04 November 2010

Public Education

I joined a handful of my friends last month to go see Waiting for "Superman", the public education documentary directed by Davis Guggenheim that has been garnering tons of press and positive media attention.  The outing was organized by a friend who works at KIPP, a network of charter schools focused on spending more time on academics, serving low-income communities in several U.S. states.

The movie championed charter schools and privatizing as the answer to our public education "disaster", and I bristled at that characterization.  For one thing, it's a broad, inflammatory generalization.  There are good public schools and struggling public schools, and good public school teachers and mediocre public school teachers.  In my almost ten years of teaching, I saw hundreds of good teachers, some really excellent teachers, and I can count the bad teachers on one hand.  I was even instrumental (as a local teacher union representative) in moving one of these "bad" teachers out of the profession.

In my decade in public education I saw amazing positive outcomes as well as tragic insurmountable obstacles.  I met kids from the violent, marginalized neighborhood where I worked who were going to prestigious universities, and I saw my students falter when their siblings where killed in drive-by shootings.  No fresh-faced TFA teacher could have raised test scores that year for that child.  They needed help addressing their mental health, nutrition needs, unemployment and low-income traps, language barriers, lack of education, and more.  The school played one part in their lives, but became a low priority when they were struggling just to survive.

Lastly, I am a product of public education, from elementary school to post graduate work, and it has not been disastrous for me.  I started Kindergarten speaking more Italian and French than English, with neither parent an American citizen.  I ended up benefiting from the GATE elementary enrichment programs and graduating from the highly regarded University of California public education system.  Though I'm not running a Fortune 500 company (yet), I am a successful, healthy, contributing member of society.

But apart from my personal reactions, the movie struck me as being manipulative (showing the students' and families' tearful disappointment in the end lottery scenes) and ignoring any details about long-term success/failure rates of charter schools.  We walked out of the movie theater talking about what each of us could try to do to help support public education and low-income communities.  I spent most of my soap-box energy propounding on the vital role that families play in supporting their child's educational development.  I argued that all my friends would raise successful students regardless of the quality of their schools because they would be involved, they would read to their children, they would communicate and support the teachers.  I encouraged them to save the money they would spend on private schools and put it towards their local PTA and public school enrichment programs.  I challenged everyone to stay active in their communities in San Francisco, to attend local school events in the Mission and pay attention to social services that caught and cradled the poorest of our neighbors.

Lucky for me, Diane Ravitch also had some thoughts on the Guggenheim documentary, and she shares them quite articulately in The New York Review of Books, November 11, 2010 issue.  The Myth of Charter Schools elegantly takes apart the untruths we are being fed about American public education and current alternatives.  She does some fact-checking of the bleak statistics bandied about, more accurately compares educational systems from other countries, and calls bullshit on the propaganda.

I'll quote her conclusions.  "Public education is one of the cornerstones of American democracy. The public schools must accept everyone who appears at their doors, no matter their race, language, economic status, or disability. Like the huddled masses who arrived from Europe in years gone by, immigrants from across the world today turn to the public schools to learn what they need to know to become part of this society. The schools should be far better than they are now, but privatizing them is no solution."

Like her, I too feel gratitude towards all the public schools and teachers I had, and the opportunities that have opened up to me because of them.  And I will continue to support a system that makes room for everyone, including immigrants like my family, to learn and pursue a better life.