The Lottery Analysis

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The Lottery is a documentary directed by Madeleine Sackler. This film focuses on four different families throughout the New York City area that are involved in different urban schooling. These four families are currently enrolled in the charter school lottery to hopefully become a part of the Harlem Success Academy. The viewer has the opportunity to have an insight of the city’s schooling system through listening to the families, policy makers, administrators, and strong advocates speak their minds. The message that Sackler tries to communicate to the audience is that the local public schools are not giving most children the opportunities that would truly advance them. Together, as a country, we can help this problem by emphasizing the importance of education and providing equal opportunities through each school zone.

The theory of change throughout the film starts with the problem that there is not enough space for all of the students that deserve a spot, to receive a spot at Harlem Success Academy, or for that matter, any succeeding charter school. If the public school system was not failing in neighborhoods like Harlem, the charters schools would not be at such high demand. The public schools, in places like Harlem, are failing for many reasons. The emphasis gets put on the teachers, but it is also on the students. The teachers are not as qualified as other teachers throughout suburbia because of the conditions of the school, the staff, etc. With these poor conditions because of the income of the area, less qualified teachers are going to be attracted to these public schools. The students also play a factor because they are less interested in learning. The poor teachers add to this disinterest, but their home lives add to this as well. These students come mostly from poor families; there is a large chance that their families cannot even speak English or did not get diplomas from college or even high school. With unsupportive families at home and unqualified teachers, the educational success results are low. The policy chain is in affect, but has not yet worked itself out. Parts of the policy chain would be: the wait list and the attempt to gain more space for the school which would gain more students. The goals for HSA is that more students have the chance to get a better education to better educate the country, especially is higher poverty areas that are in need of this. This filmmakers did a great job in portraying these problems and goals. Documentaries can get repetitive because of too much narration on a single person.  The film jumps from narrator to narrator where the viewer can see who is speaking. Being able to see the average day of the students and families really made the documentary feel real. The viewer was able to be in the classroom, in the homes of the families, on the playground, and on the streets of Harlem. Seeing all of these places in the documentary lets the viewer feel a connection.

The film makers address the problem of public and charter schools by having people with all different views and backgrounds explain how they feel about their current situation on education. Sackler focuses mostly on people that are in favor of the charter schools. When the charter schools attempted to take over some space of a local public school, the strong advocates against charter schools spoke up. That was the only time that the viewers heard the critical side of charter schooling. The critics about the charter schools stand their ground because they believe the charter school system is unfair. They don’t believe that their ways of educating the students is poor and they don’t agree with the fact that not every student will get the chance to get this education. They are also part of a teacher union and they will not let this dissipate. Their future runs on their union, and the charter schools are run completely differently which could leave them unemployed. These public school teachers believe that the charter school system is bringing about too many problems. In the United States, there are 365,000 students that are currently on a wait list for a charter school. The problem with these protestors though against charter schools come off as too harsh. Both times that they were portrayed they came off as arrogant because of how harshly they criticized the charter schools with such distaste. These critics were arrogant because of the way that the presented their ideas and concerns. Obviously they have more of a reason to worry because their income is based off of the way that the public schools run; they are also being criticized. But, the way that they present it is very aggressive. During the scene where both sides come together in the gymnasium, the critics come off as angry and forceful towards the advocates while the advocates seem to just voice their opinions with reasonable evidence.

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This image is some of the members of the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now (ACORN). There are groups around the city like ACORN that are against charter schools or different types of school that take away from public schools. They hold protests hoping to inform more people about why they dislike the charter school systems. Again, this way of protest seems immature compared to the way that the advocates hold debates and lectures to inform rather than walk around with signs. They make claims like, “They only succeed because of their small class sizes,” or, “They do not educate the children with special needs (27:02).” Fortunately these claims are not true and are proven in one of Moskowitz’s conferences. She explains that the average Kindergarten class size at HSA is about 27 students, which is larger than the average public school class size. She also explains that the average amount of students with special needs is 18% which is larger than the average public school percentage (50:19).


Eva Moskowitz is the founder of the HSA and she claims that she has never heard of parents that do not care about education; she claims they just do not have the resources to help their children like the wealthier parents do (9:27). Different people throughout the film have different thoughts on why there is such a gap amongst the students and amongst the education. Gotbaum believes that poverty is the main cause of the educational problems (16:38) and that charter schools are not the answer. Gotlin believes differently and thinks that poverty is not the reason. She believes that there are many challenges, and the school has to take more of a stance and address the problems and figure out how to solve them rather than blame it on something like “poverty (17:10).”

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 3.22.19 PM This is an image of Moskowitz having a conference with fellow coworkers. Personally, I really liked this scene and thought that this was a great clip because of multiple components. First, all of the employees seemed very engaged in what Moskowitz was explain during her conference. Second, the amount of writing on the board shows that the teacher really cares because it seems so intricately laid out; taking the time to use different ways of posting, different colors, etc. Lastly, the YALE sign on the door has a lot of symbolism. It allows the viewer to see that the charter schools  are advocates for getting to the college level and actually into college. It is also presented that the teachers also have excellent educations, even from the best college in the country.

Jessica Reid explains that her only goal for her students is to educate them, but at public school she had little support from her coworkers and peers so it became increasingly difficult. At HSA, the support was more obvious and kept her morale boosted which resulted in her work paying off (23:21). She has meetings with coworkers that want to better their students, like Moskowitz is having above. When someone is able to speak from experience from both sides, like Reid, it adds a lot of evidence. Moskowitz states that the lottery proves that there are thousands and thousands of parents who are most likely in poverty, but are searching for a phenomenal education for their children (25:08). This proof supports Reid’s comment as well.

Louis writes an opinion piece on the Daily News about “The Lottery.” Her writing, in my opinion, was everything that I thought. SInce she is such a well educated woman and travels to see Moskowitz’s school and deeply agrees with her approach, it gives me all more of a reason to believe in Moskowitz’s methods. Louis also touches on Ravitch which I thought was interesting because we have been talking about her ideas on education. Louis explains that there are definitely hardships, she states, “That’s easier said than done. In Harlem and other communities, outstanding performance by charters has provoked envy, resentment and an organized backlash by teachers unions.” But these hardships are cancelled out by the opportunities and positivity that Moskowitz and her employees are providing for the students in Harlem.

The Lottery was a very touching film that explained, in depth, the problems behind public education in areas like Harlem. Harlem Success Academy provides opportunities for students in need, but unfortunately does not have the means to provide for enough students. In order to help fix this problem, we need to spread awareness in order for local public schools to have qualified teachers to educate the students. The more educated students we have in our country, the better the country will be.

Works Cited
The Lottery. Dir. Madeleine Sackler. Perf. Eva Moskowitz, The Goodwine Family, The Yoanson Family, The Horne Family, and the Roachford Family. 2010. DVD.
Louis. “‘The Lottery’ Documentary Shows Education Is a Sure Bet.” NY Daily News. Daily News, 28 Apr. 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

More thoughts on “The Cartel”

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In The Cartel, Bowdon highlights common misconceptions that people have based on misinformation about the education system, promotes the concept that an increase in the number of schools available will increase competition and create better schools, and reveals the corruption that exists within the public school system that allows for the country that spends the most on education to be the country with the lowest academically performing students in the world. Bowdon utilizes a Friedman framework to supposedly better enable disenfranchised students by giving them more school choices, however he seems to completely miss the point for why the students/parents are choosing these alternative schools. It is not for the love of a “better school,” but rather for the love of a safer school.

In this documentary, Bowdon highlights critical problems that exist within the public school system which he identifies as “inherent structures” reflective of a “monopoly model” that is rampant nationwide to the grave disadvantage of the children. He identifies one monopoly that does indeed exist, and rather than address what can be done to the betterment of all children or even what the true underlying problems of all the existing structures that have influenced the educational system, he advocates for another monopoly system, because the children are not the crux of his issue, it’s money. So he promotes school choice within a Milton Friedman framework of free market autonomy that reduces education to a product which can be bought and sold. This effort, this movement, to consumerize and commercialize education to match market demands which views parents as clientele, and efficiency and competition as hallmarks of success is not only disastrous for the educational realities of the children this system purports to be supporting, but is actually apathetic to their struggle and all of the context that engulfs them on a daily basis to either succeed or fail in spite of themselves. Because fundamentally Bowdon is most concerned with a monopoly that does act as a disservice to most children in this country, however not because of the inherent injustice of what that disservice represents, but rather because of the money that is “lost” or wasted as a result of that disservice. Money that is wasted, depending on who you are talking to (since there are individuals that are gaining that money), and money that is also used as power by the force of the teachers’ unions to protect the interest of the teachers, so they say. But most importantly, money that belongs to whom? Money that belongs to him actually, as a resident of New Jersey, and all of his fellow tax paying stateswomen/men. So, really, he’s concerned with what’s happening with his money, not what’s happening to these children, and is manipulating their very real strife to his own economic, and even sociopolitical advantage (in an effort to also gain some power for himself and his “cause”). However, none of this is in regards to the children. Again, those precious minds whose very minds are being used as pawns to further everyone else’s agenda (whether pro school choice or anti school choice), but never actually being considered worthy in of themselves, only to the extent of how they can be monopolized to promote some other agenda, thus being forced to justify their own existence. And not all precious minds, but the minds of those children in the lower socio-economic branch of our society. Because if this was all really about the children, providing the best “public” education system for the children, if this was really a documentary about trying to understand what is going wrong in the public education systems that exist within these neighborhoods, with how the teacher’s union operates within these neighborhoods, than why not explore positive public education systems in other neighborhoods and how the teachers unions operate there? Why not identify a problem, that is obviously an economic issue, but then see how/if at all these same economic issues exist in public education systems in other neighborhoods and how such problems were addressed? In neighborhoods where public schools flourish and success is even normative. Thus, being forced to examine the underlying, insidious, disastrous, cyclical, systematic oppressive forces that exist to the detriment of these children educationally and otherwise. Thus, being forced to recognize different ways that tracking systems do exist still within these neighborhoods to ensure that some students never succeed and are filtered into a life of crime (petty and otherwise) in an effort to either fill prisons or the military, both of which are industries that have also been corporatized and privatized (although the choice is not for the prisoner/soldier “consumer” but the corporate-fueled producer). So of course, neo-conservative individuals, publications, news outlets, etc. support this movie, and ultimately support decentralization and the school-choice movement, which conveniently does not consider the lasting and continuous effects of  privilege, racial and otherwise.

Despite his very journalistic and fact-heavy approach to this documentary, using both pathos and enough ethos to both educate and move the audience, the taxpayers, even Bowdon acknowledges, if only for a moment, that what is at the heart of the educational plight of children in urban environments. Hope Academy is a charter school that is not comparatively exemplary to local public schools statistically, according to test scores, and other quantitative measures. Yet, the students who attend, do not only continue to choose Hope Academy, they feel it is their salvation in many ways. Not for the better quantity education, but rather for the better quality education. A quality that cannot be measured and quantified, but does have scientific support and does indeed yield positive results over time. A high-stress environment, including actual or the threat of physical, sexual, psychological,  or emotional violence is not conducive to learning, especially concerning the first six years of life, the early formative years of cognitive development. School becomes a place one must survive physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual harm, and the consequential development of maladaptive behaviors is a normal response to an abnormal situation. So, the parents who are either beyond elation, or devastatingly crushed when it comes time for the lottery are not happy or upset that their child is going to have better test scores. Whether it’s a lottery for a charter school, private school, voucher school, or just another public school in a better neighborhood, these parents recognize the opportunities that such places can provide for the kind of person their child can become, not just the kind of student they can become. They realize that they can indeed, have a chance.

But such relief should not be seen as only possible in the consumerized and commercialized market world of the school choice movement, it should be inherent within the public school system. Education is not a random birthright privilege for some, and a random numerical privilege for those who are willing to fight for it.  Because the right to learn within a safe environment is a basic human right that should not be trivialized to a product that can be negotiated and manipulated. And it is the responsibility, as well as the economic  advantage, of our government to provide such an education system for all of it’s children.


Olin, Andy. “Director wants to school viewers on the public education system.” Chron. April 23, 2010. Retrieved, March 1, 2014, from

Orange, Michelle. “Documenting Our Crooked Educational System in The Cartel.” New York Village Voice. Apreil 13, 2010. Retrieved, March 1, 2014, from

“The Cartel.”

Bowdon, Bob. The Cartel. 2009. Film

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

 Alexander, Michele. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2010.

“The Cartel” : Propaganda for Pro-School Choice Movement?

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In  2009, news anchor Bob Bowdon wrote, directed, and produced The Cartel, an award winning documentary that offers a critical view of the American public education system by examining issues plaguing the schools of New Jersey, a state ranked number one for per pupil spending in the United States.  Using interviews, news clips, data from international and national test scores, and statistics about school funding, Bowdon weaves together a tragic story of New Jersey’s students floundering and trying to escape from the failing public schools that are rampant with bad teachers and bureaucratic corruption. In this film, Bowdon attempts to convince viewers of the negative effects of teacher unions and school officials who control public education, “a multi-billion dollar cartel”, and advocates for market-based reform based on school choice and accountability.

