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Why 'Convenient' Lies Won't Set Us Free

Dear Diane,

You offer the perfect response. The fact that some of the usual suspects are divided on the "bash the teachers" agenda is good news. It gives us new sources of hope. And I remember that even in a flawed democracy like ours (and is there an un-flawed one?), neither "we" nor "they" can ever declare a total victory.

When I came to New York City in the fall of '65 my friends and acquaintances (like the real estate agent who was helping me locate an apartment) told me that "no one sends their kids to the public schools." Of course, 1.2 million children couldn't all have been orphans, but I understood the code. I hadn't taken it for granted, since my kids had been OK at their prior public schools in Chicago's South Side and Philadelphia's West Mount Airy. So my children spent their pre-college years in NYC's public schools. I grew accustomed to the guilt trips I listened to from folks like Davis Guggenheim, who tells us that "Waiting for Superman" was made to assuage his guilt.

Guggenheim—who also made the film "An Inconvenient Truth"—doesn't explain in plain language what it was he couldn't tolerate in the public schools in his neighborhood (or exactly what that neighborhood was). He seemed to have some concern about tracking in public schools. But apparently he was not uncomfortable with the fact that the school where he sent his child was not (probably) open to just anyone who could afford it, but had its own way of pre-sorting the kids: money—and high scores.

This background helps me understand the animus of his attack on teachers and unions. It's perhaps too much to ask him why there are even worse results in the many states in which there are no teachers' union contracts! He doesn't tell us, either, whether he'd send his daughter to the schools he highlights, or the ways in which they do and do not resemble his children's private schools. But I do know how different Washington's Sidwell Friends (which Malia and Sasha Obama attend, and apparently Guggenheim did, as well!) is from the charter schools he glorifies in his film.

I actually would love to have that conversation with filmmaker Guggenheim. Just as I did with friends who made different choices than I in raising their kids. "I'm not suggesting you should sacrifice our children to our ideals," I said then, "but you owe a special promise not to blame the public schools for not having all the advantages you opted for." My parents chose the Ethical Culture schools for my brother and me—and I have kept that model of serious attention to academics, the arts, and ethics in mind in my own practice—but I didn't assume that as many of our graduates would get into Harvard.

It's a longer discussion, and—after all—I encouraged one of my sons to transfer in 11th grade to a Quaker school since he was truant most of the time at the neighborhood high school. Maybe I should have encouraged him earlier. But now that he teaches aspiring teachers at a university, he likes to note that he has attended virtually every kind of school that exists. Yes, life is full of trade-offs; it's when we aren't prepared to acknowledge them that we get ourselves into more trouble than we need.

Example: I can accept schools trying to "get rid" of a kid because the school can't think of what else to do. But I cringe when they pretend it's "best for that child." When a weary Central Park East teacher occasionally suggested "Ronald isn't right for our school," we gave ourselves this challenge: "See if we can find another school that would be better. And, if so, let's visit it with the family and decide whether what makes it better is something we could do. If the other school has a solution we're unlikely to reach in time for this child, we need to commit ourselves to prepare for the next Ronald." We don't, as Geoffrey Canada did to his first class of students, sacrifice the kids because they don't make us look good.

Wealth brings privileges. To pretend otherwise and insist that the "gaps" between the wealthy and the poor aren't important is not just a benign mistake; it's a dangerous one. When we allow the target to shift to "lazy" teachers and power-hungry unions, we should feel guilty, Mr. Guggenheim.


P.S. Speaking of films: It's a good moment to see Fred Wiseman's "High School II" (1994) on Central Park East Secondary School. As David Denby says in a Oct 11 New Yorker piece, if you want to know what works "watch Frederick Wiseman's documentary 'High School II' ...The film is a study of multi-ethnic education as a success." If you go to my website (deborahmeier.com) you can also watch two shorter films about CPE I and CPESS.

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