“TEACHED” Documentaries Offer Glossy Propaganda
[EDITS, 10/29/12 - one correction, below; added links to individual films, now available online]
I recently attended a screening of “TEACHED,” a trio of short films marketed as documentaries but in truth, rather superficial looks at three important topics in education. The screening was organized by some graduate student groups at Stanford, open to the public but mostly attended by grad students in education, law, and business. According to a brochure I picked up at the screening, TEACHED has as part of its mission to “Analyze the causes and the consequences of the ‘achievement gap’ between students of color and their peers,” but I’m sorry to say that these films offered very little analysis, certainly nothing that would advance a serious policy discussion or aid the work of graduate students.
The first short was called “The Path to Prison” and it tackled the links among illiteracy, dropping out of school, crime and incarceration. Highlighting statistics about the rate of incarceration in the United States, especially for youth who drop out of high school, and especially for young African-American males, the film used the story of one young man, Jerone, to illustrate the issues. Jerone was moved from grade to grade without learning enough to succeed, and looking back, identifies a number of problems in his schooling, including disaffected, alcoholic, and racist teachers. He relates that his needs “went unrecognized, my issues went unchecked.” Jerone was a gang member at age thirteen, and locked up by age seventeen. Finally, in prison, Jerone seems to have developed some skills and discipline, and at the time he’s talking to the filmmakers, he’s describing how hard it is to find a decent job now that he has a record. At the end of the film, text on the screen informs us that Jerone is now back in prison, serving a term of forty-to-life.
At the Stanford screening, audience members were given some time to react to this film in a brief discussion, and the film did succeed as a conversation starter. We touched on the lack of investment in programs and support that might provide more effective and timely help for children like Jerone. Many of the graduate students in the room had experience working at inner-city schools and could relate to what the film presents. Ultimately, however, the film offered little more than a brief discussion piece, not having ventured deeply into Jerone’s life or community. As a “documentary” it came up short – but not as much as the two films that followed.
“The Blame Game: Teachers Speak Out” was the film I most looked forward to seeing. The brochure I picked up at the screening described the film this way:
The discourse around education reform – especially on issues involving teachers – lacks nuance, thoughtfulness, and, often, commonsense. Simplistic “pro-” and “anti-” teacher rhetoric is distracting from efforts to improve teacher quality, especially in schools serving urban, minority children. What do teachers themselves say about the profession and whether it is serving students’ needs…not to mention their own?
Ironically, what follows is a film that lacks nuance, thoughtfulness, and, often, commonsense. I tried to take notes throughout, but the pace of the film and the number of misleading or decontextualized statements and statistics made it difficult to keep up. It doesn’t take long for the camera to find the ubiquitous Michelle Rhee, who, if I heard her correctly, misidentified teachers as the leading factor in student learning. The missing qualifier was “in school” of course, with out-of-school factors having greater influences than schools or teachers. Rhee then repeats one of the favorite sound bytes of education reform: we can close the achievement gap if students have three (sometimes four, or five) great teachers in a row. Nice if it were true, but in this context it doesn’t even really matter if it’s true, because this isn’t a documentary; it’s a hit piece. The existence of the achievement gap has now been presented as a teacher problem, and the film trots out a whole bunch of
charter school [corrected 10/29/12] teachers who are willing to take responsibility for that achievement gap. Tenure? Not for these brave professionals! They have nothing to fear. Wise and benevolent administrators will never fail us.
It should be noted that there are many people who speak into the camera about teachers, but not all of them are identified by name or title when they first appear. I always thought that was standard procedure, to identify speakers the first time they appear. In this case, some individuals are presented ambiguously; they could be teachers, based on what they’re saying. I wonder why we don’t find out until several minutes later that they are administrators or “think tank” employees. Surprise!
The real problem, we’re told, is that you can’t fire a bad teacher because unions have a stranglehold on schools. I suppose unions write their own contracts and sign for both parties, because the film seems entirely unconcerned with administrators or school boards who, in the real world, should be equally accountable for the contracts they negotiate. No, this film isn’t interested in looking at teacher quality in terms of teacher training, induction, working conditions, professional development, supervision or support. One by one, teachers and others regurgitate tired talking points: tenure is automatic, it always happens in the second year, tenured teachers are untouchable, and layoffs remove energetic, caring, effective teachers while unions protect older and less effective teachers. There’s apparently no discernible reason to consider seniority. So much for “nuance, thoughtfulness, and… commonsense.” The film’s edits are quick, many of its claims unproven, and any verneer of objectivity or “documentary” pursuit disappears.
In one of the more egregious oversights, the film relates information derived (I believe) from a story in L.A. Weekly, which reported in 2010 that “LAUSD officials spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district’s 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance — and only four were fired, during legal struggles that wore on, on average, for five years each.” Without saying so directly, the film creates the impression that this boondoggle is the extent of teacher dismissal proceedings in Los Angeles Unified School District. Earlier this year, NBC4 in Los Angeles reported the following:
Although it’s become conventional wisdom that the process for firing substandard teachers is too cumbersome, an NBC4 investigation found that the Los Angeles Unified School District has had little difficulty firing more than 1,000 teachers in recent years.
