America’s public schools have been blamed for a lot of the nation’s problems over the years, but the new documentary “Waiting For Superman” adds a new and shocking charge.
After recounting the dismal performance of an inner-city high school, the speaker, an aggressive promoter of charter schools, looks into the camera and proclaims, “This is the damage that this school has done to this neighborhood.” Let’s be perfectly clear, schools reflect the health and vitality of the communities they serve. Claiming that bad schools cause bad communities is an Orwellian twist of logic that boggles the mind.
Don’t get me wrong, as a businessman who spent the last twenty years working to increase student success, I applaud any constructive attempt to restructure our schools; the prevailing system was designed two hundred years ago to select and sort young people for a society that no longer exists. It must be changed.
But using statistics out of context, making false comparisons, and reporting test results in the worst possible light is definitely not a constructive path to progress. It’s practicing school bashing as a blood sport.
Rather than tackle the core problems of a system designed to leave children behind, today’s critics have launched a campaign to annihilate the emotional and intellectual ties that bind the American people to their public schools. And it’s working.
Ten years ago, I would have bet good money that we would never see national education standards. Now it appears that the imposition of standards—whether through extortion or edict—is a given.
In a direct attack on local control, high-profile CEOs call for the creation of seventy super-districts: one per state, and twenty for the largest cities. This unprecedented shift of power from the community to a centralized policy elite is not only anti-democratic, it ignores one of the cardinal truths of school governance: the farther the decision-maker is from the child, the dumber the decision gets.
To those who claim that the world has become too complex for local governance, I argue that the quintessential American thing to do is to inform the people, not strip them of their control. And that’s what we must do.
We must initiate and maintain a positive, ongoing discussion between educators and the people of the communities they serve. I call the process The Great Conversation. The action steps require no new money; they can be implemented with existing personnel.
The hallmark of The Great Conversation is its change in venue: it takes place on the community’s turf at the community’s convenience. We can no longer afford to invite the public into the school for “important” meetings only to attract the same twelve people and the one weirdo who always shows up. We must go deep into the fabric of the local community. We must heal the damage caused by years of viral negativity, and, at the same time, increase community support for our schools. The Great Conversation is designed to help us accomplish these goals, and now is the time to act.
Pernicious social trends, a struggling economy, and cheap shots from Hollywood notwithstanding, conditions are finally right for educators and the people of their communities—with and without children in school—to join together in common purpose to create schools that unfold the full potential of every child. Not just because it’s right, but because it’s necessary.
Public education has never been more important, and this is its most hopeful time.
Jamie Vollmer is former Director of the Iowa Business Roundtable, and the author of the new book, “Schools Cannot Do It Alone.” For more, visit www.jamievollmer.com.