Why a film critic’s blog might be the best place to talk about education

Apologies for the blogging break – the last few weeks have been busier than usual. (Don’t ask.)

The purpose of this post is to link to Roger Ebert’s recent blog entry – on education. Juxtaposing two education-related documentaries from Sundance, he draws unflattering conclusions about the American primary education system. Somewhat uncharacteristically for him, Ebert ends up simply repeating the point made in one of the documentaries: that teachers’ unions stand in the way of good education by protecting the bad teachers and blocking merit pay systems.

I felt that this was far too superficial. There is much more to it, from the social inequalities to the indifferent homes to the pervasive anti-intellectual trends in the society. Many others thought so, too, and gave excellent arguments to that effect in the 200+ comments. These comments – especially those from teachers – are the best thing that I have read about American (and Canadian, to some extent) education in a very long time. Read all of them if you have the time. It’s an eye-opening experience.

You’ll hear from teachers pointing to the large class sizes, high workload and low pay – just because you’ve heard it before doesn’t make it less true. You’ll hear about the larger picture: the anti-intellectual climate, the devaluation of education, the politicization of everything from public school funding to curriculum design. There are multiple stories of parents who abdicate all responsibility for their child’s upbringing, then call the teacher at home late in the evening to berate her for actually expecting the precious darling to do the homework. There are stories of administrators who raise the grades artificially, regardless of the students’ performance, in response to the latest political directives. And then there are stories of poverty and of inner city schools where teachers do not assign homework out of fear of being physically assaulted by students.

As for the teachers’ unions, they do come under attack from some commenters, but many others make strong arguments in their defense. On the other hand, several pointed comments are aimed at education degree programs. Based on what my colleagues and I see in university-level classrooms, there are teachers out there who could indeed benefit from taking a class or two in the actual subject they teach.

Data might not be the plural of anecdote, but this is too powerful to ignore. There’s more intelligent and thoughtful commentary on the subject, coming from multiple and well informed viewpoints, than I’ve seen in a long time. Above all, the big picture that emerges is complex, multifaceted, interconnected, and real. If you, like myself, are tired of the usual mainstream public discourse on education where each question is considered in isolation (if the word “considered” is even appropriate here), the conclusions are preordained, and the suggested solutions are as simple as they are unrealistic, then this is a must-read.

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