Finally, somebody is touting reality television that I would willingly watch, and it could be bigger than "Swamp Kardashians" or "Mirandizing with the Stars." Call it "Cameras in the Classrooms."
The idea of putting cameras in every public school classroom in the United States is reportedly going to get a big boost when Bill Gates proposes it in an education special airing May 7 on PBS. The Gates Foundation has been quietly floating the idea since 2011.
And I have some good news for Gates.
Although supporters of cameras in classrooms have come up with a price of $5 billion, I say they're wrong. I think we've finally found a way to turn schools into profit centers.
Virtually every parent I know would gladly pay $10.95 per month to see what's going on in his or her kid's classes, for reasons far beyond wondering how pithily her teachers explain the Pythagorean theorem. We are fascinated by the lives of our children, and mostly face information blackouts.
For all I know, my 11-year-old daughter spends her time outside the house running an organized crime family. I recently asked what she does at lunch and she said, "I sit with my people, at our table, taking care of business." I'm not saying she's definitely running numbers and loaning out money, I'm just saying I have no idea what happens in her life on weekdays from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. and she always has more cash than me.
If the schools would throw in a "Playground Cam" and a "Cafeteria Cam," they could name their own price. The biggest problem would be in families with multiple offspring:
Dad: "Turn the channel back to Jenny. I think that senior is trying to smooch her."
Mom: "Are you crazy? Timmy is about to get in a shoving match with a guy the size of Shrek. Besides, I've seen this Jenny episode before. She turns her head and all he gets is cheek."
So the fact that the cameras would cost $5 billion isn't a bar to the plan. But I do sometimes wonder if the whole "what's wrong with our failing schools" mantra isn't out of hand.
In The New York Times last week, William Reese, a professor of educational policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin, wrote an enlightening piece about the birth of educational standards and standardized testing in Boston, about 160 years ago. The problems were the same then: low scores on the new tests, students seemingly woefully ignorant, and huge achievement gaps between rich and poor, black and white. The response: Blame the teachers.
We think of schools as factories, and we demand they turn out well-educated students. When they don't, we tend to blame the teachers, but we don't talk about what teachers have to work with. A linen factory forced to use rough cotton can't make comfy sheets. A knife factory sent shoddy steel can't make great blades.
And schools sent students with a tiny vocabulary, no self-discipline, poor nutrition, terrible sleep habits, unstable home lives, and emotional, behavioral and developmental problems can't, generally, produce great scholars.
We love to believe great teachers make great schools, and there's some truth to that. But there's a lot more truth to this: Great students make great schools, and a lot of what goes into being a great student has little to do with teachers.
I believe we need to evaluate teachers with measurable results and observation. I have no problem with putting cameras in classrooms. But if you want to find out what's causing bad educational outcomes, particularly in the poor communities and schools we're having the least success with, put the cameras in these kids' homes, and on the streets they walk. That's where most of the problem is. And that's the reality show no one wants to look at.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.