Does America’s Public School System Need a Superman?

By: David Croushore

In high school, I graduated with a GPA of 5.8 on a 4.0 scale.  That mark was good enough to be 23rd in my class.  The reason for this bizarre, up-side-down score and rank was the result of a common practice in suburban public schools, tracking.  Until last week, I saw nothing strange about the practice.  Everyone I knew had experienced the same phenomenon, and we never questioned it. Then I saw Waiting for Superman, the new must-see documentary about education in America.

Everyone is aware that our education system is not perfect, but we often assume that the biggest problems are confined to the inner city, to the areas where a combination of low socio-economic status and years of neglect have led to failing schools and failing neighborhoods.  Those problems do exist, but what we fail to recognize is the failure of the education system on the “other side of the tracks.”

In our industrial and agricultural past, the education system was well designed.  The top students were put on track to become doctors, CEOs, and lawyers.  The next group was designated to be accountants, salesmen, and white-collar workers.  Everyone else just needed to be prepared to keep the factories churning, the farms yielding, and the world turning.

Then the world changed.

Those low-wage, low-skill jobs were replaced by machines or outsourced to other countries.  Education, on the other hand, stayed the same.  Now we find that our students are not competitive with the rest of the world in science and mathematics, the same areas where we used to excel.  The Bush era “No Child Left Behind” policy did little to change the system, but the increased focus on testing has exposed the true nature of the challenge.  The question has changed from “how do we fix failing schools?” to “how do we fix the whole system?”  Can our education system adapt to the demands of the changing world?  And what can we do, as business owners, as those who have benefited from the biases of a broken system?

The answer isn’t easy.  We have tried to give our money to support programs and non-profits that purport to help education, but the challenge is not one that can be solved with money alone.  Those of us who have faced the challenges of this world have realized the skills that are necessary to meet those challenges.  The problems we face today require innovation, and where we have been successful it has not been because of our education, but in spite of it.  Unemployment sits, stubbornly, at just below 10%, but jobs are there.  Recruiters can tell you how difficult it is to find the people who can fill those roles, who can contribute the innovative solutions that make modern companies successful.   If the next generation is not more prepared for those challenges than we are, our economic way of life will be threatened.

There is something we can do, however.  The answer lies not in opening our checkbooks for education, but in opening the lines of communication.  We need to communicate with the people who can make the biggest difference, with the politicians in Washington and our state capitals, with the leaders of our school boards, and with our teachers.  We need to communicate our frustrations with the lack of preparedness we find in our graduates.  We need to communicate the ideals that would make our workers successful.  We need to contribute our ideas to the search for a better way, and demand accountability, innovation, and results from our education system.

This issue is not one that needs to be fought between teachers and students.  We all have a dog in this fight, and unless we demand better, we will receive more of the same.

Just don’t take my word for it.  Go see Waiting for Superman, and see for yourself just how bad things have gotten in our education system.  Then, take some action, no matter how small, to take us one step closer to a solution.  None of us can be Superman, swooping in to save the day, but together, we can make the difference for our children, our country, and our world.

David Croushore is a consulting professional and an MBA student at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.  He has been featured in a New York Times’ bestselling book on leadership and communication. This article is dedicated to David’s wife, Maggie, a teacher in urban Washington, DC, and one of the many people fighting every day to improve education in America.

The posts on this page are contributed by students from the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business in conjunction with the newly launched Center for Social Value Creation. The center's mission is to develop leaders with a deep sense of individual responsibility and the knowledge to use business as a vehicle for social change. These posts are a way to continue the dialogue outside of the classroom and share the viewpoints of Smith students on the challenges and opportunities of triple bottom line thinking.

2 responses

  1. It would be helpful to consider Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft in this discussion. The race for accountability and “innovation” still revolves around and is wholly dependent upon testing to prove or disprove its effectiveness. Changing the system would mean changing the metrics altogether, the same type of conversation people are having about tracking ROI, SROI and CSR or environmental sustainability. But as one principal I know said to me recently, the timeline for the payoff can be pretty spread out, sometimes years later when the student has the “a-ha” moment. Meanwhile, the creators of the system (all of us) haven’t figured out what we want out of education. Is it to compete globally? Why? Is it so that every kid in America has a chance to become a doctor, lawyer or investment banker? Get a PhD or MBA? Are those the indicators of success? That’s not any different than getting a high score on the SATs or getting a 5.8 on a 4.0 scale. But a richly diverse and sustainable economy needs more than doctors, lawyers and MBAs. So then we see a system that is not working that is much larger than just Education. We see an economy that has the wrong people driving it. Or at least just a few types of people, and so it has a very narrow focus. And that’s not sustainable.

  2. WZJ,

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