Waiting for School Reform
Thanks to the highly hyped documentary Waiting for Superman, and President Obama's recent plug for education, making over our country's troubled schools is the topic du jour. Problem is, there's no one formula for success.
Canada's model has generated a watershed of press and an even greater deluge of private donations, leading to an endowment of $145 million. Unfortunately, Promise Neighborhoods are governmentally sponsored, and budgetary issues put into question how long such funding will be available. The first set of Promise Neighborhood grantees was announced last week; it'll be quite some time before we will see results from this approach.
From Superman to Solutions
Urban education has been failing for more than 30 years. In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education released its "A Nation at Risk" report: The report raised national concern that U.S. public education was underpreparing students for international competition. In response, cities and businesses collaborated to reform education. While there were glimmers of hope, as there are now, systemwide change failed.
Waiting for Superman touts schools as the solution to failing education. While this is intuitive, it is almost entirely incorrect. In reality, what happens outside of schools -- inside communities and in families -- matters equally if not more than what happens inside school buildings. When you look at the amount of time spent outside of school and the sets of issues that young people contend with, such as poverty, violence and racial discrimination, it is no wonder that schools have a tough task in front of them. Successful schools go far beyond the traditional role of school as we commonly define it. They are able to connect strong teaching with resources to support and empower students to handle the dilemmas they face both inside and outside of school.
With thousands of failing schools nested in communities where poverty is a common feature, turning the tide of urban education will take more than a few trickles of success. It will take a wave. The success of the schools highlighted in Waiting for Superman is important to understand in a larger context. The ability to pour resources into a school or small set of schools and produce strong results is very different from turning around an entire school system. Touting a few successful schools as the cure for our educational ills is dangerous at best and disingenuous at worst.
In the coming years, it will be obvious if 2010-style education reform offers sustainable solutions to our education woes -- or if they will fly by faster than a speeding bullet.
R. L'Heureux Lewis is an assistant professor of sociology and black studies at the City College of New York in CUNY. His research and writing specialize in education, race and inequality. Lewis blogs regularly at www.uptownnotes.com. Follow him on Twitter.