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Waiting for Superman and Cracks in Public School System

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The Film, Waiting for Superman, takes a look inside America’s public school system and examines its decline. There are many fundamental failures credited for its poor results, and the effects of its foundering are quite evident. Mr. Guggenheim, the narrator of the film, describes many of these schools as “dropout factories”. He discusses that in the past failing schools have been blamed on failing neighborhoods, but more recently, this sentiment has been reversed. The shortcomings of our public schools and our school systems in general have a huge impact on the outcomes of individual societies. When we look deep inside America’s public school system, it is very clear to see how our country is suffering from its ineffectiveness.

Education has several manifest functions that were covered in our textbook. Some of these functions are as socialization agencies, teaching cultural values, increasing cultural integration, promoting cultural innovation, and benefiting taxpayers (Benokraitis, 2016, p. 247). These functions are all integral parts of viable societies and are needed in order to cultivate a successful and peaceful standard of living. When children are living in districts with failing public schools, they, and the societies they live in, are unable to benefit from these functions. An article on GenFKD entitled How Educational Deficiency Drives Mass Incarceration, discusses that, “over 40 percent of low-income schools don’t get a fair share of state and national educational funding” (Curley, 2016). These schools that receive less funding are unable to maintain proper facilities, have high turnover rates, and aren’t able to afford the supplies they need. Students that have the most need, often end up in the worst schools, with the worst teachers.

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Due to teachers union rules, teachers with seniority are able to choose which schools they teach at. This leaves the new and inexperienced teachers to teach at the schools with poor reputations, otherwise known as, schools that need the most help. In the book, Smart Kids, Bad Schools, Crosby (2008) states that “In California, one out of every five teachers at a high-minority school has no teaching credential” (p. 78). Without access to qualified teachers, students are left with no foundation at all. Another relevant issue discussed in the film was that of teachers unions and tenure. Tenure was created to keep professors in universities from being fired for small missteps. However, now, tenure is granted to every teacher, in every public grade school, after reaching a certain number of hours teaching. Once granted tenure, it is nearly impossible for a teacher to be fired. Some teachers take advantage of this and use it as an opportunity to become lackadaisical and indifferent. Students who end up with tenured teachers who don’t have their best interest in mind, are usually unable to do anything about it. When a child has an ineffective teacher, they fall behind and score poorly on their standardized tests. Tracking then sends these students to classrooms where even less is expected of them and the prospects of them attending college fizzle away.

Children in underperforming schools are also often subject to labeling. Many people simply believe that these children, can’t learn, and don’t want to learn. Often times children of color and minority students are expected to fail. According to our textbook, “only half of parents with annual incomes of less than $25,000 expect their child to attain a four-year college degree compared with 88 percent of parents with incomes over $75,000” (Benokraitis, 2016, p. 254). This lack of support and belief in a child only further enforces their lack of belief in themselves. This is another contributing factor to the failing school system.
In researching the effects of an inadequate education, the idea of the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” is very prominent. This is the notion of funneling kids directly from their public schools into the prison system. In the late 1960’s, around the time of the Civil Rights Movement, schools began hiring security staff to deal with students in a more aggressive manor than ever before. Schools with high rates of civil rights unrest were especially subject to law enforcement presence, and adopted “zero tolerance” policies. This meant that students were unreasonably punished for any defiance of any rules.

In the present day, children are still being kicked out of school for small infractions that would have previously just sent them home for the day, or to the principal’s office. Frequently these kids are sent to schools for “problem children”, or suspended, which causes them to fall further behind in their academics. Students who end up in alternative schools are generally put into the juvenile-justice system and on probation. From there, the smallest infraction, such as missing school, can put them into prison. In an MSNBC article, Dennis Parker tells the story of a young black boy in Michigan who was engaging in a playful game of tug-o-war with his teacher over a note. When he saw that the situation had escalated to serious, he very quickly handed the note back to his teacher. Almost immediately, he was put in handcuffs, put on house arrest and ultimately expelled from school simply because of the “zero-tolerance” laws. “Pushing children down the school-to-prison pipeline by taking them out of school and placing them in the criminal justice or juvenile detention system all but eliminates their chances of getting into college or even graduating from high school” (Parker, 2014).

Inner-city school children live in fear of being patted down and violated. They live in a world filled with distrust and anxiety; worried to step in the wrong direction. Many of the students that often “act out” or find themselves in trouble have problems at home and could desperately use counseling, have learning disabilities and would benefit from different learning environments or special education classrooms, or maybe they just need the extra benefits of a really great and engaging teacher. The schools they are attending do not have the funding to provide this kind of support, and so they, once again, are left behind.

In the book, Public Education Under Siege, Thompson (2013) commented, “If we are truly serious about fixing our nation’s schools, and if we ever hope to roll back the resegregation and ever-deepening poverty of these same institutions, we must first recognize the enormous price public school children have paid for America’s recent embrace of the world’s most massive and punitive penal state — a vast carceral apparatus that has wed our economy, society, and political structures to the practice of punishment in unprecedented ways” (p. 132). Thompson speaks to the unfair and unreasonable punitive approaches these children are facing, at their schools. This truly and tangibly impedes their ability to learn and to become active and positive members of society.

When children are kicked out of school, their chances of being arrested and incarcerated are increased, drastically. “Due to a lack of job experience, as well as the lack of academic skills, over half of high-school dropouts are unemployed, according to a study by Prison Policy and Northeastern University” (Curley, 2016). When these children, soon to be adults, are incarcerated, their opportunity to finish school is all but taken away. According to an article by the California Endowment, “California has built 22 prisons, but one University of California campus since the 1980’s” (Do the Math, 2014). This is a hugely backwards allocation of funds and is a great demonstration of where the problem lies. According to the same article, if we take one person out of prison, we can use that money to put fifteen children in preschool; and children who go to preschool are 28% less likely to wind up in prison. This is a great example of the “broken windows” theory in which we can reassess our incarceration practices and at the same time reallocate money to start the snowball effect of minimizing the number of people incarcerated. Waiting for Superman does an excellent job of pointing out the cracks in our nation’s public school system. We are able to see where our education system falters and is ultimately failing. These cracks form a direct pipeline to the oversaturation of our prisons. It is by fixing these cracks and providing a universal standard of education that we will begin to see an improvement in our societies overall.


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