I watched Waiting for Superman in a nearly empty theater on E Street in Washington, DC two years ago. I went with one of my ASP (American Studies Program) roommates, a student from Whitworth University in Washington State. We had talked about education for a while before we saw the movie – comparing notes on our different high schools (mine private, hers public), and what it is we wanted to see for education in the US. The movie sobered us. We rode back to our apartment building on the D6 bus talking softly about how much harder these things were than we had understood.
A few months later, my close friend Joanna and I traipsed through the commuter line and the T out to Tufts University, to see a screening of Race to Nowhere. We plodded through late February snow, came in just a few minutes late, snuck between rows of teachers and concerned parents. The film, which chronicles the difficulties of overachieving, of grades and homework and testing, was just as sobering as Waiting for Superman. The two titles even echoed each other, I commented to Joanna as we waited for our commuter rail back to Beverly. The titles are about our plight in education – the frenzied race to nowhere, and our casting to the skies for some kind of superhuman solution. We know something has broken; but we don’t know where to go to fix it. We know that we’re climbing to the top of a ladder with no real destination, but when we get there, our ladder swaying in the wind, we look for Superman to save us.
I’ve cared about education for a long time, but these two movies prompted me to think about educational justice, beyond “just” education. What does justice look like in a system that chooses schools and children by lottery? What does it look like when funding is determined by performance and results, not known and felt needs? I know that our system lacks justice. According to the Center for Public Justice’s guideline for education, “With its support of schooling and its mandate that all children receive an education, government should concentrate on upholding public equity provisions, assuring that each child has fair access to quality education.” The government has a real role to play in assuring that children in this country have fair access to quality education. To do educational justice to children is to ensure that a variety of schools are funded and supported.
But the state is not a good judge of what kind of education best suits each child, or what success means to each school. In their guidelines, CPJ observes, “Parents bear primary responsibility for the nurture and education of their children. This fact is recognized in both American and international law.” So to do educational justice, the state must help parents make wise choices; it should not make those decisions itself. In Race to Nowhere, I remember hearing parents worried about what the standards of achievement do to their children – the lack of sleep, the lack of self-confidence, the anxiety, depression, and, ultimately, underperformance of those children in college and beyond. Psychologists and educational experts say that the state’s standards aren’t the most helpful measures of children’s achievement or learning. So educational justice means being more creative, and supporting creative efforts to match our measurement to real indicators of success. It means emphasizing support where it’s needed, not where success has already been achieved.
Real justice is about the various institutions of civil society respecting one another. It is about all institutions seeing the goals that they share, having a vision of the common good and the fullest, richest, most alive expression of human flourishing, and working towards that common vision in their respective place. So parents work with schools, and schools with governments, and governments with non-profits and churches, and churches with families and beyond. This common vision is a thread that binds us, a hope we press towards. But it’s also what distinguishes us in our roles: it tells us that the state doesn’t measure success well compared with teachers and schools, that families can’t ensure equal access the same way that a government can.
I care about educational justice because education matters for success. Because children who are inspired to dream of big things often go on to achieve big things. Because no one should be limited in their imagining, or live without discovering all that they could become. But I also care simply because learning is an essential part of being human, and all humans ought to be given a chance to really, truly learn. My beloved high school, the Waring School, taught me that, “We assume that learning is, in and of itself, an essential and defining human activity that involves the whole person throughout life.” I continue to be inspired by that idea. Justice in education matters because we are learners. And we should all be given the space to grow in that learning, and in a love of learning, not hampered by our circumstances or places. That’s what I fight for. That’s why I care.