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“TEACHED” Documentaries Offer Glossy Propaganda

October 28, 2012
teached

My brochure from the screening of “TEACHED” – included here because it has some text not on their website.

[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.

teached brochure

The flip-side of the brochure I picked up at the film screening.

“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.

 

21 Comments leave one →
  1. David B. Cohen permalink*
    October 29, 2012 8:01 pm

    Please note: there are a few times in the blog post above where I include caveats like “if I heard correctly” or acknowledge I may have missed something in the screening. As it turns out, the films are now available online (see links in each film title). I’d intended to write the reviews closer to the screening date (Oct. 9), and as it turns out, I unknowingly posted right around the time the films went online. If I’d known, I would have held off a few more days to double check a few things, but the post is already published. I’ll take another look at the films and do a quick follow-up post if I see anything needing more than the minor type of edit already added to this post.

  2. Lisa Alva permalink
    November 4, 2012 7:33 pm

    TEACHED makes me even more tired … I have seen it, and I have heard Amis speak, and I have been asked numerous times to donate to her via email blasts, and I remain unconvinced that films like this are necessary.
    To be honest, after two or three years in the classroom I too explored ways to get out – it wasn’t paying off. Kids are difficult, mercurial individuals and it really takes a special kind of person to teach them, no matter who they are. I thought about what I could say that would justify my desire to be with grownups instead of kids all day and “I can help MORE kids!” seemed to make sense.
    Ironically, this is exactly what people who change careers from classroom to something else say, instead of saying they are simply following their passion to make movies, or train others to use computer programs, or work for a legislator, or sell textbooks or whatever else they do to be around grownups all day. Let’s just be up front.
    I have realized that over time, I have meaningfully touched more lives by staying in the classroom than I ever possibly could by using classrooms as a front to move my personal agenda. Teaching is very hard work. Making real change is a lot tougher than making a movie.
    The only thing more regrettable than the fact that TEACHED is being viewed by youngsters contemplating a career in educational policy, is that those youngsters will indeed be deciding without having spent any meaningful time at all in a classroom.
    Can we just ignore these films to death?

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      November 4, 2012 9:59 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Lisa. I had a couple interactions with Kelly Amis on Twitter, one of which led to me correcting my erroroneous assumption about teachers in one film being charter school teachers. (I’m not sure if I had that thought as I was watching the film; I think it slipped into my thinking more at the time that I was writing. In any case, I was glad to have a mistake corrected). Amis suggested on Twitter that she’d respond to this blog post, but I haven’t seen anything yet.

  3. November 6, 2012 6:24 pm

    It’s very interesting, but depressing, to read “criticism” of the films that is not about discussing the issues or facts. Lisa Alva, you don’t know me, or the work I have done with kids as a teacher or otherwise. I didn’t need an excuse to leave the classroom; I was and am compelled to be a voice for change because of what I have seen in schools first-hand. You are welcome to unsubscribe from the mailing list any time.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      November 7, 2012 11:44 am

      Kelly, would you care to elaborate about the critiques of the film contained in the main blog post, rather than taking on a comment about the blog post about the film? I expressed some strong opinions, and I’d be glad to hear from you and engage more deeply about any of the issues.

      • November 7, 2012 12:00 pm

        Hi David-
        I’m writing a response as a blog post (but trying to meet a deadline on something else at the same time). Will let you know as soon as it’s up! (Will be at http://www.teached.org/blog)

    • Chandra Goodnough permalink
      May 5, 2013 11:58 am

      Kelly it seems you should return to teaching. You have a lot to say about what works and doesn’t work and we could always use more passionate people on the front lines. What we don’t need is more advice from people not currently doing the work that is needed in convenient sound bites lacking honestly. It seems so counterproductive. Good luck in politics if you don’t decide to return I understand. Teaching is not for everybody.

  4. November 9, 2012 2:54 pm

    These are short films made by a woman who cares about education and education reform. I know Ms. Amis personally and I know that she has poured her heart and soul into this project. She is deeply passionate about education! She made her films to create awareness, and start conversations on how to improve education in this country. You might not agree with her. (Just like how ppl didn’t agree with Farenheit 9/11, An Inconvenient Truth or even that McDonald’s film. . . ) That starts conversations, too!

    It seems like you get journalism and documentaries confused.

    Who said a documentary is objective? These are not news reports ;-) (but even journalism is not free from bias… ) There are many types of documentary films. Short ones, long ones, exposés, observational… etc. Many of them are personal.

