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No waiting for Superman

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On the first day of my freshman year in high school, my English teacher, Miss Hurcik, asked us to write a short essay on that classic theme, "What I Did On My Summer Vacation." I was eager to show my new teacher what I could do. I wasn't that hot at math, but in junior high the teachers encouraged me to write. I figured this was my chance to shine.

I wrote about a trip my parents and I took to the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania. I described the place and its history. As I recall, I finished by trying to express how the experience made me feel.

I felt pretty good about that essay.

Sure enough, when Miss Hurcik returned the paper to me, it was marked 'A' at the top. But there was a note at the end that made my blood run cold. It said I was getting the 'A' because Miss Hurcik couldn't prove that I'd cheated on the assignment. Next time, though, I'd better not copy someone else's work.

It took me a year to get over being punished, in effect, for doing the best I could in school. If another teacher, Miss Trout, hadn't discovered me in my sophomore year and reassigned me to her fast-track world history class, I'm not sure what would have happened to me in high school.

Miss Trout's world history class was a revelation: I found out that life was a lot easier in a fast-track class than in the slow and average classes. In the fast-track classes, kids raised their hands and listened to one another; teachers were on their side. Whereas, in one of my slow math classes, a kid actually threw his desk at the teacher. I sat in the back and tried my best to make myself invisible.

Thanks to Miss Trout, I found high school's promised land. One fast class led to another and, when I satisfied that math requirement at the end of sophomore year, I found myself actually looking forward to school, instead of dreading it.

All this came to mind after watching Waiting For Superman, the documentary film about the mess we've made of our educational system. Waiting For Superman makes a strong case for the impact teachers can have on students' lives. At one point, the educator Geoffrey Canada compares great teachers to great artists. It's a powerful analogy.

Great teachers, like great artists, are both gifted and highly disciplined. Their craft is based on a mastery of knowledge and technique, enabling them to come up with creative solutions to problems in a variety of situations, and to bring fresh insight to familiar materials.

But what Canada leaves out of his analogy is that great artists are, in fact, rare. More artists are good than great, and many, many more than that are merely satisfactory. It's important to remember this, particularly when we consider what should constitute teacher training. The Master of Fine Arts programs that have sprung up in colleges and universities across the country have enabled more people than ever to write decent short stories and make passable paintings. True masterpieces are scarce as ever.

Waiting For Superman casts a rueful eye back to American schools in the 1950's and '60s. This, the movie as much as says, was the golden age of American public education. Compared to what we have today, it's hard to disagree.

But if the quality of education during the Baby Boom era was preferable, it wasn't because teacher colleges were turning out an army of master teachers. For every Miss Trout, there was a Miss Hurcik.

The difference was the curriculum. Baby Boomers, no matter where they went to school, all studied essentially the same subjects, consisting of similar content. When I entered college, in 1969, I found that my peers, whether they came from Grand Forks or Boston, Seattle or Baton Rouge, had all read pretty much the same books, and had similar stories to tell.

Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find this kind of cultural consistency among schools in the same city.

To the extent that our schools worked, it was because there was a general – make that, cultural – agreement about what constituted a sound education. Was this agreement reductive? Certainly. Did it allow for a variety of learning styles? Hardly. It was also far too hierarchical, authoritarian and triumphal. That's why we started dismantling it in the '70s.

We're nowhere near reaching the kind of cultural consensus about what constitutes an education that made our system work following World War II. We've substituted choice for consensus and that's proven to be a shallow, at times even brutal, alternative. That we put kids and parents through the lottery process shown in Waiting For Superman is nothing short of barbaric.

I was lucky. Though Miss Hurcik did her worst, Miss Trout was there to help bring out my best. Both teachers worked within a common system that made navigation possible. We don't have that now. Don't count on education getting better in this country until we do.

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