Unraveling the myths about teachers

A new documentary, though not without its flaws, is portraying the truth about teachers--including how hard they work and how badly paid they are for it.

IN THE fall of 2010, NBC launched "Education Nation"--a televised summit on the state of American education. It was a veritable Who's Who of corporate education "reformers." The film Waiting for "Superman" was premiering in theaters nationwide, and received wall-to-wall acclaim and publicity from NBC.

Columnist: Brian Jones

Brian Jones Brian Jones is a teacher, actor and activist in New York City. He is featured in the new film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, and his commentary and writing has appeared on MSNBC.com, the Huffington Post, GritTV and the International Socialist Review. Jones has also lent his voice to several audiobooks, including Howard Zinn's one-man play Marx in Soho, Wallace Shawn's Essays and Noam Chomsky's Hopes and Prospects.

I was one of the only teachers to appear on a panel discussion. I spoke out against charter schools and privatization. So maybe it's no surprise that I wasn't invited back to Education Nation 2011. But I returned anyway with the help of a press pass.

It hasn't been a good year for the "reform" crowd. Former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee went into hiding from the press after her "miracle" performance turning around test scores in the District was exposed as the result of widespread cheating (similar scandals are popping up nationwide). In a related development, the current U.S. Department of Education's obsession with high-stakes standardized test scores is producing a backlash among parents and students, who are choosing to "opt-out" of the tests altogether.

Meanwhile, politicians and hedge fund managers alike continue to promote the proliferation of charter schools. But on the whole, charter schools have not outperformed their public school counterparts, even while drawing criticism for pushing out students with special needs.

One year later, many of the same education "innovators" (Bill Gates, Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, etc.) and same corporate sponsors (University of Phoenix, Microsoft, Broad Foundation, etc.) were back under the big tent outside of 30 Rock for the summit.

A teacher featured in the documentary American Teacher

But this time around, there was a noticeably different vibe. This year, NBC brought not just one or two, but several teachers up to the stage to speak (parents are still waiting for their turn, apparently). Once again, there was a movie to tout, but this, too, had a different tone. "Education Nation" hosted the world premiere of American Teacher, a film produced by Ninive Calegari and Dave Eggers, directed by Vanessa Roth and Brian McGinn, and narrated by Matt Damon.

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WHEREAS WAITING for "Superman" was anchored by the stories of students, American Teacher follows the struggles of teachers. Superman left audiences with the distinct feeling that teachers--especially, the unionized variety--are, on the whole, selfish and untrustworthy clock-punchers. American Teacher, on the other hand, leaves you with the impression that teachers are passionate, hard working and grossly underpaid.

The filmmakers do some pretty simple on-screen calculations--about, for example, how long it would take a teacher to read and comment on the essays of a single, average-sized class of students (5 minutes per essay x 25 essays = over two hours of grading for a single assignment). On this basis, the film concludes that between classroom time, preparation and grading, teachers can easily work 50 to 65 hours a week or more.

That is, of course, only if we presume the teacher doesn't have to work at another job.

The American Teacher filmmakers show us a teacher in Texas, Erik Benner, who is doing his best to inspire his students, to bring history to life and make his lessons relevant to their lives. We're not shocked when he changes into sweats to do some after-school coaching. But there's something startling about the sight of Benner operating a forklift at Circuit City until 10 p.m., knowing that he'll have to rise the next day and do it all over again.

Jamie Fidler, a teacher in Brooklyn (and, I should disclose, my colleague) lights up this film with her warmth and dedication. The movie's footage of her was taped nearly three years ago, when she was pregnant with her daughter Charlotte.

Fidler says that in her first year of teaching, she spent $3,000 of her own money on school supplies, and it took her two days just to clean her classroom before the start of the school year. "I thought about quitting," she admits. While pregnant, she has to use her precious free periods to try to get information about maternity leave (a paltry six weeks) from the school officials. And once her child is born, Fidler has to race around the building during those periods desperately looking for a place to pump breast milk. Fidler, too, has another job--she tutors children after school for extra money.

These (and countless others) are the daily struggles of teachers nationwide. To see them highlighted on the silver screen is refreshing.

Furthermore, the filmmakers discuss the issue of teacher turnover--nationwide, nearly 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years on the job, a figure unmatched in any profession. In urban school districts, 20 percent of all teachers quit in a given year. "We need to show that we trust teachers, and that we value them," Fidler told me. "This movie is about making teaching a sustainable profession."

The film contains other personal stories. Jonathan Dearman, an African-American educator in San Francisco, reluctantly quits after five years of teaching because he couldn't afford to continue. He joins his family's real estate business and doubles his income in a single year.