    Many documentaries receive support from people who are interested in film’s topic or in the art of filmmaking. Maybe she received a grant? Or donations at film screenings? Or online via websites, social media sites, or crowdfunding sites? Ever heard of Kickstarter? Maybe she can make available a list of donors so you can read donors’ names? I’m pretty sure she wasn’t funded by some terrorist organization.

    Oops, she already made that available! http://www.teached.org/donate/

    Cheers! ;-)

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      November 9, 2012 3:49 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t doubt Ms. Amis cares, or that she’s passionate, and I can see that plenty of hard work went into these films. I also agree that documentaries are welcome to take a particular point of view. I’m fine with a film engages in advocacy, but for me as an audience member, this was entirely ineffective advocacy, even counterproductive (in that it reinforced my impression that too much education reform is being driven by perpetuation of willful, negative misrepresentations of most American schools, teachers, and unions). I happen to know a lot about the topic and didn’t see any new information, nor did I see information presented with enough context to justify the film’s conclusions. It seemed to me that these films were promoted as if they were going to provide some balance, but I didn’t see it. I think all of us who care passionately about education would be better served by documentaries that offer enough information and balance to bring people together. The effect of these films (mainly the latter two) will likely be polarization if educators and advocates like me are part of the intended audience. As a career teacher committed to my students, and my (traditional) public school, and my union, I found myself alienated by the assumptions, generalizations, and omissions I saw, and that was exacerbated by what seemed like misleading promotional materials. As for the project’s funding, I wasn’t trying to suggest anything as nefarious as you jokingly put out there! However, I do think it’s relevant. A film should stand or fall on its own merits, but to the extent that the film itself is part of a political movement, it’s fair to ask who’s helping it along.

  5. John permalink
    December 8, 2012 6:06 am

    It seems to me that the primary difference between the two camps here is whether you think that schools can achieve dramatically better results with low-performing kids. If you do, the current state of education requires immediate action, and films like this are clearly needed to call attention to issues and rally support. If you don’t, ed reformers are just rabble-rousers with questionable motives, or, at best, naive.

    Many supporters of the status quo in education have never seen examples of how it could be different. Also, despite being unhappy about many aspects of public education, they don’t acknowledge that there could be big improvements if things changed, as they fail to see how that would be possible. They also resent that some supporters of reform oversimplify the issues (though I find that is more something that they are accused of than actually guilty of).

    Personally, I think that public education does a better job of serving the various adult constituencies than it does the kids. I also believe that improving education for kids is the solution to poverty, and not vice versa. You can question my motives, but you’d be wrong to think that I am anything other than a progressive liberal who sees that improving education, especially for low income children, is a human rights issue. Right now, concerns for worker’s rights outweigh concerns for children’s futures.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      December 8, 2012 1:49 pm

      Thanks for the comment, John. As much as I criticize these films, I don’t consider myself a member of a camp. I’ve taken positions that union leaders disagree with at times, though I am a firm believer in unions. I’ve refrained from criticizing charter schools en masse, and have had good things to say about some charter schools, though I am a firm believer that competition is highly overrated and that an education “marketplace” will be inherently inequitable.
      I don’t accept the sharp distinction between serving adults and serving kids in education, nor do I think there’s any point in thinking of either education or poverty as a singular cause or effect. In terms of workers’ rights, most of the teachers I know who are fighting for workers’ rights do so out of a concern that without those rights and working conditions, they will be unable to continue doing their best work, or even satisfactory work, or to support a family while doing the work. Support for workers’ rights in education is also support for better learning conditions, improved stability in the work force, improved worker satisfaction (and even improved worker health – which lowers absenteeism). Workers’ rights like seniority are often cited as a problem, and there’s certainly a valid debate to be had on that topic. The thing is, seniority is supported by many of us because we think it helps schools to operate as cooperative teams in a more predictable and stable environment. That’s good for kids – it’s not just serving the grown ups. Unfortunately, you won’t find a reasonable presentation of a dissenting viewpoint offered in these films. They did a disservice to anyone interested in understanding education policy debates, and failed to live up to the type of balance and nuance suggested in their promotional materials. Ms. Ames has replied to my criticism at her own blog – http://www.teached.org/blog/thanks-for-calling-me-glossy.html – and I’ll have a response to her in the near future.

      • May 5, 2013 7:16 pm

        That’s fine that you think the films are too one-sided (sorry, just seeing this response of yours David for the first time). It really is. I am trying to put out there what I think is not heard, and lost, too often in the education debates…. (why it’s called Loudspeaker Films: to put the unheard voices like Jerone’s, and Howard Fuller’s, and Pearl’s) on the loudspeaker. The next films will feature parents and kids talking about their experiences.

