September 29, 2010

(Bob Weissberg’s suggestion that the students themselves might have something to do with it has been met with dead silence from the ed-biz establishment, though not from me.)

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There are many things to detest about Waiting for Superman.  There is the lazy sloppiness of the filmmakers, already noted—their failure to do what, at so many points, a curious moviegoer is mentally begging them to do:  Tell us the dropout rates! Ask about discipline problems!  Go into a “failing” school!

There is the manipulation of our emotions:  winsome kids lisping out their lessons and telling us how very, very much they want to study and go to college and become veterinarians.  As a parent and ex-schoolteacher, I know—as most moviegoers must surely know too—that even the best-natured kids only behave like this a quarter of the time, and quite a high proportion never behave like this unless massively bribed.

There is the movie’s uncritical magic-negro reverence for Geoffrey Canada and his implausible claims.  Canada may indeed be the organizational and inspirational genius he is portrayed as in the movie, but he may also be a glib mountebank who is cooking his academic results like crazy.  I honestly don’t know, though I am willing to place a small bet.  Time will tell.

Then there are the movie’s can’t-quite-believe-it vignettes, notably the refusal of Bianca’s parochial school to let her attend graduation because Mom was behind on fees.  Really?  Really?

Most obnoxious of all, though, is the ethos of educational romanticism in which the whole movie is steeped.  In the world of these movie-makers, innate racial differences in any kind of ability are of course beyond unthinkable; but even individual differences are denied.  If we just Get The Schools Right, every child will go to college!  They won’t have jobs, they’ll have careers!  Every single child!  Yes we can!

This is fantasy—wild fantasy, and poisonous fantasy.  No more than 20 percent of 18-year-olds can cope with college-level material, a fact documented by Charles Murray in his 2008 book Real Education (in which he actually gives examples of college-level material).  That some colleges give diplomas to students who just show up for four years, and that there is a widespread public demand for colleges to do so, leading to a stupendous waste of time and money all round, is due to a foolish perversion of jurisprudence that forbids employers from testing the skill sets of job applicants on-site.

The explanation offered by Emily, the movie’s token white kid, for her wishing to transfer from Woodside High to Summit Prep, is that Woodside would place her in a track of less able students. At Summit, she tells us, “Everybody takes the same classes.”  One of the talking heads elaborates on this, explaining that tracking was OK back in the 1950s, when there were lots of manual jobs, plenty of low-skill desk jobs, and not much demand for university-educated professionals.

Nowadays, however, this won’t do: “The schools haven’t changed but we have!”  In today’s America, you see, there is dwindling demand for factory hands and paper-shufflers, and booming demand, soaring demand, insatiable demand for people with Ph.D.s in molecular biology, political economy, urban planning, feminist legal studies, computational genomics, relational database design, and medieval epic poetry.  And anybody can excel at these academic subjects . . . if we just Get The Schools Right.

What mad gibbering nonsense!  In fact the 1950s system of tracking was perfectly sound, and should never have been abandoned.  If all ability levels are taught together, the bright kids languish in boredom while the dumb kids struggle in despair.  The result is much unhappiness and a monstrous waste of ability at both ends.  The U.S.A. is full of useful work and entrepreneurial opportunities that a non-bookish citizen might take pride in and raise a family on.  Who believes that we can all be doctors, lawyers, and architects?  Who believes it?

The snag is, of course, our very strong suspicion that if our schools tracked kids in the old way, there might be glaring racial maldistributions in the various tracks, with East Asian and Ashkenazi-Jewish kids monopolizing the topmost tracks, NAMS over-represented in the bottom tracks, and a big bulge of white gentiles in the middle.

That would be a catastrophe beyond imagining.  The very seas would boil and the forests burn and the stars fall from the sky!  Let us not think of such dreadful things.  No, no: let’s fix the schools!  After all, “We know that it is possible to give every child a great education.”  Geoffrey Canada tells us so in Waiting for Superman. 



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