I’ve just finished watching Teach Us All, the new release documentary on Netflix on the US education system. The film makes the case for ending de facto segregation in the US, which has grown and replaced de jure segregation. The film argues that education would be fairer on disadvantaged students (mainly Latino and black students) if schools were diverse. The film’s case for ending de facto segregation relies heavily on the following premise: that getting black and Latino students into white schools would increase the funding that goes to the black and Latino students.
The funding issue is a real issue. Wealthier families have better funded schools, and these tend to be majority white schools. I’ve seen how better funding can improve outcomes and opportunities. However, the statistical data don’t support this on a wider scale. This leads to the second reason made by the film for ending segregation (this reason is not really explicitly made but is revealed nonetheless): that black and Latino students would benefit from mixing with white students. What the film is implicitly saying is that the behaviour or culture of the black and Latino students is holding them back. This gets to why achievement is not necessarily linked to spending: it does not consider what attitude and application the child brings to the classroom – the discipline and diligence the student has, the respect for the teacher and school rules, their respect for their peers and the learning process. This matters a whole lot more than spending, and it is the ignored factor in schooling today. It is not something the government can control, and it is politically incorrect to talk about it in this non-judgmental culture. But such non-judgmentalism is a form of relativism, which does not work for an organisation (a school) or an activity (learning) with a specific purpose. Some approaches are better than others.
The film occasionally touches on the lack of sophistication of the poorer kids parents, their behavioural difficulties, their neighbourhood issues, their basic lack of hygiene and life skills. When these issues are present, learning takes a back step, and the student’s time horizon shortens. Individual investment in education is lower as they’re not sure what the payoff will be and they have shorter-term issues to attend to. The film chooses some great students to interview, who inspire excitement in the audience about the potential of education. But what they are not showing are the students that do not care or do not fit into the current schooling system. The portrait painted by the film is one of earnestly working students who are being deprived by a lack of opportunity and the presence of segregation. That is, they are let down by their schooling system. I’ve got my issues with the system, whether it be the Australian or US systems, but the fact remains that we get the students when they enter the school gates in the morning, and we send them home in the afternoon. What goes on outside is of tremendous importance but is not subject to the control of the school. It is therefore ignored. The thing parents can control most is their own actions, thoughts and attitudes, and that of their children. Start making a change there and they may find that the school system is not as broken as they think.