The documentary begins with a statistic that “only 38% of high school seniors can read at 8th grade level” ( Bowdon, 00:01:26)  to shock the audience into awareness of exactly how bad the public schools are doing. After doling out more statistics about falling test scores to expose the poor quality of education in public schools, Bowdon informs viewers about the amount of spending per classroom annually to make his first point: government spending on education is excessive and pumping more money into schools is not the solution. He uses New Jersey as the perfect example of this, revealing that despite the exorbitant amounts that the state spends on education, the schools are failing their students.

Given this juxtaposition of quality of education versus the public expenditure on schools, viewers naturally would be wondering : where is the $300,000 – $400,000 spent per classroom actually going if not to improve the quality of education? Bowdon highlights news stories of local corruption and interviews public officials and schools administrators to show that the money is either being ill-spent or pocketed by “cigar-chomping superintendents” and other such school bureaucrats. According to the documentary, the overpaid administrators and teachers care more about lining their pockets than looking out for the interests of students and that they aren’t being held accountable . Such reports of corruption at the expense of the students and their parents no doubt will elicit the concern and anger of indignant viewers.

Bowdon then accusingly turns towards the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), New Jersey’s teacher Union that appears to be obstructing necessary reform measures, such as getting rid of tenure and giving merit-based pay to teachers. He suggests that the politically powerful NJEA, by protecting bad teachers and blocking the movement for vouchers and charter schools are denying parents better education choices for their children and increasing educational inequality. The film’s most emotionally moving scene takes place at the lottery for a charter school when big tears begin to roll down the face of a little girl who appears extremely heartbroken because she failed to escape the horrible New Jersey public school system (Bowdon, 01:17:51).

Crying Girl

Bowdon’s advocacy for school choice and accountability as the solution to ensure quality education for students is aligned with the notion of market-based reforms. He uses his documentary to show that vouchers and charters schools, such as the Northstar Academy in New Jersey where students are “trained in behaviors of the professional world” (Bowdon, 01:10:45) and are therefore prepared to succeed in a capitalist society. Although there is no shortage of references to how a school should be run like a business, such as car dealerships and coffee shops, Bowdon fails to address the negative effects of school choice and schools being run like businesses. On its sister website,, viewers are encouraged to “learn about charter schools, vouchers, and other educational alternatives—and support the efforts of groups such as the Alliance for School Choice, New Jersey’s Excellent Education for Everyone, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Center for Education Reform, and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.”

The Cartel won numerous prizes, which they listed on their website, and appeared to be well received by the public. The New York Post which stated, “For parents of kids in public schools, the heartbreaking documentary ‘The Cartel’ is a revelation” and that “few documentaries have covered such an important matter so convincingly and with such clarity” (Smith, 2010). New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also praised the film as “very important” and claimed it helped mold his policy decisions (BowdonMedia, 2011).

Aside from its poor video quality and bad animations, the film was criticized for a number of things ranging from its biased, limited interviews, its failure to offer the opposing side of the story, to its implicit messages. The lack of debate and one-sidedness in this documentary is apparent as Bowdon interviews very few members of  the opposition and only speaks to frustrated teachers and administrators who have failed to help reform schools from within. He also does not mention past reform efforts that  have possibly influenced the negative educational outcomes seen today, such as the No Child Left Behind policy. It is clear that Bowden’s interviews and news clips are not meant to offer the audience a variety of views on the issues of public education. Rather, Bowdon takes a biased approach in which he is “cherry-picking” and guiding interviewees to share opinions and evidence that support his view, and in some cases goes as far as to put words in people’s mouth, so to speak (Bowdon, 2009) (00:25:02 ; 01:01:06). According to the New York Times movie review, “Mr.Bowdon …employs an expose-style narration lousy with ad hominems and emotional coercion” (Catsoulis, 2010).

In response to Bowdon’s pro school choice push, Stephen Whitty, a reporter for the Star Ledger, a Newark based online newspaper, gives reasons for why school choice might not solve the national education mess. According to Whitty (2009), Bowdon ignored issues of whether charter schools are any better as well as the problem of their “self-selecting nature” as only certain parents would take advantage of such schools. Whitty also asks, “What if the vouchers didn’t cover the tuition at the prep you wanted, or the school didn’t want your child? How about that whole pesky church-state thing…?” (2009). Whitty also discloses that Bowdon got “post-production support from a couple of partisan groups, including a pro-voucher organization” (2009).

In her book The Reign of Error: the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, education historian, professor, and policy analyst Diane Ravitch points to how the charter movement has become “a vehicle for privatization of large swaths of public education” which results in a loss of the democratic control of schools and creates a system in which charters competes with rather than complementing and collaborating with public schools (2013). She reveals that charter schools under private management, which have not produced consistent high scores nor proven their superiority over public schools, are exempt from state laws and financial auditing and actually spend more public dollars on their students than public schools (Ravitch, 2013). She also warns of the danger they pose in increasing racial and class segregation( Ravitch, 2013).

According to Harvard Educational Review (Brion-Meisels, 2011) the kind of charter schools and reforms that Bowdon praises makes clear some implicit messages of the film. Firstly, it sends the message that the purpose of public education is simply to give students equal access to economic opportunity (Brion-Meisels, 2011). Secondly, it sends the message that “the culture of high-accountability charter schools is more valuable than the cultures from which these low-income students may come” and devalues the culturally unique ways in which these students’ parents support them (Brion-Meisels,2011).

Using test scores as the measure for success, The Cartel paints a dismal picture of public schools in New Jersey to imply that public schools throughout the nation are failing horribly and that a market-based approach to reform would reduce the costly inefficiencies. He focuses only on the misfortunes of one State and claims that this story is equally true for schools throughout the nation. Though the statistics Bowdon uses to win his audience over are verifiable and come from legitimate resources, he fails to tell the story behind these numbers that put them in a real world context that would lead to an accurate understanding of what they mean. Bowdon’s poorly made documentary appears to be nothing more than a biased propaganda for the school choice movement leading towards the privatization of the public education system. The real threat of misleading documentaries like this one lays in the fact that it might prevent people from the true underlying causes of the public education mess in America, such as the systemic economic and social inequalities that exist.


Bowdon,B. (Director). (2009). The Cartel [Documentary].United States: Moving Picture Institute

BowdonMedia. (2011, January 2). Chris Christie comments on The Cartel movie. Retrieved February 23, 2013, from

Brion-Meisels, G. (2011). The Cartel/The Lottery/Waiting for “Superman”…. Harvard Educational Review, 81(4), 751-761.

Catsoulis, J. (2010, April 15). Children left behind. New York Times. Retrieved from

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Smith, K. (2010, April 16). Nj paradox: Piles of cash, failing schools. New York Post, Retrieved from

Whitty, S. (2009, Octber 08). ‘the cartel’ movie review: Documentary on jersey schools fails debate class. The Star Ledger. Retrieved from

The Lottery: Beyond the Argument Between Charter Schools and the Teachers Union

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Madeleine Sackler’s The Lottery describes the conflict between public schools and charter schools, one of the hottest issues in American public education. She shows the two contrasting views on charter schools. On one side, there are thousands of parents who are eager to send their children to charter schools for a better education. On the other side, teachers union in public schools strongly oppose them and trying to prevent them from increasing their capacity. In order to show this contrast, the film follows four families in Harlem, New York, whose children apply to the lottery to get into the Harlem Success Academy, a thriving charter school in NYC. The film describes different perceptions about charter schools with strong favor of them, and it tempts people to conclude that charter schools are good, and public schools are bad. However, despite the one-sided point of view, this film has a significant message for all the viewers regardless their opinion on charter schools: children are being neglected while educators and politicians are fighting for their own sakes. The problem in education is not children or parents, but the adults who are controlling the system.

In the American public education system, there are public schools and charter schools. Both are publically funded by state taxes. The difference is that public schools follow the government’s regulation and are tied to teachers union contracts whereas charter schools are free from unions and have more autonomy in school management.

Since many public schools in Harlem have failed, and charter schools have been the key to education reform for the last two decades, serving as an alternative to poor-performing public schools in the city. In the film The Lottery, charter schools encourage teachers to work harder and to pay more attention to their students while parents are asked to actively get involved in schools. The movie shows that they have accomplished significant improvements in students’ performance. Watching both successful stories of charter schools and failures of public schools, many parents turn their eyes to the more promising one. However, due to their limited capacity, charter schools have to select their students by lottery, as prescribed in the federal law.

Some blame children or their careless parents for the failure of Harlem’s education system. However, the filmmaker makes a strong point that they are not the ones causing the schools’ failures. According to the Huffington Post, Sackler says, “what gives me the most hope is the reason I made the movie: there are so many parents that are eager for something better” (Thelma Adams). Lower class parents are interested in good education as much as, or even more than, middle and upper class parents. Lower class parents are desperate for the good education because they believe that lack of education blocks them from being successful.

Each of the four families introduced in the film are going through difficulties: Eric Jr. Roachford, whose mother is schooling their kids by herself; Gregory Goodwine Jr, whose father is in prison and lives with his mother; Ammenah Horne, whose single parent mother has speaking disability; Christian Yohanson, whose family members are scattered in Africa and in America. Despite these tough circumstances, they all express that they want good education for their kids. In The Lottery, Eric’s mother says, “I am looking for a school that is going to look at my child and see what his strengths and weaknesses are and teach him according to those weaknesses” (Sackler 6:02).

The film delivers the message that not only parents, but also children cannot be an excuse for failing schools. The filmmaker uses Harlem Success Academy to prove that students’ inability is not the problem in education. Once high quality education was provided by Harlem Success, 100% of students passed the state exam, and their enhancement rate in literacy and math has been remarkable. Meanwhile, the film displays many shots of innocent children, such as children with a smile and curious face, and these lead viewers to consider children as victims, not the causes of educational problems.

Parents’ inattention or children’s inability are not the issue. Rather, the fundamental problem in education system is what Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of Harlem Success Academy, calls, “union-political-educational complex”. Moskowitz says that the problem is not children or parents, but “the system that protests academic failure and limits the choices that parents have” (Sackler 10:12). Public schools are bound with teachers union, and unions exists to protect the rights of teachers for a better learning environment. Despite its purpose, the union ends up hindering public schools from being improved. The union contract sets all the rules for teachers, and schools have no powers over the contract. It prevents schools from requiring longer prep hours for classes or firing poor-performing, unmotivated. Making matters worse, as people in the union consider charter school as threats to them, they obstruct the growth of charter schools and make it harder to provide good education to more students.

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A parent against giving Harlem Success Space during the space hearing (00:32.43)

As a result of the strong opposition of the teachers union against charter schools, educators in charter schools and public schools fight each other while neglecting real issues that need attention. A space hearing about moving Harlem Success Academy is given as an example of the fight. Six weeks before the lottery, there was a public meeting about the proposal to move Harlem Success Academy II to the public school that is closing due to low-performance. For the Harlem Success Academy, it was very crucial to assure that they had enough capacity for students chosen from the lottery. Parents, who are sending their kids to public schools, are upset and offensively reject the Harlem Success Academy’s moving in because they think that the charter schools threaten their community by taking over their public school. However, it turns out that the union hires the organization called ACORN and asks them to protest, pretending as if they are people in the community. Without knowing the real story, people in the local community are deceived that charter schools are their enemy.

Although the filmmaker points out the negative impact of the teachers union and the advantages of charter schools, her arguments have holes. In the example of the space hearing, the film only presents the situation from the charter school’s perspective. Harlem Academy has made surprising improvements, but this does not justify neglecting the existing community. Public schools play an important role to bind people together in a community, and this is as important as enhancing the quality of education. In addition, the filmmaker portrays charter schools as if they are the only answer for the problem, and she does not show negative aspects of charter schools. According to the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) in Stanford University, only 17% of charter schools in the United States succeeded better than traditional public schools; 43% showed no difference from public schools; 37% were actually worse than public schools in 2009 (CREDO 1). In reality, not all charter schools are as successful as Harlem Success Academy. If the filmmaker wanted to truly describe charter schools, the film should have formed claims more objectively, noting both advantages and disadvantages of them.

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About three thousand people gather for the lottery (1:07:34).

At the end of the film is the most significant moment when the lottery takes place. At this point, all the viewers would come to the same conclusion that something needs to be done for those kids whose future is determined by random selection regardless of their abilities or efforts. It is too cruel for children to wait for luck to attend a good school. When lottery-winners’ names are called, they look as happy as if they already achieved success; on the other hand, parents of those who are not chosen look hopeless. Their kids do not know why their parents are so depressed. The four families’ reactions to the lottery result are dramatized with emotional background music and tears of parents and kids. Watching this scene, nobody would deny that the victims of grown-ups’ conflicts are children, the hope of our future. Even though the film has many arguable points, The Lottery leaves the message that people need to recognize and take action in order to help children to have a good education beyond arguing and fighting over charter schools versus teachers unions.

