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A Hero Ain't Nothing but an Excuse: Prolonging Failure in Public Schools

photo by funkyah, http://www.flickr.com/photos/funkyah/2400889778/

photo by funkyah, http://www.flickr.com/photos/funkyah/2400889778/

“When disaster strikes in America, heroes rush in.  We’ve seen it time and again: when all seems lost, real-life supermen (and women) step up to save the day.  But what if, right now, there is a hidden catastrophe spreading quietly, insidiously through our nation’s cities, towns, and communities--and yet we have the power to stop it?  What if our children and their futures--were in peril?  Who will become a hero now?”

 

Those words come from a synopsis on the official Web site for the new documentary film Waiting for “Superman,” directed by Davis Guggenheim, whose 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.  Guggenheim’s latest cinematic effort, which opened in New York and Los Angeles on September 24, won the Audience Award for best documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

 

Waiting for “Superman” frames the failure of American public schools--which it attributes to the betrayal of children by teachers’ unions--through the quest of four elementary students and one middle schooler to gain a better education by entering charter school lotteries in their respective communities: Harlem, the Bronx, Washington, D.C., Silicon Valley, and East L.A.

 

Needless to say, these five children’s and their peers’ desire to attend better schools is not only encouraging, but also commendable and noble--so rare these days, it would seem.  What is not commendable, but ignoble is the notion (explicit enough in the excerpted synopsis quoted above) that “the superheroes we’ve been waiting for to save our schools are all around us.”  

 

Such an assertion, also part of the film’s official synopsis, is incredible and doubly naïve.  First, it presumes that superheroes will actually redeem the wretched state of American public education, especially for African-American, Latino-American, and students from poor families.  Second, it assumes that those around us are the likely superheroes.   

 

Yet, these “superheroes,” say, the cream of the crop from Harvard, are not flocking into America’s classrooms.  “America’s brightest minds,” according to David Brooks in a September 9, 2010, New York Times op-ed column, “have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting, and nonprofit activism.”

 

In 2007, to take a case in point, 58 percent of Harvard alumni and 43 percent of the alumnae pursued careers in finance and consulting.

 

And if “the geek shall inherit the earth,” as New York Times writer Manohla Dargis has suggested in a recent review of The Social Network--another just-released film--then public education and the optimists who still believe in it are awaiting a superhero who will never show up.

 

Instead of dropping out of Harvard at the end of his sophomore year and devoting time to his newly-founded Web site Facebook, in 2004, imagine Mark Zuckerberg staying in school, graduating, and signing up for Teach for America.  

 

You can’t imagine it.  Talented people, by and large, don’t go into teaching.  Top college students are not choosing a career in the classroom over more lucrative opportunities.  Even billionaire, tech tycoon Bill Gates himself, who has only in the last half decade or so devoted his full time and vast resources to educational philanthropy, did not set his sights on pedagogy.  

 

Nearly thirty years before Zuckerberg--and about two years after fellow silicon mogul Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College--Gates left Harvard in 1975 to found Microsoft with his boyhood friend Paul Allen.

 

None of these prodigies--Gates scored 1590 out of 1600 on the SAT and Zuckerberg was recruited by both Microsoft and AOL for software he designed as a senior at Phillips Exeter Academy--ventured into education.  Neither wizard invented anything to change the realm of public education.

 

The geeks may be inheriting the earth, but they are altogether interested in reifying information systems as the ultimate reality, as opposed to narrowing the graduation gap between male students in New York and their peers in Utah.

 

Even when a prominent public figure such as First Lady Michelle Obama exhorts women to foreswear corporate America in favor of work as social workers, nurses, and teachers, as she told women in Zanesville, Ohio, in February 2008, young people of color, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, will likely foreswear such advice and pursue high-paying positions, or at least fall headlong into student-loan debt in their pursuit of gold-plated positions.

 

Since Teach for America was expressly founded as an elite teacher corps by Princeton graduate Wendy Kopp, in 1990, one can reasonably identify this national corps of recent college graduates and professionals as “the superheroes we’ve been waiting for to save our schools.”  

 

The 46,000 applications received by Teacher for America in 2010 included 12 percent of all Ivy League seniors, in addition to 25 percent of all African-American and 20 percent of all Latino-American Ivy Leaguers, reported Naomi Schaefer Riley in a July 10, 2010, Wall Street Journal article.

 

But, in order to increase the number of two-year corps members to 15,000 by 2015, Teach for America would have to roughly double its present budget to $400 million and its applicant pool to 100,000 from 46,000. 

 

This fall, TFA sent 4,500 teachers into 100 of the lowest-performing schools in the country.   But having existed for 20 years, this teacher corps only has 28,000 alumni in its ranks nationwide.  I say “only” because the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s  dream of getting the hardest-working and most-committed teachers into public schools would entail the recruitment or installation of some 3.7 million hard-working, committed teachers.

 

Though Duncan’s idea seems straightforward and sound, where are nearly 4 million high-caliber teachers to be found?  They are not already in America’s classrooms, insist the reformers.

 

The presumed superheroes who appear in Waiting for “Superman”--Wendy Kopp (founder and CEO of Teach for America), Geoffrey Canada (president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone), Michelle Rhee (Chancellor of Washington, D.C. schools), Joel Klein (Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education), as well as David Levin and Mike Feinberg (co-founders of Knowledge Is Power  Program schools)--are all high-level, even celebrity, administrators, not teachers.

 

Albeit all of the latter have experience as teachers, except Klein, they are not the ones who are actually in the classrooms at their respective institutions, engaged in the trials and tribulations of the day-to-day instruction of America’s youth.

 

Still, by framing these educational leaders as supermen and superwomen, Guggenheim and co-writer Billy Kimball not only indulge in messianism--believing that an exceptional soul will deliver public schoolchildren from pedagogic afflictions--but also undermine the influence of regular teachers.

