Supermarkets, Not Superman

By Diann Woodard, AFSA President
Originally published on The Huffington Post

While the purveyors of data-driven education reform keep Waiting for ‘Superman’, the real needs of children in our public schools continue to go begging. Superman is not going to save the day for students — especially inner city kids. They need basic resources that support their families and reduce the stress that undermines learning, like neighborhoods free from poverty and drugs, and supermarkets their parents can reach without taking a roundtrip bus ride.

Propaganda that vilifies educators trying to cope with the persistent lack of resources and social stability confuses the victims of circumstance with its perpetrators, namely the political leaders responsible for budget cuts, constant experimentation, and disparate levels of school funding. For example, politicians are treating child nutrition as a zero sum budgetary exercise in which any gains that are passed must be offset by other cuts.

The Senate recently took a positive step by passing some provisions in Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (S. 3307), but simultaneously offset this funding by reducing benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by $2.2 billion — benefits that had already been slashed by $11.9 billion earlier in the year.

Food stamps are the first line of defense against poverty and families depend on them to provide healthy meals to their children and nothing short circuits more than the lack of proper nutrition.

The media shares culpability for advancing the rush to false judgments on what it will take to turn around our schools. Recent TV programming on education that featured the ill-founded “findings” of Waiting for ‘Superman’ accepted as gospel the superior performance of charter schools and, by implication, the subpar performance of union-represented educators.

Both judgments are belied by readily available studies. Most charter schools perform no better than mainstream public schools and some of the more successful among the charters have unionized faculties.

Children aren’t commodities and communities aren’t defined by spreadsheets; they’re different from one to the next, and the success of their turnaround plans depends on understanding their distinguishing and sometimes unique characteristics.

Obscuring these distinctions with unfounded generalizations may build viewership in today’s culture of contentious media, but they do nothing to build the spirit of cooperation necessary for turning around schools plagued by underperformance. To the contrary, they inevitably strengthen the political hand of those who disdain essential public school funding and the unions that represent educators.

Although the producers of Waiting for ‘Superman’ and other Johnny-come-lately critics of public education may not be political reactionaries, they are nonetheless abetting a business-financed movement that seeks to debilitate unions and advance the privatization of the public schools.

Ironically, the corporate world’s method of demanding improvement by educators is starkly at odds with how it demands improvement in its own ranks. The business world’s frequent seminars and conferences routinely employ cheerleading models of zealous optimism as the key to improved sales and profits.

In contrast, the business-driven movement for school reform encourages condemnation of public schools and the unions representing educators, which strengthens nothing but the political arguments of those refusing to fund our schools adequately and cripples earnest efforts to nourish our children, both physically and intellectually.

So, why is optimism good for corporate America but not for public school educators? The answer, of course, is that it’s even more important in a public school setting than in the workplace because, without it, fear of failure overwhelms a child’s ability to learn.

The good news is that this spirit of cooperation is at work in many public schools, thanks to thousands of educators who are able to overcome the economic and social barriers that hinder so many of our children’s ability to learn.

These hopeful signs exist because educators and their unions understand that success will be driven by turnaround plans that set challenging goals that take into account the particular needs in each community while hopefully encouraging students to achieve them.

In short, Gotham’s schools will be turned around by such informed and hopeful efforts, not by some fly-by-night superhero.