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She is very happy for her daughter winning the lottery (1:11:42)
Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 12.13.15 AM
Children are waiting for their names to be called during the lottery (1:11:11)



Works Cited

Adams, Thelma. Charter School Controversy: A Q&A With The Lottery Director Madeleine    dddddSackler.” The Huffington Post. N. p., 15 June. 2010. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) Stanford University. Multiple dddddChoice: Charter School Performance in 16 States. CREDO. Stanford University, dddddJune 2009. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. <>.

Sackler, Madeleine. The Lottery. 2010. Film.




The Race to Nowhere

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The film “Race to Nowhere” was originally made because of Vicki Abeles’ concern for her own children after a thirteen year old girl committed suicide because of her schoolwork. The tragedy that was Devon Marvin’s death caused this mother to think more critically about her own children’s experiences in school. It takes a thoughtful and provocative look at the American educational system, why kids are under such stress, and asking the question “is it even paying off?” The answer, according to the movie, is absolutely not. “Race to Nowhere” chronicles the stories of many young people in the school system, some of which have had mental illness as well as physical manifestations of their extreme stress. It also interviews teachers and education reformers, questioning them on their thoughts on the system currently in place and, more importantly, how we can fix this disastrous problem.

The filmmakers of “Race to Nowhere” do not pinpoint one specific problem in the educational system, because every interviewee has a different idea of what that problem is. Some think the problem is too much homework while others believe it is the overemphasis of Advanced Placement courses. Different interviews in the film focus on different ages of children. There are problems in the film that are specific to elementary school children, or middle or high school students. However, the generally agreed upon issue is that there is an overarching theme of extreme pressure placed on students which causes an excessive amount of stress. This stress results in both mental illness and physical illness. One nineteen year old, Natalie, describes her experience with Anorexia Nervosa (Abeles 13:45). She cites the reasoning for the onset of her eating disorder as it giving her insomnia, which translated into having more time for homework. Her eating disorder became so severe that she was asked to leave her school, but decided to get her GED instead of dealing with the process of transferring. Dr. Ken Ginsburg, an Adolescent Medicine Specialist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says that most negative behaviors, such as eating disorders, are usually caused by stress (Abeles 15:09). These physical manifestations can also be seen in the countless reports of stress induced headaches and stomachaches from children starting at an early age. The second, but less emphasized problem was the fact that despite the pressure placed on children, we are still being outperformed by a number of different countries. The desired goal of the filmmakers is to create an educational system that emphasizes learning and the process of learning rather than just grades and tests. This system would allow students to think creatively and be invested in their own learning. It would also produce happier children that were healthier mentally as well as physically.

By doing things like eliminating homework, the SATs, and even abolishing grading, the hope would be that students would genuinely want to go to school to learn, and that would therefore increase their performance. Jay Chugh, a teacher at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California, cut the assigned homework for his Advanced Biology course in half one year. The results of the AP tests were actually higher than any other year (Abeles 26:00.) This shows the necessity to reassess how we think students learn and question the hours and hours of homework assigned to high school kids every night. “Stop Homework,” which was founded by Sara Bennett (also interviewed in the film) makes a very strong case against homework. According to the foundation, countries like Japan, Denmark, and the Czech Republic assign very small amounts of homework, but are still among the highest scoring countries on performance tests. In addition, a study done at Duke University showed that there was “very little correlation” between the amounts of homework assigned to students and their performance in elementary school and middle school, and in high school it was found that too much homework caused more harm than good.[1]

One critic of the film, Washington Post writer Jay Matthews, argues with Abeles, saying that as opposed to too much homework, students are receiving too little. He also complains that the film focuses “not on data but feelings.” He also disagrees that low-income students face large amounts of academic pressure.[2] This complaint is in response to a scene in “Race to Nowhere” where a character named Isaiah discusses his specialized struggles as a high school student living below the poverty line (Abeles 44:00). Isaiah’s interview pans his apartment, showing how poor his living conditions Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 2.36.09 PMare. Isaiah describes his massive amounts of homework, as well as the pressure he feels to rise above his neighborhood. He says that his counselor told him he needed to take Advanced level courses if he wanted colleges to even look at giving him scholarships. He took Advanced Environmental Science and received a D (Abeles 44:54). He also sites that he cheated multiple times throughout his college career to cope with his stress (Abeles 45:00). This scene shows that even in urban, impoverished schools, students are still getting a lot of work and are under an incredible amount of pressure.

Just as there are many different problems brought up in the film, there are also many goals. The main two, however, are the improvement of the well being of children, as well as the increased performance of students. The policy chain in this movie can also be confusing because everyone has a different opinion. Education reformers and teacher bring different ideas to the table on how to improve our educational system. For families, Abeles says that, as a parent, she has begun asking her children less about school work, and creating conversation in other ways (1:13). Dr. Deborah Stipek, Dean of the School of Education at Stanford University, tells us that there is no easy fix for our system, but that we need to fundamentally change our culture and our expectations of students (Abeles 1:16.) Reformers like Sara Bennett suggest eliminating homework, or even abolishing grading, because of an ethical responsibility for the well being of our nations children (Abeles 1:16). Dr. Madeline Levine commends schools for eliminating Advanced Placement courses and colleges for changing the way they require SAT scores (Abeles 1:17).  The hope through all of these actions is that students will have less work, and will therefore be less stressed and will enjoy school more. Through this, they would be more invested in their learning and their performance would improve.


[1] Bennett, Sara, and Nancy Kalish. The Case against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do about It. New York: Crown, 2006. Print.


[2] Mathews, Jay. “Why ‘Race to Nowhere’ Documentary Is Wrong.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 03 Apr. 2011. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.


An Education Reform Infomercial

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Madeleine Sackler’s The Lottery wholeheartedly expresses the urgent need to support local charter schools. Specifically, the film illustrates this urgency through the failed attempt to establish Harlem Success Academy 2, in New York City (0:56:56). The documentary highlights how Harlem Success, and the broader charter school movement are determined to end cycles of poverty by turning around America’s failing education system. Moreover, the film emphasizes how charter schools only have a limited capacity to admit a small portion of students who apply to enroll in schools like Harlem Success via lottery, which is a public event that gives everyone in a designated school district an equal opportunity to benefit from a high-impact tuition-free charter school education. The need for charter school reform is realistic and evident throughout the vivid imagery of rundown communities and large prisons. The film explains how there are up to four year “achievement gaps” (0:02:53) in education among different schools, races and minorities, and that people expect and plan for a percentage of these underserved students to go to prison. Despite the film’s effective display of the need for education reform, my thesis is that, the documentary is harmful to the broader education reform movement, because it creates enemies and further divides partisan interests and beliefs.

The need for charter schools is at the forefront of every edited clip, and the counterarguments displayed by public school advocates are weak to none. The Teachers Union and local government officials are demonized and pinned as the enemies of education reform, while charter school advocates and parents shed tears, share heartfelt anecdotes and pray to God that they will receive a spot at Harlem Success. The documentary opens by explaining the proven success of charter schools across America, then asks: “why don’t we have more of them [charter schools]?” (0:03:38) The question is raised in many different forms throughout the film, and is indirectly answered by pointing fingers at those who prevent the growth of charter schools. Among every modified scene and statement, the entire film is designed to meet its ending message: (Sackler, 1:16:54).

The last scene of Madeleine Sackler's The Lottery, asking viewers to Mentor, Teach, Donate and Vote to support the charter school movement.
The Lottery, 1:16:54. The last scene of Madeleine Sackler’s documentary, asking viewers to Mentor, Teach, Donate and Vote to support the charter school movement.

As a result, the targeted audience seems to be uninformed community members or participants in America’s education system, because public schools advocates and those who are actively engaged in educational policy will probably not be persuaded by the subjective nature of the film.

In summary, the focal points of the film: schools, parents, students and low-income communities, implicitly align with the charter school movement’s theory of change: If schools have excellent high-performing teachers, proactive parents, and the larger community provides support, space and funding, then any student from any neighborhood can achieve at the same or higher academic levels when compared to their wealthier counterparts, and will move on to earn a college degree. However, the United Federation of Teachers, local government and protests by local organizations such as Acorn, are restricting the opportunity for an equal education and alternative schooling options in low-income districts. Meanwhile, 365,000 struggling students who deserve a better education hopefully wait for a chance to reserve their seat at a charter school.

Throughout the film, the Teachers Union and local government are shown to be the antagonists of education reform and equality. President Obama addresses the need to fix America’s achievement gap, and his comments imply that local governments are to blame for widening the opportunity gap. The film supports its argument with evidence from a recording in 2008, when the President of the Teachers Union, Randi Weingarten, says there should be a “due process procedure” (0:19:50) for firing underperforming teachers, and then seemingly lies about the amount of tenured teachers fired that year. At a City Council hearing on charter school expansion, Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Harlem Success, silences a council member after he attributes her schools’ success to its class sizes (0:52:53), and makes another council member appear untrustworthy after she doesn’t believe that Ms. Moskowitz lives in Harlem (0:53:40). One of the most shocking attacks on the Teachers Union occurs when Ms. Moskowitz mentions the “thuggish,” and “Godfather-like tactics” (0:49:04) that the Teachers Union has used to threaten her. Thus, the film depicts those who are opposed to education reform as nothing more than selfish, aggressive and irrational liars.

In the midst all of the educational and political controversy, viewers are introduced to Eric, and his supportive parents; Gregory, who has a mother that works fulltime and a father in prison; Christian, who lives with his father who recently recovered from a stroke, and are separated from the rest of their family in Africa; and Ameenah, who has a single and deaf mother. Each family anxiously waits for their opportunity to be chosen via lottery, and admitted into Harlem Success. Despite their desperation, only Ameenah ends up attending a charter school. The one-sided argument for the charter school movement is also depicted at a Public Space Hearing, where parents protest the implementation Harlem Success at PS 194. Their comments about how charter schools “divide our neighborhoods,” and “disrespect our [public] schools” (0:30:30) are ephemeral and marginalized. One mother even yells that Harlem Success will only get space over her “dead body” as her child holds her hand and appears to be clueless about what’s going on: (Sackler, 0:32:50).

A son cluelessly watches his mother protest Harlem Success Academy's presence in their neighborhood, at a Public Space Hearing.
The Lottery, 0:32:50. A son cluelessly watches his mother protest Harlem Success Academy’s presence in their neighborhood, at a Public Space Hearing.

In turn, Harlem Success advocates remind parents to think about their children, and the parents who protest Harlem Success are portrayed as angry, self-centered individuals who don’t understand the needs of their children. In an interview with Madeleine Sackler, she says the main reason she made the movie is because: “There are so many parents that are eager for something better” (Adams, 2010), but also shows how some parents are harshly opposed to the charter school movement. Additionally, parents who want better for their children is an innate constituent of responsible parenting, and reflects nothing new.

I believe that the film effectively demonstrates the need for charter schools, but it creates too much conflict by pointing fingers at specific individuals, committees and organizations that impede on the growth of charter schools. If charter schools are realistically going to make a greater impact on America’s education system, they must work together with the Teachers Union and local governments, instead of vilifying these influential denominators. When asked about the most disheartening aspect of the charter school movement, Madeleine Sackler responds: “That the obstacles are so entrenched and systemic, which means that it will require a tremendous amount of political will to overcome it” (Adams, 2010), but her film seems to further entrench those obstacles, and does not speak this broadly about them. Moreover, the film could prompt more political controversy than will. There is a spirit alive in the education reform movement that in an odd way resembles that spirit of other populous movements including the union organizing movement. Common good and finding common ground underpin our democracy in the United States.

While the deeper message beyond the film is that students and parents get left behind because of politics, I believe it spends too much time creating and focusing on enemies. By provoking emotion and anger, the film causes people to take action. But reactions to the film may not be the ones that Madeleine Sackler intended people to take. Jeannette Catsoulis’ article “Education by Chance” in The New York Times calls the film a “one-sided charter-school commercial,” (Catsoulis, 2010) and I completely agree. The Lottery should have hashed out the need for education reform in a more balanced way by interviewing dropouts, then Success Academy graduates; by taking a broader view of a student’s life, and not just showing how badly they want to win the lottery; and by comparing the environment of a Success Academy classroom to a failing classroom. This kind of data is available; and I’m not sure why common ground can’t be examined as part of the urgent quest to improve America’s education system. A more balanced and intellectually honest approach would further strengthen this film’s overall message and impact.


Works Cited

“The Lottery (2010).” N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

Adams, Thelma. “Charter School Controversy: A Q&A With “The Lottery” Director Madeleine Sackler.” The Huffington Post., 15 June 2010. Web. <>.

Catsoulis, Jeannette. “Education by Chance.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 June 2010. Web. 23 Feb. 2010. <>.

Sackler, Madeleine. The Lottery. Video Documentary, 2010. <>.

Singer, Matt. “Review: “The Lottery,” Where Winning Really Is Everything.” Independent Film Channel, 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, 30 Apr. 2010. Web. <>.