        The more interesting things is that we probably are not that far apart in our beliefs based on what you said above. I’m pro-union (for jobs in which people are nearly powerless and easily replaced, like farm or factory workers, I’m just not sure it is helping teaching as a profession) and I definitely know not all charter schools are great. Look at who authorized some of them — look at how little oversight there has been for some of them. Ask yourself WHY (go back and read about how the laws were actually passed and in what form in many places).

        We do not agree on seniority; few jobs allow you to stay simply because you were there 2-3 years, and then let seniority dictate everything. Smart organizations value wisdom and experience, but also employees know they can’t do ANYTHING and keep the job, as is true with teaching, for the most part, at least in our big cities. It would not work for anything, least of all for something where the “clients” are often low-income.

        I’m not calling for a change in the rules for those who signed up for the current structure: low pay for many years but a great pension when you retire (at 58-60, when some people are just getting warmed up to do great work!), but I do think we need to restructure the profession for the future. It really can’t get worse in some ways, but wow it sure could get a whole lot better.

  6. BS_Detector permalink
    April 17, 2013 4:45 pm

    I am a high school English teacher on the south side of Chicago. This series of mini documentaries struck me immediately as hihgly unintelligent, insulting, inaccurate and irresponsible. Blaming teachers for a failing school system is far too convenient, easy and frankly political. Somebody on here accused teachers of not believing improvement in inner city schools is possible. That’s a load of bull. Teachers believe more than anybody that improvement is possible. They just disagree with policy makers and school boards about the methods, causes, maintanance and implementation. Teachers CARE more than anybody else. I didn’t see anything in the documentaries about the disturbing, devestating baggage that many inner city students come to school with each day. The filmmakers put forth the assumption that the students’ environments and bad experiences (with teachers of course) INSIDE school leads to failures and turmoil OUTSIDE the school. Anybody who has taught in a real urban area for more than three months knows that everything about that assertion is completely backward. We have a school problem in this country because we have a society problem. Students living in poverty are doing poorly in the classroom. It’s a lot quicker and easier to blame teachers. Inner city teachers have 30+ students per class(many of whom have been in jail, been shot and/or lost loved ones to drugs, disease and violence). These all too common, absurd things happen, wait for it… wait for it… BECAUSE THEY ARE POOR!!!! If you truly understood what it was like to live through the insanely stressful things these students live through on a daily basis, you’d understand how extremely difficult it is for these students to priorize education. Who among us is going to be able to read a book in class and pay attention when we are concerned that our heat will be turned off, our brother will be shot or we might not eat dinner tonight? Those things are societal problems. They are socio-economic issues. We fix those kids’ homelives, their basic needs, their safety issues and supply them with natural human necessesities, and we fix their school lives. It’s too hard to talk about the awful, horrible, disgusting disparities of wealth in this country, so I guess we’ll just keep blaming teachers. Seems productive, right? Reveal your agendas [portion deleted by blog admin].

  7. May 3, 2013 10:52 pm

    Can we have a new film, now? Who’s got a new Ed film that tells the real story of education professionals struggling to work with struggling children, the real story of what it means to labor in a system where the policy makers have no idea? Yesterday I spoke with a counselor who cut her hair short to disguise that fact that half of it has fallen out due to stress. Today I spoke with a heartbroken teacher whose lineage at my school goes back to 1940, who faces the future of his alma mater without hope. Where is the film that shows our struggle to serve the needs of the left-behind child, and advocate for her? I want to see that film. I want something relevant. There is no status quo where there are people like us. Let us make a new future. Let us make a new film!

    • May 5, 2013 2:01 pm

      The Blame Game presents several public school teachers who work with low-income students. They have ideas– as do many of today’s teachers — about how to improve the profession so that their jobs might be a bit less stressful and more professional. It is stressful to have colleagues that are not working as hard or even doing harm to the kids (e.g. Miramonte teachers, one of whom at least was PAID to leave). The idea is to be honest about the problems and respectful of the teachers who are working hard, as I’m sure you both are. Educators 4 Excellence might be of interest to you both.

      Oh – and I think the Path to Prison was pretty clear about the “baggage” that inner-city children bring to school. They should still be taught and treated with respect when they get there.

  8. January 24, 2014 4:27 pm

    The direct link to my response to this review of TEACHED Vol. I: http://www.teached.org/blog/thanks-for-calling-me-glossy.html

Trackbacks

  1. TEACHED: Provocation and Distortion « InterACT
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