Yet testing, like unions, is never discussed in American Teacher. Two researchers with widely divergent views on the roles of tests and merit pay—Linda Darling Hammond and Eric Hanushek, both of Stanford University—are presented as if they are in complete agreement with one another. Nor does the film explain that at the Equity Project Charter School, the Manhattan middle school celebrated in the film for paying all teachers a $125,000 base salary, reading and math scores have been disappointing. (Of course, low test scores don’t necessarily mean a school is horrible; they could indicate an especially challenging student body or a dogged refusal to “teach to the test.” Nevertheless, American Teacher, like almost every piece of education journalism—including this one—does rely upon test scores as a measure of academic success.)
Indeed, the real-world relationship between student achievement and teacher pay remains unclear. In raw numbers, a veteran American elementary school teacher earns about $44,000 annually, more than veteran elementary school teachers earn in Finland and France, whose school systems are higher-ranked than ours. But while a Finnish teacher makes only 14 percent less than a typical Finnish college graduate, an American teacher makes 40 percent less than a typical American college graduate. So maybe the problem is less that teaching pays incredibly poorly than that teachers’ salaries seem less attractive compared with those of American corporate lawyers, management consultants, and investment bankers, who earn so damn sinfully much.
All that said, there is little doubt the quality of the teacher corps would improve if the job paid a six-figure salary. I love that idea! But any such increase in teacher pay would require either that we drastically raise taxes or rearrange spending priorities—exceedingly unlikely—or that we cut other major expenses in school budgets. Should class sizes be much larger? Should sports programs be canceled? Will administrators agree to take a pay cut?
American Teacher doesn’t raise these questions, but as any longtime observer of the education wars will tell you, meaningful school reform requires hard choices—lots of them—not silver bullets. If it’s possible for a two-hour movie to present these choices in all their complexity, it hasn’t happened yet.