Saturday, September 24, 2011

Reviewing "American Teacher": Ed Deform Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?

Last update: Saturday, Sept. 24, 9pm - 

I'm reprinting this review from May since "American Teacher" is premiering at NBC's Education Nation on Sunday with Jamie Fidler on the panel. Brian Jones and I will be in the press section to report back, maybe with some live blogging.

Make sure to read comment 2 from Caroline with a little more information on one of the teachers featured.

See Saturday NY Times article on Jamie Fidler.
A film whose main focus is on paying teachers more money as a solution to the educational crisis. A film purporting to be apolitical is actually very political by what it leaves out. Class size anyone?

What could be wrong with a movie featuring wonderful stories of four dedicated, overworked, underpaid teachers with interesting personal stories and attractive personalities, one of whom I know personally? And while focusing on paying teachers more money?
Jamie Fidler


I went up to Brandeis for the press conference opposing Harlem Success invasion of that school yesterday but couldn't stay for the hearing because a friend gave me a ticket to American Teacher, narrated by Matt Damon. I also know Jamie Fidler, one of the four teachers and the co-chapter leader at PS 261 in Brooklyn. We reconnected after many years at the May 12 rally where she and people from her school marched with the NYCORE/GEM/Teachers Unite group. (More on Jamie later.) 

I expected this movie to be a weapon on our side in the war against teachers right along side our own Grassroots Education Movement's Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, which seems to be resonating with teachers and parents because addressed the political issues head on. 

Don't get me wrong. There was also things I liked about the movie. The ridiculous comments on FOX attacking teachers got a good laugh.

The teachers featured were fabulous, especially the teacher from Texas, Brooklyn's Jamie Fidler and the African-American teacher from San Francisco who left teaching to go into real estate. Their stories were compelling. The Harvard grad who went to teach at TEP for $125 grand was the only one who didn't share any of her personal story so I was a bit turned off. She did not seem to exhibit much of a sense of humor, which all the others seemed to have. My guess is that she wasn't long for teaching at that low salary and TEP may have saved her - for now. 

I may be prejudiced, but I think Jamie, who was pregnant throughout most of the filming, was the star of the movie with her humanity, openness, humor and wonderful personality. One of the good things about the film was how it dealt with the choices Jamie had to make. I loved the bit how her prep gotten eaten away on a phone call to the DOE to get info on her leave. And the breast feeding pump story brought the house down.

An effective teacher? No mention of high stakes tests and their impact
From the opening moments of American Teacher my friend and I were seething over the repeated term used by ed deformers: an effective teacher. The film barely touched on the issue of what makes an effective teacher (though Jamie does raise the question of how we can judge) while ignoring the fact that "effective teacher" is a code word for results on standardized tests. In fact, the very idea that high stakes tests even exist or have made most teachers' lives miserable is totally ignored. How do you make a movie called "American Teacher" in these times without talking about high stakes testing and the impact test prep and threats of closing schools and charter schools are having on their psyches?

An immediate warning sign went up when the the first people you see in the film are Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, President Obama and the Hoover Institution's Eric Hanushek, all leaders of the ed deform movement. At least Linda Darling-Hammond is there to lend a bit of balance on the pundit side of the ledger.

And presenting Zeke Vanderhoek as a hero (on the post-screening panel) who pays teachers at his TEP charter school $125 grand is enough to make you gag. Vanderhoek was featured on 60 Minutes (Ed Notes link) trashing the union and LIFO. (See Leonie Haimson's Zeke Vanderhoek, relentless self-promoter.)

The teacher in the film who left her school in New Jersey to teach at TEP, which so far has had dismal results even with all that high-priced "talent," was filmed in her old school. She has been at TEP for two years. Since the film makes so much of her leaving, I would have liked to have seen her at her new school. Vanderhoek said he could pay all that money by eliminating much of the out of classroom personnel public schools have, joking the teachers change the rolls of toilet paper. It sounded like it was close to that. We would have liked to see more of what teachers have to do for that money. It might lead some to prefer driving a forklift.

Blurb from the San Francisco Film Festival:
 As the debate over the state of America’s public school system rages on, one thing everyone (including President Obama) agrees on is the need for great teachers. Yet, while research proves that teachers are the most important school factor in a child’s future success, America’s teachers are so woefully underpaid that almost a third must divide their time between a second job in order to make a living. Chronicling the stories of four teachers in different areas of the country, American Teacher reveals the frustrating realities of today’s educators, the difficulty of attracting talented new teachers and why so many of our best teachers choose to leave the profession altogether. One of the very few black teachers at Leadership High School in San Francisco, Jonathan Dearman, loved his job, and his students adored him. But his inability to support his family led him to pursue a new career and left his students devastated by his departure. An elementary school teacher in New Jersey, Rhena is fresh out of Harvard and personifies the smart, young teacher anyone would want for their kids. But even her strong commitment to her students ultimately gets pushed aside when weighed against her own financial needs. Their stories are disheartening, but this wake-up call to our system’s failings also looks at possibilities for reform. Can we re-value teaching in the United States and turn it into a prestigious, financially attractive and competitive profession? With almost half of American teachers leaving the field in the next five years, now is the time to find out.

—Joanne Parsont 
In fact, as our filmed response to WFS makes clear more than once, the only two in school factors that research has proven to have a positive impact on student learning is class size and teacher experience. So seeing a fuzzy fact stated so early in American Teacher got us off to a bad start. My pal and I were already nudging each other 5 minutes into the movie. Hanushek goes through the bullshit rigmarole about how an effective teacher can affect the lifetime earning salary of the students and we see all that cash flying around the screen. In fact studies have shown low class size has a bigger effect on future earnings than which particular teacher a student has.

