The Jazz Theologian

The Jazz Theologian

The Sankofa Institute Online: Waiting For Superman

This month at The Sankofa Institute we are discussing education.

Most agree that the education system in the U.S. has serious flaws.  Politicians point out that we are falling behind our competition and promise to do something about it.  Rod Paige says that the problem is the black/white achievement gap and asserts that it is THE greatest civil rights issue of our time.

Waiting for Superman was a documentary that caused quite a stir and evoked many discussions. Have you seen it?  What were your impressions?

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posted June 20, 2011 at 7:30 pm

I purposely avoided seeing this movie, because I did not want to be depressed. It was a bit of a downer (did they really have to punish the one little girl by not allowing her to participate in graduation?), and I will say that I was going to be be VERY upset if the only student who successfully made it through the lottery was the middle class suburbanite.

I was struck by quite a few things:(1) the comparison between the amount of money it takes educate a child vs. the amount of money it takes to incarcerate a child. Powerful statistic. (2) I was glad that they showed that poor people genuinely care about their children’s educations and are willing to sacrifice for them. I think one perception of the poor is that they are content with their lot in life and content for their children to have that same fate. (3) I was appalled at the “tracking” of students. So if a child isn’t doing well by the second grade s/he no longer has chance to get into a “good” school? Are we really giving up on children in the 2nd grade? Even the suburban kids get tracked. In their case, their parents can probably afford to send them to a private school, although I don’t recall that being mentioned in the movie.

It also confirmed the importance of education. Without it, life is so much harder.

It would be interesting to see a documentary on rural education.

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Don Jesse Toussaint

posted June 21, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Waiting for Superman was a beautifully crafted film; however, it did not break any new ground. If anything, it was a propaganda piece for “reformers”. No one will ever dispute that our nation’s schools are in need of drastic changes. I taught night school for three years prior to attending law school, so I know firsthand that there are teachers taking advantage of a system that rewards tenure more than effectiveness in the classroom. What Superman tried to convey is the answer to this problem is to fire all bad teachers, limit the power of the union, close underperforming schools, and prop up charter schools. I am not one hundred percent sold on this idea.

The three elements I think would ensure a child’s success is: 1) time on task; 2) high expectations; and 3) parents and family culture. Superman, instead, blamed the achievement gap more on poor teaching.

Throughout his NBA career, Michael Jordan missed over 12,000 shots. However, he is considered the greatest basketball player ever. I don’t think Jordan was born with the innate ability to play great basketball. I just believe that he spent an enormous amount of time practicing his craft to the point where he can score a point with his eyes closed—literally. (See Bulls v. Nuggets, 11/23/1991) That is the work ethic many of our kids need to have. “Time on a specific task” will undoubtedly increase a child’s chances of success.

Nestled just south of Jackson, Mississippi, historically black Piney Woods Country Day School has boasted a 98 percent college matriculation rate for well over 20 years. The school admits students of color throughout the country. Regardless of income, no child is turned away. Charles Beady, who led the school for over 20 years, credits the school’s success with the belief that every student that enters the school will succeed. Every child must work on the school’s farm or other facilities, every child is assigned a tutor, and every child is held to a high standard. When a student reaches graduation, it is “expected” that they will continue their education and pursue their chosen path in life.

Not much has changed for black boys coming up in this society. Much like how it was when I was growing up in the 1980s, options tend to be limited. Being a ball player or some other type of entertainer seemed to be the most logical path. This belief was confirmed to me when Jay Z was featured in the front cover of Forbes Magazine with Warren Buffet. Interestingly, Jay Z was even invited to visit President Obama in the Oval Office. I respect Jay Z for his business accomplishments, but no way does he symbolize the culture of excellence in our community. He’s an admitted drug dealer. His lyrics, though clever, are misogynistic and hedonistic. And in the grand scheme of things, he has not contributed anything of value to our community. But kids idolize him nonetheless. There lies the problem. If we expect our kids to really succeed academically, we need to instill a “culture” that places value on intelligence, honor, and integrity. At the present moment, the “hip hop” culture is raising our kids. And unlike the hip hop culture in the 80s, this hip hop culture is leading our kids down the wrong path. Parents and families should set the culture standard of excellence.

So there it is…Superman was informative, but not substantive. As much as the “reformers” would like to believe, our children’s success will not come from new buildings. It will come from our kids spending enough time to master their craft, on our community having high expectations for every child, and instilling a culture that places value on education more than anything else.

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