I recently saw the movies Race to Nowhere and Waiting for Superman – both about public education in the US. While I was moved, sometimes to tears in Race to Nowhere, my most profound reactions came while watching Waiting for Superman.
I live outside Boulder, CO where public education is strong – very strong. The reputation of Boulder Valley’s schools drove our choice to live where we live. Nearly every parent we know who has kids in the same school as ours cannot say enough about the quality of the teachers, the experiences our kids are having and the strength of the academic programs. We know we have it good – not perfect, but very good.
In Race to Nowhere, pressure to succeed among affluent students attending both private and public schools is portrayed within a vicious cycle of “keeping up with the Joneses.” How many Advanced Placement classes to take? Will it be a UC (Univ of CA) or an Ivy League for college? What jobs are going to make me the most money after college?
But in comparison to Waiting for Superman, the problems addressed in Race to Nowhere seem more to me like troubles of the affluent. How about a school with no AP classes? Teachers that could not give a rip whether students graduate or not much less get into college? Schools that are falling apart and campuses where violence is commonplace?
I agree that pressure to succeed and too much homework are valid concerns, but where is the outrage that schools all over this country are failing hundreds of thousands of kids each year? That some teachers don’t really care about teaching and just “dial it in” every day? That kids attend schools with no books, no resources to learn, and no leadership? And most disheartening, when parents see these problems and want more for their children, but there are no choices for them?
So while these two movies are still being talked about, I decided to sit down and talk with my mom about education. She is a retired teacher and principal of 25+ years; students who had her as a teacher would tell you that she was one of the best. So, of course, all I had to do was go downstairs and ask!
Her comments on pressure to succeed: “That kind of pressure is almost always brought on by the parents. The most successful kids I saw in school had parents with clear expectations, but it was about learning and exploring and helping kids find that spark, not about saying their kids attended a certain college…”
On AP classes: “Sure there were kids who could handle a 4 or 5-AP class load. But that was really rare. The reason so many others struggle is that they are not ready for that kind of academic pressure. Not everyone is going to get 5s on their AP tests or get a full ride to Stanford. There is a reason that is an amazing accomplishment – because it is damned hard to do!”
On the quality of our public schools: “It makes me profoundly sad to hear, decade after decade, about schools that have no chance of helping kids learn. How can we, in this society, have the same debate year after year about the importance of education but let meaningful changes get stuck among the politicians trying to get re-elected? Sadly, Jonathon Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities is still relevant. That is very discouraging.”
On school choice: “I cannot imagine having young kids and thinking the school they are supposed to attend is not safe, on a ‘watch-list’, or won’t help them learn. What choice would I make? I don’t know and no parent should be in that situation. It boggles my mind that for many parents, there are no other options. That is just wrong.”
If you have not seen either of these movies, go find them, regardless of my take on them. I hope I have at least piqued your interest – because the only way that education will continue to evolve and meet our, and our children’s needs, is if we are informed and a part of the conversation.