Interview: Kelly Amis, Director, TEACHED
It’s been pointed out that education entrepreneurs are solidly on the radar, and that evidence of this is the angry tone with which people react to entrepreneurial ideas, or ideas that are different. Have you seen this anger in making your film? Where does it come from?
I have not witnessed this response during the making of TEACHED (click here to see the eight minute teaser clip); to the contrary, the people I’m hearing from are desperate for the truth to be told. But, I am very familiar with the massive backlash against any effort to upset the status quo in public education, and I’m sure that when my film is released—given its candid look at the profession of teaching, especially the consequences of the profession being so heavily unionized—there will be plenty of anger thrown my way as well. Those who benefit from the system remaining as lopsided as it is—today the interests of adults far outweigh those of the children—are not going to suddenly wake up one day and agree that they are part of the problem. They are going to fight as hard as they can to maintain their hold on power and will meanwhile continue to follow what has been a successful strategy for them: making the public believe that teachers are the underdogs in the system, not the low-income children and families who are not being served by the system, which is my view.
If you could take to the white board to create your draft of the education sector, what would you offer? Why?
I would like to throw a new idea into the mix, something to think about: the “de-unionization” of teaching. Maybe it will never fully transpire, but I think the public is starting to realize that unionization doesn’t necessarily fit a profession that requires a four-year college degree, a significant amount of content knowledge plus specialized skill. The unionization of teaching might have made sense at one time, but it doesn’t seem to now, especially when we need to prepare students for a knowledge-based society.
Kelly Amis, Director
From what I have seen over twenty years working in education reform, the unionization of teaching plays the largest role in ensuring that schools are not responsive to the communities and students they serve because it makes the protection of teachers’ jobs paramount even when it’s to the detriment of students. In my opinion, good teachers are not served by unionization because in a merit-based system they would be paid more and their jobs would be more rewarding (because they would not have the much harder job of working with students who just spent a year, or two, or more in chaotic classrooms where learning wasn’t happening). We the public are not served by unionization; our spending on education is almost equal to our notoriously high spending on defense but is cost-ineffective on almost every measure. And, most importantly, students who could most benefit from a great education and break through long-term cycles of poverty are definitely not served by the unionization of teaching, because they end up with the teachers that can’t be fired, that more politically-powerful communities are able to push out.
If I could redesign the system, I would create a plan to de-unionize the profession of teaching over time, starting with the elimination of tenure. I believe we should transform teaching into the competitive, prestigious and well-paid job it should be.
What’s the most significant challenge for states in driving an education reform model that is about entrepreneurship?
Whether it’s at the state or federal or even district level, I think the challenge is always the same: there are many adults whose livelihoods depend on the system remaining the way it is. These stakeholders are threatened by the idea of public education utilizing a dynamic, ever-evolving and improving field of providers and they will do all that they can to stop any major reform heading in this direction in its tracks.
On top of that, there is a lot of romanticism around the notion of “public schools,” and we all see well-intentioned people fighting passionately to maintain this idea of a school system that serves everyone equally, even when evidence to the contrary is all around us. This unshakable support for the “public schools” comes even from people who have removed their own kids from the public schools, or who have used their resources to move to a neighborhood where they know the public schools will be good. Even though we have so many failures now—failure is epidemic in American public education, at least in the inner-city—it will require a massive paradigm shift for the public to focus more on how best to serve all students over how to maintain their notion of a system that they want so much to believe in.
Your film sets out to expose the systemic problems with education; what are they?
TEACHED looks primarily at how the unionization of teaching plays a role in maintaining the racial and economic achievement gaps in the American education system. Basically, when very few teachers can or ever will be fired, the worst (including abusive) teachers end up in the schools where, as one public school teacher explains in the film, “people aren’t really looking at too hard.” That is, ineffective/abusive teachers are transferred around until they end up in schools serving minority and low-income children, because these populations have less power to do something about it.
Sometimes, when a teacher does something truly egregious he/she will be removed from the classroom altogether, but this doesn’t mean the teacher will be fired. More people are becoming aware of the existence of “rubber rooms” in NYC and elsewhere, which is good—the public is beginning to understand just how bad the situation is. But the teachers who are spending their days in “rubber rooms” have done something severe enough that it got them removed from the classroom; there are many, many more teachers that are simply bad—they literally don’t teach and/or they denigrate students, etc.—and these teachers keep their jobs year after year, as hundreds of students lose more of their precious opportunity to become educated.
