At theaters all across America this weekend, a new comedy starring Cameron Diaz and Jason Segal hit the big screens. While a movie debuting on a Friday is nothing new, the content of this film stands out from the rest. The Bad Teacher title gives a subtle hint about the plot, and the movie's description reads, "Some teachers just don't give an F." It also describes Cameron Diaz's character, a teacher, as someone who "drinks" and who "gets high." Though comedies shouldn't necessarily be taken seriously, a television advertisement for the movie is what caught my attention.
The advertisement, which can be seen here, says that the United States used to have the number one educational system in the world, and we now rank 17th. The clip then proceeds to show Cameron Diaz's character throwing a dodge ball at a child before the Bad Teacher title line appears. The implication for the ad spot is clear: America's schooling has fallen because of bad teachers.
The timing of such an ill-advised commercial couldn't be worse for teachers, as educators across the United States are under attack from politicians and the media. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has led a large portion of the fighting against teachers, claiming they make too much money, that they're not effective, and that they're too difficult to fire. He proposed a new way of judging teachers with his merit plan, a system that would judge the value of teachers based on student test data. His plan has received broad attention from media outlets, though the veracity of his boisterous arguments has either been ignored or hasn't been sought out.
Vanderbilt University, in one of the first scientific studies of such a merit educational system, tested the theory by offering math teachers in Nashville, Tennessee, between $5,000-$15,000 if their students scored higher on a state-based examination. The results? It didn't work, and the students didn't score higher even with hefty incentives for the teachers. As the report concluded, "The experiment was intended to test the notion that rewarding teachers for improved scores would cause scores to rise. By and large, results did not confirm this hypothesis."
Rather than report scientific evidence that appears to contradict popular notions like a merit system, the media has instead decided to focus on the failures of American schools. ABC's 20/20, for example, did a special report on Abraham Lincoln High School in New York City. One student told ABC that teachers were dull to the point of students actually sleeping in class. Another school administrator complained that the teachers unions were too strong and that their district was having a hard time firing a teacher who allegedly sent sexually explicit emails to a 16-year-old student. ABC even spoke with proclaimed education experts, such as Jay Greene, author of Education Myths, who claimed that the issue of money for schools is a misnomer. "If money were the solution, the problem would already be solved," Greene said, referencing the levels of increased government spending on schools the past 30 years.
The claims made in the special were serious enough that they should be looked into. If there was one area the 20/20 segment was lacking, it was telling the story of the teachers. What did they think of the accusations being made against their lot? I attempted to answer those questions by contacting a teacher I'll call "Alicia" who has taught in urban schools in central Florida as well as schools in Michigan. Her version of events painted a much different picture.
Alicia dismissed the notion of students sleeping in class due to boring teachers. While she admitted there are "boring" teachers out there, she feels most of that is the product of teachers having their lesson plans down to a science. To help streamline the process of teaching material, many teachers will save their lessons from the previous year and teach them again. If an educator has been on the job many years, they've likely done the material so many times that it may even appear dull to themselves. Alicia suggests the best way to beat such a rut is to have "hands-on" lessons and to mix things up from time-to-time. Also, Alicia astutely quipped, if you ask students how they feel about school, odds are they're going to say it's boring. You won't always learn about a subject that interests you, which is all a part of becoming a well-rounded member of society.
Alicia refuted the criticism of unions being too strong as a chicken or egg situation. Officials claim the unions are too strong, yet teachers need a strong union to protect them from organizations that wish to cut their funding, salaries and health care. The unions may protect some who aren't worthy of being educators but to use a potential pedophile and apply it to teachers generally is "not a fair situation for the good teachers," and is insulting.
Alicia seemed to take special offense to the claim money is a myth when it comes to education. She states:
I do believe money can be a big deciding factor in which schools get more money. I taught in an urban, inner-city school where we received much less funding per pupil than a school five minutes down the road in a wealthy area. These upper-class students had parents who were involved. Of course they are going to succeed better than my school, where the kids don't know where their next meal is coming from, except for school lunch. I believe the situation should be reversed. The schools that have a failing reputation due to low test scores need the money more than the schools who are producing high test scores and graduate rates.
Reading the criticisms of the American school system and speaking with Alicia has shown there are fundamental faults with the current system. What isn't fair, however, is to place all the blame on teachers, and a movie trailer implying educators are the reason our schools are falling apart is misinformed and in bad taste.
I wish to thank the teachers, such as Mrs. Carey, my first grade teacher, who wouldn't give up on me even when I had no desire to do my homework. I would like to thank the high school teachers who somehow managed to keep coming into school every day to teach a bunch of students who managed to unhinge the clock from our wall as a joke, or password protected our network computers so nobody could access them. I would like to thank the teachers who, when a quarter or dime hit the ground in the hallway and began to roll, would run in a full-blown sprint towards the change, shouting humorously that it would double their monthly salary. I would like to thank the teachers who pushed me to write even when I thought it was the most boring thing in the world -- you helped me earn my Master's degree and write for The Huffington Post.
To all my teachers: you changed my life, and this post is for you.
Scott Janssen is a recent graduate of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with a Master's degree in Political Science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.