I have to admit I am totally confused and frightened by two alarming and seemingly contradictory movies I have seen in the past month. “Waiting For Superman” which made me cry, and “Race to Nowhere” which also made me cry. Have you seen them?
“Waiting For Superman” is a moving, depressing and intelligent film which essentially paints the teachers unions as the major villains in our ineffective education system. It’s the teacher’s unions’ contracts requiring apparently immediate tenure for all teachers which keep terrible teachers teaching students. These terrible teachers leave kids barely literate and wanting to drop out of school as soon as possible. Who could blame them? I have suffered through terrible teachers. Although mine were few and far between. I remember the greasy ponytail of a young man assigned to teach me math in 9th or 10th grade. It was some sort of one year assignment, maybe he was a grad student. I don’t know. He was majorly inexperienced. I remember his glasses, a thin tortoise shell, the fluorescent lights tiny rhombuses reflected as he stared upwards. And how a model of a house I’d made for a project got totally smashed to bits in the trunk of his car. And I remember the sickening feeling of barely understanding the math he was mumbling into the chalkboard each day. I don’t remember any of the math. It was horrible. If this man had been entirely in charge of my education I would have become pretty desperate. But I went to a very well funded highly regarded public school with terrific teachers and I enjoyed school. “Waiting For Superman” shows it's pretty much a direct route from being placed in one of these “drop out factory” schools- schools full of teachers like this- to prison.
“Race to Nowhere” is a sad and shocking film about the pressure put on students to achieve academically at the expense of almost every other aspect of being human. The stressful overload of homework and after school activities inflicted on students is meant to keep children competitive for being accepted into college and ultimately into high paying careers. There is a section on tutors for toddlers to get into New York City preschools. But this film convincingly shows the overachievement culture is actually is a direct inhibitor to actual learning, a major contributor to serious depression, and actually causes poor test scores and lousy future college and job performance. One employer said that recent graduates are bad employees because they are always waiting to be told what to do.
What’s going on? Kids who live in neighborhoods with bad public schools drop out because they are stuck with teachers who don’t expect anything from them and can’t teach them, and kids who live in richer neighborhoods aren’t able to actually learn much either because too much is expected of them to the point where they are doped up on Adderall and cheating their way through medical school?
It seems that what everybody wants the educational system to do is more more more. The charter schools that the kids in Waiting For Superman are hoping to get into have better more inspired teachers, but also more hours of school work. One is even an elementary boarding school. One student it seemed, was having a hard time in his public school learning to read- but he was only in first grade. From what I know, historically it has been considered developmentally quite appropriate for a child to learn reading in the 2nd and 3rd grades and be considered quite normal and in fact may turn out to be ahead of other students in subsequent grades. Not to say this child's school wasn't awful, but not teaching him to read in 1st grade isn't by itself awful at all. However, it would be ludicrous to think, watching this movie, that those children are seeking out anything destructive in those charter schools- winding up in prison is destructive. It makes Race To Nowhere look downright silly.
But the confusing thing is, it wasn’t silly.
It seems we are lost as a country. The knowledge is there about effective ways to teach, and what’s healthy for children. But we can’t seem to provide that for anybody. What’s going on?
How about you? How was your school experience? Do you have children? What do you think of their schools? I’m lost.