President Barack Obama made news this past Monday when he admitted that his daughters were getting a better education at their elite Quaker academy than at a Washington, D.C., public school. The headlines — restating the president's utterly obvious remark — exuded an almost revelatory power. Imagine that! Shocking.
It was a fitting lightning bolt tossed down from Olympus into the stormy Education Nation, the NBC summit of celebrity wonks and wonky celebrities bemoaning, proclaiming, and debating our broken public school system. Zeus himself has spoken! Many public schools in a poverty-striken inner city aren't as good as the private school that costs $31,000-plus a year.
This is news? The simple answer: It isn't. Or it shouldn't be. Educational experts have been repeating the litany of facts that testify to our scholastic decline as a nation for a decade. What's more, American families live it every day. Even families in high-performing public schools struggle with a lot of intransigent public school problems: Teachers who can't be fired, students with varying levels of motivation, endless budget cuts.
But Education Nation made me realize this is news for some people. Who are they? The people who should know better. I'm talking about politicians, trend watchers, media figures, celebrities, and thought leaders whose kids have their pick of private schools. It's the people who don't see on a daily basis what goes on in our public schools who need to get the message that America's not a meritocracy since so many kids in the U.S. are being set up to fail.
How else to explain a moderator and a panelist chanting back and forth as if they've discovered a truth unknown to the rest of the populous: "There really are two Americas!" "You're right! There really are two Americas!" Um, yeah.
And that may be the new movie Waiting for Superman's hidden value — to wake up those who frame our national agendas around a truth that should have been evident long ago. In New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's review of the movie, he asked his readers to "stand on their heads" and look "at America from the bottom up, not from the top (Washington) down," perhaps revealing more about how he thinks than how his readers do. The rest of the review wasn't just glowing; it exhibited a kind of astonishment that belied just how new the film's information was to him.
This explains why even those who don't like Waiting for Superman, or those who feel NBC's summit was too weighted toward the charter school reformers and against the teachers' union, appreciate that finally education is basking in the long-overdue limelight. Now we just need to make sure this limelight does more than allow our nation's leaders to shake their heads sympathetically as they drive their children by our public institutions on the way to private schools.