Sound too good to be true? Well, that's because it is.
Originally posted at Great Schools for America.
Unlike Waiting for Superman, last year's blockbuster propaganda piece, funded, produced, and promoted by the Billionaire Boys Club, American Teacher had no national release. It is appearing at in cities across the country, usually for a one night showing. There is no charge for admission, but there is an option to make a donation when you RSVP or show up at the door. Why such an unorthodox method of promotion and distribution? With the backing of the Billionaire Boys, why no national release?
I did some research on American Teacher. What I found is disturbing and confusing. I'm sharing it so that you can ask thoughtful questions when the American Teacher tour comes to a theater near you. Join me below as I share my American Teacher experience.
Before the movie began, author and producer Ninive Calegari, giving a brief introduction to the film, informed the audience that her 200 city tour had just expanded to include 300 more showings through the generosity of Bill Gates. That revelation evoked groans from many in the audience, including my friends and me. But, we vowed to be optimistic; to keep an open mind. Calegari then invited the entire audience to join her in a bar across the street for appetizers and drinks to discuss the movie afterward.
The movie tells the stories of four teachers and the hardships they face working and living on a teacher's salary. As a solution to the low salary issue, the movie offers TEP -- The Equity Project, a charter school that pays all teachers $125,000 a year with a chance to earn a $25,000 bonus. According to the film and the Q & A after, TEP operates the school and pays eight teachers $125,000 each using only the per pupil expenditure funding from the government. "WOW! Remarkable! That's amazing," I thought. But, how can that be? Time for a reality check. If this charter school can pay teachers $125,000 a year, then why don't all schools pay teachers more?
Outside the theater my friend Kris and I stopped Calegari to ask a couple more questions. Our conversation went something like this:
"Is the principal at TEP a Teach for America entrepreneur?" I ask Calegari. She evades the question at first and eventually answers, "Yes, Zeke has figured this all out." Zeke is Zeke Vanderhoek, principal of TEP.I think she's lying I told Kris as I remembered Pamela Meyer's talk on TED about How to Spot a Liar. Lying is a cooperative act, and I wasn't willing to indulge Calegari. So, I investigated American Teacher and TEP's financial statements. The research generated more questions than answers. An alternate title for the film is The Teacher Salary Project.
"Are class sizes much larger at TEP?" I ask, thinking that would be one way to pay larger salaries. Again she evades the question at first, but after some persistence from me, says she thinks class sizes are a little larger.
"How many students are enrolled at TEP?" is my next question. She evades the question again, but finally says, "Let's say 200."
Kris and I simultaneously do the math to determine the class size to be about 25. "That's about average, small for Oregon," we say.
"Come inside and have a drink, and we'll talk more about it," she urges, visibly flustered.
"I'd rather not imbibe on drinks paid for by Bill Gates," I reply." I just want to ask one more question about the money." Kris is somewhat taken aback by my response.
"Just look at the financial statements, it's all there." At this point Calegari becomes testy, hurls a couple of insults at me in response to my lack of appreciation for Gates' hospitality, and excuses herself to go to the party. Kris politely offers her regrets to Calegari, and we leave.
Slate magazine described the film this way: Dave Eggers and Matt Damon’s American Teacher is almost as flawed as last year’s big school reform movie, Waiting for Superman.
Within the first few minutes of the movie, the big three make an appearance to espouse their views on education reform in regard to teacher compensation: Bill Gates, who has no education credentials but has positioned himself Education Czar; Arne Duncan, who has no education credentials but has been appointed Secretary of Education; and President Obama, who prescribes corporate charter schools staffed by those without credentials for children living in poverty. All three promote competition for funding among public schools and accountability though relentless standardized testing as keystones of education reform. All three send their children to elite private schools that subscribe to none of these reforms.
