American Teacher (First Run Features, NR)

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dvd american-teacher smIt’s hard to understand why we have money to pay for foreign wars but not for professionals to educate our own children.

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Politicians and pundits always need punching bags, and currently one of their favorite targets is the American educational system in general, and teachers in particular. Never mind that most of the individuals doing the criticizing have never tried to teach a class in their life (the same could be said of most of their constituents), or that for the most part they have no particular background or expertise regarding education. Despite lacking any particular knowledge of the facts, many are more than ready to pose as experts when it comes to telling everyone else what is wrong with our educational system.

Vanessa Roth’s documentary American Teacher positions itself as a rebuttal to those who make political points maligning American teachers. It interweaves profiles of four teachers, with voiceover narration by Matt Damon that provides a steady stream of facts. For instance, annual teacher turnover averages 20 percent in urban school districts; teachers make 14 percent less than other professionals with similar levels of education; almost half of American teachers leave the profession before their fifth year of teaching; and almost two-thirds of teachers hold a second job to help make ends meet. There’s a clear relationship among these facts: A teacher’s salary in many school systems doesn’t provide enough money to lead a normal, middle-class life that includes things like owning a car, buying a house, or supporting a couple of kids.

The stories of the four teachers makes concrete the effects of the facts provided by Damon’s narration. Erik Benner is a junior high school teacher in Texas who grew up living in trailers and wants to show his students that education offers a road out of poverty. Unfortunately, his salary is so low that he must take a second job working at a warehouse in order to make his house payments, and this causes strain in his family life. Jonathan Dearman is one of the few African-American men teaching high school in San Francisco, but he feels pressure to quit and join the family real estate business in order to earn a more reasonable salary. Jamie Fidler teaches in a Brooklyn elementary school and loves her work, but soon finds that her salary won’t lead the comfortable middle-class existence achieved by her father, a career schoolteacher. She’s also struggling with the demands of a new baby and the limited maternity leave provided by her school system. Rhena Jacy is an Ivy League graduate teaching in New Jersey whose friends can’t understand why she would choose such a low-paying career. Needless to say, none of these teachers works the mythical six-hour day often mentioned by critics of education—10 to 12 hours every school day is more like it.

American Teacher also includes interviews with former instructors, students of the featured educators, and education experts, including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. It’s a documentary with a strong point of view: Teachers deserve more respect—and more pay—than they currently receive. It makes this point forcefully, but the stories of the individual teachers keep the film from seeming like an 80-minute illustrated lecture. In case you think money doesn’t matter, American Teacher cites several U.S. cities (Denver, Colo.; Greensboro, N.C.; Washington, D.C.) in which increased teacher compensation was correlated with improved retention and increased student performance. Yes, we all know that correlation is not causation, but there’s a lot more hard information presented here than in most discussions of education, including the much-touted recent documentary Waiting for Superman.

Of course, raising teacher salaries is a tough sell when state and local revenues are declining, and the concept of merit pay has brought a lot of teaching to the test and not so much real improvement in student learning. Still, research has shown that the most important factor in education is teacher quality, so it’s hard to understand why we have money to pay for foreign wars but not for professionals to educate our own children. As in many aspects of life, it all comes down to choices, and we’ve chosen to not invest in teachers. American Teacher makes a compelling case for why we should. | Sarah Boslaugh

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