Within the past year, LAUSD has terminated 853 teachers, and only a fraction are pursuing appeals. Records show that since 2009, no fired teacher who went through the entire appeals process to a ruling has been reinstated.
Oops. You mean there’s more to the story?
And is it really that hard to fire a tenured teacher? I imagine most individuals will answer that based on personal experience, or personal agenda. I’d like to think a documentarian wouldn’t settle for either of those limited perspectives. A 2009 unscientific poll of secondary school principals by their national association found that 31% answered “absolutely” to the question of whether firing bad teachers is “more trouble than it’s worth.” The largest number (47%) replied “onerous, but manageable” and the remaining 22% suggested it’s less than onerous. I have no doubt that there are situations in which it is too hard to fire bad teachers; I have no use for oversimplification and selective anecdotes to deepen understanding of key policy issues.
The film offers similarly flimsy information about teacher dismissal proceedings in Washington, D.C., but says, as if damning the teachers or union, that some of the dismissed teachers were reinstated after further legal proceedings. Sorry, but isn’t this evidence that due process and unions might be a necessary bulwark against improper actions by administrators? The film displays no apparent interest in such minutiae.
The screening concluded with one more short “documentary” – this one titled “Unchartered Territory.” Despite some flowery descriptions of the people featured in the film, the print material at least suggested some nod to complexities in charter school policy:
Charter school founders are the pioneers of education reform, staking their claim by opening new schools in historically underserved communities. But years after the first charter school opened its doors, these independently-operated, publicly funded schools are, as a group, not performing much better than traditional public schools. Was the charter formula wrong? What can the best charter school leaders teach the rest?
Setting aside the overly eager and overly inclusive labeling of (all?) charter school founders, I dared to hope this film might actually address the question raised in its own publicity materials: since charters as a group don’t seem to outperform non-charters, is there something missing in “the formula” (not any singular formula exists), or something missing in the concept, or the vigorous debates about charters?
You can predict where this is going. The film offered mostly glowing and superficial views of charter schools and the people who love them, and frontloaded all the good news. Towards the end, there’s an acknowledgement of some unspecified failures and mismanagement, but it’s the charter advocates themselves who get to soften the blow by offering this concession, and then pivot right back to the film’s main message.
Along the way, we’re told that charter schools operate with 20-40% less funding than district schools. No source for the number, and no acknowledgement that funding statistics like these often exclude grants and donations, while glossing over important differences in mandated expenditures. To see just how complicated it can be, see this analysis of New York City schools by Bruce Baker and Richard Ferris [National Education Policy Center; PDF]. But if you watch the film and can remember information for more than a few minutes, you don’t even need to see a study to know your intelligence has just been insulted; when we learn about Friendship Schools, we learn that their computers:students ratio even exceeds 1:1, that students travel to participate in all sorts of competitions, and that they’ve even traveled abroad as part of their school program.
There are other amazing charter schools included in the film, like Harlem Village Academies. Their founder leads the film’s charge against traditional public schools, and the HVA website stresses the positivity and fun in their school culture (“It’s a love fest in our love nest!”). You would think a documentary film might take a more honest look at the challenges – like high levels of staff turnover and low levels of student retention. Speaking of student retention (me, not the film), we learn about another wonderful charter achievement with reference to the 100% graduation and college matriculation rate for students coming out of Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy. I’m sure they do a good job, but anyone who’s spent any time working in schools or learning about them knows that you don’t get to that 100% without two things that most public schools lack: intensive support services, and a high degree of attrition or selectivity. And does this charter school offer those support services on 20-40% less funding than non-charter counterparts? Please.
So, who’s behind these films that purport to be documentaries but deserve to be filed away as propaganda? It’s unclear from the “TEACHED” web site or print materials where their funding comes from, other than generic references donations and sponsorships. (If more specific information appeared in the films themselves, I apologize for missing or forgetting it). The filmmaker is Kelly Amis:
Kelly Amis, Producer & Director — After graduating from Georgetown University, Kelly Amis taught in South Central, Los Angeles as a charter corps member of Teach for America. She went on to earn an M.A. in Education Policy Analysis from Stanford University and research the Australian education system as a Fulbright Scholar. Amis has worked for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and several education reform organizations, including the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the Sallie Mae Fund and Fight For Children. TEACHED is her first film project.
As disappointing as these films were, I still didn’t leave the screening in a bad mood. The reason for that is that the audience engaged in a discussion after the second and third films had been shown. The total audience of about 40-50 people divided into three groups. I don’t know about the other groups, but no one in my discussion group was impressed by TEACHED, or had any trouble picking apart the omissions or misrepresentations. If Ms. Amis intends to produce a foll0w-up film project, I hope she’ll aim higher, elevate the discourse and engage more thoroughly with her topic, and maybe contribute something that lives up to its own billing.