Dr. Matthew Ladner

Michael Lewis' book The Blind Side tells a fascinating story about poverty and education through the lens of football. Lewis focuses on two main stories. First, on the legendary coach Bill Walsh's struggles in the 1980s to overcome the most fearsome defensive force of the era. Second, on an incredibly disadvantaged young man who beat the odds.

As head coach of the San Francisco 49ers Bill Walsh had one big problem: New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor (LT). Attacking from the left--the blind side of a right-handed quarterback--LT humiliated linemen and punished quarterbacks with bone-crushing sacks.

Lewis' tale becomes truly fascinating when he goes inside the world of the NFL's talent search for born left tackles--a rare combination of size, speed and agility. These rare men would rise to become the second highest paid positions in professional football for their ability to protect the quarterback from men like LT. This is where the story intersects with education.

Michael Oher grew up in inner-city Memphis. In and out of foster care, Michael's lucky break came when his dying grandmother extracted a promise from a family friend to get Michael into a private school.

Michael was enrolled in a private Christian school called Briarcrest. On a cold day, a parent of another Briarcrest student found Michael breaking into the school to stay warm. The parent, Leah Anne Tuohy, a successful interior designer and wife of a Memphis businessman, took Michael in. Despite the fact that Michael scarcely spoke, a bond developed between the Tuohys and Michael and they eventually adopted him.

Although he had never played sports Michael was a natural athlete and was identified immediately by college scouts as a potential NFL left tackle. If Michael could get to college and play football, he was very likely to win a multimillion dollar contract to protect a quarterback's blind side.

The Tuohys and the faculty at Briarcrest engaged in a Herculean effort to make Michael eligible for college. When Michael came to Briarcrest he had only erratically attended school, could scarcely read and knew little about anything.

Lewis skillfully explains the role of poverty in education, writing, "Michael wasn't stupid. He was ignorant, but a lot of people mistook ignorance for stupidity, and knowingness for intelligence. He'd been denied the life experience that led to knowingness, which every other kid at Briarcrest took for granted."

Michael was not unintelligent, but he was profoundly uneducated. Leah Anne would, for example, take Michael to an Italian restaurant and order multiple meals in order teach him the difference between different types of pasta dishes.

Dr. Matthew Ladner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute and an expert on educational reform and school choice. Dr. Ladner holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston.
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