Achievement, Performance and Statistics

After viewing the 2010 film The Lottery, these three words stand out. Achievement, Performance, Statistics. It is a sample of what pours forth from so called pundits like Joel Klein, NYC’s outgoing chancellor or Betsy Gotbaum, NYC’s public advocate.

The film, with absolutely beautiful cinematography, focuses on the competition to win the 485 seats at Harlem Success Academy. The problem here is that there are approximately 4000 applicants. So the decision to have their children get into this high “performing” charter school, is by lottery drawing. Once you are committed to sitting through the film, you need to realize they are going for the emotion. They will pull on your heart strings. But you must resist. Because the final outcome is that some of these children will not get in.

I mention those three specific words, because what appalled me over and over again, regarding the conversation on education is how we have come to talk about our children. They are not human beings anymore. They are commodities. They need to perform. They need to get their numbers up. Statistics show this. And if they don’t live up to these crazy standards, “we are all doomed.”

Performing is a word that is better suited to circus animals. When scenes of this much heralded school are shown in action, that is exactly my reaction. Performing monkeys. Learning by rote. And this is the good school!

Statistics are something we have come to expect from our sports figures. They need to put up numbers in order to justify their high salaries. In a sense, that is what is being put forth here. Harlem Success Academy (HSA) needs to keep these fluctuating figures as high as possible in order to keep those public funds coming in. As we speak, HSA is working on getting funding for a second location.

As one commentator says “it is a shame that people have to compete to get a good public education.” I agree with this. But on the other hand, what is good to them, is a horror to me.

The first image we get of the school is a group of 10 year olds doing a public recitation of the Martin Luther King’s “I had a dream” speech. This is performance. Because there is no real passion from the children, unless you consider the fact that they desperately want to please the adults who stand around with glowing expectation.

There is a lot of emotional outpouring going on in The Lottery as well. What occurs to me here is how badly the African-American and Latino communities have bought into the bullshit, that getting something out of this system is a form of redemption. One man, while half crying, tells us how he was never given the impression as a child that he could be an astronaut or president. Like these are the great occupations one should aspire to. What about environmental activist (Van Jones) or Urban farm innovator (Will Allen?)

It is the African-American and Latino communities, as well as the rest of the poor in this country, that have been cheated the most. They have been fed on massive misinformation all these years. They have come to believe that, if the Board of Education throws them a bone, there is meat on it. The truth is we have all been cheated. We are cheated out of humanity as a resource to create a better life for all of us. And those who have been labeled as poor, are the people we need to help make effective change in this country. It is interesting to note that the environmental movement is being driven, as we speak, by the under class and the indigenous people of this planet. But we are all in a state of mass hypnosis. We still think the regimented, learn by rote, sit in a classroom mentality, is what will give us hope.The fact that it has NEVER worked seems to bypass most of us.

Toward the end of the film, when the lottery itself takes place, you get to see some of the winners and losers. One of the father’s looks over at his son in a forlorn way and says “you didn’t get in. They didn’t call your name.” The look he has on his face is so pitiful as he looks at his 5 year old, as if to say this was his only chance at some measure of success.

I do not want to seem insensitive, but I found this film to be condescending. My son is of mixed race and I have been very aware of the level of subtle and overt racism that exists out in the world. But because he has been lucky enough to be in an environment where none of the above is a condition, he is free to explore himself and what his potential place in the world could be. And his parents are by no stretch, people of means. His school is multiracial and contains all levels of financial stability. It is school free of: Achievement, Performance and Statistics. It is a place where there is freedom to explore, and America needs explorers.

The film was meant to tug at your heart strings, but it made me angry. Most films of this type make me angry, but this one sat on it’s high throne and pontificated as to what “society” thinks our children need. It speaks about them in numbers, in achievement levels, performance, test scores and reading levels. They speak of a rigorous education. But it never refers to them as human. It never refers to their spiritual or creative potential. Everything is looked at as if the great reward will be college. And if you have watched my previously posted video, college is no longer the great bastion of learning it was once thought to be. And the world that they are all preparing these children for, no longer exists. We are in the midst of a great paradigm. Our economy is dust. We need to create a new energy future. Our food supply needs to be reclaimed. Our environment needs to be restored and the astronomical amounts of waste need to be rerouted. And these children will become the men and women to do the job. But all they will be prepared to do is recite bullshit they were told to remember in order to pass a test that has no real meaning in any universe.

It was mentioned at the end of the film that we are at a tipping point. But I think we have already crashed. Part of changing this diversion of balance is to reevaluate education. What does it mean to learn? How does one learn? We need to look at all the things that have been cast aside by this modern institution: play, free time, boredom, curiosity, creativity, social interaction, self motivation. These are what made the leaders of the past. Inventions come from people who get time to sit around and just think. I once read about a guy who invented a computer game by staring at his bathroom floor tiles while sitting on the toilet. Where is the space in all this racing around to get a reward that is not there?

It is truly a race to nowhere. And we need to erase the blackboard and start again. We need to stop looking at the statistics, and start looking at the children.

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