Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Stop Waiting. Start Acting. Just like Thousands of Teacher Activists are doing.

If you’ve been keeping up on the debate around the direction of public education, you know by now that the “failing of America’s public schools” is because of me.

I’m a 5th year public high school teacher in Philadelphia. And I’m the face of the downfall of the public education system.

This is all according to the slick stylings of Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, Waiting for Superman, the crown jewel in the multi-million dollar marketing plan being orchestrated by a range of policy makers, urban school district administrators, charter school management groups, philanthro-preneurs like Bill Gates and the Walton Family, and a host of others.

Even with its contrived drama and obvious agenda to blame teachers unions for the state of schools, the hype of Waiting for Superman has swept public education into the spotlight. Sadly, the “debate” that the movie has elicited hasn’t centered on the real issues that my students, their families, and my colleagues are dealing with everyday.

I’ve gone to the movie. I’ve read the blogs. Now I’m ready for a real debate about the future of public education – one that focuses on the meaning of public and the purpose of education.

In Districts across the country, publicly elected School Boards are being dissolved and replaced by Mayor- and Governor-appointed Commissions. Here in Philadelphia, we see backroom deals and state-level politics play out in our local schools -- through hires, contracts, and land handovers. Isn’t school supposed to be the site of preparing young people for civic engagement? Then let’s act like it. We must create structures for meaningful, informed and inclusive participation in the decisions made about our schools. Ensuring local parent, educator and student leadership at all levels will strengthen the direction of education, as those who are most affected must be those helping to steer the ship.

This is especially true in this moment in President Obama’s reform agenda. Instead of bringing in outside managers to “turn around” schools that don’t perform well on standardized tests, we should look to local communities, students, and educators to shed our wisdom and knowledge on what our schools need to be transformed into institutions that truly meet our needs. Again, this process must be bottom-up, participatory and highly democratic. Let’s put the public back in public education.

And, while we’re at it, let’s bring meaning back into schooling. While my colleagues and I are not Supermen, we are trying our best to facilitate the process of human development – learning and growing, unlocking curiosity and following lines of inquiry into new understandings. Unfortunately, that train gets derailed far too often by today’s standardized testing regime. Instead of scripted test preparation, my students deserve opportunities to develop their critical thinking, with curriculum anchored in their lived experiences and cultural histories. And they deserve high quality, comprehensive assessments to demonstrate both their growth and the places where they still need to be pushed. Bubbled-in answer sheets are not going to help this generation be equipped to solve the problems of the world they are inheriting.

The truth that Superman fails to portray is that there are thousands of other teachers like me working in districts around the country to build partnerships with student, parent and community groups in our quest to improve a meaningful, public education system.

To anyone who truly wants to see a change in schools in this country, I encourage you to stop Waiting and start Acting. Join an organization fighting for equitable funding, relevant curriculum, an end of the criminalization of youth. There is never going to be a hero that sweeps us away into the clouds. There will just be the collective power of millions of us moving toward the transformation we want to see.

I’m ready. How about you?

Anissa Weinraub
Philadelphia High School Teacher
Member, Teacher Action Group Philadelphia
Member, Teacher Activist Groups National Network