Thanks for calling me glossy

by Kelly Amis

There's a line I love in Miss Congeniality 2 (I know, not exactly highbrow cinema, but we can't be serious ALL the time!). Sandra Bullock gets in a fight with Regina King and calls her "sister." Regina says, "You didn't just call me sister. I don't recall seeing a skinny, white-ass girl growing up at the table." and Sandra responds, "First of all... thank you for calling me skinny."

So I'm going to start my response to this review of TEACHED Vol. I: "TEACHED Documentaries Offer Glossy Propaganda" with: Thank you for calling me glossy!

I mean, these are my very first films, and they actually took an amazing amount of work and time to make, so I am claiming the right to take "glossy" as a compliment. Especially when there is so much unnecessary animosity in the review itself.

Moving on....

The "glossy propaganda" review was written by David Cohen, a high school teacher and blogger for Accomplished California Teachers. He happened to see TEACHED Vol. I at a Stanford University screening that was organized by and for graduate students in the schools of Law, Business and Education (but open to the public).

Some of the remarks in his review simply reflect that he is not a professional movie reviewer, no big deal. Others reflect the typical knee-jerk reactions I hear all the time from those who can't quite believe that you can be both pro-teacher AND outraged by the fact that the teaching profession--as it is structured today--rarely supports great teachers and very often protects bad ones. Here are responses to some of his criticisms:

#1. The identifying "lower-thirds" (ie speakers' names and titles written on the screen) do not appear in the films until the person is on screen long enough for viewers to both hear what they are saying AND read the titles (without losing the information of one or the other). This does not reflect a conspiracy to trick you, David Cohen, into actually listening to what the person on the screen has to say without knowing in advance whether this person fits into your ideological camp or not.

Hopefully you are a more independent thinker than that remark implies. The notion that everyone involved in education reform is either a "good guy" or a "bad guy" (and you want to know upfront which one a person is, dammit!) -- that polarization is really not helpful. 

Sidenote: Diane Ravitch (with whom I used to work) loves to separate everyone and every group involved in education reform into two groups, basically the "good guys" vs the "evil-doers" (my terms). The evil-doer list started with former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and everyone else in NYC that pissed her off; then she added Bill Gates, Whitney Tilson, John Walton (may he rest in peace, I knew him and he was a GREAT man, regardless of where his $$ came from, HE was a GREAT man) and other philanthropists working to improve education for low-income kids; of course Michelle Rhee would be right up on the top (as she seems to be on your own sh*t list -- did you even listen to the story she tells in The Blame Game?), and I guess Cory Booker must be on it, and probably Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa too. And I can only assume the second-term President of the United States and his Education Secretary are on it. The idea that all these people are "anti-teacher" and pro-"privatization" of the public education system is RIDICULOUS.

But there's no in-between for Diane (or for many of her supporters/followers), which is quite sad and, again, not helpful. If you haven't seen evidence of this insane bifurcation yourself, just let me know and I will send you examples. But I'm sure you are familiar with who's on her sh*t list...even Howard Fuller is on it! If you are not familiar with Dr. Fuller, please watch this: 

My point is, there are a LOT of people who believe all children can learn, and that all public schools can be thriving environments where both children AND teachers experience success and joy on a regular basis. The myriad perspectives represented by all these people cannot and should not be summarily divided into two artificially-created camps. Try to think outside the (two) box(es).

#2. These are short films. They are obviously not going to cover every opinion on every topic they address. They are meant to 1) provoke thoughtful conversation around education issues that are important, challenging and timely, and 2) document the primary issues and conflicts in American education today, capturing today's terrible state of affairs (so many kids on a trajectory to prison, so difficult to fire teachers even when they have abused children, etc.) so that hopefully, in the future, we do not repeat our mistakes. 

#3. You state that the films "offered very little analysis, certainly nothing that would advance a serious policy discussion or aid the work of graduate students." Perhaps to you, David, immersed in these issues every day, the information provided is nothing new (you simply choose to ignore it or argue against its relevance). From my experience, however, the information shared in the films is NOT common knowledge. This is how/why most documentary films are made: to reveal and share truths and injustices that are not generally known or understood by the general public. 

