Welcome to week three of Documentary Saturday.
The inconvenient truth about education?
Well now, this is powerful stuff. Davis Guggenheim, probably best known for pointing a camera at Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentation, here points his camera at America’s broken school system, and the result is both shocking and uplifting at the same time.
First, the shocking: there are a lot of truly frightening statistics flying around this film, including my favourite, apparently 70% of eighth grade children in the States cannot read at grade level. Guggenheim pays particular attention to the issue of tenure, whereby once a teacher achieves this privilege they can effectively not be fired. As the movie says, tenure was originally meant to protect University professors from unfair dismissal on political or some other arbitrary grounds, and it had to be earned after long service and excellent performance. Now, tenure is granted to basically all teachers after two years. The interviewees depicted here all say that this is one of, if not the, main problems with public education in America. Once teachers have this protection, a lot seem to just not bother any more. If you have a guaranteed job for life what does it matter how hard you try? And it seems the teachers unions are the big problem with this. One sequence looks at an attempt by the Washington D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee to change the contract with the unions to remove tenure and replace it with performance related pay that could potentially double a teacher’s salary. This prospect was so anathema to the unions that they wouldn’t even ballot their members. In the interests of disclosure, I am a member of the union in my day job. In fact, I am actually a Shop Steward. I believe very strongly in the spirit of Trade Unionism, but I do not believe that someone can stop trying to do a good job just because they can’t be fired, especially if doing so has such a massive knock-on effect. Now I have to say that this is only one side of the story. Guggenheim speaks to plenty of Superintendents (past and present) and other senior administrators, but there is no counter-argument except for a brief clip with the president of one of the two teachers unions, and it is fair to say she is not painted in the most favourable light. The main thrust of Guggenheim’s thesis is that the blame for failing standards is to be laid at the feet of the teachers that are unwilling to try and the unions who protect them from any kind of evaluation process or punitive measures for not doing their jobs.
Now for the uplifting: to give a face to these statistics, Guggenheim has spent time with five young kids from across the country; kids who want to learn and to excel and to build a good future for themselves, but who have been hampered by geography and finances and are stuck attending schools that aren’t giving them the best shot. They all get entered into the lotteries held by the private charter schools to fill their limited places. Not all of them make it, but to see how much they and their families care is a sight to behold.
It may be biased, it may even be manipulative, but this film certainly has an argument to make. And it is an argument that America clearly needs to get into.