Sarah Reckhow taught at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore from 2002 to 2004 and was a Teach for America corps member. Currently, she is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation explores the role of national philanthropies and community organizers in urban education policymaking.
Liam Julian’s review of “Hard Times at Douglass High” boils down a complicated stew of frustration, hope, and absurdity to a singular and simplistic point—many of the teachers are “just plain bad at their jobs.” Julian does begin with a fair remark—this documentary is not a systematic assessment of No Child Left Behind. Nonetheless, the film offers a vivid portrait of common NCLB observations and enough contextual information to make Julian’s reductive reaction dubious.
NCLB is most present in the film as a looming threat with vague and rarely applied consequences, including state takeover. The filmmakers bring us in on test day—students listlessly staring at test booklets, falling asleep, staring off into space. Many students did not take the tests seriously, assuming that the tests had no consequences or feeling too indifferent to try. We also hear from faculty commenting that they are forced to find ways to accommodate failing seniors at the end of the year in order to artificially raise the graduation rate.
We meet a state observer walking the halls with the academic dean. The state observer rattles off the various actions that may be taken if Douglass does not improve. At the end of the film, we learn that the state board of education finally tried to take over Douglass during 2005-2006, but the move was blocked by the state legislature. An impending gubernatorial election between Baltimore Mayor O’Malley and Governor Ehrlich added a heavy dose of partisan politics to that debate. The film implies that Ms. Grant, the principal in the film, was removed due to the school’s low performance. In fact, she was removed due to a school athletics scandal. Nonetheless, the school was “restructured” by the district in 2006, and the administration was replaced. The NCLB accountability system, as practiced at urban schools like Douglass, tends to operate like a merry-go-round; principal turnover rates in Baltimore are very high. School leaders get on board, ride until they get dizzy and stumble off, and then new leaders come aboard.
The bulk of Julian’s column focuses on Douglass’ teachers and seems oddly divorced from policy considerations. Drawing on clips from the film, he offers arm chair criticism of discipline and teaching methods, arguing that “the staff members at Douglass aren’t cutting it.” Even if this were true, Julian draws no clear policy lessons from his conclusion. It seems unlikely that Douglass hired only ineffective teachers from an otherwise talented pool of applicants.
Though there are great teachers at Douglass like Ms. Ray (she is featured in the film, but we never go in her classroom), it is also true that there are not enough. The film offers pieces to form an explanation—vacancies that go unfilled, long term substitute teachers, and a shortage of experienced teachers. The film features a 9th grade English class; the teacher makes a difficult choice to resign midway through the year. Substitutes come in, and the class flounders. The school has also hired a number of Teach for America corps members; some continue to teach there, but many have not stayed beyond the two year commitment, including me. All of these point to a clear problem of supply—Douglass cannot hire and keep enough good teachers to meet its needs. Teachers like Ms. Ray have heart and commitment that few of us can muster for even a few years, let alone decades.
The film does not provide new criticisms of NCLB, nor will it surprise anyone that the school struggles with teacher recruitment and retention. Viewers might be more startled by taking the longer view of Frederick Douglass High School: the school was founded in 1883 and has illustrious graduates including Thurgood Marshall; more than a century later, it is segregated, marginalized, and struggling.
Yet grumbling about the teachers who work in this difficult environment is not the answer. In fact, the film offers some illuminating scenes of teaching and learning at its best, only they don’t take place in a “typical” classroom setting. These include the school’s debate team, choir, band, and music production class. The students involved in these activities display precisely the attitudes we want schools to instill—pride, enthusiasm, and curiosity. Furthermore, the students are expected to perform well and rise to the occasion. Much of the commentary on this film has focused on Douglass at its worst, but much can be learned from Douglass at its best.
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