[ed. note: New York City recently resolved to end the practice of “rubber rooms” in a deal with the unions.
I learned so much making this film—the situation is actually worse than I thought it was. All I had to do was let students, parents and teachers talk, and they taught me how the system is set up for failure for certain populations.
You used to work for Teach for America. How does that experience tie into the making of this film? What did you think of TFA?
I am proud of being a charter corps member of Teach for America. Those of us who joined up that first year had no clue how big and popular it would become, or where it would lead us. We just knew that it sounded right. I was drawn to TFA for the opportunity to give back for all the educational opportunities I had benefited from. I was already volunteering with inner-city kids as a student at Georgetown, and I knew it would be a good fit.
I taught fourth and fifth grades in South Central, Los Angeles, and what I saw and learned there has informed and motivated my work far more than anything else, to this day. It was unbelievable. All these kids with all the potential in the world, and it was almost as if the school and system were set up to ensure they would never achieve their potential; as if the school was simply determined to put kids on a conveyor belt to gang life, prison, poverty and underemployment.
Because of that experience, I changed my plan to go to journalism school and instead went to Stanford to study education policy; I later spent a year in Australia studying their education system, which I can tell you about another time. I think TFA is one of the greatest things to have happened for the fight to bring equity to K-12 education because it captures the energy of young, capable and idealistic people and turns them into informed education reform advocates for life. Some continue to teach because that is their passion, others, like me, decide we can have a greater impact at a policy or systemic level. I think I will teach again, but I was so frustrated by the inane way the system is set up that I had to go work to try and fix it.
TEACHED is the product of the twenty years I have spent researching and working in the American education system , and it wouldn’t have happened at all if it wasn’t for Teach for America.
Your film points out that there are separate systems for education – one for privileged people who “achieve” 40 percentage points over minority and normally poor students, who collectively cannot read and cannot do basic math. How did this happen? What’s the simplest solution that communities can reach for in order to create immediate relief? Is it possible for unions to change their perspective to help these students?
Some people are out there trying to reform unions (and, of course, many people do believe the unions care about students and do not need reforming or change). From my perspective, unionization simply doesn’t fit with the profession of teaching, or at least not at the level that unionization has come to control the profession now. Teaching should be a professional job that people compete to have. It should have professional rewards and a professional environment.
By its nature, unionization means all employees receive equal or near-equal compensation regardless of ability, they all have the same work hours, work rules, etc. This fits for jobs in which people can be easily replaced—for jobs requiring low-level manual skills for instance. There are many jobs and industries out there that benefit greatly from union representation. But should teaching be included with them?
As more people begin to question the appropriateness of unionization for teaching, the unions, will probably appear to change. They are very astute political players and they have amazing resources (combined, the national teachers unions represent the single largest contributor to federal-level political campaigns in America). They will do what they can to deflect attention away from teacher quality issues, including the current debate about tenure, and they will do it well. Their latest strategy to deflect attention away from teacher quality is just beginning to make an appearance now: have you noticed that the unions are suddenly very concerned with whether public schools are de facto segregated? It’s a good choice for them, but it’s certainly a political move to shift attention away from the current focus on teacher quality.
What do we do to make teachers accountable? If teachers who are ineffective are put in schools that are avoiding scrutiny, how do we put more attention on those ignored schools?
I think we need to allow principals to hire and fire the teachers that make up their staffs and then hold them—the principals—accountable for their school’s performance, this in turn will make teachers more accountable for performance. I am always amazed when people who themselves work in very competitive jobs say that principals shouldn’t be able to hire and fire teachers because “what if they don’t like the teacher”. And somehow this idea—that a principal might fire a teacher they don’t like—has come to take precedence over whether students are learning or not. But how can any organization work effectively if its director cannot hire and fire the people they want and need to make it work? Why should teachers have such an unusual protection, especially when their jobs affect so many lives? In a competitive, 21st century environment, teachers and principals need to be held accountable for performance, and that means making it easier to fire those who are not performing, that’s the bottom-line.
Talk about your education experience, and was there anything in there, for you personally, that sparked the making of this film?
My real motivation for making this film has to do with all the kids I have met who have not had even decent educational opportunities available to them, simply because of where they are from and/or their families’ resources. TEACHED is dedicated to Malik Smith, a little boy from Washington, DC who was very dear to my heart, and who died a few years ago just before his ninth birthday.
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