In the reviews for the film “Waiting for Superman,” several writers have described the lottery for slots in the “good” charter schools. At the school where I teach, families are reluctant to pull their students out, even if it is clear that the kid doesn’t want to do the work, and isn’t (at least currently) capable of doing the work we require. We are a “good” school because we are college prep, and they want their kid at a “good” school. The problem is that any school can be “bad” if you don’t take the initiative to educate yourself, and any school can be “bad” if its mission does not fit with your needs. The other problem is that by “good,” they also mean “the hallways are safe.”
As an educator, I could get highfallutin’ about this, but let me quote Simon & Garfunkle instead: “When I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” A college prep education was a good thing for me. I like book and paper work. It wasn’ t a big problem for me to be at a big school because I’m an independent worker. It was a “good” school for me, although it may have been a “bad” one for somebody else.
When I read about these poor, lost children being forced to attend “bad” schools, I think about Abraham Lincoln reading by candlelight. I know, everyone should go to a wonderful school. A safe school. But lack of great formal schooling doesn’t doom anybody. I don’t believe people are doomed by their circumstances.
In fact, one reason our educational system is so slippery and hard to measure is that it has a million back-door routes to success. You failed 9th grade? Try again. You got shaky high school grades? Try community college. You didn’t get into your dream university? Bring your grades up, and apply to transfer. Unlike many other countries, the United States’ public school system will not sort you permanently into tracks. Not in 7th grade, not for college. Not ever. It can be very difficult to change tracks– say, to get into an Ivy League school from a crummy high school. I would say it’s much too difficult. It hardly ever happens! But it is not impossible.
When I went back to school for my teaching certificate, I hated almost all my classes. They were dumbed down, they were self-pitying when they weren’t self-flagellating. I went to a “bad” school. This gave me great insight into how the inner city kids acted at “bad” schools. They were dumbed down. Self-pitying. And self-flagellating. No surprise there. The surprise was that I learned a lot at a “bad” school, probably more than at a “good” one.
I am part of the solution of making schools, in all honesty, “good.” Safe, consistent, stimulating, and teaching the right lessons– patience, and hard work, and logical thinking. I will not defend dangerous, loosely run schools. I will only argue against sloppy labeling, and the limitations drawn when we blame and categorize hastily.