Our education system has been getting a lot of attention from documentarians in recent years. Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting For Superman” caused a stir (and got Oprah’s blessing) by putting a lot of blame on teachers and their union. “Race To Nowhere,” by Vicki Abeles, is getting attention at private screenings (because no big distributor has picked it up) by focusing on how high school students are severely over-burdened by homework. Tonight, “American Teacher,” from Dave Eggers, Ninive Calegari, and Vanessa Roth (based on the book “Teachers Have It Easy“) will have its world premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Eggers and Calegari wrote an op-ed in this weekend’s NY Times, which began like this…

When we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.

As the son of two educators, I know how hard teachers work. I recoil when I hear someone complain that teachers only work a few hours a day and get summers off — especially when those complaints come from highly paid TV pundits who put in fewer hours and are clearly less prepared than the average American teacher.  The same for politicians who have shamefully blamed teachers for their states’ economic woes. None of them would last a year in a classroom.  I doubt they’d make it through a month.

The loudmouths don’t understand the job, the training it requires, or the time teachers devote to their jobs. They don’t know that, after an 8-hour day, most teachers spend many more hours grading papers, preparing the next day’s lessons, answering e-mails from students, having conferences with parents, advising after-school clubs, attending curriculum meetings, and on and on through the afternoon and into the night.

Their job (and the all-important funding for it) depends on how students score on standardized tests, and have to show improvement from year to year, like a car salesman has to sell more cars each quarter. The difference is that kids are not cars, all built to a minimum safety standard and road-ready from the moment they reach the showroom. Imagine if that salesman had a twenty-cars-per-month quota, but wasn’t told what kind of cars to sell, what their features were, what they had under the hood, what their mileage was, and all the basic information they usually have.

That’s how a teacher starts every school year — with a classroom full of students of varying ability and desire to learn. It can take even the best teacher several weeks to determine what motivates each pupil and discover which ones will succeed or fail, regardless of how much effort they put in. Then, if you pay too much attention to the bottom of the class, the middle and top suffer, but if you ignore those under-achievers, they’ll drag down your overall test scores.

The argument over paying teachers too often devolves into a question of how we’re going to come up with the money. Taxpayers don’t want their rates to go up, and critics claim that throwing more dollars at the problem doesn’t solve anything. But look at the communities where the best public schools are, and you’ll always see a higher tax base. People want to live in those neighborhoods because of the quality of the schools, which makes the properties there more valuable, which in turn creates higher assessments, which brings in more money for those schools. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and easy to see why poorer areas can’t get out of the dreaded cycle of financial limitations.

Those schools that out-perform the rest have another important factor in common — one more that teachers have no control over — parents who have made education the top priority in their homes. For a child to succeed in school, there must be a constant emphasis on making school Job One. It doesn’t have to be at Tiger Mom intensity, but without regular parental reinforcement about the importance of a good education, getting homework done, being prepared physically and mentally, and a positive attitude towards learning from the earliest years straight through high school, it’s unfair to blame a kid’s failure on teachers.

As the final weeks of this school year approach, classic rock radio stations will start to play Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” in higher rotation, as they have since it was first a hit nearly 40 years ago.  In my early days as a disc jockey, I used to get tons of requests for it –an anthem for kids happy to be free of the bonds to their brick-and-mortar drudgery and “teachers’ dirty looks.”  In my early days as the son of two teachers, I can tell you that the feeling was mutual.

What’s changed between then and now?  These days,  to cover their life expenses, both the students and the teachers have to look for summer jobs.

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