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Craven: Waiting For Superman

11/16/10 7:55AM By Jay Craven
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Portrait by Todd R. Lockwood
(HOST) With another contentious campaign season now behind us - commentator, filmmaker and Marlboro College teacher Jay Craven hopes we will turn our attention to the challenges we face in education.

(CRAVEN) I recently saw the provocative new documentary, "Waiting for Superman."  The film isn't perfect, but it makes a call-to-arms to teachers, families, and communities - to more effectively engage our young people and reverse steep declines among American students.  

In 1970, among 30 developed nations, U.S. high school students ranked #1 in all areas of aptitude.  Today, we rank 25th in math and 21st in science.  The top 5% of our students rank in the bottom third, for combined learning skills.

30% of American high school students drop out. That's 7,000 per day. High school dropouts are 50% less likely to vote, are more likely to need social welfare support, and they're eight times more likely to go to prison.  And Vermont is one of just six states that spends more money on prisons than education.

40% of American college students also drop out.  The film estimates that by the year 2020, there will be 123 million high-paying, high-skill U.S. jobs with only 50 million people qualified to fill them.

High school dropouts are not eligible for most jobs and earn 40 cents to the dollar compared to a college graduate. Higher education levels create a lasting economic stimulus.  They boost wages, productivity, gross domestic product, consumer spending, and tax revenues.
Effective principals and teachers account for 60% of a student's ability to succeed.  "Waiting for Superman" has stirred controversy - for its focus on sometimes hard-to-quantify issues of teacher effectiveness.   But it also shows and applauds teachers and schools that are working.

The film misses some factors that dramatically affect in-school performance.  Low teacher salaries discourage many professionals. Important but unfunded special education mandates force fragile small towns to make impossible budget choices.  And how can teachers win their students' undistracted attention when young people spend an average of 11 hours a day wired to multiple forms of electronic media?  Do kids consider our current educational practice relevant? And how does it enhance their sense of cultural identity in a globalized world?

A new UCLA survey proposes a fully integrated system that provides physical, social, emotional, intellectual, and cultural supports. Without this added support, it argues that teachers, curriculum, and school management are no longer sufficient to help large numbers of students.

Chief among the out-of-school barriers to learning is our growing poverty level.  One in five Vermont kids now lives in poverty.

"Waiting for Superman" pointedly asks us, "What is our responsibility for other peoples' children?"  

Many Vermonters answer that question every day in their classrooms.  Perhaps our new leadership will help the rest of us muster the imagination and commitment to also respond - and to break new ground.
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