Back to School

Could teachers become the new lawyers?

It’s back-to-school season, and students aren’t alone in suffering from a case of nerves. Linda Perlstein, a former Washington Post reporter who spent 2005-06 embedded in Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, Md., opens Tested: One American School Struggles To Make the Grade with a snapshot of its anxiety-ridden principal. *“You could not tell by looking that Tina McKnight was in pain,” Perlstein writes of the woman desperate to make her all-minority school a success in the No Child Left Behind era. “Her back throbbed, sore from hours of bending over the toilet, possibly from food poisoning but more likely from stress.” At the opposite end of the spectrum, Alec Klein spent the 2006 spring term in New York City’s most selective public high school, Stuyvesant. In A Class Apart: Prodigies, Pressure, and Passion Inside One of America’s Best High Schools, he introduces a principal equally wracked with tension. “Shaggy-haired, bearded, emaciated, and incredibly tired,” Stanley Teitel “buries his head in his hands, uttering, ‘God, I’m not going to get through these weeks.’ “

Enter a schoolhouse door these days with a journalist or a screenwriter, and you’ll find the grown-ups within looking like masochistic martyrs. The Hollywood glow of the educator-as-hero, a figure familiar from stump speeches and pop entertainment, has faded. Don’t go to HBO’s The Wire, set last season in the Baltimore public school system, for a dose of idealism. The much-praised independent film Half-Nelson is grim, too, with Ryan Gosling starring as a drug-addicted maverick trying—and failing—to teach history his own way in a New York City middle school. The Sundance Channel’s documentary The Education of Ms. Groves, which aired this week, unsparingly exposes a new teacher’s naive optimism, according to the New York Times. Freedom Writers is the exception: To watch Hilary Swank single-handedly create an oasis of harmony in a gang-ridden L.A. high school seems a throwback to a simpler narrative arc.

In the eclipse of the saintly teacher image by the hard-boiled scene in recent insider accounts, are we seeing yet another cause for educational alarm? The picture of beleaguered teams of educators, as doubt-plagued as they are driven, isn’t pretty. Yet the new profile of teachers and administrators outlined in Perlstein’s and Klein’s books may, oddly enough, give a useful boost to the prestige of a profession in urgent need of cultural cachet.

Just how urgent that need is could hardly be clearer. Thanks to baby boomer retirements and high turnover rates among new recruits, many states are confronting a teacher shortage—especially in the lowest-performing public schools in the country. American schools also face the problem of teacher quality. The world’s best educational systems—among them, Singapore, South Korea, Finland, and Alberta, Canada—cull their teaching forces from their top college graduates. The United States draws from the bottom third to staff a profession that, like many traditionally female-dominated pursuits, inspires reverence, at its best, but lacks social status. If there is one thing school reformers agree on, it’s the importance of raising the caliber of teachers.

But there is no consensus on how to engineer the image upgrade that would help lure more of the best and the brightest. Look abroad, to the premier school systems, and a spectrum of tactics emerges. On one end is South Korea, where teachers get big paychecks—and big classes, which make the salaries affordable. On the other is Finland, where teacher salaries aren’t high but social status is: Considered on a par in prestige with lawyers and doctors, teachers are well-trained and wield real influence over curricular and other school policies. Yet to judge by the behind-the-scenes view of American schools that Perlstein and Klein provide, teacher autonomy and authority are rare commodities in the NCLB era. And recruitment incentives and merit pay, while welcome, alone aren’t likely to give the cultural boost the profession requires.

For that, more is required. Strangely, perhaps, the spectacle of obsessive administrators and anxious teachers in the trenches presented by both Perlstein and Klein just might help buttress a field that could use some defeminizing. High-pressured and punishing—of such macho qualities is social cachet often built in the world of work. Nowhere in Tyler Heights or Stuyvesant, in Perlstein’s and Klein’s portrayals, do you hear anyone touting the familiar (female- and family-friendly) perks of the profession: the long summer months off, the seasonal breaks, the 3 o’clock dismissals, the heartwarming kids. Teachers’ unions never get mentioned, nor do bonuses. The scene is more reminiscent of, say, the Union army, beset by struggles and squabbles within the ranks, yet striving to make slow headway on divisive home ground.

