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Dead Tree Alert: School's In

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In my TIME print-edition column this week (not yet available online), I take a look at pop culture and the public school crisis. Besides Davis Guggenheim’s excellent documentary Waiting for “Superman,” the column covers two Friday reality shows that take very different approaches to public school ills: NBC’s School Pride, which debuts in a week, and A&E’s Teach: Tony Danza, which continues airing tonight. After the jump, a little more about them:

School Pride is a curious show to debut so close to “Superman,” even though the show has very similar concerns—namely, how public schools can better serve kids, especially those in poorer neighborhoods. The movie highlights inequities in schooling, but also makes a point of stressing that increases in per-pupil spending since the ’70s have shown no increase in performance. School Pride, on the other hand, is expressly focused on trying to help kids by materially improving their schools.

In essence, it’s an earnest, moving Extreme Makeover: Home Edition for schools, in which the show’s team, community members and corporate sponsors come together to rebuild and create new school facilities; in the first episode, they take on a middle school in Compton, infested with mice and roaches, lacking in equipment and blighted with broken floorboards and cracked asphalt. Its assumption, repeated frequently, is that kids working in a well-kept school with new equipment, labs, &c. will feel better, take pride in their school (hence the title) and learn better.

Which may well be true—I’m no education expert. But it’s obviously beyond the time scope of this reality series to show; what we get instead are the undeniably moving and telegenic shots of dedicated teachers getting their classrooms re-equipped, kids looking at new gyms and computer rooms with delight, and neighbors pulling together to make a difference. Make no mistake: whether or not all this improves learning or raises test scores, it’s worthwhile regardless—these are needy kids getting support they deserve. But whether the changes help in the long run we won’t know from this show—and whatever it says that kids in Compton have to count on lucking into an NBC reality show to save them is left to the audience to decide. [Update: Incidentally, I love that the NBC website for the show proudly says its hosts include “community organizers.” Paging Sarah Palin!]

The big surprise for me is Teach: Tony Danza, which I didn’t get around to reviewing here and frankly I had low expectations for. In it, the former sitcom star spends a year teaching 10th grade English at a Philadelphia high school. What seemed like a celebreality stunt develops over a few episodes into a thoughtful, emotional at times even dark show about how hard the demands of teaching are, and what happens when an outsider runs up against the routine and expectations of a system that has to serve many, many different kids.

What makes the concept a little unsettling, that these are real kids, who do not get a do-over if Danza screws up teaching them—a concern the show addresses regularly—also makes it compelling and involving. (Danza, by the way, is backstopped in the classroom by an education instructor, in addition to constant oversight by school administrators.) The show hits its stride once you realize it’s not really about Danza, but about the kids, the school and its challenges; in tonight’s episode, for instance, he wrestles with how to challenge his class’ brighter kids while not losing those who are falling behind.

Danza appears to take the challenge seriously, even crushingly so—he cries repeatedly, to the point that he makes a running joke of it—and well he should. If you initially wrote the show off like I did, I recommend checking it out.