This week, another super documentary hit the theaters. It is called Waiting for Superman. Hoping to entertain, instruct and move to action, Oscar winner David Guggenheim (who also filmed An Inconvenient Truth) is rightly alarmed about many of our public schools. Our nation’s school system was once the envy of the world. Now it is failing. Among lists ranking the school systems of various nations in science, we hold 21st place, right behind…..Iceland! In math, we hold 25th place, behind….. Spain! Reading skills of our nation’s 17 year olds have mainly declined since 1984. A third of our kids are dropping out of high school. In America’s largest cities, one out of two students drop out! Perhaps that is why the president said last week that we have 2,000 schools across the country that are “drop out factories,” actually inhibiting, rather than encouraging education.
Waiting for Superman humanizes all this by following five students and their families who try to get into the one good school available to them. Being poor, they have no hope of getting in other than a lottery system that is stacked against them. The film’s title comes from the story of a boy who grew up in the South Bronx. He says that one of the saddest days of his life was when his mom told him that Superman did not exist. When he heard this he cried, because he realized that “no one was coming with enough power to save us.” That is the way it is for many in our public school system. They are waiting for superman, but the way things look, he does not exist, and nothing will rescue them.
Why are our public schools in such a mess?
The hundred dollar question is why? Why are we in such a mess? It is not lack of information. Twenty-seven years ago, the startling A Nation At Risk report came out which said, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people.”
Nor is the answer that we have not spent enough. Spending in public schools in the US exceeds that of any country on earth.
And it’s not for lack of reforms that schools are failing. We have had standards based reforms, no child left behind, and a host of educational bills.
Amazingly, Guggenheim, taking a swipe at teachers’ unions, thinks the problem is political. The nation’s children, he argues, have been betrayed by the unions which reward ineffective teachers with tenure, and effectively inhibit good teachers. Our top-heavy educational establishment is a key part of the problem and lacks accountability.
The agenda of the NEA
Guggenheim is not a conservative. So his expose of a corrupt union system comes as quite a surprise to fellow liberals. According to Guggenheim, unions, who have been minding the store, have a stranglehold on education. The National Education Association is the largest labor union in the United States. It is one of the most influential entities in American politics. What have they been up to? Here I go beyond the film, Waiting for Superman and add my own thoughts.
For decades the NEA has resolved to purge from the schools references to God and Christianity. Instead it has promoted the view of educators like John Dewey who argued that “education as such has no aims” beyond equipping workers to work. Therefore, old standards and foundational principles must be overthrown, to be replaced by autonomy, freedom and creativity.
For decades our educational establishment has pursued a self-centered focus where self esteem rules. A friend of mine who teaches at a public Middle School, is not able to give zeros if someone does not turn in an assignment. Nor can he let bad behavior in the classroom affect grades. It might hurt a child’s self esteem!
For decades the NEA has emphasized that education is all about teaching processes, not knowledge. Students are often taught to create their own meaning. Accordingly, the curriculum in many places has gone soft with a bias against the basic subjects and content.
And for decades, the NEA has pushed a very liberal political agenda promoting big government and causes like non-abstinence sex education, abortion on demand, erasing gender specific language, opposing English as our official language, and promoting a pro homosexual agenda.
Solutions great and small
So what is to be done? According to Guggenheim, his main point is that great schools need great teachers. He says that the unions and the tenure system are largely responsible for the mess we are in so they must be changed. This of course infuriates liberals, and teacher’s unions, as does his suggestion that charter schools are good! Union leaders are firing back saying that our educational mess is “very complex” and “offers no simple solutions”
Christians may unfortunately look on this whole debate with a certain detachment, thinking that this is “their problem” and we have nothing to do with it. Such an attitude completely sets aside the New Testament command to be salt and light, and the Old Testament admonition to seek the good of the city. On the contrary, we must be part of the solution, by at least encouraging gifted younger believers to teach in the public schools, and by encouraging churches to “adopt” schools in their communities.
Nevertheless, efforts like these are limited and do not get at core issues. Neither do simple and perhaps even important reforms such as expanding the school calendar, laying off underperforming teachers, etc.. While Guggenheim is right—great teachers do make for better schools, Biblically even this is not enough.
The great omission
The most important aspect of this whole debate that everyone misses is a simple wisdom principle from the Bible. It is not complex. It was at the foundation of American schools when they once were great. It was at the foundation of the Scottish school system when that tiny nation had the greatest schools in the world. It is the simple precept that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline” (Proverbs 1. 7). There is something beyond looking to self that matters most in education. Honoring and fearing God is the ultimate issue.
Sadly, our education establishment, including the National Association of Education, has lost its center. It is this God-fearing wisdom that must be the first principle of true educational reform. It was on this foundation that our schools originally pushed, not simply training in the basic subjects, but also character education based on the Scriptures. Of course, these days critiques like mine will be ruled completely out of bounds. But in the context of the history of American education, it is the modern educrats who are clearly out of bounds.
There are other aspects of reform I would also want to encourage. Allowing competition in order to break the grip of the unions is important. Guggenheim favors charter schools, but he has nothing to say about the vital role of private Christian schools, classical schools and home schools. Nor does he say anything about the important place of strong families as a foundation for a child’s educational success. Families are the primary transmitters of social capital. When they disintegrate, the consequences are immense for students.
But for the Christian, the ultimate issue in the public school debate is Christ himself. For according to the Scriptures, it is Christ who “rescues us from the dominion of darkness.” It is he who is the eternal word. He is the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” (Colossians 2.3).
That boy who grew up in the South Bronx was right about Superman, but was wrong in his hopelessness. The earliest educators in America would have taught him that there actually is someone who has come with enough power to save us, and whose light is so brilliant that it can create effective schools wherever it shines.