Our worst public schools could use a little Luck -- as in Andrew.
For this week's NFL Draft, millions of sports fans will be glued to their televisions, eager to dream about how much their teams have improved. Andrew Luck will be selected by the Indianapolis Colts, at 2-14 the worst team in pro football last year.
That's the way the league keeps a sense of balance and perspective: The cellar dweller picks first while the best team (Super Bowl champion New York Giants) selects last. Then it's on to the next round, Colts first, Giants last. The result is that teams have a chance to improve, with no guarantees but plenty of fresh opportunity.
In our schools, though, we run a free-agent system: Star teachers select where they want to go. As a result, the rich schools get richer, the poor stay painfully poor. The losers, of course, are the weakest kids, often the ones in the lowest-income communities with their under-performing institutions.
A few weeks ago, I walked the halls of a struggling Atlanta high school. The principal was doing his best to show off the school's successes: This is our AP English class, the newspaper office, the college counseling office.
If I didn't already know better, I might have been impressed. The principal, you see, is the school's fourth in the past six years. The school hasn't achieved the closely monitored Academic Yearly Progress, or AYP, in those same six years. The Westside neighborhood in Atlanta has abandoned its support of their community school -- and enrollment now stands at roughly one third of what it was a decade ago.
During the walk-around, I looked into the classrooms to see how the teachers were faring. What I saw shocked me. Oh sure, there were a number of faculty members who looked engaged and energized. The beloved history teacher. The journalism teacher.
But so many others flunked the "would I want her teaching my kid?" question. Teachers on exchange programs from India and Africa -- not to single out those places, but teaching there has traditionally been memorization-based in classrooms as large as 50 students. Another noted star during my walk-around in Atlanta: the young woman from Teach for America. Now, I like that program as much as anyone, but when your star is sure to leave within two years, you might be in a bit of trouble.
So many other teachers in the building had the hangdog look of "been here way too long." I know that look well; I grew up with it. My father was a math teacher at Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, and had burned out on the profession a decade before he retired from the rapidly declining school.
Back in Atlanta, I asked the principal how he recruits teachers. His answer reflected a weariness that caught me by surprise. "I try to start very early in the year, finding those teachers I think can help us. But it's tough, so very tough."
As he spoke, my mind went to sports. The school system, I realized, works on a model very similar to Major League Baseball: The draft does little to change the game. Instead, free agency is paramount, and so the Yankees, Red Sox and other top teams can get just about anyone they want. They pay very well, have a shot at winning it all each year, and as importantly have a culture of winning. My son's elite Atlanta private school is the same way -- top talent just wants to be there.
But poor high schools are a bit like the Pittsburgh Pirates trying to lure hot free agents to a franchise that hasn't had a winning record since 1982. In general, the recruiting game works against them.
So, how do we get good talent into poor urban schools?
Maybe look to the NFL. What if the worst schools were allowed to select first, snaring the best teacher available? What if the poor performers could pick up an Andrew Luck every few years? Couldn't those schools start building around that player? What if students each day were challenged by smart, energetic teachers bringing new playbooks to the game?
The other piece of the puzzle, of course, is pay. When weak teams have the opportunity to pay more money, better players often opt to go there. So, maybe weak public schools could be allowed to pay bigger bucks for teachers agreeing to sign on at a struggling school. Ten thousand, twenty thousand more a year -- and a long-term contract -- might change some minds.
The NFL is a super-successful 21st-century business. It works. Maybe our schools could use a bit of that Luck.