The Lottery: Parents Want and Deserve More for their Children’s Futures

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The Lottery by Madeleine Sackler is a documentary that captures the dire state of public education in  Harlem, New York. Sackler presents  statistics that show that the achievement gap between African-American and white students is constantly growing. As a result of thousands of parents’ interest in a high-quality education for their children, successful charter schools like Harlem Success Academy are mandated to hold lotteries and turn away families every year.  Through the presentation four hopeful families vying for a spot in Harlem Success Academy, the film reveals that the public school system is failing and children essentially have to be “lucky” to receive a good education.  Although the film may appear to be a charter school advocacy film, The Lottery underlying purpose is to shows that parents want and deserve more for their children. In order to make it possible, the flaws of the public school system need to be addressed.

Statistic of the Achievement Gap (Sackler,2:49)
Statistic of the Achievement Gap (Sackler 2:49)

As shown in the opening scenes in the film, the average black 12th grader is performing at the same level as a white 8th grader (Sackler, 4:45). 58% of black 4th graders are functionally illiterate (Sackler, 3:08). Who is at fault for this significant achievement gap? Is it the students, the parents, and/or the teachers? According to Sackler, it is a combination of the bureaucratic, failing public school system and the false belief that parents in urban neighborhoods do not care about their children’s education. Teachers, principals, and education reform advocates appear in the documentary to share their view of the issues with public schools. By using Harlem Success Academy, Sackler and charter school advocates show that it is possible for minority children to attain academic success in public school. The film shows that although successful charter school models are painted as a threat to the community, the number of applicants for 475 seats at Harlem Success Academy continues to increase each year (Sackler).

To drive this point, Sackler frames the discourse around of the stories of four out of 5000+ families who enter the charter school lottery. This allows the audience to take a glimpse into the trials and tribulations in the lives of those who desperately want their children to receive a high quality education. The four 5-year-old children (Eric Roachford, Gregory Goodwine Jr., Christian Yoanson and Ameenah Horne) tug at the audience’s heart through their innocence and wit. The stress of being a part of an arbitrary, life-changing process was clear as the parents’ hopefully waited for their children’s names to be called. In the end, Ameenah and Gregory are the only two students out of the group who were lucky in the lottery.

The film seems to be targeted towards viewers who do not know a lot about education reform or the charter school movement, and it explains everything at a rudimentary level. Eva Moscowitz (the founder of Success Academy) explains “On our practice exams, 100% of the students ace the exam. There is no school in Harlem that has more than 58% of students passing” (Sackler, 15:19). Unlike most public schools, Harlem Success Academy wants their students to graduate from college rather than simply passing standardized exams. By presenting these statistics, Sackler dispels the belief that poverty is the main reason students of color are not doing well in public school. These statistics are powerful and numbers truly speak louder than words. Moscowitz  goes on to pose the question  “If we in the charter school movement can provide education at equal or less per pupil spending, why can’t the other schools do it? “ (Sackler, 18:17). From this point, Sackler begins to highlight the bureaucracy of the Department of Education and why many  public schools are unable to provide a high quality education for students.

Harlem Success Academy faces opposition from public officials and public school administrators because it causes parents to question the status quo. If parents see children going to a public, charter school that boasts high academic achievement, they begin to want the same in their zone schools. We see the extent of this opposition in one of the most crucial scenes in which Moscowitz tries to get the space to open a second school and ‘community members’ vehemently protest outside of P.S 194. However, the documentary reveals that United Federation of Teachers (UFT) hired these protesters through the ACORN group. For the remainder of  the documentary, UFT is painted in a negative light and is pin-pointed as one of the many reasons some public schools are failing.

Although the focus on the UFT strayed away from the Shackler’s main point of the film, it is important to see what is one the underlying cause of the educational disparities in public schools. Moscowitz  explains that the teacher’s union contract is “600 pages in length”, and prevents meaningful change from occurring in the classroom (Sackler 27:13). Sackler implicitly and explicitly places the blame on administration that is more concerned with their jobs than the future of the children.  Joel Klein (NYC superintendent) adds to this point by explaining that shutting down ineffective public schools becomes controversial due to  “adult politics” since school staff may not “be able to find jobs immediately…” (Sackler 48:00 ).

With statistics of the flawed public school system and evidence of the UFTs questionable tactics, the film seems to be one-sided since it primarily presents the views of charter school advocates. In a 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Sackler explains, “On day one, of course, I was very interested in all sides. I was in no way affiliated” and she tried to speak to someone from the UFT ( However, they refused and did not allow her to “film inside a traditional public school”. Due to their refusal to participate, the UFT’s voice was left out of the film and the charter school advocates’ opinions were placed at the forefront.

The documentary also fails to show all tenets of how charter schools like Harlem Success Academy function and does not delve into the school curriculum at all.  At times, it seems as though Sackler attempts to capture too many issues in the one hour and thirty minute time frame. Besides a few scenes with the founder of Achievement First (another charter school model), the documentary does not include charter school leaders outside of Harlem. This can be viewed as a flaw since audience can be left with the impression that all charter schools are flourishing like Harlem Success Academy (which is not the case).

The narrative is significantly enhanced by Wolfgang Held’s simple cinematographic techniques. When filming the families, close-up shots and wide-angle shots are used to make the audience feel as though they are with them as they go through their day-to-day lives.

Joel Klein and Graduation Rate Statistics of poor-performing schools in NYC (48:08)
Joel Klein and Graduation Rate Statistics of poor-performing schools in NYC (Sackler 48:08)

Contrastingly, the charter school advocates, school administrators, union leaders etc. are captured from the chest-up with a black background. This makes the documentary seem like a dramatic, personal conversation with the audience. Additionally, the clear presentation of the statistics on the black backdrop allows  them stand out as important facts for the audience to keep in mind.

Sackler successfully intertwines the stories of the 4 families throughout the entire film in the midst of the drama between the unions, city officials and Moscowitz. Whether it is in the scene that  captures Ameenah  relaying what her hearing-impaired mother is saying in sign language or when Gregory Jr.’s imprisoned father is crying as he explains why a good education is important for his son, the reality of the film is tangible and powerful. Sackler also includes the opinions of parents who were not advocates of charter schools in the public space hearing at P.S 194. However, it  was evident that the parents that opposed the charter school were portrayed in a negative light. All of the scenes  showed them emotionally yelling while the Success Academy advocates spoke calmly and rationally (Sackler 29:00). With these  biased edits, the message  of the film becomes muddled.

Parents at the Harlem Success Academy Lottery (Sackle 1:07:35)
Parents at the Harlem Success Academy Lottery                 (Sackler 1:07:35)

At the end of the film on the day of the lottery, thousands of families  from various backgrounds are shown wishfully looking at the screen together waiting for their children to be called. Sackler uses these scenes to serve as a reminder that parents truly care and are invested in their children’s educational futures. In a Huffington Post blog post entitled “The Lottery: Looking Past Distractions to Solutions” , Sackler writes, “Despite this reality, it is the parents’ voices that seem to be left out of the conversation…Parents do not care if a school is unionized or not, or if the school is called charter or not. All they care about is that the school is educating their children at high levels.” (

Although The Lottery may appear to be a charter school advocacy documentary on the surface, it was intended to be a presentation of families who desperately want what is best for their children. Sackler could have limited  the details about the UFT and focused more on her initial goal of giving the parents a voice. Nevertheless, the important thing to remember  is that children should not have to be lucky to receive an excellent education. Sackler did a fairly good job of introducing some of the flaws of the public school system and the thousands of parents who partake in lotteries each year.

The film implicitly urges the community to fight for improvements in all public schools. As Sackler states in Thelma Adams’ “Charter Schools: Q&A With The Lottery Director Madeleine Sackler,  “the most “critical element” of education is “the fact that the public education system is under-delivering in certain communities.” ( The Lottery shows that high quality education is needed in all schools, and there are parents who are trying their best to give their children the opportunity to succeed in the midst of the bureaucratic public school system.  Regardless of what side of the education reform debate anyone is on, it is important to remember that children should come always come first.

Works Cited:

The Lottery. Dir. Madeleine Sackler. Variance Films, 2010. Online Viewing.

Adams, Thelma.“Charter School Controversy: A Q&A With The Lottery Director Madeleine Sackler.” The Huffington Post. Web. 22 Feb. 2014. <>

Sackler, Madeleine. “The Lottery: Looking Past Distractions to Solutions (VIDEO).”  Huffington Post 4 Nov. 2010. Web. 22 Feb. 2014. <>

Weiss, Bari. “Storming the School Barricades.” The Wall Street Journal Online. N.p., n.d5 June 2010. Web. 22 Feb. 2010. <>.

Race to Nowhere: Illuminating a Problem, Still Searching For Solutions

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In their 2009 Documentary Race to Nowhere, Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon paint a startling image of today’s school system in America.  Rather than helping children to learn and to find themselves, Abeles and Congdon argue that the pressures of school are making our kids unhealthy, teaching them to cut corners, and failing to actually help students learn and grow.  They identify different pressures that children endure at both at home and in school, yet find it harder to point to solutions that are both realistic and effective.  While Abeles and Congdon point accurately to unhealthy pressures that the school system places on children, they have mixed success in proposing solutions, falling short on specificity and practicality.

Abeles and Congdon point to parents and home life as one source of unhealthy stress that school-age children endure.  Rick Simon, principal of the Wheatley School in Old Westbury, NY, observes a pressure on children born into wealth to match or exceed the financial success of their parents.  He says, “We’re a New York City suburb, [with] high-powered parents who are very competitive themselves…they want to talk about how their kid is going to Harvard or the equivalent, and I worry about what happens when their kid isn’t going in that direction” (Abeles, et al. 0:06).  Students, intentionally or not, are made to feel as though their happiness later in life rides entirely on their perfection in school.  In the race to our best colleges and universities, the pressure students feel at home goes beyond academics.  Parents insist that achievement requires a range of extracurricular successes, including sports, clubs, the arts, and community service.  In a forum on stress, Jessica, a senior at Carondelet High School in California says that “everyone expects us to be superheroes,” pointing to the unrealistic ideal that students our held to, which ultimately harming their wellbeing (0:09).  When asked about the pressure that they place on their children, the parents interviewed by Abeles and Congdon report that they are simply relaying the stresses that they experience from peers and schools.  Stacy Kadesh, a parent and private college counselor, admits, “Even though we know we shouldn’t be pushing our kids, inadvertently, we are…I’m also feeling the pressure that they need to work really, really hard” (0:10).  In the blog on Race to Nowhere’s companion website, Abeles references an article by clinical psychologist Jeff Mitchell where he refers to this irrational fear and pressure as “Havard or Walmart Syndrome” (Abeles).  In his paper on the subject, Mitchell describes the syndrome by saying, “This is a societal disease, a virus of an idea that has spread through the LinkedIn generation and its children.  It is a conviction, stark and unforgiving, that one’s children will either (1) get into Harvard or (2) spend their lives working for Walmart” (Mitchell).  In proposing means by which to remediate the unhealthy stress children experience at home, Abeles and Congdon implicitly concede that there is little parents can do, other than be loving supporters of their children, without drastic changes to how our schools work.

Students feel tremendous pressure to get into top colleges Race to Nowhere (0:37)
Students feel tremendous pressure to get into top colleges
Race to Nowhere (0:37)

Race to Nowhere illuminates the negatives effects of the overwhelming volume of work children receive, as well as the pressure to achieve, at primary and secondary schools.  Darrick Smith, a teacher in Oakland, CA, views the unforgiving regiment of work and extracurriculars imposed on kids as misguided, saying, “when you have students that have three, four hours of homework, after [sports] practice or work…and their whole future is on the line, at that moment, its no longer about learning” (Abeles, et al. 0:23).  Abeles and Congdon make the argument that our insistence to driving every student to be perfect is leading to a failure on the part of schools to actually educate kids.  Race to Nowhere emphasizes unrealistic expectations as a leading cause of this failure of schools, as well as of student stress.  Stacy Kadesh says, “We are teaching the majority of our kids as if they are in the top 2%” (0:37), and psychologist Madeline Levine, PhD expanded on this by saying, “Every kid is expected to by [going to top colleges] and that’s just not the way it works, there’s a bell curve…smart has many different definitions” (0:39).  Levine makes an important point through her connection between unrealistic expectations and our narrow definition of academic success.  Abeles and Congdon argue that our measures of success do a disservice to a wide range of students.  Carmel, Indiana student Allison told Abeles and Congdon that she is, “very disappointed that there’s no artistic, right-brain kind of measurement of success” (1:02).  Abeles and Congdon make persuasive claims as to how are schools are making our kids unhealthy and unprepared, but find that practical solutions are difficult to achieve.

