Waiting for Superman II

By Beacon Staff

In the beginning of this school year, the nation’s public schools suffered a significant amount of negative media attention that aligned with the release of the film “Waiting for Superman.” This film features the achievements of selected, privately managed charter schools. It depicts public education as a failed enterprise. I have had the opportunity to hear the founder of the featured school, Harlem Children’s Zone, speak on several occasions. Geoffrey Canada has a strong educational vision and is a very persuasive speaker. He should be lauded for his efforts, but his contention that resources don’t matter in the provision of education can simply not be supported. The children who attend this particular charter school are given a full range of social and medical services provided by the board that has raised vast sums of money to support this effort. Students for many private schools are selected using a lottery system or through an invitation process. Many times those who do not successfully work to their potential are asked to leave; and their class size is one that many public schools can only envy.

Those of us who have been part of the public education system for many years will readily acknowledge that there have always been challenges in delivering a free, appropriate and equitable educational experience for all children, and we continue to work on addressing those issues. However, we can also be justifiably proud of our successes. The most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll tells us that 77 percent of parents assign a grade of “A” or “B” to the school attended by the their oldest child. And 49 percent of community members rated the school in their community with an “A” or “B,” whether they had children enrolled in school. This is the highest nationwide rating ever achieved in these two categories. This is a national statistic and I would guess on the local level this satisfaction level would be much higher. So, if parents and the public seem to be relatively pleased with their schools where is the dissatisfaction being reported from the media coming from?

In recent years there has been a legitimate focus and concern about the lowest performing schools in the country. These schools, which have been called “dropout factories,” have tremendous issues to overcome and need significant resources and expertise to be able to turn around. They are identified as being 5 percent of the nation’s schools. Secretary Arne Duncan has asked each state to identify their bottom 5 percent of schools and implement a transformation process to improve student achievement. These schools have a graduation rate lower than 60 percent and/or have been identified as persistently not making adequate achievement gains with their students. There are 730 schools across the nation engaged in these turnaround strategies, with four of them being in Montana. Of these schools, 48 percent are high schools, 24 percent are middle, and 21 percent elementary, while the others are some combination.

Unfortunately, the 95 percent of schools that are providing effective instruction and working to improve academic achievement are being painted with the same brush as our failing counterparts. The attention being given to the failures is detracting from the broader, bigger picture. At a recent meeting I attended in Washington, DC, Duncan interacted with superintendents regarding the concerns about the negative press public education has received. We shared success stories from every state that clearly demonstrated what can be done when there is more flexibility allowed in how we allocate our federal and state resources.

America can boast of having some of the best schools in the world. Every year, thousands of high school students graduate with honors, International Baccalaureate certificates, earned college credits, Advanced Placement classes and vocational certificates. They successfully move on to the higher education in two and four year college degree and vocational technical programs.

This does not mean that education is not due for some fairly significant changes. We have a firmly embedded system that was built during the pre-industrial and industrial eras. In order to prepare our students for this 21st century we need to individually and collectively reexamine and, in some cases, reinvent how we look at student learning. Seat time, graduation requirements, electronic media options, credit for mentorship or work programs, cohort group, dual credit options, and teacher incentives are just a few of the strategies being considered as viable options by educational professionals. However, we also need to be very cautious not to discard the many components that have proven successful. The vast majority of educators in our country come to work every day with the belief and desire that they will have a positive impact on the lives of their students. We need to support the flexible use of funding, talent and energy to make the changes that we know would be in the best interest of our students. We all have the same goal. So, what we need to do is stop squabbling and focus our energies on the needs of the underserved students while applauding and extending that which is working well.

Darlene Schottle is the superintendent of Kalispell Public Schools.

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