The fable of the super-teacher

Political leaders and top school administrators love the Hollywood image of the super-teacher because it absolves them of responsibility for the schools crisis.

SCHOOL IS out for the summer, and some students are celebrating their graduation from high school. In New York City schools, it's an embarrassingly low number of kids. The graduation rate here is 50 percent.

Columnist: Brian Jones

Brian Jones Brian Jones is a teacher, actor and activist in New York City. He is featured in the new film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, and his commentary and writing has appeared on MSNBC.com, the Huffington Post, GritTV and the International Socialist Review. Jones has also lent his voice to several audiobooks, including Howard Zinn's one-man play Marx in Soho, Wallace Shawn's Essays and Noam Chomsky's Hopes and Prospects.

So I was struck last week by a New York Times article that celebrated the graduation of students at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Brooklyn. A large photo showed smiling students in cap and gown, eyes full of tears, exchanging hugs. The headline was: "Attention Goes a Long Way at a School, By Design." Their graduation rate: 93 percent.

In many ways, this single article speaks volumes about the crisis in the public schools. On the one hand, we have the problem--50 percent of the system's children do not graduate. On the other, we have one attempt at a solution--the "small" schools, a strategy pressed for by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, because, he says, "students who get more personal attention will have more success in the classroom."

The article highlights the story of a few different graduates. One, Charles, barely passed most of his middle-school classes, but thanks to the persistence of his teachers at Urban Assembly, he's now college-bound.

The day that Roanda, another student, received her acceptance letter from Amherst College was "the best day of my life so far," she said. "I screamed, I was so happy."

Who doesn't love to hear these stories? This is what education should be about--helping young people to succeed and to develop the kind of self-confidence that grows with that success.

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SO WHAT are the secret ingredients at Urban Assembly? The article goes on to describe the "enormous effort and amount of resources it takes to make a school succeed. Teachers and other staff members routinely work 60 hours a week. Millions of extra dollars have been collected in grants and private donations. Parents and students regularly attend workshops until 10 p.m."

But Klein wasn't fazed by the tales of long hours. "When people are part of the world of changing things for children," he said, "they don't view it as work," he said, pointing to members of his own staff who log 14-hour days.

You don't have to be Karl Marx to raise an eyebrow when your boss suggests that you shouldn't view your job as work.

We've heard the stories of the super-teachers working super-hard and having great success. We've seen the movies. They are meant to inspire us. So what's wrong with a little inspiration?

Well, for one thing it's not sustainable. "While the work is inspiring," the Times reported, "Ms. Karopkin [the principal] said that she has lost several teachers--many of whom had just begun to hit their stride--to graduate school or to more lucrative and less grueling jobs."

Notice, by the way, that these aren't the classic "lazy" and "burned-out" teachers who are usually blamed for the problems in schools. These are teachers who were working really hard--and yet, even that wasn't enough. They still had to work hundreds of hours for free and raise millions of extra dollars.

Frankly, the legend of the superhero teacher who works around the clock and does whatever it takes doesn't inspire me anymore. This is the richest country in world history, and I live in one of its richest cities. We have a billionaire mayor who could personally see to it that every school has the kind of resources that Urban Assembly has. But no, it's not his fault. It's those lazy, un-inspired teachers who never saw Lean On Me.

The super-teacher fable is important for the Bloombergs and Kleins of the world precisely because it absolves them of any real responsibility. Schools can be, in reality, set up to fail, but as long as there are a few success stories to point to, the rest of us are supposed to feel like criminals for viewing our job as work.

Interestingly, even the principal at Urban Assembly doesn't seem to buy the Bloomberg-Klein "hero" model of education. As the Times reported, "Most of the staff is in their late 20s, and few have families at home. But, Ms. Karopkin said, nobody should be forced to choose between educating other people's children and having their own.

"Surely, she said, if there were more teachers assigned to fewer students, the work would be more manageable, and good teachers might be compelled to stay. Either that, or the salary must be significantly higher."

And there's the rub (if not the headline of the Times article). It turns out that even at one of Klein's "small schools," giving students individual attention still requires higher levels of staffing to make the work manageable. And it turns out that even a "small school" still needs millions more dollars than public schools normally get. Oh yeah, and they need to pay the teachers more, so they can feel like it's worthwhile to stay.

Instead of "Attention Goes a Long Way at a School, By Design," perhaps a more accurate headline would have been: "Successful School Needs Incentives, More Staff to Keep Teachers" or "School Needed Millions to Graduate 93 Percent" or "Successful Small School Principal: We Still Need More Teachers and Higher Salaries."

Ms. Karopkin is obviously a highly successful educator. If the city followed her simple suggestions, more schools would actually be set up to succeed. Administrators shouldn't have to go begging for donations. Students shouldn't have to wait around for superheroes to fly in (and then, in all likelihood, fly back out). Real-life teachers (not the silver screen variety) ought to be able to get the job done in working conditions suited to mere mortals.