09/29/2010 12:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Waiting for "Superman" : Another Rescue Fantasy?

School reform has become ritualized, sanitized, commercialized and increasingly isolated from reality. As the great Titanic of public education slips ever more rapidly beneath the ocean surface of economic and social reality, our education captains and crew desperately throw out life savers of standardization, technology, charter schools and testing to our students -- who are drowning of boredom and irrelevance. Our students don't have time to wait for "Superman" and, by the way, he isn't coming. We will have to fix public education ourselves.

Relentlessly, the great vessel of public education fills with the water of good intentions and muddled thinking, slipping slowly beneath the horizon of hope--mortally wounded by three icebergs of inescapable social fact:

  1. Social class divisions in the United States are deep, inter-generational, structural and growing. The top 1 percent own 38 percent of all assets; the top 10 percent own 70 percent of the wealth; the bottom 40 percent own 0.2 of the wealth. We are a country divided by Grand Canyons of inequality.
  2. Education, far from being Horace Mann's "Great Equalizer" is, in fact, the "Great Unequalizer." Education is a very tilted playing field that actually suppresses and prevents upward mobility. Social and economic mobility are virtually stagnant.
  3. Poverty is growing and will continue to grow. Forty-five million Americans are officially poor and the number is rising. Over 20 percent of American children live in poverty. Over 1,300,000 children are homeless on any given night; one million kids go hungry every day -- within the shadow of the White House one in every four children suffers from chronic hunger.

According to a 2009 Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) report on the condition of children and education in 30 industrialized countries, the United States "ranks fifth worst in the rate of children who lack more than 4 of the following 8 educational possessions: A desk to study, a quiet place to work, a computer for homework, educational software, an internet connection, a calculator, a dictionary and school textbooks." The United States does rank number one on some measures, however, including child poverty.

When Nelson Mandela said "there can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way it treats its children" he held up a light to our national secret -- we treat poor children as disposable.

The national response to our educational catastrophe has not been elevating or effective. We seem to have four preferred options: the ostrich option of denial, the blaming the victim option, the doubling down on mistakes option, and the utopian option -- charter schools will transport us to an educational paradise. It is little wonder we continue to reform over and over again; these options are all destined to fail. The effects of poverty, frozen mobility and concentrated wealth will not be undone by placing band-aids over our educational wounds.

But we can do something: We know the qualities of excellent schools -- they have clear missions, demand excellence from students, are lead by organizationally and intellectually gifted leaders, keep close track of student progress, increase opportunities to learn, demand respect and safety, and establish good working relations with parents and community.

Even if we had a system of excellent public schools, however, the icebergs of inequality would still hold us in their cold grasp -- better reading scores do not guarantee social and economic justice.

If we are to move from a society of opportunity hoarding to opportunity sharing, from conflict to consensus, we need young people capable of critical reflection, empirical reasoning, shared problem solving and complex adaptive thinking. To become a nation of learners, we need 21st world-class schools that are innovative, transformative and genuinely democratic. World class schools will not immediately mend our torn social fabric. What can happen is that our students will become sophisticated enough to ask the political and policy questions which address the iceberg issues with thoughtfulness, toughness and reason.

Can we rise above our differences and create a system of public schools worthy of our founding ideals? In his 1810 State of the Union Address James Madison called for a national vision for public education as the best way to expand patriotism, reduce sources of jealousy and prejudice and promote greater social harmony. Above all, a national vision for public education would "strengthen the foundations that adorn the structure of our free and happy system of government."

Madison was right in 1810 and he is right today.

Peter W. Cookson, Jr. is the Founder of Ideas without Borders a Washington DC based educational consulting firm focused on human rights and 21st century learning.