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.
The implications of Michael's story for public policy are profound as well. Lewis writes, "Michael Oher was in possession of what had to be among the more conspicuous athletic gifts...and yet, without outside intervention even his talent would likely have been thrown away...If Michael Oher's talent could be missed, whose couldn't? Those poor black kids [in the inner-city] were like left tackles: people whose values were hidden in plain sight."
With a committed family, school, and private tutors, Michael was accepted to college. Today he is in his junior year at the University of Mississippi, made all-conference as a sophomore, and carries a 3.7 grade point average.
Michael made it. But he is very much the exception. For every six inner-city Memphis public school kids with the athletic ability to play college sports, only one qualifies academically to attend college. This says something about the state of inner-city public education.
"Pity the kid inside Hurt Village [in Memphis] who was born to play the piano, or manage people, or trade bonds," Lewis wrote. The success of Briarcrest in helping Michael exemplifies the hope that school choice can give to troubled youngsters.
The hole Michael dug himself out of might not have been so deep if not for the dysfunctional Memphis public school system. One cannot help but wonder if Memphis public schools would be so completely indifferent if every student had the opportunity to attend private schools.
Our current education system limits school choice to parents who can afford to buy homes in good neighborhoods or pay private school tuition. Our best teachers often flee the classroom in frustration, or cluster in suburbs far from the students who need them most.
Kids should not require Michael Oher's incredible luck to make it. Neither should they be stuck in inner-city schools run for the benefit of the adults rather than the kids in the system.
Yes, Michael overcame more than just poor-quality public schools, but don't rush to exonerate them. What are the chances that Michael's biological parents had the opportunity to attend a high quality school?
The cycle must be broken somewhere.