Race to Nowhere provides recommendations to administrators Race to Nowhere (1:23)
Race to Nowhere provides recommendations to administrators
Race to Nowhere (1:23)

While some of their solutions are effective, many of the proposals made by Abeles and Congdon fall short in terms of practicality.  In the end of the film, they use the Blue School in New York City as a model of effective schooling.  While the Blue School makes effective use of pedagogical theories such as Reggio Emilia and Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (1:14), the school’s annual tuition of over $34,000 demonstrates that this sort of learning environment is often unattainable for many students (  While tuition-free schools that use the Reggio Emilia model of alternative learning and student respect are emerging (for example, CREC has a Reggio Magnet elementary school in Avon, CT) (Smith), sweeping reforms to education such as Reggio Emilia have historically tended to create more problems then they solve if they are misguided in their implementation.  In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch conveys her wariness of reform movements, writing, “The fundamentals of good education are to be found in the classroom, the home, the community, and the culture, but reformers in our time continue to look for shortcuts and quick answers…we will, in time, see them as distractions, wrong turns, and lost opportunities” (Ravitch 225).  If a widespread implementation of the Reggio Emilia philosophy in the United States falls into the same traps as countless other reform movements have, I fear that we will end up with a continuation of our current educational failings.

In Race to Nowhere, Abeles and Congdon shed light on the alarming realities of how primary and secondary schools are failing American students.  The cumulative stress students experience from home and school leave them overly stressed and underprepared.  However, Abeles and Congdon’s proposals prove that practical solutions are hard to find.  They promote the Italian Reggio Emilia philosophy of pedagogy, yet this reform is not only difficult to afford, but is at risk of falling into the same failures as past reforms.  What our students need and deserve is a society that recognizes that financial success isn’t the only route to happiness, and a society that doesn’t rob children of their formative years through stress and homework.

Works Cited:

Abeles, Vicki. “Harvard or Walmart Syndrome.” Web log post. End the Race Blog. Race to Nowhere, 22 May 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

Mitchell, Jeff. “Harvard-or-Walmart Syndrome.” Jeff Mitchell Associates, Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

Race to Nowhere. Dir. Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon. Prod. Vicki Abeles. Reel Link Films, 2009. Online.

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System. New York: Basic, 2010. Print.

Smith, Josephine D. “Principal’s Message.” Reggio Magnet School of the Arts,  Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

“Tuition and Tuition Assistance.” Blue School, Web. 22 Feb. 2014.


The Regression of Learning in A Race to Nowhere

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The past decade and a half has seen a wholesale reconstruction within the American education system. Documentary, Race to Nowhere, draws upon this shift to explain the recent decline of critical thinking among students across the United States, and as reasoning for the emotional crisis many are dealing with when attempting to meet the demands of new collegiate expectations.

Overworked students (1:05:31) Race to Nowhere
Overworked students (1:05:31) Race to Nowhere

Filmmaker and speaker, Vicki Abeles, introduces her documentary by explaining her personal ties to the recurrent schooling epidemic in America today. She introduces herself as a mother of three children, one of whom is a thirteen-year old girl named Jamie who is experiencing the psychological brunt of the stressors within the current educational system, primarily in its focus on testing performance. Through interviews and personal accounts, it becomes clear that it isn’t just the pursuit of academic success that produces the anxiety for Jamie, but arises from further expectations of success from a slew of extra-curricular activities as well. Abeles links her child’s emotional turmoil with that of other American teenagers’ by analyzing personal narratives from teenage students across the country. By doing this, she guides the viewers through the post-No Child Left Behind transgression of learning in the American school system.

George Bush's 2002 No Child Left Behind (0:28:14) Race to Nowhere
George Bush’s 2002 No Child Left Behind (0:28:14) Race to Nowhere

Abeles uses one teacher’s account to highlight the primary issue behind her argument. Teacher, Emma Batten-Bowman explains how “things that actually get our students to think are pushed aside” (Abeles et al, 0:00:53), so that the primary focus becomes testing performance. With a legislatively produced financial incentive in the back of the minds of many teachers, it becomes almost impossible to divert from the curriculum revolving around test taking. Teacher, Susan Kaplan, exposes a common trend among educators by commenting, “we’re told either you do it or you don’t have a job…we went along with it because our bonus money was based on test scores”(Abeles et al, 0:29:50). What we see arise from this are teachers who devote less time to outside imaginative learning experiences, like project-based learning, and more to performance-based instruction. The result, as Abeles explains it, is an “education system [that is] a mile wide and an edge deep”(Abeles et al, 0:48:45).

While trying to comply with the rising requirements and expectations among collegiate institutions, many students “push to do more” (Abeles et al, 0:09:50), causing the rise in both depression and anxiety in our children today.  Evidence of this internal “push” can be seen through the recent increases in cheating among students. Denise Pope, Ph.D. refers to one study, which found that “less than three percent of 5,000 students have never cheated”(Abeles, 0:41:50). This means that out of 5,000 students, a whopping 4,850 have cheated at some point during their schooling career. Our students’ recent reliance on cheats helps unveil, not only the tremendous pressure they are under today, but the lengths they will take to evoke the idea that they truly can balance it all. As Pope explains, “the pressure on them is so great that they feel they need to get the grade, by hook or by crook” (Abeles, 0:42:39), and in this way, are willing to compromise their moral standards in order to fulfill collegiate expectations.

Through filming student accounts, Abeles furthers her argument when explaining the emotional toll many experience in an effort to juggle it all. One student, Jacqueline explains that “now it is all about preparing yourself to look good for colleges” (Abeles et al, 0:08:05) and is much less about an interest in the actual experience of learning. Another student builds upon this by explaining, “I’m not thinking about the meaning of any of this. I’m just thinking about how to get it done” (Abeles et al, 0:48:30). Abeles explains that these stressors, associated with rising collegiate admission requirements, goes beyond the student and effects the emotional sanity of the parents as well. One parent expresses it as; “we want the best for [our children], but in the end were just putting pressure on them to be whatever we think they ought to be”(Abeles et al, 0:11:20). Abeles says that it is this focus on the need to do it all, especially in testing performance, that creates anxiety and pressure among our youth, and is reason for the rise in depression, cheating, and decline in critical thinking among students.

When focusing on the personal accounts of the students interviewed in this film, a great deal is revealed about the conditions of their mental state. One student, Ally, is

Ally remembers the pressure and struggle (1:01:05) Race to Nowhere
Ally remembers the pressure and struggle. (1:01:05) Race to Nowhere

concentrated on in particular during a scene that exemplifies the effect that academic pressure can cause adolescents. During this scene, filmmakers shot both Ally’s personal recollection of the events, in addition to flashback scenes, which helped guide the viewer and allow them to further connect to Ally’s experience. During her narrative, Ally recounts both her athletic and academic strength as a younger student during her developmental years, something that was going to win her an academic honors diploma by the time she graduated high school. With her honors diploma on the line, Ally spoke of the intensity with which she focused on her grades, something that eventually led to an emotional collapse. Ally retold the story of the bad test grade she received in her math class. With little help from her teacher, the grade could not be redeemed, and she ended up failing the class, loosing her candidacy for the academic honors diploma. This loss overwhelmed her to the point that she stopped trying, her reasoning being “if you don’t try, you can never fail” (Abeles et al, 1:00:50). She said that it became “hard for [her] to get up in the morning” (Abeles et al, 1:01:00), and when she stopped attending school, her mother checked her into a stress center. Ally, once a successfully thriving academic, became so entranced by performance, that one poor grade led her to a personal breakdown. The severity to Ally’s experience speaks volumes to the extremities children are facing today when trying to cope with all that is expected of them in their quest for success.

Abeles recommends that one resolution to the problems associated with mass knowledge-based testing (and its link to a decline in critical thinking) is a reduction in assigned homework. On the website for the campaign, entitled Race to Nowhere, Abeles furthers her stress on the limited “relationship between homework and school achievement.” In the film, Abeles expands on this idea when interviewing Sara Bennett, author of “The Case Against Homework”, who asserts that “homework is not going to make our kids any smarter”(Abeles et al, 0:26:55). This policy chain, however, is one that is difficult for many to get on board with. One critic of the film expressed his discontent with Abeles suggestion during one Washington Post newspaper review. Here, critic Jay Mathews responded to the no-homework proposal by stating “Abeles says she wants more authentic learning and imaginative teaching. That is the approach taken by imaginative urban educators like Deborah Meier, but it still requires significant homework”(Mathews). Here, Mathews brings up a crucial flaw in Abeles’ argument by explaining that even the most engaging of learning requires outside schoolwork as well.

Through use of direct narratives from students, parents, and education professionals alike, Abeles asserts the presence of an overpowering desire to succumb to the government-generated definition of intellect. This intellect, she explains, is measured through national standardized testing, a gauge that isn’t fully representative of the potential of an individual. Still though, we put so much emphasis on these types of tests that we become obsessive in our preparation for them. The result, she explains, is not only the deterioration of our student’s ability to think critically, but their emotional stability as well.

Works Cited:

““A Call to Mobilize Families, Educators and Policymakers to Help Disprove the Notion That the Educational System Is ‘one-size-fits-all.’”Race to Nowhere.Web. <>.

Mathews, Jay. “Why ‘Race to Nowhere’ Documentary Is Wrong.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 03 Apr. 2011. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. <>.

Race to Nowhere. Dir. Jessica Congdon. Prod. Dir. Vicki Abeles. 2009. Documentary.


Behind The Blackboard

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Bob Bowdon, a former television host and reporter from New Jersey produces “The Cartel,” a documentary that takes a look inside the failing American School system. The documentary flips through broadcasts, interviews, news articles and documents that address the enormous issue of public education in America. America is always thought to be the best, at least we like to think so, but scores of the PISA test prove our education is not. PISA is an international math exam given every three years, with an average score of 500 in most countries. America, however, scored a 474, which falls below countries with less developed economies (Bowdon, 0:02:32). While America has lower PISA scores, it ,spends more money per student on education than any other country in the world (Bowdon,0:03:34). “The Cartel” focuses mainly on the state of New Jersey, because New Jersey’s education system shows that despite adequate funding, schools are failing.

Teacher unions, as Bowdon believes, are bad for improving education because they protect bad teachers. In this documentary, there are several accounts where teachers were not doing their job but because of tenure it has been difficult to fire them. Tenure and teacher unions are two parts of the system that contribute to the failing schools. Bowdon also discusses the tremendous amount of spending on administration. An interview with Lee Seglem discusses a particular case where there was a ‘clash in leadership styles.’ The superintendent agreed to resign and the Board of Education paid $470,000 dollars for someone that only worked at the school for a year (Bowdon, 0:12:39). This is just one of many examples of excessive administrative spending. The National Board of Education is spending money in the wrong places and the schools are failing as a result. Education spending is one of Bowdon’s explicit theories of change. The screenshot compares the number of superintendents in New Jersey and Maryland. Maryland, a similar state in terms of size, has a population density but on 24 school districts, whereas New Jersey has 616 school districts. Maryland V. New JerseyDue to the large number of districts, New Jersey spends more money on employing superintendents. As a result, if they cut back on this unnecessary spending they could put more money into teachers salaries. The money should be put into the schools and the teachers salaries rather than paying the administration.

Another important example of how the teachers union is bad is in the false advertising for New Jersey education. False Advertising This screenshot, for example, says that New Jersey has the highest graduation rate- this is false. The commercial that was televised includes SRA (Special Review Assessment) that is an alternative program, and that is 100% entry 100% output (Bowdon,1:04:00). New Jersey drops to 24th in the country when you do not include the SRA. Instead of trying to improve education in New Jersey to become the #1 in graduation rate, the teachers union is promoting education to the public under false pretenses ( Bowdon,0:28:42). Bowdon also talks about Camden, which has the highest drop out rate and lowest scores in New Jersey. In fact, the number of students in the 9th grade is almost equivalent to students in the 10th 11th and 12th grade combined (Bowdon, 0:27:32). There is an interview with a boy, Juan, who is in 9th grade at Camden and doesn’t know the alphabet (Bowdon, 0:45:31);this truly speaks to the level of poor education. Violence has become a huge issue in Camden and is a direct result of these poorly run school districts. The Police Chief of Camden said himself that it was a miracle that he was able to leave the public school ( Bowdon,0:36:12).

School Choice is a big part of Bowdon’s research. He believes that more vouchers should be given to students. It isn’t fair for a child to have poor education just because they do not have money to live in areas with the best public schools. Students should be given more vouchers that would give them the ability to go to a charter or private school and get out of the poor public school system (Bowdon, 1:28:03). Bowdon does a great job at reaching the viewers when he shows a district in New Jersey Charter school lottery.Charter School Lottery As you can see in this screenshot, the little girl is heart broken that her name was not called. This scene really gets to the viewer because an innocent child was just praying that she would have the opportunity to go to a better school. Everyone’s child should have the right to a good education.

Some feel that the documentary failed at portraying poor education in America by focusing on a single state. New York Times article “Children Left Behind,” by Catsoulis, shares the opinion that the documentary is just a bunch of television clips and interviews of people trash-talking the schools in New Jersey. Catsoulis describes The Cartel as “Visually horrid and intellectually unsatisfying,” however, I found it very enlightening (Castroulis). I do believe, that the documentary would have been more effective if it spoke about education in America as a whole rather than just one state. I feel as though the random television clips and articles made it a bit confusing and overwhelming.

