Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Waiting For a Human

There is no crisis in education in America. American schools do precisely what they're designed to do and for the most part they do it well. After all, they've given us everything we have. You may not like everything it gives us, but it gives us what it's designed to give us: our country, our cities, our people. Who could ask for anything more?

Apparently lots of people. I just saw an entire documentary, Waiting For Superman (2010), that pressed that very point: we could do a lot better, they thought. The question is better for what?

The gist of the documentary was twofold: how to pull children out of poverty and how to supply America with scientists. They focused on a half-dozen or so inner city kids all trying to get out of their holes by trying to get into charter schools designed to do just that, extract kids from poverty. At the same time, they stressed how we are “falling behind” other countries in the production of scientists; they pointed out how poorly Americans do at math, which they considered a significant indicator. They pointed out how America isn't able to fill all of its scientific needs and has to import talent from abroad. The hope is to create schools that will pull children out of poverty by qualifying them as scientists in particular. Noble goals, if left unexamined.

This is somewhat in contrast to recently viewed Dan Rather report which showed convincingly that in most fields we're overstuffed with scientists who are unable to find jobs. They find themselves competing with hundreds of people for single positions and end up working at McDonald’s where the ticket out is a higher education. Tell that to the PhD. It turns out the scientific “needs” are concentrated in specific fields, such as petroleum engineering or computer development. Turns out we need lots of those, just not so many microbiologists.

Waiting For Superman never asked why we need those scientists other than competitively; we need more scientists (read: certain engineers) to sell toothbrushes to China (their example). We need those engineers for America to be competitive globally.

If we're to believe the movie, the theory is to extract gifted students out of inner city schools and find them good paying jobs in the marketplace. Sounds great.

But forget about the inner cities; they'll have to fend for themselves. Because right now the schools are doing an excellent job of preparing kids for life in the inner city. The documentary talked at length about inner city high schools being “dropout factories,” as if that were a bad thing. One principal told of how two-thirds of his students never graduated. He thought that was terrible. He never made the connection that two-thirds of the adults in his community didn't have jobs, that the school was educating students for the reality of their communities. To be sure, the schools aren't producing employees for Microsoft (Bill Gates is featured prominently in the film), but they're producing perfect candidates for life on the streets. The schools are teaching them that the larger society doesn't care about them. The school are teaching them that there's no point in learning, that there's no place to go. They do an excellent job of that.

The movie never saw the irony of how the parents of the kids they focused on were themselves un- or underemployed, how the schools are training their children to be just like them. And why not, that's the real world, that's the world those kids will inhabit: the world where no one cares, the underworld. Why should we expect the world inside their classroom to be different from the one outside their classroom?

And those jobs that are supposed to lift a select few from the cesspool and send them to the suburbs and nice lawns? Who needs all those engineers? Microsoft, yes! Because the communities sure don't. Your average neighborhood doesn't need a lot of software scribblers, God only knows there are enough of them in the world. Your average inner city dropout doesn't need a new app to tell him where to buy sneakers. Your average inner city dropout doesn't need a three-hundred dollar pair of sneakers.

We have enough toys. I realize toys sell well, but they only cover so much. As it is, we have enormous companies sucking up millions of engineers designing toys that gobble up almost all our resources; if it's not toys, it's weapons. We have very skewed priorities; but those priorities were on full display in Waiting For Superman: sell more toothbrushes.

Not one single person, not one single educator, not one single principal, not one single teacher, not one single politician, not one single professor, said, “We have to educate our students to transform their communities.” No one. Nobody suggested that the job of schools might be to educate people to take control of their lives, their neighborhoods, their communities. The entire movie was based on the premise of extracting people from their conditions, not changing the fundamental conditions which create the poverty in the first place. The only solution offered was how to make better employees for American companies, nobody gave one thought to the fate of the communities. And then they wonder why the schools don't produce so many engineers. Engineers for what? You don't need to be an engineer to sell dope or your body.

