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."
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.