I see that new documentary, Waiting for Superman, will be opening in Ottawa tomorrow. I’m not entirely sure why a film explicitly about the American educational system is relevant to Canadians, but it’s coming regardless. Not that it shouldn’t, but let’s not jump to too many hysterical conclusions about the Canadian system based on this evaluation of the system to the south of us. Let’s also not forget the fact that there is no one Canadian system, and I’m pretty sure that the same is true for the good old US of A, and I think that needs to be remembered.
Since I haven’t seen the film and don’t intend to, I cannot fairly critique it. However, based on newspaper reports and Oprah’s episode on the topic , I am afeared that it might be a complete trashing of the whole American system. I gather it’s a call to action and not meant to be an unbiased evaluation, and that’s fair enough as I’m sure the problems that the film documents are real enough. I am also quite confident, however, that there are thousands of fine public schools south of the border with tens of thousands of wonderful teachers and hundreds of thousands of incredible students. I think it is important to recognize that.
It seems to me, and not just in this instance but in general, that when people criticize the educational system, they tend to forget one thing: we tend to get what we want and ask for.
Schools are a mirror of society. If it is important for schools to become better, then it is of great importance that parents and communities also be willing do better. If society’s wish is for everyone to pass and feel good about themselves at minimum expenditure, then that’s what schools will learn to deliver. I can’t fault the goal of ensuring that all students should succeed. Obviously, they should. Just as obviously, we should want all students to think of themselves in a positive light. Unfortunately, implemented properly, such goals carry a price tag, for it requires proper identification and remediation. Resources and support staff need to be made available, and that costs.
Parents also must be willing to be part of the solution and not just be vociferous complainers. If parents refuse to step up and be supportively involved in their child’s educations, they can only expect the school to accomplish so much. One example: if parents don’t insist on their child doing homework and many don’t, then teachers tend to stop assigning it or at least very much. It only makes sense, for if only a third or less of the class normally completes the work , the teacher is left with a difficult dilemma: to leave the two-thirds behind, or to try to pull the majority along even if it means having to slow the achievers down. In my experience s/he will most likely decide to try to teach as much as possible to as many as possible, leaving as few in the dust as possible. Put like that, who would have it any other way?
So, by all means, let’s examine the educational system and try to ameliorate its flaws and weaknesses, but if the goal is to make significant advances, the issue must be framed properly in the wider societal context. Otherwise, despite our angst and railings, little will be accomplished in the long term.