Teacher quality: The movie…It’s here (It’s called Mitchell 20.)

Around this time last year, Waiting For Superman was everywhere. If you hadn’t seen it, you were left behind. Practically every conversation about education began with where you stood on the movie. Even though WFS didn’t get the box office returns or Oscar nominations it was hoping for, it did leave a lasting imprint on the discourse— hardening into the mainstream the idea that public education reform was in the throes of an epic good (charter schools) vs. evil (teachers’ unions) battle for the soul of our country.

My reflections on Waiting for Superman are extensively detailed on the Huffington Post, Washington Post Answer Sheet blog and here and here on teacherleaders.org. I felt desperately I needed to rebut a film that opined with such certitude about teachers, but didn’t actually include teachers’ voices. It’s true— the closest in WFS you get to hearing a teacher’s thoughts is Jason Kamras, a former teacher turned Michelle Rhee aide.

Playing defense against broad attacks of complacency and incompetence is exhausting. How I wanted a film that put out the truth about teachers’ real experiences! And while I was dreaming, maybe that film could show how real, actionable, tested solutions on how to improve education for students…

It is here. The movie has been made. It’s called Mitchell 20.

Teachers and non-teachers need to see it. With its approximately 70-minute running time, Mitchell 20 is probably not suited for theatrical distribution. But however it gets out there— on TV, online, with neighborhood screenings— it has to happen.

This is a documentary about an elementary school (Mitchell) in the high-poverty Isaac School District in Arizona where the hardworking staff engaged in an unprecedented push for 20 of its teachers to pursue National Board Certification.

Daniela Robles, the teacher who inspires and recruits her colleagues to make the rigorous push for excellence, is the de facto star of the film and she ought to become a leading voice in the teaching quality debate. Unassuming but iron strong, Daniela’s passion teaching her students supplies the film’s jumping-off point.

With narration by ultra-gravelly Edward James Olmos, we watch the Mitchell 20’s road to National Board Certification morph into an instructive and often surprising illustration of what it takes to be an excellent public school educator. (Hint: it includes intense persistence and collaboration in the face of staggering obstacles.) The teachers’ voices are front and center, but they are supplemented with running commentary from edu-luminaries including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Linda Darling-Hammond, and CTQ’s own Barnett Berry.

I found the second half of the film, where the story takes a sinister turn involving sudden transfers and administrative ousters, even more compelling than the first.  The story isn’t neatly sewn up like a Hollywood movie, and this provides a wealth of material for discussion.

Mitchell 20 lacks the technical polish of Waiting for Superman. Flashy editing, overloaded graphics, and on-the-nose pop music cues (ex. “Everyday People” and “Get Ready”) attempt to intensify what is largely a talking heads documentary. But talking heads are okay if they’re saying fascinating things, which the teachers in Mitchell 20 are. Two cinematic scenes involving teachers discovering out their National Board scores are real winners, though.

National Board Certification is a worthy endeavor and collaboration among colleagues is essential for a school to succeed. How can a school break the inertia and become dramatically better? Mitchell did it and the answers are in the film.

See Mitchell 20. (Here is where you can go to find out how.) This is a movie that, unlike Waiting for Superman, can tangibly improve education across the country.