Stanley Teitel, presiding over a racially balkanized and brilliant student body at Stuyvesant, hasn’t had a summer vacation in more than 20 years. In Klein’s account, the principal has to deal with battles over instituting time cards and installing metal detectors, per school superintendent dictate. (Never mind that at wonky Stuyvesant, both are a waste of money.) And then there are his run-ins with Daniel Jaye, the math department head, school “fixer,” and general upstart. For all his rebel qualities, Jaye—like his colorful colleagues—is finally more harried than heroic, run ragged by a hypercompetitive system dedicated to promoting prizewinning, SAT-aceing stars. Faculty and whiz kids alike, forever up against some contest or other, are regularly on the verge of burnout—yet soldier on.

The tensions are even more intense at the bottom than at the top. At Tyler Heights, Tina McKnight, attentive to every detail, sleeps only three hours a night. Dramatic test score improvements make her an NCLB miracle-worker, trotted out at educational conferences. Flattered, she fills that proselytizing role with her characteristic gusto, preaching a fervent focus on prep for the dreaded annual Maryland School Assessment, which determines a school’s fate and funding under Bush’s legislation. Yet she’s frustrated, too. Buffeted by trendy consultants and shifting curricula, she sees the toll the endless drills take on kids and young teachers. Tina joins her staff in worrying not only about scores but about what the obsession with them is doing to schools. They can become joyless places, especially those that are home to the poorest and least prepared students, who get no respite from test-driven work, for fear they’ll slip even further behind.

It’s enough to deter anyone from a career in education. Or is it? In resisting the urge to romanticize the profession, the recent portraits accord administrators and teachers a hardheaded seriousness you don’t find in the more familiar story of the rare starry-eyed saviors surrounded by mediocrities. The educators in these books, constantly under pressure to deal with some deadline or demand or dilemma, are anything but slackers. They’re mired in, but not blinkered by, recalcitrant everyday realities, from getting through rote exercises to dealing with kids with suspicious bruises. Unillusioned realists, they’re aware of the strains and inevitable trade-offs entailed in trying to arm both the brightest and the poorest for a fast-paced knowledge economy.

This blend of dogged energy and chastened maturity might almost look glamorous, especially to the kind of well-groomed college graduate the profession is eager to attract. For the super-credentialed, trophy-laden “organization kid” cohort, here at last might be a chance for anti-heroic apprenticeship in messy experience, the kind that will shake up studiously mapped horizons. Indeed, this year, according to Business Week, the not-for-profit Teach for America ranks among the top 10 most desirable employment opportunities for undergraduates, up there with Google and Disney. It is precisely the draining rigors of the job that are intrinsic to teaching’s appeal, helping it shed its schoolmarmish taint, suggests Fortunein an article about TFA’s popularity. “The program has been likened to a domestic Peace Corps, with long work hours and much emotional demand, so it’s not for the faint of heart.”

But is it for the fickle? There are plenty for whom TFA is merely a worthy way station en route to a more lucrative vocation. Attrition rates in general are rising, with a third of all new teachers, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, leaving the field within three years. Still, as states now hurry to fill empty spots, doling out incentives in the process (including bonuses, housing subsidies, and teaching fellows programs designed to lure mid-career professionals), an aura of rugged commitment to uphill team efforts can only help.

So do ever-more-visible role models, demonstrating how influential—and entrepreneurial—a sustained educational career could be in an era when school change is on the agenda. Veterans of the now almost 20-year-old Teach for America program are beginning to make headlines, most notably 37-year-old Michelle Rhee. A TFA graduate who went on to found the New Teacher Project, which trains teachers for high-need schools, she was just named schools chancellor of Washington, D.C., home to the nation’s worst performing education system. A thankless job, more conducive to ulcers than to miracles: It would be hard to find a better showcase of the new ethos.

* Correction, Aug. 31, 2007: An earlier version of this story misstated the title of the book Tested. (Return to the corrected sentence.)