What is it with documentaries offering silver bullet solutions for the woes of the American public education system?
Last September, the big school reform movie was Waiting for Superman, which posited that the proliferation of nonunionized charter schools could close the achievement gap between poor and middle-class students—even though research shows that nationally, only 17 percent of charters are consistently better than traditional public schools at raising students’ math and reading scores.
This fall, there’s another school reform film making the rounds: American Teacher, which opens in New York and Los Angeles Friday and is screening sporadically at festivals, college campuses, and community centers across the country. The documentary argues that paying teachers more—say, $125,000 annually—would, by attracting more talented college graduates to the classroom and encouraging them to stay there, be the single best way to better prepare American students for the global economy.
Like Waiting for Superman, which was produced and directed by the team behind An Inconvenient Truth, American Teacher has impressive credentials: It is narrated by Matt Damon, who has lately emerged as a critic of President Obama’s “standards and accountability” school reform agenda, and co-produced by Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, a former teacher who, also with Eggers, launched 826 National, the network of urban, nonprofit writing tutoring centers.
Though the film is based on a book, Teachers Have It Easy, co-authored by Eggers, Calegari, and Daniel Moulthrop in 2006, its appearance almost a year to the day after Superman’s massive public relations onslaught sets American Teacher up as sort of a rejoinder to the earlier movie. While Superman portrayed American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten as a villain, American Teacher is a movie the unions can generally applaud. At the premiere in New York last Sunday, both Weingarten and National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel spoke, introducing the documentary glowingly. These labor leaders are delighted with the film’s look inside the professional and personal lives of four excellent teachers, each of whom is struggling to get by on a mid-five-figure salary.
In Brooklyn, Jamie Fidler spent $3,000 of her own money on classroom supplies. In the Dallas exurbs, Erik Benner works the night shift at a home improvement store to make ends meet. New Jersey elementary school teacher and Harvard grad Rhena Jasey can’t afford takeout when she gets home too late and exhausted to cook dinner. And Jonathan Dearman, a beloved San Francisco charter school teacher, quits his job because he can earn twice as much annually selling real estate—even in a “slow” year.
These stories are engagingly told, and the movie effectively fights back against stereotypes that teachers are lazy and undereducated, with short, easy work days. Who wouldn’t want good folks like these four educators to earn more money for doing incredibly difficult work?
The problem is that American Teacher elides almost all of the pressing and controversial questions animating the teacher pay debate. Absurdly, the film never mentions the word union. Viewers without prior knowledge will be left totally unaware of the role teachers’ unions have historically played in all this—first, by ensuring teachers (the vast majority of them female) fair pay and due process, and second, by resisting, until very recently, efforts to pay teachers at least in part based on how well they do their jobs.
Although “merit pay” has a decidedly thin record when it comes to actual student achievement gains, it is a policy idea the filmmakers appear to support, judging from the fact that they approvingly cite performance pay schemes enacted in Denver and Washington, D.C. What American Teacher doesn’t explain is why such programs can be hugely controversial: Most American merit pay plans rely in part on student test scores to judge how “effective” teachers are at their jobs, while teacher performance pay plans in the nations that academically out-perform the United States, such as Finland and Canada, tend to downplay the importance of test scores and instead pay educators more for taking on other duties, such as mentoring peers or developing curricula.
One problem with the American approach of evaluating teachers based on student testing data is that it can lead to an increase in the number of standardized tests students take, an increase generally unpopular with both teachers and parents. The push to more accurately evaluate teachers has even led some school districts to institute testing in art, music, and physical education. It is exactly this sort of thing that American Teacher narrator Matt Damon protested in August when he attended the Save Our Schools march on the Washington mall, where he declared that the high-stakes testing since No Child Left Behind has led to a demoralizing and “horrible decade for teachers.”