Texas teacher Erik Benner - as described in this review: "Teacher, football coach, and fork-lift operator Erik Benner is underpaid, over-extended, and in foreclosure (62 percent of teachers have a second job, teachers are priced out of housing markets in 32 cities)" makes much less money than Jamie Fidler though he is teaching longer. Guess what? Jamie's union helped get her that salary. Benner teachers in Texas. 'Nuff said. At the post screening, one of the producers said they purposely left the union out of the movie. I'm sure. Would they have gotten the funding they received if they made the very important point that unionized teachers are paid much more money? To pretend the two issues are not connected is disingenuous if not openly dishonest.

Time and again we hear the words "teacher excellence" and "teacher effectiveness", ed deform buzzwords. What is lurking behind the call to pay teachers more? Do they mean all teachers? I was wondering if the real point of the movie is that only certain - "effective" teachers - should be paid more.

Class size ignored
I also was perturbed when Damon stated a list of things we have tried that haven't worked and included class size as one of them. If they had allowed questions after the panel I was going to ask for a vote of teachers in the audience if they think class size reduction was the major issue in their working conditions. I bet most hands would have shot up. While the movie claims that low wages are the reason most people leave (it does include lack of respect and support) many teachers would say a lot of the problems would be ameliorated if they had smaller class sizes - and many site the large classes as a factor in their leaving. I mean, you might be willing to keep working for a lower salary if the job were more satisfying and class size is often the bomb. To its credit the movie does include a comment that failures in school leadership is as large a factor as anything else. Broad Leadership academy grads, anyone?

Doing the Finland dance while ignoring unions
Two of the people involved in the film wrote an op ed in the NY Times on April 30 that many people initially cheered. They said:
The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea.
Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.
And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.
Ahhh, Finland, the little nation that could. Lauded in American Teacher, Waiting for Superman and our movie. Except that we are the only ones to point out that teachers in Finland are almost totally unionized and their union has been in the lead in fighting for the very reforms that are so praised in ed deform movies.

Our movie points out that the 5 states with the lowest level of union activity - in the south of course (and including Texas) had the poorest results on the SAT/ACT scores.

I did love the statement by 2007 New York State teacher of the year Marguerite Rizzo who said "People think teaching is about liking kids or getting summers off--they don't understand the intellectual rigor involved in teaching students in a way that they'll understand." I totally agree but would extend the intellectual rigor description to figuring out a seating plan or where kids should stand on line. I used to spend hour pouring over these issues.

The panel discussion afterward was so-so but when Jamie Fidler took the microphone towards the end I was anticipating something interesting. She said she had become politically active and urged people to get involved in the fight. She didn't get into details but we all know what she was talking about even if the filmmakers didn't.

On the way out I stopped to say hello to Rizzo and raised a few of the issues I talked about above, also telling her about my involvement with the Inconvenient Truth Behind... film. She said she had heard about it, I think she said from Randi Weingarten. I gagged. I told her Randi and I were not exactly on the same side and handed her a dvd of our film.

Also on the way out we were handed a flier titled: Take Action to Honor and Reward Effective Teachers with 4 things you can do to improve working conditions and salaries for teachers. Supporting the work of their unions was not on the list.

We were all invited to a party afterwards but I knew it would turn into a battleground. Besides, my companions had to teach today. So we went out looking for a place to get coffee and dessert – searching for a nice piece of strudel looked like a better deal. I ended up with a scone but it was better than getting ed deform agita.

See another review of the movie here:

Afterburn: Jamie Fidler
I go to know Jamie when she threw herself and her school into the 2005 contract fight. Jamie contacted me on the recommendation of her dad who was a teacher and featured prominently in the film. He had heard of Ed Notes or ICE and had my contact info. Jamie and others in her school formed Brooklyn Teachers for a Fair Contract. We joined together to leaflet entire areas of north Brooklyn urging a "NO" vote on that disastrous contract. Jamie joined me as a UFT Executive Board meeting to check out what was going on. When we rallied at the October 2005 Delegate Assembly followed by a rally at UFT headquarters a few weeks later, she was there with her colleagues. 

Soon after the contract battle was lost we fell out of touch. I heard she had gotten married and had a baby from my contacts at PS 261 (they have a robotics team. ) Recently, I found out she was the co-chapter leader at the school and was working with Teachers Unite. When I saw her at the May 12 rally it was just like old times. One can never go wrong working with Jamie Fidler. One of the major successes of the film is how clearly that point is made.


Anonymous said...

What's a Co-Chapter Leader? There are several reasons why there can be only one.

caroline said...

Norm, the teacher from San Francisco was featured in the book "Teachers Have It Easy," co-written by Eggers, a few years ago. The book's story was that he couldn't be paid more because of the teachers' union contract (UESF) -- but actually, he taught at a charter school that wasn't covered by the UESF contract; they could have paid him a million bucks a year.

So WTF?? The book blamed the teachers' union for the inadequate pay of a charter school teacher who wasn't covered by the UESF contract.

That very teacher-turned-realtor has turned up as a parent at my daughter's high school, but I haven't decided whether to corner him at a school event and try to grill him.

(I don't know if the movie hypes the charter school, Leadership. In the world of SF high schoolers and high school parents, it's a notoriously troubled school; it still benefits from plenty of hype among the uninformed.)

Yelena said...

I am a co-chapter leader meaning that I share the duties as a chapter leader with another staff member. The union will only officially recognize one of us on record but my co-chapter leader attends all the SLT, PPC, and school safety meetings. I attend the Delegate Assembly and take care of all the paperwork. It's an excellent solution since I am a classroom teacher and try to take minimal time away from my students during the school day. It is also wonderful to be able to strategize on problem solving with my co-chapter chair since she is intelligent and hard-working.