Where Superheroes and Sisyphus Meet

by Kelly Amis

Portrait_hr3 Early in Davis Guggenheim’s education documentary “Waiting for Superman,” star Geoffrey Canada explains the title’s origin: as a child, Canada was devastated to learn that Superman didn’t exist, because who else would come save his troubled South Bronx neighborhood?

Today, Canada embodies a real-life version of the superhero he longed for, at least for several thousand families in New York City. Canada has embraced an entire community—100 blocks in Harlem—with a multifaceted effort to break the cycles of illiteracy, poverty and crime that have ravaged lives there for decades, including and especially by ensuring that every child receives a rigorous education. The results, so far, have been tremendous.

Success stories like this make me cry, but another story Canada relates in “Superman” made me laugh out loud (in a very quiet theater).

Once he became an adult, Canada explains, he decided to go study what was wrong with the public education system so he “could fix it.” After earning a master’s degree from Harvard, he figured this would take “two, maybe three years.” That was 35 years ago.

I didn’t laugh because this overreached; I laughed because I had thought the exact same thing when I first started working in education reform, in my case, about 20 years ago.

During my senior year in college, posters announcing a new program suddenly appeared everywhere on campus. Created by a twenty-two year-old named Wendy Kopp, Teach for America would send recent college grads into “under-resourced” American public schools to teach for two years, following the Peace Corps model. This struck me as the perfect way to give something back for the privileged educational opportunities I had enjoyed.

After graduation and an intense, hot summer training with 499 other idealists, I received my placement: I would be teaching fourth and fifth grades—simultaneously—in South Central, Los Angeles. (Teaching two grades at one time is a ridiculous situation for any teacher, let alone a new one, but it happens in schools where the children’s needs are not the first priority.)

My placement school was typical for the area, serving all minority students (about 50/50 black and Hispanic) and rampant with unnecessary failure. Why this was so—the reasons why many if not most students there were failing academically—was so obvious that I figured the reality simply wasn’t being transmitted to the policymakers who could do something about it.

I put my original career plans on hold and went to earn a master’s in education policy—my choice was Stanford—assuming it would help me figure out how to effectively share what I had witnessed and, as Canada thought, fix it.

But a funny thing happened on my way to bringing commonsense to the situation; I started to encounter the many adults who don’t want the system to change and/or don’t believe it’s possible.

Sadly, this began at Stanford. Despite its relative prestige, Stanford’s School of Education was a disappointment (although, I guess it prepared me for future years of frustration…would that be the idealist’s take?). In an education economics class, we spent hours pondering a production function for an effective school, only to learn that the professor believes no such thing exists. Another professor warned us that since the radio and television hadn’t radically impacted K-12 education, neither would computer technology.

I don’t necessarily blame the faculty for having lost their inspiration or belief in solutions. Devoting yourself to education policy is not just frustrating, it can be downright surreal; so many obvious, simple and/or commonsensical solutions are stopped at the border crossing into reality and turned away.

So what are these obvious solutions?

Teachers who teach. I mean this literally. Because there are teachers who don’t show up for days or weeks on end, or who have their students watch random tv or movies all day, or who put out board games and puzzles to keep the kids busy, etc. They do not teach.

Teachers who expect their students to achieve. If the adults in the school do not believe their students can achieve (and—correlated—behave), naturally they get exactly what they expect.

Principals who can actually fire those teachers who do not teach and/or do not believe their students can achieve. Right now, principals usually can’t even fire teachers who have abused children—they can only transfer them somewhere else. And guess where bad teachers are usually transferred to? Answer: schools where parents have the least power and voice to be able to do something about it.

Unfortunately, our public discourse around this issue quickly veers away from the severe injustice being perpetrated against children and communities and into a superficial debate about whether one is pro- or anti-teacher.

But does anyone benefit from this status quo? The teachers who are not teaching….they must hate their jobs. I don’t believe anyone signs up to teach knowing they won’t enjoy or be good at it. The problem is, once they get into the classroom, the profession is structured in such a way that they have every incentive to stick around until retirement and few if any reasons not to.

Of course, most teachers do teach, do believe in their students, and are effective or trying to become so. Many are unsung, poorly compensated heroes who will teach no matter how dysfunctional we allow their workplaces to be. Imagine what a constant challenge it is to be surrounded by so much failure, to be paid the same as the non-teachers even when you are working ten-plus hours a day, or to start each year with a new class of students who just spent one or more years in classrooms where no one expected them to behave or learn or work hard. These teachers stick with it for the students.

The good news is that—as I believe the advent of “Waiting for Superman” represents—this core factor that matters most in the classroom, teacher quality, is finally getting the attention it deserves.

I mostly attribute the devastated economy with bringing issues like teacher tenure and seniority to the public’s docket. When you have so many hard-working, capable people in myriad other professions getting laid off and struggling to survive, it becomes more difficult to ignore that teachers have life-long job protection whether they are effective or not, and even sometimes when they have lost or been removed from their actual positions (did I mention a surreal quality to this work?).

A seismic shift is underway in American education that has been a long time coming, and while the forces against change are as strong as ever, I believe the heroes will eventually carry the day.

Kelly Amis is the creator of TEACHED, a documentary and multimedia project.