America is in the midst of an education crisis and New York City is ground zero. The recently released documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” sheds light on many gross inadequacies of public schools throughout the country. The film provides a poignant and illuminating view into the systematic failures and perverse policies that result in the dropout epidemic plaguing our educational landscape. Thankfully, “Waiting for Superman” also offers a touch of inspiration and a glimpse into the possible, showcasing exemplary school models, committed parents and, most importantly, wonderful children vowing to overcome the odds and achieve their dreams.
But while the sad story of American public education may be new to the Big Screen, it is hardly a recent phenomenon. Writers such as James Herndon and Jonathan Kozol began exposing the plight of inner-city schools in the late 1960s and, more recently, scholars including Dr. Pedro Noguera have continued to diagnose problems and explore solutions to cure diseased urban schools.
I attended and graduated from one of the 22 public schools in Massachusetts identified by John Hopkins researchers as “Dropout Factories,” where less than 60% of the senior class is composed of students who entered as freshmen. Like most Dropout Factories across the country, my school in Boston – Snowden International HS – serves a predominantly (94%) minority population, most of whom (66%) come from low-income families who are eligible for free lunch. Despite Snowden’s disappointing track record, I was fortunate to encounter several incredibly dedicated and effective teachers. They stood out as beacons of light trying to shine within a larger and darker socioeconomic system. Most of my classmates came from dysfunctional families and fractured communities, requiring teachers to serve as a “village of one,” going beyond simply educating and often assuming responsibilities akin to raising a child. Fair or unfair, this is the challenge embraced daily by the best teachers in urban America. Their efforts are an inspiration. When I graduated from Boston University, which I attended on a full-scholarship awarded through a program targeting Boston public high schools, I was compelled by my personal experience to commit my life to social justice.
Several years into my career, while directing a youth development organization in New York City, I was a lead organizer of New York City’s inaugural Dropout Summit. The summit took place in February 2007 and featured a who’s who of luminaries from the educational, academic, government, policy and community-based spaces. Along with spearheading a $5 million Dropout Prevention Initiative in NYC and yielding robust recommendations stemming from diverse working groups, the first Dropout Summit catalyzed a wave of national summits that continue to this day under the leadership of America’s Promise Alliance.
Despite these worthwhile efforts, which should be amplified, not curbed, the situation was grim then and it remains disturbing now. At the time of the first Dropout Summit in 2007, less than one in ten black or Hispanic high school students in NYC graduated within four years with a Regents diploma. Research from Harvard University revealed that the national dropout rate for black and Hispanic high school students was just 50% and New York fared worse than any other state in the country. Today, 7,000 American students drop out every day and New York still has one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates for blacks and Hispanics. The consequences of dropping out are well established. Statistics from a host of studies show that dropouts are significantly more likely to become teen parents, be unemployed and get incarcerated.
If the wealthiest nation in the world lacks the collective compassion to support its most disadvantaged citizens, the economics of a dropout nation alone should alarm all but a few special interest groups (e.g. private prison industries). On average, high school graduates earn almost $10,000 more per year than high school dropouts. Along with lowering local, state and national tax revenues, dropouts have less purchasing power and reduce consumer spending, which comprises 70% of America’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A report by McKinsey & Company concluded that if black and Hispanic student performance had mirrored white students by 1998, the GDP in 2008 would have been between $310 and $525 billion higher (2% to 4% of total GDP). These results suggest that the economic fallout of the “diploma divide” is equivalent to experiencing a silent, recurring recession. The health and growth of our economy is literally dependent on people earning and spending money. Ensuring that young people graduate from high school and can attend college is vital to maintaining a competitive global position and vibrant domestic economy.
“Waiting for Superman” hails charter schools as the answer to our public education woes and I believe charters are an important part of the winning equation. Revolutionary models in New York City include The Equity Project, where only the finest teachers are recruited – earning up to $150,000 for high performance, and Growing Up Green, where environmental consciousness is tightly woven into the fabric of the school’s culture. These charter schools can seed innovation and increase accountability – two characteristics sorely lacking from many of the nation’s failing public schools. But New York City boasts the largest public school system in the world – over 1.1 million students – of which only 38,000 (3%) attend charter schools.
Fortunately, there are successful traditional public school models across the city. I have personally worked in several, including Bronx Leadership Academy HS in the South Bronx, Benjamin Banneker Academy in Brooklyn, and Newcomers HS in Queens, which prove the viability and necessity of well-run large schools. Charter schools face capacity constraints that limit their immediate scope. As a result, they resort to the kind of lotteries showcased in “Waiting for Superman” in order to determine who can attend and who is out of luck. Lotteries make for dramatic moments in film but, by definition, they yield a majority of losers. This may be an acceptable result in recreational gambling, but it is a preposterous system for determining whether a child receives a quality education. Moreover, charter schools are not automatically and universally effective. A recent comprehensive study from Stanford researchers found that, while 17% of charter schools nationwide provided a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered no advantage and 37% yielded “significantly worse” results.
My point: be wary of crude generalizations that oversimplify solutions. Not every traditional public school is a laggard and not every charter school is a leader. Charters are not, in isolation, a panacea to cure the dropout epidemic. The entire ailing public education system needs resuscitation. A few of the yet-to-be-realized suggestions we highlighted at the 2007 Dropout Summit included: offering wrap-around youth and family development services through community-based organizations, creating more relevant curricula with less emphasis on standardized tests, expanding internship and career preparation programs, providing professional development such as cultural-sensitivity training for all school personnel, and instituting a formal early-warning and intervention system that treats dropping out as a process rather than event.
Newsflash: Superman is not coming. We might as well be waiting for Santa Claus. No fictitious hero from a mythical land is going to swoop down to save the very real children and families entrenched in America’s dilapidated public education system. In fact, no individual person or even single stakeholder group is near capable of bridging the chasm of educational achievement that has developed between the fortunate few and marginalized many.
To cure a disease, you need to attack it at its source. In the case of America’s dropout epidemic, the source is both complicated and dispersed, therefore requiring a multifaceted and holistic effort. It will not just take teachers, or parents, or elected officials, or advocates, or service providers, or academics, or administrators, or mentors, or the students themselves; it will take all of them, working together. One might even consider the challenge to be superhuman in magnitude. But the stakes are very human. These young people will – like it or not – grow up to define America.
In November 2010, Bennu launched “Greenpacks for Great Kids,” which is an online drive to provide eco-friendly backpacks to low-income students in NYC. Research shows that students who lack basic supplies are more at-risk for disconnecting from school and dropping out.