The Complexity of the Public School System

As someone who has always been interested in issues of education, access to quality education, and inequalities in schooling, I am excited about the apparent recent increase in attention to education reform. The public school system in the United States needs to improve—no one is arguing against this. How to go about improving it, on the other hand, has turned into a heated debate among policy makers, business leaders, teachers, parents, and students.

Earlier this year I saw the documentary Waiting for Superman, and it made education reform seem so simple. As one of my friends remarked, “We know what needs to be done, we just need to do it.” But do we?

Charter schools are portrayed as the successful alternative to traditional schools and the common sense answer to problems with our educational system. This is a common trend in the current discourse on school reform. What is not mentioned in the movie, however, is the fact that most charter schools are no better—and often worse—than local public schools. Researchers from Stanford University found that less than one-fifth of charter schools offer a better education than comparable public schools, and they deemed over one-third of charter schools “significantly worse.”

Thus, charter schools are not a quick fix, and the difficulties facing public schools are much more complex. Some schools, both charter and conventional, have been extremely successful and should be applauded, but instead of vilifying teachers and teacher unions for failing schools—as done in Waiting for Superman and often in public rhetoric—why not address the institutional barriers that hinder students at public schools, such as racism, hegemonic curriculum, and socio-economic disparities?

Other proposals from the education reform movement, in particular high-stakes testing, are equally questionable. Teachers, students, families, and communities need to strive for academic excellence, but the increased emphasis on testing runs the risk of forcing teachers to teach to a test. Education should be holistic and teachers should have the freedom to engage their students with material relevant to the students’ lives.

One example of holistic, relevant teaching is an elective offered at Pomona High School, Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies, taught by Cati de los Rios. The course, through a counter-hegemonic curriculum, provides “a historical and political analysis of Chicano/Latino people’s quest for ‘self-determination’ and ‘social justice.’” The course includes an ethnographic interview, a social justice community posada, guest lecturers, and collaboration with a Pomona College class. Students get involved with the community through in-depth interviews with community members and participation with the Day Laborer’s Center. De los Rios has very high expectations of her students, but they consistently meet and exceed them. In this class, students are empowered by learning history from a different perspective. When students are given culturally relevant material in their classes, they are more engaged and achieve at higher levels. Yet classes like these are being threatened in Arizona and could be eliminated in other states if we don’t demand their continued existence.

Education is a complex and challenging issue given that it is political, personal, and extremely important to our country. We need reform, but we must be careful not to simplify the problems. The problems with our system are not simply the teachers’, the students’, or the families’ fault. Instead of blaming individuals and looking for an immediate solution, we need to address the broader issues of unequal access to quality education. Although these challenges are daunting, I am inspired by the Chicana/o Latina/o Studies class at Pomona High School and de los Rios’s pedagogy of love. Her class and philosophy on teaching give me hope for where education can go and what schools can do.

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