I felt awfully tired and beat up when I walked into the office this morning, but it was worth it. I’d been to a late-night screening of Waiting for Superman, a chilling feature-length documentary on the state of the American public school system. How we got to where we are now, where we’re headed with changing job profiles in the future, and how we can get out of the current mess -- if we choose so.
As a mother of three school-age kids—two of them currently in public schools—I felt particularly pained by the images, statistics and interviews in the film. The plot followed about half a dozen families in different parts of the country in their quest to provide their kids with a safe and solid education—and a future. There were sad moments, funny moments, and many touching moments. And there was hope. It’s a must-see movie for anybody who cares about the future of this country, so I will stop here.
What this has to do with real estate? More than you think.
One of those nuclear families—an uneducated but loving and concerned woman and the grandson she was raising—lived in DC. The grandmother realized that if the kid stayed in his failing neighborhood school, he would likely have no better chance at life than his father (of whom we only learn that he died from a drug overdose). She eventually succeeds in helping the boy find an alternative public education, but many others will not. According to the film, the kids here in the wealthy nation’s capital have the lowest average reading and math comprehension scores in the whole country.
It seems every single US president in the past 50 years made huge promises to be the one who would turn the wheel around and fix public education, and so did every DC mayor.
Right at the beginning of my real estate career I learned that the future of the DC housing market would depend on whether the (then new) mayor Williams would be able to affect changes in the school system—too many tax-paying middle class families left the city for the better school systems in Maryland in Virginia.
On a federal level, “No Child Left Behind” was launched, but then came the realization that the new focus on test scores had changed little. Then came the charter schools who were allowed to choose or fire teachers based on performance, but you literally had to win the lottery to get a space. Then came Michelle Rhee, also prominently featured in the movie, who tried to clean up a mess with radical methods and was not loved for it, even though the measurable success of her sweeps and reforms (namely a new system to evaluate teachers) were incredible: In three years, reading and math comprehension scores in grades 4 and 8 increased up to 17%. (To give you an example, this year, 43% of junior high students can read at grade level, as opposed to the 27% in 2007. This is an average, mind you: there are middle schools where even today, only 1 out of 7 8th-graders can read well enough to enter high school. I’m not making this up—all of the information can be found on the DCPS website.)
Now, however, Washington DC has elected a new mayor. Vince Gray gave promises not to “turn the clock back” when it came to the city’s progress under Adrian Fenty. And “school reforms will move forward” under his reign as well.
I very much hope that Gray will stick to his word. (Supergirl Michelle Rhee, meanwhile, seems a little less convinced. She resigned last week, effective with the end of the month.) After all, experiments in many large cities have shown that it's not bad neighborhoods that make schools bad but rather, that good schools can cause significant improvements to neighborhoods and for the kids that grow up in them.
(The photo shows President Obama who invited the kids from Waiting For Superman to the White House--you can see a behind-the-scenes clip on the movie's website.)
© 2012, Catarina Bannier