While corporate reformers relish the opportunity to replace senior educators with cheaper, inexperienced teachers, American Teacher shows the real cost of this churn. It's truly heartbreaking to listen to Jonathan's former students talk about how much they miss him. One student uses the word "devastated" to describe how he feels. "We want to stop the revolving door," American Teacher producer Ninive Calegari told me on the phone. "This is not charity work, it's a profession. We need to give teachers a livable wage."

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AMERICAN TEACHER walks a careful line, though, and frankly, there's a reason that it premiered at "Education Nation."

For one thing, the "u" word (union, that is) is not uttered a single time in the entire film. The filmmakers consciously chose to avoid any discussion of teacher unions so that "no one crosses their arms" before seeing the film, as Calegari put it. "Unfortunately, some people don't have a textured understanding of unions," she said.

But the filmmakers missed an opportunity to give people a more textured understanding by avoiding the issue altogether. After all, aren't teacher unions dedicated to (among other things) raising teacher pay and the other goals that the filmmakers would like to see achieved?

Unfortunately, the film gives ground to the corporate reformers by accepting their framework for the discussion. We are, from the start, told that "the quality of the teacher is the single greatest in-school factor that affects student achievement." Bill Gates says so, so does Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and so does President Obama.

A lay audience may pass over this apparently benign statement. It seems to elevate the status and importance of teachers. Teachers are the most important factor--it seems intuitively true!

But those of us who have been in the trenches fighting to defend public education know different. Ask any teacher who has experience working in a variety of different schools, and they'll tell you: there are countless in-school factors that determine what you, the teacher, can and cannot do. A "great" teacher in one setting might be a suffocated and stifled teacher in another.

Curriculum, administration and collaboration are among the variables that can alter a teacher's performance dramatically from one school to another. Furthermore, we have extensive research confirming again and again that class size is one of the most powerful factors in student progress.

To its credit, American Teacher lets us hear from progressive educators like Linda Darling-Hammond, who explains that teachers historically have had low pay because of sexism--teaching has been a female-dominated industry, so the work has been undervalued.

But the filmmakers splice Darling-Hammond together with archconservative economist Eric Hanushek, who claims that "effective" teachers can impart a year and a half of material in a single school year, as compared to their less-effective colleagues. Furthermore, he claims that this amounts to a $20,000 difference in future earnings per child.

Yes, we concede that teachers can have a powerful impact on a child's life. But the certitude with which Hanushek isolates one factor (a single teacher) and connects it to another (future earnings), separated by decades of time and millions of other life events, reminds me of biological reductionists who perpetually claim to have discovered the gene for stealing, or the gene for generosity, or the gene for playing poker.

"It's for Eric Hanushek to defend his methodology," Calegari told me, "but we put him in the film because we think we need to have different voices saying that the work of teachers is important. Right now, it's critical to have a movie that doesn't seem one-sided."

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AT THE summit, when the film was over, and the lights came up, several of its stars took the stage for a panel discussion moderated by Al Roker. In a row of teachers, I was surprised to see former Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, but it didn't take long to understand why NBC set out a chair for him. Alter's role was to state explicitly what the film does not.

He applauded municipalities that have entered into a "grand bargain" with teachers--pay increases in return for greater accountability. In other words, merit pay. After all, we can't just hand out raises to all teachers, only to the "great" ones!

Fortunately, Jamie Fidler had the temerity to challenge Alter. "We have to be careful when we talk about accountability," she said, "especially when it's based on high-stakes standardized test scores." Fidler hit the nail on the head here; the movements of those test scores are precisely what "accountability" means today.

If the theme of last year's "Education Nation" was teacher bashing, the theme of this year's forum is teacher praising. But make no mistake--it's the same agenda either way.

Another educator featured in the film, Rhena Jasey, argued that the whole discussion was too narrowly focused on small investments (i.e., puny pay increases) when huge sums are needed. She told the crowd outside 30 Rock, "There's plenty of money in this country. If we valued children, we would put the money there."

It's a good point, and as I listened, I started wondering what a less politically constrained American Teacher would have looked like. "We know that family income is the single greatest factor determining success in school," Calegari told me. "The fact is, we're not good caretakers of children. We don't have universal health care. We send children to school with toothaches and earaches."

Yes, it is refreshing to see a documentary with major distribution that shows teachers in a sympathetic light. Unfortunately, American Teacher tiptoes around the big issues in order to avoid offending the powerful people who are attacking our public schools. And as a consequence, it's just been announced that Microsoft Partners in Learning is going to help organize thousands of screenings. As an unexpected benefit, teachers and activists who want to organize a screening and discussion of this film can get a free copy of the DVD.

Many educators will feel vindicated by American Teacher after the ugly scapegoating of the last year, and rightly so. The film mounts a necessary defense of K-12 teachers, but beating back the corporate reform attacks will, ultimately, require a confrontation with the powerful people carrying them out.