Thursday, April 12, 2012


I went to a special screening of this praise-the-teachers documentary at my kid’s school the other night, and a friend mentioned to me beforehand that he’d hoped that “it would be the antidote to ‘Waiting For Superman’”. I told him I hoped not, at which point he gasped and the lights dimmed. Afterward, he incredulously asked me, “You actually liked ‘Waiting For Superman’??!? It was totally anti-teacher!”, at which point I threw up. Then I corrected him: “Not anti-teacher in the least. Anti-teachers' union. Big, big difference”. This failed to calm him, and it dawned upon me, as it often has before, that a very easy way to arrive at a point of view is to completely dismiss logic, common sense and facts in order to serve a preordained opinion that will be readily accepted by your peers. Except when it's not.

If you actually watched the pro-child, pro-parent, pro-teacher 2010 documentaries “Waiting For Superman” or “The Lottery” with your eyes and ears open, both of which are devastatingly straightforward in their diagnoses of the problems facing American public education today, you know that they were anything but anti-teacher. Both explicitly made the argument, as “American Teacher” does ad nauseum, that the most important factor in determining whether a child learns or not is the quality of his or her teacher in the classroom. No ifs, ands or buts from anyone here. Study after study has proven that a great, highly-motivated teacher who loves children and works hard to ensure their success is infinitely more valuable in an individual child’s life than an army of tenured, battle axe, just-waiting-for-my-pension teachers who can’t be disciplined, coached nor fired. Having good genetics certainly helps a kid, as do parents at home committed to a child’s education – but it’s that lone teacher at the front of the class that really makes the difference, particularly for kids “on the bubble”, who might  otherwise have some innate smarts but no ability to apply them without patient and enthusiastic guidance.

Living in a town (San Francisco) where anything that smacks of right-of-center (the center being the left here) is heresy and dare not speak its name, it’s pretty easy to badmouth a film like “Waiting For Superman” and expect 99 out of 100 people to nod their heads in violent agreement. Yet surely the left and the right-of-left can both agree on the teacher findings – and surely we can agree that anything that might undermine children’s ability to have a great education should be looked at intensely and skeptically. That’s one reason why I really liked “AMERICAN TEACHER”. It serves no agenda but that of the, uh, American teacher (beside that of the child, of course) – and making sure that the great teachers are recognized as such, and paid accordingly.

Obviously, they are not today. The profession, as the documentary makes clear, may attract some of our best and brightest right out of college, but it can't and doesn't usually retain them. The salaries simply can't support a family, and right around the time these enthusiastic and energized young teachers start hitting their late 20s and 30s, the reality of the salaries they're paid and the inability to match their peers in other professions makes starting families and supporting children completely untenable without ridiculous personal sacrifice. "American Teacher" shows us the cream of the crop & the salt of the earth in New York, Texas, San Francisco and elsewhere working multiple jobs, struggling hard and often just flat-out quitting the profession just when it's become obvious to them, their students and everyone around them that teaching wasn't just a vocation for them - it was truly a calling.

Often they don't even get that far. In the "last in, first fired" system espoused, promulgated and perputuated by the unions, many of our best teachers can't make it out of their early pre-tenure years without being pink-slipped multiple times, assigned to the worst schools and burning out, when they're not fully laid off. The well-done film is far from a screed. I almost wish it was far more direct in naming names and calling for solutions, yet there's certainly room for the "velvet touch" as well. We have to arrive at reform somehow. Producer Ninive Calegari (who personally screened this for my son's school that night) and director Vanessa Roth make it very clear whose side they're on - the overworked, underpaid teachers and children they're there to teach - but very pointedly don't bring up the unions directly and instead focus solely on salaries and lack of work/life balance.

They very briefly bring out a Washington DC city politician whose name is escaping me right now (not former mayor Adrian Fenty) to talk up the (excellent) reforms Michelle Rhee tried to make there to bend the unions and allow her demonstrably superior teachers to make a competive wage, before being hounded out by the Democratic establishment status quo. His inclusion in the film is quite telling, and tells me that Calegari and Roth have a pretty good idea of what needs to change to get teachers where they need to be. They're just not ready to say it for fear of alienating those who currently advocate a timid, meek "Race to the Top" sort of reform.

So let's talk about those teacher salaries for a second, and ask a few questions about who's being served by a system with rigid hiring, firing and tenure rules almost wholly run and managed by American teachers' unions.

Are American children being served?

Of course not. They are denied access to many of our brightest minds and most motivated teachers, who choose other professions that pay more, and are often stuck with those teachers who managed to stay around long enough to gain tenure. Sometimes these teachers are nonetheless excellent, and sometimes they're not - but it's all about a system that serves the grown-ups and not the kids.

Is American competitiveness being served?

Not if you look at our test scores. This first-world leader, bestriding the world in numerous quote-unquote competitive areas, falls somewhere in the middle of the globe across the board in math, science, reading and other key areas that will make or break this country as its population ages. We have a dynamic 21st-century economy being serviced by a 19th-century education model, with "reform" moving like molasses. The film compares us to South Korea and Finland, in which teachers are revered both in word and in deed, and we're far below these countries in every measurable standard of scholastic achievement.

Are great teachers being served?

No way. They get pension benefits and often lock in collective bargaining gains that help their marginal standard of living move up (no matter what the economy), but in so doing, are constantly subject to pink slips in their early vulnerable years, and never get to reap a salary that is actually in line with their worth to the children, and the society, they serve. The ones who stay often do so out of a great altruistic love for teaching children, and we're all the better for it. It's heartbreaking that so many of them don't.

Are mediocre or bad teachers being served?

Absolutely. They're the only real winners in the union game. They get those benefits and the lifetime job security that comes with the union card, and are rarely if ever held accountable for being depressingly mediocre in their ability to motivate and inspire children. Only in government and union work - often the same thing these days, right? - is this the case.

The film doesn't make this clear, but I'll try to: the reform starts when we name the problem. Let competive and creative destruction loose on the American system of education, let teachers compete to be the best at what they do, and let parents have a choice of which public schools to send their children to. The mantra should always be, "the money follows the child". That's who matters here, not the adults.

If our society is committed to spending tax dollars on educating our populace, then let parents take their portion of the per-child cut and spend it at the schools that will best educate their children in the manner that they see fit. Reform, growth and evolution follows naturally and organically, just as it does in all other spheres of life. Then let the teachers at those best-performing schools be rewarded for what they did to get their students prepared for life, and be comfortable with different standards for different schools (as opposed to a one-size-fits-all "No Child Left Behind" federal mandate). That's not anti-teacher at all in my book. That's pro-teacher to the extreme, just like this film.