Still waiting for ‘Superman’
On Tuesday night, in the darkened hush of a movie theater, unfamiliar sounds were heard emanating from the audience. Not the slow, careful slurps of a frozen drink, or the soft rustle of another handful of popcorn, or even the steady tapping of a sticky cell phone keyboard. Instead a low symphony of sighs was audible—starting quietly, then building in crescendo, until the entire room seemed to quiver in an exasperated gasp of frustration and angst because suddenly they knew. Superman wasn’t really coming.
I was drawn to the movies by the latest buzz-worthy documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” but once that heady buzz of empathetic emotional turmoil wore off, I was left with a pervading sense of dissatisfaction. Another attempt to tackle education, another conversation skewed.This is a documentary that has been lauded as a means of opening dialogue, but the audience is plied instead with more palatable clips of “Welcome Back, Mr. Kotter” and “School of Rock.” So who’s taking a hard look in Washington?
It’s one of the great political ironies that the city from which national lawmakers preach great promises of freedom and equality is also one suffering from some of the worst rates of crime, poverty, disease, and, of course, substandard education. The latest attempted intervention is the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top,” part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. States compete to be eligible for funding based on a weighted system of criteria. The heaviest-weighted criteria relate to teacher reform and effectiveness.Although some larger states, such as Texas and Virginia, have balked at this federal rat race, the majority of states have complied with predominantly positive results thus far. States have the opportunity to act as separate institutions, without the meddling arm of federal (or school district) regulations. This is giving states the opportunity to address the local culture that so often defines the success of an education system—for instance, what works in Northern California simply is not applicable to rural Mississippi. There’s just one hiccup. “Race to the Top” is only reaching a handful of states at a time, and in the meantime we’re simply stuck, including in D.C.
Wandering for four years through a campus of perfectly manicured rosebushes and buildings with 10-year life spans, it’s easy to forget the world outside of elite higher education. It may be hard to believe, but beyond the pearly gates of Francis Field lies one of the worst public school districts in the country. Only 46 percent of the 26,311 students who attend public school in St. Louis City will graduate. Less than a third of St. Louis eighth graders can read or do math proficiently. Whether your background is blue blood or blue collar, it’s undeniable that the effects of poor education are right here, on the doorstep of our campus.
Many like to beg off the education argument, saying that it’s not their problem, or throw up their hands when they can’t find a simple, one-size-fits-all solution. And herein lies the truth—the education crisis is everyone’s problem. While this generation of Wash. U. students may have weathered the storm of No Child Left Behind and emerged motivated, energetic and relatively unscarred, millions of students are languishing in institutions that have ceased to be effective. So I propose a new type of higher knowledge, one that will result in the uplifting of an entire generation—let’s take a closer look at education, fight for viable solutions, and ensure the brightest futures for the brightest minds, including right here in our own backyards.