
The film also features what it deems one of the worst school systems in the nation – DC Public Schools, of which I am a proud product. It portrays Michelle Rhee as a hero reformer, up against the evil American Federation of Teachers. I think Mr. Guggenheim got some of this wrong, but you judge for yourself. I will say, however, that the current union contract makes it nearly impossible to fire poor teachers and that has to change. When doctors or lawyers are proven incompetent, they generally lose their license to practice their trade. Not so for an incompetent teacher, who directly impacts the lives of countless kids over his or her career, and ultimately impacts the future of our country.
Lastly, the film exposed me to a process called tracking. In a word, I’m appalled that this is happening in our education system. To put it briefly, tracking is separating kids based on their ability (or perception thereof), into groups of above average ability, average ability and below average ability. So, if a third grader appears to be lagging behind the other kids, she is placed on a track of mediocrity which can follow her for the rest of her school career. Where is the effort to help her understand, to determine how she learns best?
When I heard about tracking, I was relieved that I took the time to try my best to prepare our daughter for school and as a result she is considered advanced, even in Pre-K. I won’t accept mediocrity from her because that would be a disservice. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that kids should be allowed to run and jump and play, but somewhere in there, even before they are school-age, learning should be taking place. The TV won't cut it. We have to send teachable, well-prepared, well-behaved kids into the school system in order for them to have even a remote chance at competing globally. See, it’s not just about competing for jobs with other Americans anymore. The US ranks 25th in math and 21st in science out of 30 industrialized nations, yet we question why high tech, high paying jobs are being filled by non-Americans. We have to do better, our future depends on it.