Unlike ‘Superman,’ Guggenheim’s new film champions teachers

In Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” teachers and their unions were the antagonists. They looked out for their own interests, regardless of the impact on children, and were to blame for the U.S. educational problems. In his new film, “Teach,” Guggenheim has swung to the opposite end of the spectrum. The four teachers he follows throughout the course of a school year are the unquestioned heroes, hardworking and devoted.

The film, which aired last week on CBS, features shots of teachers leaving school as the sun sets, carrying work home with them, and scenes of tearful goodbyes on the last day of school.  At times, it’s easy to see the movie as an acknowledgement of the shortcomings of “Waiting for Superman,” or as The New York Times put it, “a valentine to the teaching profession.”

The documentary’s problem isn’t that it overcorrects at the expense of the truth – the vast majority of teachers I meet while reporting care deeply about their students and try their best to help them succeed, just like the teachers featured in the movie.  The problem with “Teach” is that it fails to effectively get beyond this premise to what Guggenheim has said the true goal of the film is.

“This was an attempt to show what a really effective teacher is,” he told the LA School Report. “If we could understand that, maybe we could get more of them in the classroom.”

“Teach” does touch upon many important issues in education today, such as the student poverty, tracking, and interventions. But with so much ground to cover, and so much time spent convincing us that these teachers love their students, these topics often are addressed only superficially.

For instance, Shelby Harris, a seventh-grade math teacher in Kuna, Idaho, experiments with using Kahn Academy, a free series of online videos that teaches everything from algebra to art history. In the middle of the year, things are going poorly, Harris says, and she feels like she is failing her students. She spends some time talking to the people at Kahn Academy and watches the videos from her couch at night. By the end of the year, (spoiler alert) things have turned around. The classroom is running smoothly.

But “Teach” never addresses on a deeper level what exactly wasn’t working originally and what changes were made to improve things.  There is no broad discussion about how and under what circumstances digital learning works well.

During a brief segment in the middle of the film, some of the teachers sit down with their administrators to go over a lesson that had been observed, presumably as part of their annual teacher evaluation. Evaluations have been a centerpiece of most states’ education reforms. Unions and lawmakers may disagree about whether those evaluations should include test scores and what the consequences attached to them should be, but both sides agree that improving evaluations will help the teaching profession and raise academic performance. “Teach” mentions none of this.

One of the most intriguing dilemmas highlighted in the film occurs in Lindsey Chinn’s ninth-grade algebra class in Denver. Her students are exceeding district averages on the material that she has covered thoroughly, according to mid-year assessments. But the class is behind schedule. Chinn and her administrator debate if it is better to cover less material, but truly master it, or teach everything that will be covered on the end-of-year standardized tests, knowing the pace would be too fast for most students to grasp the concepts.

It’s an important issue and one that gets to the heart of the debate on standardized testing for accountability. But after raising the question, the film doesn’t address possible answers for teachers trying to encourage mastery while simultaneously trying to cover all the material on the test. Thus, “Teach” misses the opportunity to have a real conversation about the quality and use of the standardized tests and ways in which they might help and hinder teaching.

Much like “Waiting for Superman”  set up a persuasive argument that something is wrong with America’s schools, “Teach” makes a case that effective teaching can make a difference. It just doesn’t go far enough to define what that is.

POSTED BY ON September 11, 2013