Film synopsis from Slate:
In Brooklyn, Jamie Fidler spent $3,000 of her own money on classroom supplies. In the Dallas exurbs, Erik Benner works the night shift at a home improvement store to make ends meet. New Jersey elementary school teacher and Harvard grad Rhena Jasey can’t afford takeout when she gets home too late and exhausted to cook dinner. And Jonathan Dearman, a beloved San Francisco charter school teacher, quits his job because he can earn twice as much annually selling real estate—even in a “slow” year. These stories are engagingly told, and the movie effectively fights back against stereotypes that teachers are lazy and undereducated, with short, easy work days. Who wouldn’t want good folks like these four educators to earn more money for doing incredibly difficult work?Truth be told, the title of the movie could be "American Worker" because most of the difficulties experienced by these teachers are not unique to the teaching profession. Workers in any occupation/profession may need to work a second job or find a better paying one to make ends meet these days. Jamie Fidler's family leave problem is not unique to her profession. Moms in many professions face the issue of having to return to work in only six weeks, and many don't even receive pay during their leave. Rhena Jasey has huge student loans to repay, but so do many, many students in this economy where tuition escalates, and Pell grants and scholarships are hard to come by. Unlike workers in most other fields, teachers know exactly how much money they will make before they enter the profession -- salary schedules are public information. Would it be nice to be paid more? Of course, but the same holds true for any occupation or profession. So why all the concern over teacher pay? From The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Scholastic Project as reported in the Wall Street Journal:
The project has conducted in-depth studies of over 3,000 teachers on the attitudes and expectations of public school teachers . . . Of 15 items on the survey of things that might retain the best teachers, salaries ranked 11th, behind benefits.If teachers rank salary as 11th on their list of concerns, why is Bill Gates promoting American Teacher and The Teacher Salary Project as an issue of great importance to teachers while ignoring and even thwarting their foremost concerns? My guess is to showcase TEP. NBC's Education Nation promoted TEP at length. CBS's 60 Minutes did a segment about the bold experiment conducted at TEP. The charter school professes to pay teachers $125,000 plus a year if they take on more responsibilities, give up benefits, and decline job security including protection offered by the union. But data compiled at Great Schools for America Education Watch, is in dispute with claims made by the movie and the media. Some discrepancies include:
1. IRS returns do not list one person as being paid more than $100,000. Since paying teachers $125,000 is the primary tenet of the school and the movie, this is either a major oversight or something more nefarious. Teachers agree to work other jobs and forgo benefits to earn the higher salary. So, why would the school make extraordinary claims and then forget to report compensation on its tax return? And, why if teachers are giving up benefits, does the school list over $90,000 in employee benefits?
2. TEP claims to enroll 480 students on its tax return, 2009-2010. The New York City Report Card sets that number at 125. Perhaps TEP intends to grow the school to 480 at some later date, but the IRS likes facts not aspirations. In its first year, 2009, The Equity Project Charter School enrolled 125 fifth-grade students.
3. The school is funded by more than the government per pupil expenditure. Both the annual report and tax returns state clearly that the school receives over a million dollars in local, state, and federal grants, and generous private contributions and loans in addition to the annual per pupil expenditure. According to the TEP's web site, the school is seeking investors:
We are currently seeking one or more lead donors for the Bricks for Equity capital campaign to help fund construction of TEP's new building. Facility naming opportunities are available!According to Crain's New York Business, Prudential made a $750,000 start-up loan to the Equity Project:
"We liked the model and concept, and when we met Zeke, we recognized we liked the guy putting it together," said Preston Pinkett III, vice president of social investments at Prudential, which made a $750,000 loan to the school. "He’s bright, energetic and committed to making a difference." TEP is facing the growing pains familiar to any startup. The school is housed in 15 temporary red trailers, and Mr. Vanderhoek needs to raise $10 million to build a $28 million facility on land purchased in Inwood.4. Although the film makes no claim to providing its students with an adequate education, its state test results are dismal. According to the Annual School Report Card (Accountability and Overview Report 2009-2010, p. 13), only 24% of students tested proficient in language arts and 37% tested proficient in math. It seems that paying teachers much higher salaries does not buy an excellent education. 5. TEP's principal claims that The Equity Project is scalable. Zeke Vanderhoek says the model can be replicated on a national basis so that teachers in communities across the country can make $125,000 a year plus $25,000 in bonuses. Since the data seems to infer that The Equity Project isn't making it as a single school, Vanderhoek's claim of scalability seems, at the very least, premature. This claim does the most damage. If the objective of this film is to raise unreasonable expectations -- that all teachers should be able to make $125,000 plus a year, then the producers are probably succeeding. After all, why would a movie, championed by so many teacher advocates, make false claims?
So, what's going on here? Why is American Teacher being promoted by Gates when it appears that the entire concept is a hoax? Why did our teacher unions promote this scheme when TEP is so obviously anti-union? Why are Teach for America darlings, who know nothing about education, being entrusted with the education of our most vulnerable children in the name of entrepreneurial education? I'm fairly certain if an honest-to-goodness educator went to the bank, presented this scheme, and requested a $750,000 loan, she'd be laughed out of the institution.
Is the purpose of the movie to plant the seed of unrealistic expectations in the minds of teachers? Is the movie more than a hoax? Is the deception fraud? Are the presenters profiting off the deception? Is the presentation harmful? Of one thing I'm certain, with the Gates involvement, the show will likely go on. So, when American Teacher comes to your neighborhood theater, again you can check the schedule here, occupy the movie and ask tough questions. Have a drink on Gates -- he can afford it, and let the producers know we can pay teachers adequately and give kids a great education without giving credence to this charade.