I do not believe that School Choice reform is a good reform because even though it gives students an opportunity, that opportunity lies in the hands of their parents. The districts that use School Choice are in poor areas usually where parents might not have the intelligence to make the right decision for their child. What would improve School Choice reform in my opinion would be similar to the Harlem District Zone proposed by Geoffrey Canada. The goal of the Harlem District Zone is to improve education but also educate the parents of Harlem, so that they can make the right decisions for their children (Tough, 23). School Choice reform with an addition of a course to educate the parents in these districts would be much more successful in my opinion. If a course similar to the one proposed by Canada was included to School Choice the reform would not be as flawed. Despite the tremendous spending in our schools, they are still poorly run, which speaks to what those in the system are doing. The money and power is in the hands of people who are corrupting the system and hurting the lives of the children in America. The future of our country is in the hands of our education system and our educators.





Work Cited


Catsoulis, Jeannette. “Children Left Behind.” New York Times. New York Times, 15 April 2010. Web.  22 February 2014.


“’The Cartel’ Director Bob Bowdon on Education Reform” Youtube.Youtube, 26 May 2010. Web. 23 February 2014.


The Cartel, created and directed by Bob Bowdon. 2010.

Tough,Paul. Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America. New York:Mariner Books, 2009. Print.

The Unfortunate Truth

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American Teacher is an eye-opening documentary that exposes the harsh realities’ teachers in America face when they enter the educational workforce. Despite our country’s high demand on people achieving a higher education we do not value and respect the people who devote their lives to making this possible. The film follows the lives of four teachers and exposes their difficult journey as a teacher in America. American Teacher sets out to raise awareness about our national outlook of under appreciating and under paying educators and attempts to alter the view of teachers to become a more desirable and appreciated job.

Every day, Jamie Fidler, Jonathan Dearmen, Erik Benner and Rhena Jasey enter a classroom filled with young minds with limitless potential. However, low funding, long hours, and lack of appreciation make it difficult for more people to devote their lives to educating. Jamie Fidler a teacher of eleven years began her experience in the classroom spending $3,000 out of her own pocket in order to supply her classroom with essential items. Since then she has been working a second and sometimes third job in order to make an appropriate living for her family.  Following that we meet Rhena Jasey, a Harvard graduate who was criticized for choosing education as a profession due to her prestigious college education. Next we are introduced to Erik Benne, a Texas history teacher and coach who are loved dearly by his students. Due to the low salary of teachers and his family’s needs, he works another job in order to have a higher income. Finally, we meet Jonathan Dearman, a man who adored his profession, but was forced out of the classroom due to lack of salary.

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 1.35.31 PM

Each of these teachers is committed to their profession yet face harsh realities that are associated with their career. The most unfortunate problem that each of these educators face is the lack of salary, which forces many educators out of the classroom as we saw with Dearman. Although these teachers are dedicated to their profession, the lack of money is a hindrance on their entire lives. Each one of these teachers is afraid of survival, whether it is family or personal needs; money is a factor that can not be ignored. The fact that 62% of teachers have a second job outside of their classroom hinders their ability to commit everything they have to their students (McGinn, Roth 00:41:28). “Almost half of teachers leave before their fifth year many citing the low salary and difficult working conditions” (McGinn, Roth 00:41:28) The drastic number of teachers with second jobs as well as high percentage of teachers leaving the profession creates great concerns for the future of the American education system. American Teacher illustrates the immense hardships educators face, but also serves as a warning to our country about our educational system. The decline in teacher conditions and pay directly correlates with student achievement. Among industrialized nations we rank in the middle of the pack 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. These ranking limits our potential as a country and the only way to raise test scores and prepare young people for global competition we must encourage students to consider teaching as a profession. (McGinn, Roth 00:16:30) The negative stigma associated with teaching drives people away from the profession and therefore negatively influences the future of America.


In our culture, it is now expected that a person graduates college, and it is becoming more common that graduate school is the next step. The pressure and demand to achieve an education begins in elementary school and the people who guide and assist students are not respected in our culture. In our country doctors and lawyers are considered prestigious jobs, yet there would be no doctors or lawyers without educators. As a country we need to change the viewpoint people have with teachers and encourage people to choose teaching as a career path. Educators deserve a higher standing in society and the choice to become a teacher must be valued as opposed to looked down on.

A yahoo news article by Liz Goodwin explores the disparities from the film. The film implies that an underlying problem in our education system is the low salary teachers earn and that teachers need to be paid more. Goodwin explains the split in education reform on whether to “raise base salaries altogether or compensate some teachers more by handing out bonuses based on student test scores” (Goodwin P. 1) Goodwin discusses work done by Economist Eric Hanushek who claims that “raising teacher pay across the board would have little to no effect on students test scores” (Goodwin P.1). Instead of raising pay as a whole he feels that there are alternative ways for teachers to improve students success one of which is “hand out bonuses to those who are lifting scores called merit pay” (Goodwin Page 1). The argument Hanushek is making claims that paying everyone the same amount will not result in better teachers instead he feels the merit pay will reward the good teachers.  The alternative views about teacher salary create concern because there are many approaches that may be deemed the “best”. Overall this article is exploring the different options not discussed in the film that are available in order to raise the performance of teachers in America.

Overall, American Teacher illustrates the necessity of valuing educators. The low salaries and low appreciation these people receive will eventually damage Americas education system entirely. The hardship these four teachers faced were troubling and appalling. It is educators that are the foundation of young peoples futures and therefore it is our responsibility as a country to respect and provide for these people who are devoting their lives to the future of America.


Works Cited

“About the Project .” Teacher Salary Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb 2014. <>.


Jeri . “The Progressive Press.” The Progressive Press RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. <>.




Roth, Vanessa, and Brian McGinn. American Teacher. Video documentary, 2011.


Yahoo News, Liz Goodwin. “‘American Teacher’ Film Argues Teachers Aren’t Paid Enough, but Ignores Merit Pay Debate.” Yahoo! News. Yahoo!, 26 Sept. 2011. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.



Few Carrots for the Most Important In-School Factor

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When an Alabama Education Administrator, Tony Thacker, spoke on behalf of the significance of teachers, he said adamantly, “there are two sets of adults: classroom teachers who ensure the future of our students, and everyone else” (00:3:17). The 2011 documentary, American Teacher, strives to validate his notion of teaching as an important and powerful profession and destroy the stereotype that the job of a teacher is trivial and undemanding. Teachers provide the knowledge and skills necessary to empower children, but their role in the classroom and in the lives of students has been historically belittled. Unfair policies pay teachers little and provide them with few benefits; likewise, social misunderstandings of teaching devalue the profession. Thus, teachers go underpaid and unappreciated. With complaints of low salaries, lack of prestige, and long hours, it is no wonder why highly skilled people rarely become teachers, and why many others quit teaching. American Teacher, directed by Vanessa Roth and Brian McGinn, looks to eliminate preconceived notions of teaching by combining the diverse experiences of American public school teachers, with illustrations of the problems in education policy by leaders in education reform. In doing so, the documentary sheds light on the difficulties and injustices found in a profession immensely responsible for individual and nationally success.

Research has proven that teachers are the most significant in-school factor in providing students with the ability to succeed. Education historians like Diane Ravitch, billionaire philanthropists such as Bill Gates, and political leaders like President Barrack Obama, have conceded that a teacher’s role in academia is vital. If this is true, why are few top college graduates pursuing teaching, and why do hundreds of teachers leave the classroom after only a few years? (00:03:03). American society undermines the important role that teachers play in the lives of students, and this directly explains the lack of cultural respect for teaching as well as their poor salary rates. These injustices in the workforce prompted the creation of The Teacher Salary Project, a non-profit organization that advocates for improving teacher conditions, such as creating competitive salaries. The project is comprised of national campaigns, an online resource site, and the documentary, American Teacher. Their website states: “The film’s narrative balances the personal stories of each character with a mixture of interviews and animated facts and statistics by Stefan Nadelman, each highlighting the big sacrifices made by our nation’s teachers, and how these demanding costs force many of our greatest teachers out of the profession” (About the Project). The Teacher Salary Project aspires to make teaching a respected and desired career path by instilling excitement in the career and promoting financial sustainability. American Teacher has been reviewed by newspapers like The LA Times which characterized the documentary as “unsettling” (Turan 1), and The New York Times, which called it “heartfelt”, but criticized it for treating “pay as if it’s the only factor in educational dysfunction” and assuming “teaching is the most vital of the undercompensated jobs” (Genzlinger 1) Regardless of The New York Times critique, I believe American Teacher brings to life two important realities in the education system: we cannot expect success in classrooms if our teachers lack the financial ability to provide it and the cultural respect they need to ensure it.

American Teacher embraces the stories of teachers like Jamie Fiddler, Amanda Lueck, Erik Benner, Rhena Jasey and Jonathon Dearmon who endeavor to provide their students with the best means to succeed in an environment that offers them little to no assistance or compensation. For a profession capable with impacting the future of so many, the circumstances of such teachers have never been more unacceptable. Their paychecks, unions, credentials, and teaching styles have long been criticized. Misnomers have blinded policymakers and political leaders from being able to make the profession of a teacher both reputable and obtainable. American Teacher aims to finally clarify what it means to teach.

Senior V.P. of Fox News Channel, Neil Cavuto, claims teachers’ desire for
higher salaries and better conditions is out of

To begin, inefficiency is common in the public school system; many lack the proper resources for teachers and students, inevitably putting teachers in unfair positions. One teacher, Jamie Fiddler, of Brooklyn, New York, is victim to many of these financial burdens that go unrecognized. In her first year of teaching, Fiddler spent over $3,000 dollars of her own money on essential school supplies, and she isn’t alone. A shocking 90% of public school teachers pay for materials like markers and books out of their own pocket (00:07:11). Another teacher, Amanda Luek of Horace Mann Middle School in Denver, Colorado, describes the job of a teacher as a tiring lifestyle. There are constantly lesson plans to be made, homework to be graded, and classrooms to be reorganized. Luek’s classroom is too small for the number of students she has; consequently, some of her students have to sit on the counters. “There’s always more to do” says Luek, after another eleven hour work-day, and “it never feels like enough” (00:8:47). These two examples opened my eyes to aspects of teaching that go unnoticed and that are masked by politicians and policymakers who claim teaching is an easy and unimportant profession. Rather, teachers are responsible for more than they are given credit for. They do so much voluntarily simply to provide the bare minimum for their students.

View of Teacher Amanda Luek’s small classroom for her 40 students.


The financial demands of teaching are highly consequential in the long run. Erik Benner, a former history teacher and athletic coach at a Texas public school, was a popular teacher among students and faculty for his strong commitment to teaching and personable character. Benner, who instilled in his students a sense of commitment to learning, was dedicated to building a strong rapport with each student he taught. Nevertheless, with a teaching salary of $27,000, Benner was obligated to pick up a second job at a hardware store – a stress-inducing decision that lessened his time with his family and students (00:37:13). Eventually, when he was laid off from his second job, he was forced to quit teaching. His lack of sustainable income caused his house to go in foreclosure and years of financial tensions prompted a split in his marriage. Approximately 31%-62% of teachers must take on a second job. The low level of teacher salaries simply leave many with no other choice (00:41:09).

circuit city

Teacher, Erik Benner, working his second job at Circuit City



While the lack of respectable salary deters many from beginning or continuing to teach, the absence of prestige in the profession also suggests a shortage in the quality of teachers. Rhena Jasey, a Harvard graduate and former New Jersey school teacher, is one of the few top-college graduates to become a teacher. When she told her friends she wanted to teach, she paraphrased their replies in saying: “Anyone can teach. You went to Harvard. You should be a doctor or a lawyer. You should make money” (00:17:56). For her, teaching provides a dynamic, comprehensive role in the lives of students. Teachers constantly make decisions for their students that go far beyond the role of teaching. Thus, the complexity in the role of a teacher is significantly more challenging than it is portrayed to be. Jasey believes a teacher is simultaneously a counselor, parent, friend, and social worker. These many roles, however, go unrewarded, and Jasey’s former $40,000 salary showed it. No one would question the salary level for another profession, but because many do not believe a high skill set is necessary to be a teacher, few believe the state of teacher salaries is an issue. This, in itself, is alarming. If many talented, top-college graduates do not see teaching as a sustainable career because the profession lacks a strong reputation in relation to other degrees, whilst providing poor salaries, American students will continue to pale in comparison to the students in other countries and will not be able to fully meet their highest potential. Similarly, if our nation does not recognize that a high skill set is necessary in teaching, many will not see the hidden injustices in teacher salaries. The inability to attract bright graduates to the teaching profession is frightening. Without quality teachers, how can we expect quality students? Rhena’s credentials and character embody what the teaching workforce needs. “You don’t want your kids being taught by someone who went to Harvard?” she’d tell her family and friends (00:18:27). The social belief that bright professionals should not become teachers directly relates to why student achievement in America is low.


