Is learning a right?

Think about what you are today (or are becoming).  Would you be there if someone did not take interest in you?  If you did not have access to a good education?  So often I wonder how my dreams would have died out if I never got a shot at an incredible education.  And the bottom line is this: doesn’t everyone deserve a good education?  Is it fair that only some of America gets access to this?

These are the questions I was asking myself as I watched Davis Guggenheim’s latest brilliant documentary, Waiting for “Superman.” Guggenheim, Oscar-award winner for the 2006 best documentary An Inconvenient Truth, artistically and painfully brings to light the massive failures of our educational system in the U.S.  Guggenheim documents the harsh reality for so many lower class Americans, that education will only prove to be one thing for them: a failure.  Simply put, this documentary will blow your mind.

As you watch small children’s dreams get crushed of reaching higher education, or in some instances just finishing high school, your heart breaks.  One little girl dreams of being a doctor and/or veterinarian.  Sadly, she may never see that dream materialize since she will be sent to a school where over 50% of the students drop out and only every 3 in 100 will go on to college.  Astounding.  Horrifying.  Disappointing.

This film brings to life the depressing statistics of the failing American educational system by putting faces to those statistics.  Toward the end of the film, the whole theater was quietly sobbing as the film climaxed with a powerful scene of watching children hoping for a chance at a good education by waiting for their names to be drawn in a lottery for the one good school (often charter schools; for instance, KIPP).  One boy, talking about the upcoming lottery, stated, “I just want a good education” with fears of disappointment in his eyes.  He spoke of dreams of getting a good education so that he could have better for his kids and not have them living in poverty.  He was ten.  Watching young children cry because a lottery-style drawing may decide their future brings to light a dark truth: education is only serving the top portion of America’s children (and the lucky few who win the school lotteries).

I speak as someone who has been in the dark.  As an educator, I have always believed that education is the most powerful tool to combat poverty.  However, I never thought too much about the qualitative difference between the types of education that the lower class and upper class Americans have access to.  Certainly, I realized that upper class Americans had the right to some of the best schools in the country, but I did not really think too much about how terrible some of the worst schools were.

But this documentary brings hope with it.  Charter schools like KIPP are changing the way we think about education in lower income neighborhoods.  For decades, it was thought that students in poverty-sticken areas just could not be taught.  But these schools have defied the odds by showing that they can offer a college preparatory education for free in these open-enrollment schools.  Not only that, they have defied the odds even more by having students with around a 90% enrollment rate into colleges, a number that strikes above the national average.  What did they say one of the biggest differences was?  Teachers.  That’s right.  Me.  You.  It both excited me and convicted me to know that I make one of the biggest differences in my students’ lives.  It matters how I teach, which brings with it great responsibility.  The second biggest difference?  Accepting nothing than the best from everyone – no exceptions.  We have to start expecting the best from all of our students.  If we never expect the best from them, why would they rise to the occasion?  If you are an educator, this documentary is a must.  It will change your life.  Period.  It will change the way you teach and the way you view education.  If you are not an educator, you still need to watch this.  Our society needs to be made aware of the painful fact that learning is, sadly, not a right for all Americans.

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About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

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