What Robocop Shows Us About Education Reform

A beleaguered government institution. Corporations eager to swoop in with half-baked solutions. A public embracing a hard-nosed, brutal approach to public service. Once-great workers fighting to retain their autonomy.

I could be talking about current trends in public education, or I could be talking about 1987’s Robocop. Paul Verhoeven’s classic action movie gets a shiny new re-boot this weekend, and I hope the newer blacker suit comes with some of the satire that made the first movie just a bit deeper than the penis-shoot-em-up it appears to be at first glance. But let’s look back for a moment to appreciate all the sad sad connections we can make between the Detriotpian movie (a dystopian set in Detroit, duh) and my (sometimes) frustrating job.

1. ROBOTS ARE BETTER THAN HUMANS, ONLY WHEN THEY’RE NOT I’m surprised some enterprising smarty pants hasn’t already named his new online learning resource ED-209, after the super slick but super not-ready-for-launch stop motion badass here. The sad truth is: the ED-209’s of the education world are already out there. I love the idea of online or computer-based classes, when they’re rigorous, engaging, and fluid. I’m sure we’re approaching that reality, but until then, I have to sit by and watch perfectly capable students get a full credit for a year’s worth of English study without having to read a novel, write a paper, or have a discussion with a human being about their ideas. It’s maddening.

2. GETTING TOUGH DOESN’T SOLVE THE PROBLEM I won’t argue that Robocop handles the bad guys with satisfying brutality, but one-dimensional villains like this guy are just as fanciful as Robocop himself. We don’t get to see the poverty-stricken broken home he grows up in, nor do we see the substance abuse, lack of education, or economic oppression that leaves a man resorting to robbery. And Robocop just knocks him out and goes about his robo-day. No plan for rehabilitation. No attempt from Omnicorp to solve systemic issues–just leave it to Robocop.

In school, we handle our worst kids the same way. At the high school level, it’s pretty much too late for authentic rehabilitation for some. They’ve given up on a system that never believed in them or addressed their core issues. We can pretend that discipline and Response to Intervention paperwork is meaningful, but at the end of the day, the thug is still lying unconscious in a broken ice cooler, you know?


Robocop becomes the ultimate law enforcement machine. He doesn’t need sleep (except they totally show him recharging or whatever). He only needs some weird paste to eat. And a freaking gun comes out of his leg. What a great cop that doesn’t do obnoxious things like demand adequate conditions, threaten to strike, or die! Sure would be great if we had some teachers like that. Maybe if we had a common set of standards to work with, or some high-stakes testing to dominate our culture? Maybe if we created a host of computer-based resources that took all the human error out of their lessons?

But we’re still stuck with human beings teaching our classrooms, and those teachers (like Robocop) have personalities, souls. Give them as many prime directives as you want; they’ll still desire the things that made them passionate about the job in the first place: building relationships, making a difference, shaping a better future for our society.

Naturally, we should make every effort to improve our nation’s teachers. I’d buy that for a dollar. I want higher standards for myself and my students. What I won’t buy for a dollar is a career with all the soul sucked out of it. Because I’ll still have one, yearning to twirl its gun or whatever.

One response to “What Robocop Shows Us About Education Reform

  1. Wow… this is disturbingly close to reality. Great piece.

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