I don't believe that the general public is aware of the extent to which we, as a society, are relegating huge populations of children to continuing cycles of poverty, crime and incarceration, and that one way we are doing this is by not providing them with access to great schools and great teachers. We have a system that gives the kids that could most benefit from a great education the worst facilities, fewer resources and, often, the worst teachers. Impoverished kids start at a disadvantage that we then exacerbate by how we run our public education system. 

If you can't admit that it has become unreasonably difficult to fire a tenured teacher nor that the teachers who should be fired--but aren't--are regularly funneled into schools serving low-income, minority students (at least in big cities), then YOU are not prepared to have a serious policy discussion. Yes, Los Angeles has been taking steps to improve the situation there since I made the film; at the same time, this happened recently (even with photos of the abuse, LAUSD had to PAY this teacher to leave). I also notice than in the news you shared, the majority (853) of the 1,000 teachers fired "in recent years" were, it says, actually fired in just the last year (well after we finished filming The Blame Game).

#4. Your assumptions speak for themselves. You write, about The Blame Game: Teachers Speak Out, that "the real problem, we’re told, is that you can’t fire a bad teacher because unions have a stranglehold on schools." Go watch that film again. The unions are barely mentioned in it; the film is examining the unintended consequences of tenure, seniority, lock-step pay, etc. Furthermore, while I commend you for fixing the error in your original piece--that the teachers in The Blame Game were "charter school teachers"--I hope you have reflected on why you assumed that in the first place.

What you saw on screen in The Blame Game were several public school teachers, all unsung heroes (I hope you could tell by the footage that they are great teachers) who believe that the way the teaching profession is structured is severely flawed. The fact that you assumed these well-spoken, engaging teachers must be from charter schools says a lot. 

Sadly, two of those wonderful teachers have since been pushed out of the system due to lack of seniority. The first, Steve, who started teaching as a second career (bringing all kinds of expertise and enthusiasm with him to the classroom), was laid off this year. He told me in an interview over a year ago that he wanted to teach for the rest of his life. He loved it. But he hasn't found another teaching job yet.

The other, Amber, told me in her interview three years ago that all she ever wanted to do was teach low-income children (as she had been one herself). Then Amber got kicked around from school to school (laid off and then rehired several times, never knowing if she would have a job in the fall, and then having to accept one an hour's drive away). She finally left to teach in a private school. Our system should be bending over backwards to keep these teachers in the system and instead we are pushing them out! 

The TEACHED films are meant to show some of these ugly truths --and dispel some of the myths -- around the American education system so that maybe we can ALL pull together to make the changes that must be made if we're ever going to have a system that serves all children equally and well. 

#5. The research mentioned by Michelle Rhee and others in The Blame Game: Teachers Speak Out is available in this report: Good Teaching Matters...A LOT. Hopefully you are relying on more than the Coleman Report (written before I was born...before bussing even began!) to argue against current research?

Regardless, isn't the real question: what is the most important factor to student achievement that WE CAN IMPACT THROUGH PUBLIC POLICY? Either you believe that all teachers out there, right now, should be in the classroom and are doing a fantastic job, or you recognize that in far too many schools, especially those serving low-income and minority students, ineffective teachers remain in the classroom year after year, and this is a problem that we should try to solve. (You know the old adage, if you aren't part of the solution.....).

By the way, it was interesting to me that your colleague, Lisa Alva, commented on your review of TEACHED in a way that was sort of personally attacking me. Unless I am mistaken, we were given Lisa's classroom in which to film our interview with Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa, and I could tell just walking into it that she was a good teacher.

After the interview, I got a tour of the school, and through one classroom window watched an entire classroom in chaos as the teacher sat at his desk chewing gum and doing a crossword puzzle. In a school across town from that one, I saw two teachers showing movies to their classes (an Adam Sandler movie in one case, in the other case I couldn't tell because the teacher was standing outside of the classroom door talking on a cell phone). This was just a regular school day. Then I arrived at Pearl's classroom (unannounced, unscheduled) and she was teaching a class on Greek mythology. She had at least thirty students in the room, every single one of them following along with the reading. Every single one of them (I have it on film if you don't believe this is possible in a low-income, Hispanic school). 

David Cohen, we are both teachers at heart (yes I will teach in a classroom again, right now I only have my fabulous interns-- and the general public-- to teach). This means we both personally know the incredible level of power a teacher holds in the classroom. I am sure you are using your power for good in the classroom, why not use your voice in the public realm to work for change instead of protecting the status quo