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A Cranky Review of "Teach"

There was lots of conversation--pre-hype--about the doc/movie Teach on CBS last night. I tried to avoid "judging before watching" syndrome, and kept in mind that people do change their minds, based on evidence (see: Diane Ravitch).

So--I watched Teach last night. And yes, like many in the Twitterverse, felt my heartstrings yanked. I saw and warm-bathed in all the soft-focus messages of four earnest young teachers who are totally in it "for the kids."

Really. I believed 'em. They're concerned and determined to do their best. They believe they can make a difference. Go for it, guys. We all like a good teacher success story--they're a classic storyline, here in up-by-your-bootstraps America. Teach helpfully included several fictional-teacher clips, from Sidney Poitier to Robin Williams, to prime our emotional pump, in case the real teachers weren't enough.

Then, you could see the pre-crafted story arc emerging:

• Troubled schools. Poor but deserving kids. Teachers working so very, very hard, caring so very, very much. They're heroes! (And they actually are--so we're hooked into the narrative. We like these young teachers.)

• But...bad news: Test scores down! Way down! Plus: Some of these kids aren't sure if they can get to college. And if they don't go to college... well, is life even worth living, then?

Khan and other teacher-fixing experts to the rescue! (Subliminal adverts for Khan Academy: I counted four.) And guess what? Direct instruction, which worked just fine in the olden days, is no longer effective. A cartoon told us so.

• Nail-biting (with moody music): Will the scores improve? Have all their efforts been in vain? Only the tests will tell...

• They do improve! Two years' worth for many kids. The Scores! The Scores! (Academic equivalent of Winning the Big Game, carrying Rudy on our shoulders.)

• Cue violins--thanks, hero-teachers! We're so sad we can't have you next year, now that you've fixed us! But we'll always remember you.

OK, perhaps that was over the line. I did appreciate Teach's effort to highlight the intellectual complexity and intense humanity of teaching. But the subtext still bothers me, this morning.

Bottom line: Davis Guggenheim learns his lesson, and drafts a new, Gates-funded education-film agenda. Makes a much more subtle, touching and insidious film. He doesn't hack on teachers (his mistake in Waiting for Superman) and leaves unions out of the conversation. The administrators in this film are capable instructional coaches, not the irrational public-school crazies portrayed in WFS.

Instead, he elevates and admires the following:
• young teachers as best prospects for the profession
• teacher as sacrificing hero--notice that no traces of the teachers' personal lives crept into the year-long focus?
• test scores as reliable truth
• school and teacher as determining factors in child's life prospects

And, of course, Khan.

If you'd like to see a much better film, where twenty teachers set out to improve themselves, and reality intervenes, watch The Mitchell Twenty.

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