Teacher Rhena Jasey discusses the reputation of teaching

The reputation associated with teaching significantly decreases teacher quality and thus, student learning. There are far too many teachers unable to make ends meet, who work hours far above the presumed six hour work-day, that lack both financial and reputational compensation for all they do. Just as well, there are teachers, fatigued and frustrated, unwilling to continue in a profession that desperately needs talented people. Statistically, 20% of teachers in urban environments leave teaching every year, and 46% quit before their fifth year of teaching (00:47:36). The use of statistics like these in the documentary made it apparent how crucial it is that we re-examine the treatment of our teachers. This data provides a caveat to policymakers and reformers everywhere. When strong teachers leave the profession, children everywhere are negatively affected: an unacceptable and dismaying truth.

When teacher Jonathon Dearmon left the profession due to financial reasons, his students filled his chalkboard with notes to express their appreciation for him.dearmon

A 2011 study by the Hoover Institution indicates that an effective teacher has the capacity to give a year and half of learning in one year, demonstrating that the quality of the teacher can either drive up achievement levels or negatively impact the success of students. Hanushek states this by relating student achievement to the labor market: “For the average American entering the labor force, the value of lifetime earnings for full-time work is currently $1.16 million. Thus, an increase in the level of achievement in high school of a standard deviation yields an average increase of between $110,000 and $230,000 in lifetime earnings” (Hanushek 2). The standard deviation illustrates the amount of deviation that exists from the average. Similarly, Hanushek’s studies present a correlation between national economic success and effective teachers. They recognize that an effective teacher can drive up student achievement, improving American students as a whole and increasing the gross national product. However, if policymakers fail to recognize these very real correlations, the important variable of the teacher will never be truly acknowledged.


Some institutions have realized the importance of recruiting and maintaining quality teachers into the profession. Projects like The Equity Project Charter School, or TEP, pioneered by Zeke Vanderhoek, have started to change the perceptions of teaching by endeavoring to treat teachers with the respect and prestige they deserve. TEP starts teachers at a base salary of $125,000, made possible through public funds. One of the teachers hired was Harvard alum, Rhena Jasey. TEP’s website articulates their philosophy: “student achievement is maximized when teachers have the time and support to constantly improve their craft” (Philosophy). While many factors are comprised in evaluating student achievement, improving the standards and conditions for teachers substantially improves student performance.


teachersData proves that the countries with top performing schools and education programs, Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, also hold teaching to a high esteem.


Still, there is much to be done to reform teaching today. When discussing the unacceptable circumstances teachers encounter, Mark Bounds, the Deputy Superintendent for Educator Quality in South Carolina shares: “They’re not asking to make hundreds of thousands of dollars. They’re asking to be able to buy a house, to have a descent car, to live in a nice neighborhood, to have some comforts” (00:52:40). Ultimately, the battles that teachers face are not only policy problems, but also, social problems. The countries in the world with top-performing students and academic programs, Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, not only have funded teacher training, competitive salaries, and professional working environments, but they also culturally respect the role of a teacher – an occupation that outweighs the reputation of lawyers and doctors (01:06:02). If we are to see the true value of teachers, we must increase the incentives to teach, raising it to the same standards of other professions and socially recognizing that the job of a teacher is monumentally important in defining our nation.

In Chapter Seven of her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, titled “What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?”, historian Diane Ravitch speaks of the problems teachers have faced for years. Many have criticized their tenure, unions, and methods that go beyond teaching to the test. Rather, Ravitch defends teachers in saying that union contracts and tenure protect the rights of teachers, ensuring that their salaries are based off their credentials and seniority, not the results of student tests (Ravitch 171). Ravitch reminisces about her high school teacher, Mrs. Ratliff, who instilled in her students a passion for literature and learning. Mrs. Ratliff was demanding, caring, and did not teach based on a test. Great teachers like Mrs. Ratliff are lacking today in our society because the career lacks incentives, like reputable salaries and because teachers are being forced to teach to the test. Therefore, our society must make a decision. Ravitch ponders this policy and social dilemma in stating, “as we expand the rewards and compensation for teachers who boost scores in basic skills, will we honor those teachers who awaken in their students a passionate interest….? If we fail to attract and retain teachers like Ruby Ratliff, will we produce a better-educated citizenry” (Ravitch 194)? It is in how policymakers and society answer these questions that will change the face of American education.

In the end, we must be aware that the effort needed to change teacher conditions concerns us all and that the lack of carrots for teachers is a true problem. To paraphrase Sabrina Laine, the Vice President for Educator Quality at the American Institute for Research, there are many benevolent aspects ingrained in teaching, but that does not justify their low salaries. Teaching isn’t about money, but that doesn’t mean teachers should be poorly paid (00:35:40). As the two film producers for American Teacher, Eggers and Calegari, declared in their New York Times Op-ed piece: “When we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, ‘It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefit plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!’ No, if the results aren’t there we blame the planners…. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition” (Eggers, Calegari 1). The same goes for teachers. If we expect American students to succeed, we must open our eyes to the way we are treating their educators. Only then, will we better improve the lives of school children and America altogether.

nationsThe low salaries and reduced conditions of teachers are directly correlated to decrease in student achievement in American schools



Works Cited:

“About the Project .” Teacher Salary Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb 2014. .

American Teacher. Dir. Vanessa Roth, Brian McGinn. Prod. Ninive Calegari and Dave Eggers. Perf. Erik Benner, Neil Cavuto, Matt Damon. 2011. Documentary.

Eggers, Dave, and Nínive Clements Calegari. “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Apr. 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

Genzlinger, Neil. “What’s a Teacher Worth?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Sept. 2011. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

Hanushek, Eric A. “Valuing Teachers: How Much Is a Good Teacher Worth?” Hoover Institution: Stanford University. Education Next, 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

“Philosophy.” TEP Charter – Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. New York: Basic, 2010. Print.

Turan, Kenneth. “What the ‘American Teacher’ Has to Teach Us.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 30 Sept. 2011. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

The Plight of The American Teacher

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“The American Teacher” is a documentary that explains the struggles of teachers in the United States today.  It was directed and produced by Vanessa Roth, written by Dave Eggers, and narrated by Matt Damon.  The difficulties of the teaching career are told through interviews with educational policy experts and by chronicling a year of the lives of four teachers.  The documentary is funded by the Teacher Salary Project, “a nonpartisan organization dedicated to raising awareness about the impact of our national policy of underpaying and under-valuing educators” (“About The Project”).   The film conveys the idea that  the American educational system  struggles  because of the disrespect shown the teaching profession.

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Bill Gates discussing education reform
“The American Teacher”

“American Teacher” suggests that even though teaching is a difficult, laborious job, it is often low-paying and disrespected.  Also, despite the fact that it serves a vital role in shaping students’ futures, graduates from most selective colleges do not consider it for a career because it is not as prestigious as becoming a doctor or a lawyer.  According to the film, this results in students underperforming in schools.  A clip of Bill Gates, whose foundation has donated heftily to education reform, shows Mr. Gates asking, “how do you make education better?  The more we looked at it the more we realized that having great teachers was the very key thing” (Roth 0:01:21-0:01:30).  For the American education system to improve, we need distinguished, prepared, intelligent teachers for our students.  The film offers a solution to this problem: Given the problem of underperforming students in schools, the reform goal is to transform the nature of teaching by making it a more prestigious and well-paid occupation.  This can be accomplished by the capacity-building of the rigor of the teaching career, and designing programs to increase teachers’ salaries to entice professionals toward the career.

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The American Teacher

To express the difficulties inherent in the teaching profession, the film follows four teachers, Erik Benner from Texas, Jonathan Dearman from California, Jamie Fidler from New York, and Rhena Jasey from New Jersey for one year.  By filming class sessions and telling the story of the teachers’ lives at home, it is made clear that teachers work long hours both inside and outside of the classroom.  Fidler says, “I leave the house at seven o’clock in the morning…and I get home at 6:30” (Roth 0:04:45-0:05:00).  The film notes that the average teacher who does their job correctly works at least a 65 hour work week.  So why then, the film questions, is teaching regarded by society as an easy, attainable career?

To further illustrate the struggle of the American teacher, the film describes how low salaries affect a teacher’s personal life.  Erik Benner, a history teacher and middle school football coach in Texas, was forced to pick up a second job at Circuit City in order to support his family.  He justified this decision by saying that as a man, society views his as the “provider” of the family (Roth 0:39:40).  Between teaching and shifts at Circuit City, worked seven days a week, which put severe strain on his marriage and ultimately led to divorce.  It is clear his starting salary of $27,000  was not reflective of the amount of work he put into his job, and was not enough money to support a family.  Due to situations such as this, not only are fewer people interested in becoming teachers, but current teachers are being driven out of the classroom.

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The American Teacher

Money is a powerful incentive especially for recent college graduates.  It can have a profound influence on choosing certain professions.  It is no surprise that many of the best students want to become doctors or lawyers,  professions with the possibility of hefty salaries.  There is little motivation to become a teacher when there are many other professions with better salaries held in higher esteem.  The Vice President for educator quality at American institutes for research, Sabrina Laine said, “If you want somebody to stay in education…and you want them to feel like they can make a decent living…we gotta be more creative in the kinds of alternatives we provide for how we pay our teachers” (Roth 1:00:53-1:00:10).  Money is a possible incentive for attracting professionals towards the classroom.

    Zeke Vanderhoek, founder and principal of The Equality Project School (TEP), has designed a program in which the best teachers are brought to students who need them the most (Roth 1:01:50).  TEP is designed to solve the problem of the nature of teaching and to hopefully inspire other schools to redistribute funds so that teachers earn a salary they deserve.  The teachers hired at TEP receive a competitive starting salary of $125,000 which is publicly funded(Roth 1:02:13).  Vanderhoek says, “if you increase teachers’ salaries, you change the perception of what it means to be a teacher” (Roth 1:03:00-1:03:18).  The film does not however, offer any indication of how TEP “redistributes funds.”  For example, it does not discuss if any programs have been cut in order to pay teachers more money.  Schools around the country who have adopted similar programs have reported rising graduation rates, lower drop-out rates and higher teacher retention rates.  The ultimate goal is to fix the American education system, and “The American Teacher” argues that through programs such as TEP, which allows teachers to be regarded as high-ranking, well-paid professionals, our schools will improve.

    The New York Times identifies gaps in the documentary.  The article, “What’s a Teacher Worth” by Neil Genzlinger suggests that teacher pay is not the only factor for improving schools, and the film should have expressed other major issues.  “The film…never addresses specifically how higher salaries would be financed…and it treats pay as if it’s the only factor in educational dysfunction; not a word is said about no-show students, uninvolved parents or other issues” (Genzlinger).  This is a legitimate claim, however, the documentary correctly expresses how teaching and specifically teacher quality affects schooling.  By highlighting the adversities teachers face, the film succeeds in offering a compelling argument that by making education a distinguished, prestigious career choice, we will improve the education system.

Works Cited

“About the Project .” Teacher Salary Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb 2014. <>.

American Teacher. Dir. Vanessa Roth. Prod. Ninive Calegari and Dave Eggers. 2011.

Genzlinger, Neil. “What’s a Teacher Worth.” The New York Times. N.p., 27 09 2011. Web. 21 Feb 2014. <>.

The Cartel: A Telling Revelation of the Corrupt Educational System in the “Best Country in the World”

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In The Cartel, Bob Bowdon clearly and explicitly addresses the problem within American school systems when he shows a news clip in which the man speaking says that we have an “awful school system” (Bowdon 1:28). Shockingly, on average only 37% of high school seniors in the US read at the 8th grade level.  In the most basic form this film shows that the United States spends the most money per-student, but cannot show where most of that money goes, because it is obvious that this money has not gone into the betterment of the education of students. Bowdon uses the New Jersey school system as an example for what is present throughout the country outlining the effects of teacher unions, and teacher tenure on American education throughout the United States. Through this documentary Bowdon reveals to the viewer that the true problem in schooling is not that poorly performing schools need more money, it is that through corruption, local school boards and state legislatures are all too dependent on receiving more funding as a way to dramatically improve the school’s performance levels.

The Cartel, 0:07:15
The Cartel, 0:07:15

The Cartel is a documentary that was created and directed by Bob Bowdon in which he interviews board members, former principals, former teachers, and even teacher union leaders en-route to discover what is really wrong with American public education. Although he conducts his documentary only in New Jersey, Bowdon makes a clear statement that these figures are represented in other states in this country (maybe not all equally, but many show staggering numbers like New Jersey). Bowdon explores topics such as local funding, unions, patronage, vouchers, and charter schools and finds that much of what is decided within schools is decided through politics. Throughout the documentary Bowdon asks many New Jersey residents if they think schools should receive more money, not to his surprise all of his interviewees said yes, they think schools should receive more funding because classrooms are too run down, but in reality these people do not know that schools are receiving billions of dollars each year. Schools, it is revealed in this film, are receiving billions of dollars and no one knows where the money is going. Bowdon also looks at the charter school system and how charter schools do in comparison with public district schools, he found that most charter schools perform significantly better than public schools while spend less dollars per-student. Because parents have favored charter schools more and more, there are not enough seats available to students; charter schools go through a lottery. Charter school officials believe that everyone deserves to attend their schools, however, there are not enough spots, and therefore the only fair way to accept students is through a lottery.

