Teaching reality check: The Mitchell 20

The new documentary, The Mitchell 20, offers a moving analysis of both the real causes and possible solutions to the educational achievement gap in this country. It is particularly timely as the issue of improving teacher quality and teacher evaluation moves to the forefront of the education reform discussions in Washington and beyond.

It is the story of one school in Arizona and 20 of its teachers who decide to pursue National Board Certification (or a portion of it, known as Take One!) together. Deciding to take on the premier form of professional development and evaluation for teachers is a courageous choice for any teacher, and certainly for almost an entire school to do so, is even bolder because it is a very public commitment. The school’s principal shows equal courage by investing the school’s federal professional development funds into the effort, and ultimately, putting her own job on the line to support the teachers.

What I liked most about this film is its painful honesty. It tears away at myth after myth in a time when misinformation about teaching and learning abounds. From exposing lies behind stereotypes of Spanish-speaking children and their families, to an unvarnished portrayal of working and learning conditions in a high needs school, to the reality just how challenging National Board Certification is–the information is highly accurate. The opening segments of upbeat, dedicated, mostly young teachers leads us to expect a warm and fuzzy ending. Which makes the actual turn of events even more disturbing.

As Lee Shulman states in a clip near the end, most of the teachers who attempt National Board Certification do not achieve it on their first try, but most of those who don’t, try again, not just to prove they can do it, but because of how valuable the process itself is to the quality of their work as teachers.

Moreover, the film brings out one of the great shames of our current educational system: When teachers or educational leaders prove themselves highly effective, they are often then forced out of the schools and communities that need them most, or hindered from doing those things that made them effective.

Although some of the moralizing gets a little heavy-handed towards the end, and it could stand to be edited down by about 15 minutes, overall, it is well-worth watching and sharing.

For viewing information on Mitchell 20, visit the Arizona K12 Center website.