Last Friday night I watched Davis Guggenheim’s new “documentary,” Teach, which was broadcast in on CBS. Guggenheim, you may recall, is the filmmaker who brought us Waiting For Superman, the shameless propaganda-fest that signaled the full-on nuclear stage of the corporate-driven war on public education (also known as the education “reform” movement). The merciless and concerted attack on our public education system has four main goals: mass acceptance of online and technology-based learning models; an increase in privatization and charter schools; an increase in testing and assessment; and the deprofessionalization of teachers and the destruction of their unions.
But I was trying to be open-minded, and at first Teach didn’t seem blatantly evil (and that’s with my Evil-O-Meter turned all the way up) – just dull. Maybe, I thought, Guggenheim really is just a clueless hack, or maybe he felt bad for attacking teachers so viciously (and for directly pinning the blame for the education “crisis” on the corruption of teachers’ recalcitrant unions) in Superman, and was trying to atone with this warm and fuzzy prime-time portrait of four dedicated teachers. (In their review of Teach, the New York Times, apparently conditioned by Superman’s anti-teacher resentment, sniffed that “it’s nice to see four educators who care more about their students than they do about salaries or tenure.” Later in the same review, they grudgingly conceded that “while a documentary that looks only at the classroom is not going to give the full educational picture, no learning is likely to take place without a good teacher in the mix.” No way, New York Times!)
I couldn’t figure it out, but I knew that some entity (and a mysterious entity it was – in all the press and publicity leading up to the broadcast, the money trail was extra-vague) had paid to make this film and get it shown on network television, and it wasn’t because they thought teachers deserved a nice public pat on the back. So I waited for the big reveal.
Sure enough, after a dull first half, the evil came avalanching out of my television: education crisis porn at its most lurid and propagandistic.
The narrative arc Guggenheim established was really kind of impressive in the way it snuck up on you: attractive, dedicated, young teachers mean well, but they cannot possibly handle the “education crisis” by themselves; they are poised for failure. Our poor teachers need help from consultants. About halfway through, going to a commercial, there was a teaser with a middle-aged white man in a suit saying, “We need change desperately. Radical change.” This echoed hostess Queen Latifah’s conclusion that teachers need a “new model” of teaching – one featuring a mix of online classes and new technologies in order to improve “test scores” – the Potemkin grail of education reform.
The commercial itself was a deluxe custom job, with comedian Craig Robinson recruiting potential teachers with Hangover-style bro’ jokes, and sending viewers to the program’s companion website, hosted on producer Participant Media’s TakePart.com. Gradually, carefully, the program’s agenda was being revealed. Participant Media (also behind Superman) was started by Jeff Skoll, the eBay founder, and is currently run by Jim Berk, who prior to joining Participant ran Gryphon Colleges Corporation, which invests in and owns for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs for short).
The website proudly displays the Microsoft logo (the Gates Foundation was a major backer of Superman, and Gates himself has been an outspoken critic of teachers and an influential supporter of the reform movement) and features “action” pages with online tools, websites, videos with titles such as “Kids and Technology,” and lots and lots of material for the Khan Academy, the online learning company backed by Gates that has been getting a lot of slobbering publicity over the past couple of years, especially in the business and technology press.
Finally there was a long commercial for the Khan Academy itself and, more generally, “Free Online Education for Everyone.” This ad was sponsored by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation who, according to their website, have helped ensure that “more than 10,000 K-12 students across Idaho will become part of the nation’s first statewide pilot of the Khan Academy, the free, internationally recognized on-line education leader.”
A major coup. The foundation’s website cites the big four aims of the corporate education reform movement as their goals.
Khan himself is not reticent about publicizing his goal to “revolutionize” education globally, telling Forbes, “Now that there are these tools, where students can learn at their own pace and master the concepts before moving on, can we rethink this educational model that has been standard practice for hundreds of years?” Nor is he shy about expressing his anti-teacher, anti-union sentiment in line with Gates, The Walton Family Foundation, the Koch brothers, and Walden Media (run by creationist crank Philip Anschutz), and lobbying groups such as the Lumina Foundation, the New American Foundation, and the other main drivers of “reform”: “Teachers unions don’t act in the interest of most teachers,” Khan told the Huffington Post. “Many of the best teachers I know are being laid off because their unions value seniority over intellect, passion, creativity and drive.”
In the end I was really impressed by the coordination that got this Trojan horse on the air: impressed by the fawning press and publicity that preceded the broadcast, by the production’s murky provenance, by the faux teacher sympathy, by the use of disarming, funny and uber-sincere celebrities, by the custom-made commercials (which must have pre-paid for the two hours of air time), by the website…
So sneaky and well orchestrated! Bravo. The Evil-O-Meter is off the charts.