Movie trailers promise that both Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz will soon amuse us with their antics as drunken teachers. Maybe only working teachers closely watch how teachers are portrayed on film. But the devolution of Hollywood fantasies about the classroom coincides with real-world contempt for teaching and learning that will cost the U.S. dearly.
Not just individual burned-out teachers, but teachers as a group are the object of attack in Waiting for Superman, a reality-show style “documentary,” that casts CEO Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children’s Zone as a caped crusader. That is because his semi-private school, a favorite of corporate funders, is purportedly the opposite of public schools with unionized teachers. Doctors, lawyers, accountants and electricians have an ethical obligation to certify the expertise of their peers and bargain collectively. Teachers who want to retain the same principle, in this much-praised film that has inspired Washington to reproduce its strategy, are presented as free-loading obstructionist bureaucrats. Have teachers become less admired than lawyers?
Yet if groups of teachers are craven, how is the lone, devoted, rebel-teacher, the one who stands up to outdated educational bureaucracy, faring these days? We’ve come a long way from Blackboard Jungle, To Sir with Love, or even Lean on Me or Stand and Deliver. Today the violent teachers of those movies would be jailed for assault, not vindicated by turning the lives of gang-youth toward gainful employment.
Perhaps tough love has morphed into self-esteem training, if the Hillary Swank film Freedom Writers is representative. But despite good intentions and a distant inspiration by a true story, Freedom Writers was a flop compared to Half Nelson. In that film, Ryan Gosling teaches Marxist dialectical materialism to his students to empower them. As one might today expect of such a subversive, Gosling’s character also happens to be a crack addict. The two-fisted tough-love mentor now only harms himself as a tame substance abuser.
Self-medication might be an understandable reaction to the actual material dialectic of U.S. education in the last half-century. During the Cold War school-building boom of the 60s and 70s, other accelerations took place. The arms, engineering and space race neatly coincided with the demographic explosion of the Baby Boom. Every Boomer, then, wanted to be credentialed, which created a thriving market in degree-dilution. Jobs that once required a high-school degree ratcheted up to require a college degree. (In the Julia Roberts film, Tom Hanks, despite excellence in his job, is fired and goes to college to credential-up.) During the same period, the actual achievement of U.S. students slid down a slope when compared to that of other nations, particularly in reading, writing, math and social sciences.
Diving into the bottle may look good if one is cast as a cog in a machine turning out increasingly numerous degrees that signify less and less. The movie-cousin of the rebel-teacher is the rebel-detective, a hard-drinking outsider who battles a corrupt system.
Portraying teachers as embittered outsiders has been very popular, perhaps because teachers have an inconvenient habit of teaching the history of state politics in the classroom. Consider that recently New York, New Jersey and Wisconsin state legislatures decided, after the bad investments they made went south, to make up the difference by reneging on promised teacher (and other public worker) benefits. Voters love that idea. It turns out that despite how expensive and powerful teachers are supposed to be, they don’t have the public support or the resources to defend their own contracts.
George W. Bush’s and Barak Obama’s administrations have met the challenges of an oversupply of degrees and the decrease in educational quality with a smoke-stack economy answer. If we restyle “No Child Left Behind” as a “Race to the Top,” the strategy still assumes that education is like any other manufacturing enterprise. Centrally standardized benchmarks and frequent tests will boost quality. Such a view of education is fascinating from graduates of Columbia, Yale, and Harvard, which are all branded as places that nurture the one-of-a-kind excellence and entrepreneurial inventiveness of their students.
In any case, an ever tighter focus on testing as the gold-standard of product (student), and increasingly, teacher quality, is the new normal. Life is full of tests, but many of them are not in blue books or susceptible to theoretical solutions. Back to teachers: how much affection, respect and inspiration can the teacher as test-preparer and administrator generate?
The nations that are winning the global competition in education do test frequently. More importantly, they combine testing with an emphasis on academic subjects and a passion for enquiry, give little attention to sports and school-social events, and insist on small-class size, instruction until 5pm and short vacation breaks.
Shockingly, those nations also instituted large government investments in education, raised teacher salaries, and constructed teacher-development programs that attracted elite members of their societies. Winners in the education race also tend to make work-experience related to school intense, demanding and academically challenging, something proprietary colleges are positioned well to do.
But let’s return to movies. Slick films by John Hughes have not helped. The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off all promise that buying the coolest products and undergoing a style makeover are way better than any academic accomplishment. That fit the times. When production and consumption was perceived as a viable real world educational model, fantasies that the champion consumer was also the unappreciated champion student took hold.
Once the customer-student was a hero, the star of Legally Blonde could crash Harvard. Yet before Reese Witherspoon played a charming and intelligent fetishist of pink, Thorsten Veblen’s conspicuous consumer in heels, she portrayed a devious and driven conniver in a great film about venality in students and teachers, Election. Her earlier first role was simply the dark side of the second.
Facebook was devised as a money-making machine from the beginning, marketing fellow students to one another based on their sex appeal. But The Social Network invented a fantasy in which the obnoxious hero only slowly realizes the consumer potential of exploiting an invention initiated by others. Twin streams of intellectual theft and classmates-as-commodities became a river-flood of cash.
The late arrival of concern for education of the data-marketing barons Bill Gates, entertainment baron George Lukas, and even charitable efforts by Facebook, miraculously timed to offset bad publicity from The Social Network, have the potential to do a great good. Sometimes the data-marketing barons have simply tossed dollars at school systems. Sometimes they have funded political lobbying to privatize education. But their initiatives are likely to mature. The precedent is the educational efforts of the smoke-stack robber barons Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller, which eventually benefited education when the organizations they founded hired seasoned teachers as well as leaders recruited to overturn the status quo.
Yet now that the fantasy of education as high-end shopping has been inculcated for two generations, it would take a great deal to revitalize the tradition of education as a forum for hard-won discovery, a realm apart from instant gratification.
Let’s wish the characters that Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz portray well as they rediscover the joys of sobriety, doing their jobs, and, one can expect, finding romance. There are a few pockets of education that are not predicated on an assembly line, thank goodness, even if now movies cast the teachers, not the students, as the ones who must be redeemed. One can tune in South Park or The Simpsons to see the raunchy redoubt of education as liberation.
Rankings are dubious (particularly for business schools). Here is a selection of a few, but they must be weighed for the agenda of the group doing the ranking, methodology (often flawed by gathering information from the universities themselves), and scrutinized for several years to see if schools rise or fall with improbable rapidity.
In addition, as a rule of thumb, rankings are only meaningful within a particular discipline, such as school-psychology. Rankings of whole colleges and universities are highly suspect, even for “general education.”
Probably the most reliable “ranking” within the U.S., is published by the National Research Council (NRC). Their Report provides data-driven assessments of doctoral programs across the U.S.
http://www.nap.edu/rdp/. Other NRC publications evaluate U.S. education in the context of other nations.
International University Rankings
The Huffington Post
The Times (UK)
ARWU (Institute of Higher Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University)
The Central Intelligence Agency report on expenditures on education as percent of GDP
(The U.S. is ranked #43)
International School Data
National Center for Education Statistics (data from various countries)
UNESCO data on pre- and post-secondary educational attainment
from The World Bank
A California lawmaker and former professor of education with an international focus, Mike Honda, discusses his ideas:
How Finland, a tiny country, but at the top of international comparisons of education, improved their schools
The McKinsey consulting firm’s report on how nations can turn around their schools, and how one size does not fit all:
A report by the Annenberg Foundation on how collaboration and idea-sharing can improve secondary schools