Bowdon finds that many teacher unions and the protection of bad teachers through tenure are partly to blame for the low success rates in public education. Bowdon concludes that tenure and teacher unions protect the jobs of bad teachers. At the 0:34:55 minute mark, Bowdon is in an interview with Joyce Powell, the president of the NJEA Union and is speaking about an indecent where a tenured teacher said to a student, “I’m going to kick your ass bitch” and after saying this to a student proceeded to punch the student in the chest. Bowdon found out that this same teacher was given a deal, left the school, and the district agreed not to tell future employers why she left the school. Powell goes on to defend the decision of the district stating that everyone makes mistakes and people should not be penalized for their mistakes. After this interview, it is clear to Bowdon that teacher unions protect and defend “bad” teachers and make it difficult for good teachers to succeed.

The most crucial scene in this film, in my opinion, was when Bowdon is interviewing Beverly Jones, a former teacher of the year in New Jersey, and she is expressing her views of the corrupt public education system. Jones is brave enough to express her views, however, she does give insight on what her peers (some of who cannot afford to step up and risk losing their jobs) would say about the public school system:

“The children are not the focus, money is the focus. And what happens to the money no one knows because the money does not reach the classroom” (Bowdon 24:40).

Beverly Jones Interview, The Cartel 0:24:40
Beverly Jones Interview, The Cartel 0:24:40

While explaining that this is what other teachers would say, Jones is clear about sharing these feelings as well.

Bowdon points out the corrupt nature of the school system and expresses that teachers unions play into this corruptness. Bowdon briefly makes the claim that teachers unions play a significant role in electing superintendents who they later negotiate with in order to fulfill their wants and needs.

In a Q&A with Bob Bowdon, Bowdon explicitly states that the problem is corruption and the amount of money being wasted by the school system in an effort to “help” educate children better. Bowdon later simply says that the solution is school choice, something that is missing in education. In this same interview Bowdon addresses his critics and states that the facts shown in his film are not exaggerations; janitors are really making six figures, and they are documents coming from online sources that show through articles that his points are valid.

In my opinion Bowdon’s documentary does contain flaws, as many documentaries that reveal such harsh truths about the American educational systems do. Beginning with clips of different people speaking on a number of things wrong with American school systems may be confusing for the viewer because they may not be presented with the main point of the film right away. However, I do believe that Bowdon does dive right in to his goals for the film after showing those clips, which were to make viewers aware of the corruption that takes place within school systems and between high ranking school officials.

The Cartel, Teacher unions are the enemy 0:36:30
The Cartel, Teacher unions are the enemy 0:36:30

To conclude the film Bowdon lists the many things wrong with the educational system; people think more money should be spent on education, but they don’t know where the money is going, teacher unions and teacher tenure help protect bad teachers and have only fired .03% of bad those teachers, to many people vouchers seem worse than illiteracy and drop out rates, and many more. Although it is true that The Cartel has many critics within local school boards and school legislatures, Bowdon gives evidence that proves all of his claims. Bowdon is trying to help viewers see that more emphasis should be placed on the betterment of the education of students and less on politics and the corrupt nature of the educational system that has prevailed over the past few decades in the United States. When the corruption ends, schools will improve.


Works Cited:

Gillespie, Nick. Reason TV. Reason Foundation. 2010

The Cartel, created and directed by Bob Bowdon. 2010.


Harsh Realities of an American Teacher

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American Teacher is a heart-warming, yet heart-breaking, factual documentary dealing with the everyday lives of school teachers in America.  Our country, in general, does not respect our teachers.  The film delves into the lives of four teachers and shares their hardships and struggles with its viewers.  The goal of the documentary is to influence the viewer’s opinion on what it means to be a teacher in America.  Other countries place more value in the teaching profession. In America, being a teacher is associated with low economic status.  Americans need to be aware that our teachers are instructing the future of our country and is a vital profession!  American Teacher is an attempt to improve our educational system by changing the stigma associated with the American teaching profession and in turn, increasing the number of qualified teachers who can be proud of their personal accomplishments and socioeconomic status.

The documentary begins with an odd, yet disturbing, scene of an explosion; a perfect depiction of what has happened to the American school system.  (McGinn, Roth 0:00:08).  Personally I believe this was one of the most crucial scenes of the movie.  It foreshadows what is to come, which would be the demise of the school system.  The first of four teachers is introduced and is interestingly shown walking out of her small, run-down apartment in Brooklyn, New York.  Jamie Fidler begins her story by explaining how every expense from her classroom comes from her own pocket.  Jamie is pregnant and later on in the documentary, we learn more about the hardships of maternity leave because no one expects the spouse, also a teacher, to be the “money maker”.  Next, we meet Rhena Jasey, an enthusiastic young teacher, who eventually leaves her school to follow a program called the Tep Project to earn more money.  Erik Benner’s story is a bit sadder because he needs to teach, coach, and work at a tile store in order to support his family.  His ex-wife speaks in the course of the film and explains how she basically felt like a single parent because he was never around.  Lastly, we learn about a teacher named Johnathon Dearman.  Dearman has a passion for teaching just like the other three, however, due to the lack of a decent salary, gives up his teaching career to join the family real estate business.  All of these teachers tell a story and struggle with the career they love.  In order for the producers to portray their problem, they use very important charts that are extremely simple and easy to comprehend.

To elaborate on a major theme of persuasion, TEP, The Equality School Project, is an alternative to the current view of teachers in America.  TEP is designed to redistribute and shift money around to bring teachers to schools that need them, and pay teachers a better salary.  As well, TEP works to ensure the best quality teachers for a low income student body.  It is not only a series of investments, but the hopes are to keep the teachers not to just attract them.  In the film, TEP is seen as a very tempting alternative to the long work day in a poorly paid environment.  When looking further into the philosophy behind TEP, it becomes evident it was well thought out and personalized for its audience.   “TEP uses a three-pronged strategy that it terms the 3 R’s: Rigorous Qualifications, Redefined Expectations, & Revolutionary Compensation.”  (Tepcharter 1). By implicating the TEP method, this is another attempt for the producers to persuade viewers view on what the profession of teaching should be.

American Teacher does more than just warn us about our country.  It relates the story of dedicated, intelligent educators.  These teachers love what they do, put in extensive hours despite popular belief, and in turn they receive little monetary reward.  The deeper rooted issue, embedded in the script of the documentary, is the lack of respect for the profession as a whole.  In other countries such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, aspiring teachers’ training is paid for.  (McGinn, Roth 1:05:29).  That means these teachers do not begin their careers in debt.  These countries value their teachers in society.  They have a very low rate of teachers switching careers.  The simple statistics which show the abandonment of the profession in the US serves to show the Nation’s view of its importance.  There is little emphasis on the profession as a whole if the passionate members are able to walk away from it.  Whether it is their personal choice or not, out nation makes it difficult for them to stay in comparison to other nations around the world.

Percentage of Teachers Who Leave the Teaching Percentage in Other Countries (1:06:15)
Percentage of Teachers Who Leave the Teaching Percentage in Other Countries (1:06:15)

This is due to the fact that their culture recognizes the importance of having strong teachers to educate future generations.  American Teacher points out the flaws within the American system.  After all, children are our future; so would it not be important to take pride and give respect to those responsible for the education of this precious resource?

However, Americans are taught to aim for higher paying jobs.  Rhena Jasey is a Harvard graduate and was told that being a teacher was a waste of a degree from Harvard.  In turn, she responded with a remark along the lines of “Would you not want your children to be taught by someone who went to Harvard?”  These four teachers embody the qualities that all teachers should have regardless of what country they live in.  Dearman is described as a teacher who holds all of his students to the same standards.  He told them what they needed to do, what they needed to learn, and who he wanted them to be by the end of his class.  These are the type of qualities parents want their children to be influenced by.  American Teacher shows the epitome of a quality teacher.  Once again, TEP is an attempt to ensure these types of teachers are available to those who are less fortunate and ensures they will stay with those children in underprivileged schools.  However, American Teacher also shows how difficult it is for these passionate individuals to stay with their profession.  How do we get these teachers to stay?  The answer in incentive other than pure joy of helping children.

The role of a teacher in America is highly influenced by gender roles.  There is a clear lack of respect, low pay, and something called the “burnout circle” as described by the teachers.  To begin, the society we live in is based on the assumption that the man in the relationship is meant to be the provider.  Therefore, in teaching, being a predominately female dominated field, it is “okay” to pay them less because their spouses will supposedly bring in more money. With this being said, males have existed the teaching force in order to live up to the stereotype of the “bread winner”.  It would be very difficult for a male to fully support his family simply on a teaching salary.  As well, it is thought that women have a maternal instinct that is better suited to teach children.  Truthfully, males and females can be great teachers but our society is socially constructed, which makes it difficult for men to stay in a “female profession”.  In addition, these teachers work more extensive hours than everyone believes.  On top of working ridiculous hours (most 7 to around 6), many teachers are in desperate need of a second job.  In fact, 62% of American teachers have a second job.  Does this really allow them to give their all in the classroom?

Percentage of Male Teachers (00:13:47)
Percentage of Male Teachers (00:13:47)

As well as having these compelling arguments as to why living the life of a teacher is quite difficult, I think the creators of the film make significant choices to make the audience feel even more sympathetic.  The teachers were chosen wisely.  There is one of Latino descent, one African-American descent, one white female, and one white male.  Most of the population was targeted which ensures the viewers will all relate to the issues and hardships these four underwent.  In addition, it is impossible for viewers to not have sympathy for a woman who just gave birth and a man who lost his wife and children in a divorce due to his low salary from teaching. The music is peaceful and coincides with the intense scenes to truly let viewers feel as if they are a part of the teachers’ lives.

Outside source, rotten tomatoes allows for outsiders to comment on the documentary.  Comments such as “Terrific, uplifting and heartbreaking study of what it’s like to teach in America today should inspire intense admiration and even more intense anger over what is revealed.” (David Noh).  However, while I think it is unanimous that this film is hear-breaking and heart-warming, there are also negatives to be noted.  The film is entirely one sided and does not look into an entire economic view on available money.  The movie does not tell the story of the rich, white, upper class.  It does not account for private schools and for children who are paying for their educations.

American Teacher’s original name started out as Come Back Mr. Dearman.  I believe the title was broadened to reach a wider variety of audiences.  Originally, the film was debuted in New York City and was praised for showing the public how hard the educators in our country work.  However, economists and other scholars followed by completley disagreeing with the movie’s plan.  They believed they should be able to hire any teacher regardless of their educational background and only raise his/her pay if test scores improve.  (Goodwin 1).  There is also research to show that merit pay does not necessarily correlate with an increase in school performance.  This would prove the entire movie to be false.  As well, teachers with high educational resumes appreciated and enjoyed this film.  This in itself, has sparked an intense criticism of Obama’s policies which benefit merit pay.  (Goodwin 2). I think it is also important to note, Matt Damon promoted this film and was the narrator.  He is one hundred percent part of the upper class and this has a large impact on the film’s audiences.  The entire film was funded by the Teacher Salary Project. This is a project to ensure “teaching becomes the prestigious, desirable, financially viable, and professionally exciting job we all know it needs to be.”  (TSP 2).   I think it is interesting to not TSP is a non-partisan organization, technically this should be the film would take no side.  However, this proves to be false.

Fortunately, American Teacher gets the main concern across which is, if we continue at the rate we are going, America will have few people willing to be educators and few quality educators to teach our future generations.  It reaches the hearts of every lower class American parent who wants the best for their children and it is easy to become very biased while watching this film.  Once again, the upper class is not accounted for and while it may alarm the parents there is little hope and opportunity that can be gained because they are not represented within the film.  The two audiences will definitely take different aspects away from the film.  An upper class parent may watch this film and be unaffected by the educational realities because his/her child is receiving a quality education.  To an extent, the emotional scenes will reach everyone, but the overall message is only alarming to those being affected by the lack of money.  Without looking at external factors, these facts seem troubling and appalling.  When watching, it is important to note there is a whole side of an untold story.  However, I think one point that all sides can agree on, is that the profession of teaching needs to be more nationally respected.

Epitome of American School System (0:00:08)
Epitome of American School System (0:00:08)


Works Cited

“American Teacher (2011).” N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

“Full Cast & Crew.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

News, Liz Goodwin Yahoo. “‘American Teacher’ Film Argues Teachers Aren’t Paid Enough, but Ignores Merit Pay Debate.” Yahoo! News. Yahoo!, 26 Sept. 2011. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

Roth, Vanessa, and Brian McGinn. American Teacher. Video documentary, 2011.

“TEP Charter – Philosophy.” TEP Charter – Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2014. <>.

“The Teacher Salary Project.” The Teacher Salary Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <>.