I don't know all that much about President Obama's sister, Maya Soetero-Ng, but she seems incredibly smart and sober about education reform. Read what she had to say, in an email to friends and associates, about the film "Waiting for Superman." I'd call your attention especially to the last two paragraphs–about why successful charters work and how "the flow of innovation" must be "reversed" to put the focus on improving the vast majority of traditional public schools.
At the point in the film when children were crying because they weren’t selected in school lotteries, many people around me couldn’t suppress tears and, as a mother of two girls, I too felt intense grief and empathy for the parents of the children. After the film, I spoke with a wonderful longtime public school teacher and she was teary as well, for a different reason; she was shedding tears of frustration about the fact that the film ignored the enormous commitment and talent of many public DOE teachers and the great work taking place in the classrooms and schools where they throw in their hands and spend large parts of their days. I was one of Randi’s teachers myself in my first years of teaching in NYC. I was even the union rep. for a couple of years. I do understand the hurt, but I urged this teacher not to let the imbalanced nature of the documentary frustrate her, and instead to go talk with others in the community about what she knows, feels, remembers, and can use to help make schools even stronger.
Marveling at the emotion generated by both those who are critical of the film and those who wholly accept the film’s assessments, I’ve become increasingly glad that this imperfect but also compelling film has come along at this time. Here’s what I hope doesn’t happen: I hope that we don’t grow more embittered and angry with one another and expend huge amounts of energy in senseless shouting; I hope that public school teachers are not vilified by people who think that they know more than they know about what happens in classrooms. I hope that the film’s emphasis on test scores doesn’t make us lose sight of the many other potent and meaningful forms of learning and assessment that exist like creative writing, projects of civic engagement, Socratic learning forums, and multifaceted portfolio presentations.
Here’s what I hope happens: I hope that the film will increase the amount and caliber of dialogue between teachers, administrators, community members, and parents. I hope that it will encourage teachers everywhere to share their craft and schools loudly and proudly, when pride is merited, and welcome the community’s assistance as well as new opportunities for collaboration. I hope that the film will help people to see the importance of graceful negotiation when trying to change a system and recognize the true power of persuasion. I hope that people will think of public schools as belonging to all of us, regardless of whether we have kids in the system, or have kids period.
I hope that we begin to view successful experiments, like good charter schools, as opportunities for evaluation and implementation of best practices. Of course a larger percentage of charter schools are healthy learning environments, not because the teachers are all better but for the following reasons: charter schools are usually smaller and therefore more manageable; school charters require greater buy-in and contribution from parents; charter schools have the freedom to create cohesive school cultures surrounding issues of local interest and imperative (i.e. Hawaiian language and cultural immersion schools); the choice and freedom in charter schools often allow for a greater sense of ownership by teachers, students, and administrators; and whether conversion schools or new, charter schools are often built using innovations that have been tested and found effective in older, larger, and more overwhelmed regular DOE schools.
Now it is time to reverse the flow of innovation and use charter schools as laboratories for what might work in larger DOE schools. Let leaders of schools, government, and community focus on building a strong sense of school family, orohana, in every public school with less tracking, smaller class sizes, smaller learning groups within the classroom, and family-style attention to the whole child. Let’s think about how to get the community more actively involved in public schools, find new ways for families to participate and share in the culture of the school, and bring the kids out into the community more. Let’s work to offer free after school, extended year, and parent-enrichment programs, and have school event daycare options for single and overworked parents. Let’s think of our public schools as the center—the beating heart—of our communities. Go check out the film, by all means, but then let’s keep talking.