TV loves school; education, not so much. On teen dramas, the classroom tends to be a backdrop for more important stories about sex or vampires, functioning silently and just well enough to place all the lead characters at the same college, conveniently located nearby.
Now, though, a national drama is unfolding over education. Americans seem united in believing that our school system is broken, if not in what to do about it. President Obama has called for a longer school year; voters in Washington, D.C., rebelled against a school-reforming mayor. In the new documentary Waiting for "Superman,"director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) aims to make saving schools this year's saving the planet.
But is the problem within schools or without? Is the solution more money or better people? These are the questions behind a pair of new reality shows that in very different ways attempt to turn our academic angst into edutainment.
A&E's Teach: Tony Danza joins the war for America's kids by enlisting the star of Taxi and Who's the Boss? to spend a year teaching 10th-grade English at a Philadelphia public school. At first it seems Danza expects to get by on instinct and Hollywood charm, joking nervously and comforting one girl by paraphrasing A League of Their Own: "Like Tom Hanks says, 'No crying in class.'"
What sounds like a potentially painful fish-out-of-water, celebreality lark turns into an emotional, sometimes somber testament to the hard work of teaching. These are, after all, real kids with real futures, who get no do-over if Danza screws up.
As the enormity of the job settles on him, Teach gets serious about real classroom difficulties: how to challenge advanced kids without losing other students, how to innovate within a bureaucracy. When Danza tries to get special-ed students to take a test in the same room as the other kids, to boost their confidence, he's told he must let them use a separate "resource room" upon request, or risk a lawsuit. "I'm not even talking about how well they did," a colleague tells him. "Just be sure you're covered."
Danza is an extreme model of an educator sometimes heralded by school reformers: the midlife career changer. ("Wasn't he in Cheers?" one student asks.) To Teach's credit, it embraces his outsider perspective but doesn't valorize it. Teaching, he discovers, is a craft he hasn't yet mastered, and the skeptical professionals know a lot that he doesn't. The show offers no easy prescriptions, but it becomes complex and rewarding once Danza realizes that he is not, in fact, the boss.
If Teach is about school-staffing needs, NBC's boisterous School Pride (premieres Oct. 15) posits that what schools really need is an extreme makeover. Each week, the show's team (including a designer, a journalist, a comedian and a SWAT commander) gives a different needy school a face-lift, starting with Enterprise Middle School in Compton, Calif.
While Superman downplays the idea that more money equals stronger schools, School Pride argues that kids will learn better and teachers will work better with new labs and resodded football fields. God knows they deserve those things; we find Enterprise blighted with rodents and broken floorboards. And the work yields quick, uplifting, telegenic results. (Whether it improves performance is beyond the show's production calendar to reveal.)
School Pride places the traditional liberal assumption that money and resources matter within a framework of volunteerism, sponsorship and celebrity. Enterprise gets a "Microsoft technology center" and a "People magazine reading room," while the kids get a day at Universal Studios Hollywood to "have fun and be a kid again." (And provide a plug; the theme park is owned by NBC's parent company, as PEOPLE is owned by TIME's.) Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger even meets the kids: "I'm here to pump you up!" A public school in crisis turns into a reality show on which a movie-star governor quotes a Saturday Night Live parody of himself: Ain't that America?
Teach and School Pride are opposite in tone and focus, but they're not opposing: each tackles one end of a complex problem. What's more interesting is that TV wants to have this dialogue now, and not just on reality shows. Even Glee, for all its musical fantasy, roots its stories week after week in the blunt fact of small-town budget cuts.
TV's sudden interest in education might be an oblique comment on the economy. Unemployment, globalization, flatlining markets, debt to China, income disparity: all this makes people anxious about their kids' prospects. When the children are our futureand maybe our retirement insurancetheir preparation becomes even more fraught.
What gives the subject drama is that parents and teachers have just one chance to do right by their kids. Do schools need more-passionate teachers? Better equipment? Inspiration? For TV in this age of anxiety, the answer is: all of the above.
This article originally appeared in the November 18, 2010 issue of TIME.