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Weaving interviews of policy experts and startling facts with the lives and careers of four teachers, American Teacher tells the collective story by and about those closest to the issues in our educational system -- the 3.2 million teachers who spend every day in classrooms across our country. Written by
Ambitious in scope and sweet in nature, American Teacher ultimately fails to convince the viewer of the validity of its central argument. Funded by a non-profit called The Teacher Salary Project, the film attempts to argue that the root of America's education crisis lies in a workforce (3.2 million in 2010) who are undervalued and therefore driven away by the combination of a lack of financial support and a lack of respect for the teaching profession. American Teacher's solution? Fairly simply, pay them more.
Rhena Jasey, one of the five teachers documented, offers the most convincing case. A young Harvard graduate, she decided to take a job in teaching to the bemusement of her peers, all of whom had jobs in lined up in law, finance and medicine with starting salaries well in excess of her own $35,000. Smart, grounded and at ease in her classroom, 'Ms. Jasey" is the kind of teacher we'd all want for our children, and the inference is made that if public schools could offer more competitive salaries and promotion prospects, more of Jasey's ilk could be attracted to a career in the classroom.
Thankfully, more evidence is found to support the argument than merely Jasey's own testimony. Graphics (if you've ever seen Waiting for Superman, they are frustratingly similar) are rolled out to lament the United States' current education problems vis-a-vis the rest of the world. Finland is once again held up as the exemplar, a state in which teaching is the most sought-after profession and, coincidentally or not, a state where teaching salaries match up competitively with any other line of work. If the film has our attention at this point, it lets itself down through a combination of not answering the obvious question - where is this money to be found? - and allowing itself to be quagmired in the sob stories of the current class of underpaid teachers.
That is not to belittle their situations, but to question why three-quarters of the film was spent describing the anguish caused by the current system and only a quarter spent on the actual solution proffered, particularly when the former is known (if ignored) while the latter is supposedly novel. 'American Teacher' is well-intentioned, and its subjects are as selfless as they are important, but when addressing a matter of policy, you can't allow the details to be lost in the emotion.
This was a missed opportunity.
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