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Education in the Land of the Free: Thoughts on Madeleine Sackler’s “The Lottery”

September 20, 2011

I just watched the documentary The Lottery, and you should too. It is moving, troubling, and inspiring in turn. It defies the stereotypes of the genre, amazingly and effectively conveying intellectual and emotional arguments in a fast-paced and powerful way, with a phenomenal soundtrack by Tunde Adebimpe and Gerard A. Smith of TV on the Radio fame.

The message of the movie is simple, clear, and compelling; the purpose of the educational system should be to serve the best interests of the students themselves. It should not just be the central purpose of the system; it should be the only purpose of the system.

The main obstacles to this objective are portrayed in a straightforward and impressively un-demonizing manner; bureaucracy, special interests, and the maintenance of the status quo. What allows these obstacles to become overwhelming is the inability of the system to compensate for the impacts of these obstacles.

The biggest problem is that there is no accountability to the children. The Teachers’ Unions in NY spend more money on lobbying Albany than any other industry, and the politicians are overly eager to maintain the status quo. The problem with this is that the unions have too much power; I am for unions in general, but in this case the unions have gained a monopolistic stranglehold on the behemoth that is the NY Dept. of Education. When there is no “Parents’ Union” or “Students’ Union” to advocate their own interests, it suddenly becomes a disgustingly one-sided so-called ‘collective bargaining’ process, where the aptitude and enthusiasm of teachers becomes irrelevant. According to the film, firing a tenured teacher in the NYC educational system costs taxpayers $250,000 each. Furthermore, the union contracts have grown over time to become such an expansive document that it, in many cases, prevents teachers from acting in the best interest of their own students. This is beyond appalling.

There was a scene where a founder of the Harlem Success Academy questions the system’s willingness to keep a school open that has a mere 10% of students reading at grade level in a public hearing. The most notable part of the scene is when a representative of the state at the meeting starts genuinely insulting and questioning the integrity of the founder for believing that the school should be closed. This is what is wrong with the system. There is only one set of individuals who stand to gain from keeping a school open that has so obviously failed in adequately serving and preparing students: the employees of that school. But the educational system DOES NOT and SHOULD NOT exist purely a means of employment. This is a disgusting and reprehensible betrayal of the very children that the educational system is intended to serve.

If a public school has only 10% of students performing at grade level, it has failed.

I say all this as a person with the utmost respect for the teachers of our country; they are heroes, with more patience than I can imagine. They deserve to be paid far more than they are, and many of them go above and beyond the call of duty. But education is a system where everyone involved must be held accountable for the good of the students. I don’t care if you are tenured, it should not cost taxpayers $250,000 to remove you for inadequate performance of your job.

The education system of this country is fundamentally broken, and the reason is one of the worst-kept secrets in politics; school budgets are a reflection of the property values of the people they serve. This is a profound problem for inner city schools and poor rural districts alike, but proposing any modification of this system is tantamount to political suicide, because the rich people like it when their taxes go to their children’s educations, noteveryone‘s children’s educations, and they have enough money and clout to ensure that it stays that way.

In the meantime, we need to fundamentally retool the schools in areas like Harlem, and the available evidence says that these charter schools are doing a pretty good job. The bottom line is this: if we’re  going to require urban schools like those in “The Lottery” to function on lower budgets than their wealthier suburban counterparts, we damned well better give them the organizational flexibility to provide good educations, because every child deserves the opportunity to excel. It is their right.


“In my very living room, a woman whose husband is brilliant on wall street, stood right here and said ‘I want you to put my husband’s client out of business.’ Because what they do is they build prisons. They look at the failure rates of black boys in the 4th and 5th grades, and they determine how many prison cells they’re gonna need in the future.” -Susan Taylor, Founder, National Cares Mentoring Movement

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From → Education, Politics

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