Tuesday, September 28, 2010
"You cannot have a superior democracy with an inferior education system" - Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker
I should preface what I am about to write by saying that I honestly cannot remember the last time I was so incensed. I’m livid. I’m outraged. I am disturbed. And I loathe people with these great platforms to incite change, who don’t do their homework thereby perpetuating myths and causing scandal where none is to be found. It also drives me crazy to watch and listen to people follow, with blinders on, without seeking the truth for themselves. I can understand why and how it happens but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. So, there that is.
This is Arne Duncan. He is the Secretary of Education and he’s a hell of a lot better than his predecessor, Margaret Spellings. She whose sole purpose was to tell states what to do, how they were to do it and not give a damn as to their thoughts on the matter. But that’s just my opinion. This photo was taken by me during an event where New York was praised for its innovation in education and what the state will do in order to improve education.
Now, if you haven’t heard lately, let me be the one to inform you that recently a film called Waiting for Superman came out and apparently it’s a big fucking deal. Even Queen Oprah is talking about it and we all know that when she speaks people listen. Which can be good but and hopefully get people involved but this is the time I find myself to be discouraged and peeved to say the least. You see, last Monday Oprah had on her show Davis Guggenheim, the director of Waiting for Superman, Bill Gates, billionaire and strong proponent of charter schools, John Legend, singer and supporter of education issues and Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of DC Public Schools. They all made an appearance to discuss the documentary that, in Oprah’s words, “will shake up how people view education in this country”. It will cause and has caused quite the storm in the education community.
The movie follows a group of young students whose current circumstances in public education leave much to be desired. They all deserve to have something much better than what they’re getting so some decide to attend private school others hope to attend a charter school which allows students in via lottery. The story in itself is heartbreaking and poignant. It’s a tearjerker and no one wants to watch a six year old have to go through such turmoil in order to get a good education. The question then presented as we follow these children is who is at fault? Well the bad teachers of course. Or is it the teacher’s unions who protect the bad teachers? No mention of the parents of course and their role in their child’s education because that’s not where the compelling story is; it’s with the bad teachers and what to do with them and how to get rid of them. And this film and Oprah Winfrey do a fine job of making the public think just that. Fin.
Why I am seething right now is because of the glaring omission of the truth from this film. For those of us who follow education day in and day out we know that it isn’t at all sexy. It’s overly detailed and nuanced and kind of confusing. And boring. Oh so very boring. I once sat in on a two hour meeting on teacher evaluations - a key component of any sort of reform within the education system - where I spent the entire time waiting for either vodka or a sledgehammer to knock me out cold. People don’t want to hear about Race to the Top or the collaboration it fostered between school administrators, chief state school officers, the (evil) teacher’s unions and local education agencies. Hell, no one knows who or what half of those things do, and that’s fine as well. But if Queen Oprah is going to devote two full hours to education then she sure as shit better get her story straight. You don’t get to talk about how awful education can be for some children in this country without telling the entire truth. That is how NOT to use such a powerful platform.
I was lucky in my public education. I went to a top public elementary, middle and high school in Upstate New York. I graduated from my high school with 28 college credits which afforded me a senior year in college where I got to take golf and work for the Kerry/Edwards campaign and then spend a semester in Spain. It was amazing. It was during that time that I was able to read about the inequalities of education not only in this country but in my home state. Have you read Jonathan Kozol before? He’s brilliant. He writes these haunting tales of the broken school systems of the Bronx and other urban environments. Reading his book Savage Inequalities was like having someone shove your heart down to the pit of your stomach. Everything hurts knowing that something like that is going on just down the thruway but Kozol showed all the grittiness of something so broken that it couldn’t be how to fix it but how to prevent it from happening somewhere else.
Years later I was speaking with the Mayor of Albany, Gerry Jennings during an ESEA roundtable discussion. He stood up in front of a packed house in a school in downtown Albany and said, “We can discuss charters vs. no charters until we’re blue in the face. Let’s talk about the real issue here which is that children who live in predominately urban environments...children of color especially...are the ones who are continually left behind in this education system”. I, for one, cheered and agreed. You have to because it’s true.
The discrepancies in education between urban and suburban districts is nothing new. People have been talking about it for over 30 years but it takes Oprah’s voice to really get people to notice which is devastating in itself. People only have to look out into their neighborhoods or perhaps they keep their eyes closed when going through the “rough parts” but what we should be doing is walking around our communities and being aware of what is going on. On the one hand I am grateful to this film for bringing it all to light but on the other hand really? What was going on was so well hidden that no one noticed? Or maybe they just didn’t want to see.
My favorite part of this hoopla was during Friday’s episode when the reaction to the film was taped. Oprah had on her show Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook and Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker. She kept going on as to how important education is to Governor Christie, he even fought the unions, he’s a “human bulldozer” and a force to be reckoned with. He was up on stage with Zuckerberg and Booker to announce that New Jersey was going to be getting a grant of $100 million from the former in order to make their own innovative plan for education. And that’s when I rolled my eyes and laughed. That wasn’t some grand new plan as much as it was doing the same exact thing that the US Department of Education accomplished in its Race to the Top program. The same program that New Jersey lost out on - in flames - because they couldn’t double check their application to make sure their numbers were correct. That’s how much New Jersey cares about education, enough to have a major flub on a major grant program that would have afforded them well over $100 million. Of course all that was left out of the Oprah program.
Now do you have some understanding as to why I am angry? Why I cannot just let this go? I’ve talked to friends and colleagues about this 'phenomenon' with my voice rising gradually as I gesticulate dramatically because why can’t people research and find the facts? Why can’t people understand that unions are a help more than a hindrance? Or that Randi Weingarten and teacher's unions aren't what is evil but they are former educators who dislike bad teachers and want to get rid of them just as much as the next person? Why isn’t that in the film and discussed? Because it’s not fun. It doesn’t provide that much needed soundbite. People want to be moved to tears but don’t want to know what really happens.
That’s the true devastation here. Not that children are suffering but they are suffering at the hands of adults to are too involved with themselves and their personal ambitions to tell the truth. And that will take much more than a documentary to fix.