Some of TV’s best shows (Freaks and Geeks, Friday Night Lights) as well as its pretty good ones (Community, Glee) have been about students. Far fewer directly take on the drama-parching details of education policy.
A few try to personalize them: on the crying machine that was Parenthood, for instance, Kristina Braverman is inspired by her autistic son to open a charter school, not very believably. Sometimes it’s a sidebar, as apparently it will be on CW’s forthcoming Black Lightning, whose hero is both a successful principal of a charter school and, if necessary (when vendors overcharge or on state tests, say), a DC comics superhero.
Which is too bad, because TV can be tremendously inspiring about real issues. I felt that as I binged through season six of The West Wing with my daughter. Midway through, Jimmy Smits surfaced as Matt Santos, a charismatic but long-shot contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. We know he has a chance because one of the show’s stars, the policy aide Josh Lyman (twinkling fan favorite Bradley Whitford) has left his top-level White House job to run the campaign.
Josh designs a gradual, specifics-free plan to raise Matt’s visibility in New Hampshire, but the candidate almost immediately suggests “a kickoff speech about education.”
“The problem with education is that it’s stuck in the muck,” Josh explains. “You got teachers unions blocking any change in hiring structure. You got local schools districts ready to burn coloring books if Washington dictates what color crayon. New Hampshire is about retail politics, person to person. People here won’t vote for you till you’ve had coffee in their house five times.”
Santos is undeterred. He begins pitching a 240-day school year when he meets donors and activists, pointing out that Germany is at 240 and Japan is at 243.
“I’ll be honest with you,” says one party loyalist, “I don’t know many people who’ll be excited by a longer school year.”
“I got a pretty good education in 180 days,” says another.
Santos says he’d end tenure to “get rid of failing teachers” and improve the quality of the school day. (An activist replies, “Our cousin Phyllis is a teacher.”)
He also says that “We need to nationalize the system” to keep up with India and China. Josh: “That’s a half-trillion-dollar joke you just made.”
An education package that includes 240 school days, ending tenure, and nationalizing schools isn’t anyone’s agenda. But the specific, not-totally-crazy talk was kind of exciting. Santos’s passion was inspiring. And when the sharpest guy suggests everyone will hate you if you run on education, and even Jimmy Smits can’t make it interesting — that was realistic.
I should mention that The Wire devoted an entire season to education. It’s brutal, convincing, and ideological. No Child Left Behind worsens Baltimore’s problems.
Finally, Matt Santos did not introduce education to The West Wing. In its very first season, Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creator and writer for four seasons, had White House aide Sam Seaborn say: “Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes; we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce; they should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense.”