Schools reflect their communities. The dropout factories the movie highlighted weren’t randomly distributed throughout the country. Every single one was located in a high poverty district, they were the worst of the worst. Yet, the discussion with everyone revolved around improving the schools’ education packages and graduating higher rates of kids. For jobs that don’t exist. Or jobs in a few select fields dealing largely with consumer goods. But not in their neighborhoods, to be sure. There was a fantasy expressed that schools could become beacons of hope delivering kids from poverty, that they could be magic carpets that would whisk students away to new lives. Leaving, of course, the old war-torn neighborhoods behind to fester as they always had; never understanding that the pocket schools they focused on could never be anything but a band-aid for a lucky few, while the regular old dropout factories were going to continue as they always had, too. The schools will always reflect their communities; they have no choice. If you want the schools to be better, you have to improve the communities, the entire communities.

We could teach our children how to take control, we could. We don't want to. We could transform those neighborhoods. We don't want to. We want things just the way they are. We like it this way. Why, did you know that anyone in America can grow up to be President? It's true, look at Barack Obama. Anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make billions of dollars, look at Bill Gates. Okay, bad example, but others have risen from poverty to be captains of industry, surely there have been. That's what we train for, that's what we tell our children everyday: it's all about me. I can be king. We teach that over and over again; and many, if not most, of us believe it. We believe it so much that we take our failures personally, never realizing that only one person can be king at a time. “Oh, that's okay, just take some more antidepressants and go to work.”

Teaching people to take control of their lives? It's dangerous. People may decide they don't like rampant capitalism. People might decide they want to divide things up differently. People might decide that it's not good policy to allot resources by luck. You can just never tell what people will do given the wherewithal. Better to not give them the wherewithal.

It's not the teachers; it's not the facilities. Making them better won't address the fundamental problem: inequality. Not inequality in education, inequality in life. “Maybe you should just take some more antidepressants.”

The movie was very earnest. Bill Gates was very earnest. I'm sure he has every good intention of making better engineers and helping as many people get out of poverty as possible. I'm sure he'd like to see schools produce students closer to the Finnish model. I'm also pretty sure he doesn't realize that it's not the structure of Finnish schools which make them a success, it's the structure of Finnish society which designs the schools to be a success. The basic message of Finnish schools is, if you take control of your life, we'll provide the resources you'll need. After that, they let you decide. Contrary to our volumes of directives, their school policy is contained on a single sheet of paper. Taciturn bunch. Their system is based on trust; ours is based on “no child left behind.” Talk about different approaches.

In the end, watching the movie I was just sad. Sad, of course, for the people caught up in the grind of poverty and the lives of hopeless desperation; but sad, as well, that, despite the earnestness of the participants, they had no clue. Bill Gates has no idea he is being nothing but a shill for the digital world. He is looking for recruits; he’s not looking to transform neighborhoods. The Black Panthers were looking to transform neighborhoods; look what happened to them.

Sad because of all the wasted effort and resources. Sad because there’s no will to end it. Sad because the only mantra we hear is “jobs”; and every high school student in America—forget about the inner city kids—knows that jobs are no sure thing anymore. Jobs will only be a solution for some; the rest will have to be on the dole or go into a life of crime. Hey, that’s what they do now, right? If we’re to follow the recommendations of Waiting For Superman, everything is hunky-dory. All we need are a few more mathematicians.

But those neighborhoods? Don’t go into them at night or the dropouts will get you. Boo!

P.S. I’ve avoided talking about another aspect of the movie: it drubs the unions and they spend a lot of time arguing about tenure and performance-based pay, etc. Those are side issues unrelated to the task of running community schools. The problem here isn’t that the kids aren’t doing well enough on standardized tests, the problem is that what they’re learning is of marginal value to them. The debate about teachers is a red herring diverting attention from the real problem: the neighborhoods.

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