I recently had an encounter with a former student over the film Waiting for Superman that both shook me and gave me reason for hope.
The student is a Teach For America (TFA) alum and current teacher. Though it's been nearly a decade since I had her in class, we're Facebook friends, so I get small glimpses into her life from time to time. Recently, though, she posted a link to the movie's trailer, urging her FB friends to check the movie out. As I'd done with similiar posts about WFS, I commented by simply adding a link to a recent Washington Post entry that noted where the movie was misinforming viewers by addressing issues on a point-by-point analysis. I didn't add any commentary beyond the link.
The movie has had me in a simmering heat the more I learn about it. I've prided myself, and padded my career, with experiences in public education: watching my mother teach classes in a high school for nearly four decades, passing through a public school where I didn't really know what an AP test was, and going to college a few miles down the road at our state's flagship school. Add to this all of my friends who teach in public schools and are currently scared that their jobs, wages, or benefits will be hacked at any time, and my other friends who passed through TFA and had horrible experiences, and you can see why the movie feels like a personal attack.
But that's the thing: I haven't seen the movie. I hear it promotes charter schools over public schools, TFA over teacher ed programs, non-union jobs, and merit-based pay as a result of increasing test scores. But I don't know, it's just what I hear. Then I come home to TV shows on NBC or Oprah decrying the state of public education, and billionaires from Facebook or Amazon pumping schools full of money. And they all have the same message: education is failing, we need to fix it. No talk about the good that is happening, or the fact that the only thing constant in educational debates is the call for reforms. No mention that there are myriad studies on how charter schools are no better than public schools, on how TFA produces no better teachers than teacher education programs, and definitely no mention that standardized tests don't necessarily prepare (or predict) students ready to go onto college or enter a changing workforce.
Which is why this movie scares me. It's so easy to fall into the polemic, especially when everyone has good intentions and no one is short on opinions. After all, we all had our good and bad experiences in school that we feel gives us the right to say something, even if that something is contradicted by dozens of studies and stories from inside schools themselves.
But back to my story.
My ex-student emailed me, said she appreciated my post, but had to take it down. Initially she said TFA was pushing their teachers to see the movie, which is why my critique was undesirable. But then she added that she thought that people should see the movie first, without the cautions raised in the WaPo article, and only then form opinions. And this is where I started shaking.
I emailed her back, calmly thanking her for her opinion and doing my best to explain my side of things, and why I was scared that a small (even empirically-based) opinion like mine was more than likely going to be drowned out by this big-budget documentary. And there's the hope: maybe she'll write back and we can have a discussion between peers and common stakeholders. I'm not scared to be wrong or to engage in debate, but I'm scared that these sorts of conversations may never happen. I'm hoping they continue and the movie becomes the springboard for them, but I'm not sure.
Which is why I'm so impressed with Diane Ravitch, an educator and thinker who is calmly disproving all of the myths driving this atmosphere of fear and polemic. In particular, her tweets (follow her on Twitter) are cool, concise nuggets of truth. She links to studies and articles, and delivers a measured, consistent message without succumbing to fruitless debate or visceral reactions that blind her to facts.
I'm not like that. And I'm writing here partially to find out if others have locations of sanity related to this topic, and if such debate can really take place in a culture of RTs, "Like"s, and soapboxes masked as textboxes.