– Waiting for the Truth

A world famous film critic wrote the following paragraph in his review of the very misleading film Waiting for Superman, which examines the pro’s and con’s of public and charter school education:

The key thing to keep in mind is that underprivileged, inner-city kids at magnet schools such as Kipp L.A. Prep or the Harlem Success Academy will do better academically than well-off suburban kids with fancy high school campuses, athletic programs, swimming pools, closed-circuit TV and lush landscaping.

Unfortunately, he was reacting to the film but not the facts.  This is not accurate, unless you single out those two particular schools. In June of 2009 US News and World Report showed that the opposite is true.


There is no argument that in America public and probably all education has been steadily declining. Fingers have been pointed at unions, bureaucracy, outdated curriculum, outdated teachers, and misspent money. There is also no argument that some charter schools are outperforming some public schools. While anyone can cherry pick any information and create any outcome desired, anyone can also make the effort to find what those specific charter schools are doing differently so we can apply those practices in public schools. Oddly enough, there’s one item missing from that finger-pointed list that is simultaneously responsible for both the rise of charter schools and the decline of public schools. It is also the one item that almost nobody wants to mention because of the potential backlash. I say “almost nobody” because even President Obama mentioned this one item in a speech on education.


Every September most public schools have something called “Back to School Night.” Parents are invited to come to school, meet the teachers, and get a very brief idea of what will be happening in class that year. There are also a few conference nights on which parents are encouraged to meet with teachers individually to learn exactly how their children are performing, their strengths and weaknesses, their potential and their problems. There is one rule to what happens when parents are invited to school. “You always see the parents you don’t need to see, and you never see the parents that you do need to see.” It is fail safe and universal.

Good students – the kids who listen, follow directions, do what they’re supposed to, learn what they need to learn, and perform how you hope kids will perform – have parents who will always show up because they care. Just by showing up, those parents have demonstrated to their children that education is important. Those parents know how to raise kids. They were reading to their kids before the kids could walk. They make sure those kids get plenty of sleep, eat the right things, and do the right things. Unfortunately, the other kids – like the other parents – don’t care. Of the 18 kids in my homeroom this year, four parents showed up on our Back to School Night. Actually, it was three parents and one older cousin. 

In Waiting for Superman a group of parents cling to desperate hope that their name will come up in the charter school lottery.  They are fully aware that in their city, Newark, NJ, children in public school have only a minuscule chance at having any kind of successful career or to even enter a college classroom without a broom in your hand.  It is a cliché among clichés to call it a bitter/sweet moment.  However, it’s a well-crafter moment for the point of the film.  These charter schools are not in and of themselves the reason those charter school kids will have a shot at a better life.  It is the parents, those parents, they are the reason for charter school success.  These schools are lucky enough that the best parents from the worst towns are coming to their school.  As that happens more and more, the public schools in those same towns will continue to sink.  Those schools are showing such great performance. They’re getting the kids who were raised by parents who care. You can have a very successful charter school in a depressed urban area because there are going to be parents who care and also live in such an area. It’s not about money. It’s about caring.

More than 30 years ago there was a lawsuit in New Jersey known as Abbott v. Burke that created what are known as “Abbott School Districts.” Basically it was determined that towns with high-performing schools also had a high per capita income. Towns with low-performing schools did not. Therefore, a brilliant judge in Trenton decided that New Jersey must redirect education funds from the higher performing towns to the lower performing towns. There are more than 600 school districts in New Jersey, and about 30 of them qualify as “Abbott.” Those 30, or about 5%, collectively receive about the same amount of education funding as the other 95% combined. There are no detectable improvements in any of those 30 districts after having profited from the Abbott ruling. However, there are lots of parents who don’t care. Not all, but lots.

Haddonfield is normally among the top 10 performing school districts with a median household income of about $103k. Pleasantville, one of the lowest performing school districts, has a median household income of about $40k. Most of the kids in Haddonfield get higher grades than most of the kids in Pleasantville. Most of the parents in Haddonfield earn more money than most of the parents in Pleasantville. However, it’s not just the money. Those parents in Haddonfield probably work only one job, which means that maybe they’re home more with their kids. They have higher levels of education, and a greater number of them have a greater number of books in their homes. That means that they have more time and books to read with their kids. It also means that those parents will be home all night, and so will the kids.

It’s not all about money. Many Pleasantville students have expensive clothes, Blackberries, I-pods, and some nice jewelry. Some of the girls have the nicest hair extensions and weaves, new ones almost every week.  Many parents have plenty of money, but somehow the kids still qualify for free school lunches. It makes you wonder how they’re getting that money.  It makes you wonder if it is the kind of money that doesn’t get reported to the IRS.

Some schools have dormitories, pools, football fields that compare to private golf courses, and swimming pools. Other schools have fields full of weeds and ceilings full of mold. They all have administrators, teachers, and classrooms. They all have kids, but the kids do not all have parents. They might all have mothers and fathers, but they don’t all have parents.

When I went to school in the 70’s, there was usually great panic when an announcement would come over the loudspeaker for a student to report to the principal’s office.  There were gasps, then kids turning to look at you and wonder what you did wrong.  However, by the time the story about you reached the principal’s office, everybody in class had probably had already hear about it.  My name was called a few times, but I was never worried about it.  The time for real panic was when they called your parents.  On those days, it was a long walk home.  Had I any real brains at the time, I would have been thrilled that someone cared.

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