 

But who has time to wait on a messiah?  Apparently, American youth, 1.2 million of them, have obviously decided not to wait, and drop out of school every year to prove it.  That figure amounts to 1 student dropping out every 26 seconds.

 

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a book about the black social revolution, then spreading throughout the country, entitled Why We Can’t Wait, wherein he declared, “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

 

Years later, Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, pointed out that many “people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back--but they are gone.  We are it.  It is up to you.”

 

And Edelman is right, of course.  Waiting on messiahs and superheroes inculcates in people--children especially--the habit of passing the buck.  It saps creativity and sows passivity.  And people wonder why 29 percent of public high school teachers, in 2008, cited student apathy as a major obstacle to student achievement.

 

Yet, ask an underachieving pupil why he is not doing better in school, and he will probably make an excuse about what the teacher did not do.  Messianism fosters excuses.

 

Expecting tin gods to convert throngs of schoolchildren into whiz kids--an expectation entirely congruent with America’s esteem for things bombastic and mystical, to turn a phrase from the American newspaperman and caustic essayist H.L. Mencken-- contravenes what is desired by educational reformers, namely, self-controlled and rational students who are proficient in reading, math, and science.

 

But it’s like drawing blood from a rock--how is academic competence going to arise in a land encumbered with so many inanities and mediocrities, as is ours?

 

American intelligence feeds off bloopers, random text messages, and TV shows like Jersey Shore and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?  Our pabulum comes in the form of the chatter and flicker of celluloid idols and pop singers; tenacious policemen and newfangled cowboys; promiscuous priests and pious environmentalists; Wall Street shylocks and shady politicos; pill-happy doctors and corporate shysters; delinquent gladiators and vacuous housewives; teenage hooligans and designer-shod hussies; soulless tech-geeks and fire-eating Tea Partiers; suburban yahoos and of course bigwigged pedagogues.

 

And, out of this morass, thinkers are born?

 

Needless to say, if educational leaders are cast or cast themselves as superheroes, parading in ever-widening circles of limelight, while teachers, the ones who love their job and do it well, continue to receive little or no reward, then do not wait on superman, but expect American public education to remain an unredeemed ideal.

 

 

About Corey Olds

Corey Olds is the author of six children's books. He is also the co-founder of the Excelsus Foundation, an educational trust based in Oakland, California. He holds multiple degrees from Oberlin College and Stanford University. A former Latin teacher and professor of history, Olds spends his time between California, Ohio, and the Caribbean.

very wise words.

May I propose a solution, (or at least part of one)? We need an army of part-time teachers, who also work in the private sector- (or research sector, or charity, or go to school themselves, or...) Essentially we need teachers who can demonstrate first hand 'where, why, when, and how' they're ever going to use 'this'... And more importantly- that they *CAN* use it.

 

Oh yeah, and we're long overdue at getting rid of the old "memorize and test" method of "education". 

As I recall in my junior year of high school having to memorize every river, mountain, goegraphic anomoly- basically every single geographic feature in Asia- it might come as a surprise that I can only honestly name ONE river, and ONE mountain in Asia.  That's right, 120+ school days spent cramming full of shit that doesn't need to be memorized- meanwhile I didn't even know that Pearl Harbor happened BEFORE the U.S. joined the war in Europe, or that Japan had been invading almost the entire Pacific region for years in advance... I didn't know that China is the oldest continuous civilization on Earth- over 2500 years, when Chinese new year is- or what it signifies, that Taiwan is a separate country, why the U.S. faught in Korea- or even that North and South Korea are STILL at war (despite few violent conflicts over the last few decades)...  Hell, it never even really occured to me that India was a part of Asia.  But really, who could've envisioned that anyone would ever use THAT information?



Even in the classes that I liked: math and science, there was seriously NO application of anything we learned!  Despite myself asking our teachers when we'd get to "blow stuff up" at least twice a day- we only got to do it once!  And it was probably just to shut me up, I wound up memorizing every last detail of that experiment, and more importantly it's completely influenced my interest of and perspective on power and energy.  (running a 12v stream of electricity through water will split it into hydrogen and oxygen, and the hydrogen will accumulate around the negative terminal.  You can then fill say, a hollow egg shell with the hydrogen gas- light the hydrogen with a match- and watch the egg smash into the ceiling at about 1000mph)... 
Had we done this sort of thing on a weekly basis, I'd probably be bragging about some major contributions I had made to the world having a 42% hydrogen economy today... or even about designing the first sustained fusion reactor with a positive energy output...  We could even be popping champagne bottles right now, celebrating the greatest achievement in ALL of human history- man setting foot on Mars.
Instead, I'm ranting about what I coulda shoulda woulda learned in school.

Why would a 22 year old Harvard graduate make a good 2nd grade teacher?  What skills does that graduate have that a credentialed and experienced teacher lacks?  Energy?  Gumption?  Stick-to-it-iveness?  Those qualities don't teach children.  Teach for America is far from our savior.  They are generations of kids who think they know more than the old folks, only to find out they really aren't good at teaching and end up leaving the classroom to become lawyers and consultants anyway.

Furthermore, when you say "Talented people, by and large, don't go into teaching," you are wrong.  Teachers are some of the most talented people out there.  They are surrogate parents, counselors, coaches, crafters, emergency responders, family advocates, singers, dancers, performers, writers, literary critics, and artists.  I don't know many of those "great minds" you listed that are nearly as multi-talented as the average teacher.

skb, you make a lot of good points, but so does Corey, in my view. It's so hard to retain good teachers--they are often not treated as professionals and they burn out because the job is so demanding with so little support. And yet it is one of the MOST important jobs, isn't it?