Reviewed by Stephen Himes
The only way to understand the genius of Jake Kasden’s (the underrated, ambitious “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”) “Bad Teacher” is to imagine Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker watching this movie. If you’re Governor Walker, you have to revoke teachers’ right to collectively bargain because, though most teachers are good hearted people, they’re overpaid, have too many benefits, and have too much time off—all at the expense of the taxpayer. And then there’s the teachers unions, who entrench teachers who don’t care about their jobs because tenure means they don’t have to care about their jobs. Look at those test scores, people—all proof that teachers are lazy and incompetent!
If that’s your worldview, then you immediately recognize the flask-sipping, movie-showing, meeting-skipping Elizabeth Halsey as WHAT’S WRONG WITH EDUCATION. Film critics have called Cameron Diaz’s performance “gratuitously nasty,” which, as John Stewart captured, is just barely beyond the rhetoric deployed by Fox News during the collective bargaining crisis in Wisconsin. Miss Halsey, like everybody else in the world, is motivated solely by money, so she seeks a sugar daddy who’ll take her away from this awful job. Halsey, unlike her frumpier and fatter colleagues, doesn’t have the patience to just show up and count down the retirement clock. Or, as Halsey tells us, “When I started teaching, I thought it was for the right reasons: shorter hours, summers off, and no accountability.”
So, if you’re Governor Walker, and you’re willing to chalk up the Daisy Dukes car wash and the boob job sideplot to “Hollywood,” then this movie is in your wheelhouse. I mean, this is hilarious because it’s not that far from the truth! Then Kasden’s masterstroke: Halsey can earn her boob job through a performance bonus based on student test scores! Awesome! Because teachers will teach better if you threaten them! Seriously, they just need to be motivated by money to turn themselves into hard-ass drill sergeant super teachers! Finally, a Hollywood movie about teachers conservatives can really get behind! Michelle Rhee, Governor Walker is on Line One!
But this is where Kasden gets them. Suddenly, Miss Halsey passes out To Kill a Mockingbird and starts drilling them with questions about the effectiveness of Scout Finch as a narrator. She hurls dodge balls at boys’ nards without spilling her coffee. If Dewey Cox walked hard, Elizabeth Halsey teaches hard. Really hard. She disintegrates pencils in her hands, she’s teaching so damn hard.
Then it hits you: This isn’t teaching. Yelling questions at kids doesn’t cultivate the critical thinking skills they need to evaluate Scout Finch’s narration. “Bad Teacher” is so obviously Hollywood that it exposes the most essential truth about the teaching labor market: “Motivating” teachers isn’t going to suddenly make them good at their jobs. The Hollywood improbability of (Spoiler Alert!) Miss Halsey winning the performance pay award for test scores underscores this very point. Bad teachers are going to be bad whether you “motivate” them or not.
The problem with the teaching labor market—if we are brutally honest—is that we do not value teaching as a profession, so the best college students don’t choose teaching as a profession. Please do not misread this—I myself chose to go back into education after law school, and there are lots of great minds and great talents in education. But the numbers don’t lie: teacher education schools are populated by lower caliber students. They’re far less selective than other countries’ programs. We don’t even bother to measure whether these programs develop good teachers. Besides, college students know that teaching is long hours for low pay, and you take the blame for “society’s” problems. Teaching has an extraordinary burnout rate—nearly half in the first five years. There’s little chance for advancement. Everybody says teachers are underpaid, but when it comes right down to it, we don’t pay them what they’re worth, and Governor Walker’s benefits cuts aren’t going to cause the nation’s best and brightest to knock down the schoolhouse door.
Kasden captures this perfectly in his random assortment of short-sleeve dress shirted administrators, overweight gym teachers, and other socially awkward teachers in John Adams Middle School. He overdoes it by half—more than half, actually. Most teachers are professional people—and bless the middle school teachers of the world, who do God’s work everyday. But we need more—many more—and to start siphoning off charismatic, talented people from professions (I’m looking at you, lawyers and financial services) where their talents aren’t leveraged for the larger good.
And that, Governor Walker and Chancellor Rhee, is the argument for tenure reform and performance pay—it’s actually professional pay. From the Scott Walker and Michelle Rhee perspective, tenure reform and performance pay is a punitive measure to punish the Elizabeth Halseys of the world. Fair enough, but if you don’t ensure that you’re going to replace Elizabeth Halsey with a better teacher than Elizabeth Halsey, you’re just wasting valuable human resources by firing Elizabeth Halsey.
Thus, the point of tenure reform and professional pay is to reward teachers for exceptional outcomes—as we do in the private sector. It’s a recruitment and retention strategy designed to bring the Scott Delacorte’s (Justin Timberlake’s good hearted nerd in the movie) into the profession (if he’s talented enough), and move the Russell Gettis’s (Jason Segel’s gym teacher) out if they’re not. If education reform is just about firing BAD TEACHERS, reform will never happen because replacing BAD TEACHERS with BAD TEACHERS still leaves you with BAD TEACHERS.
The performance bonus proffered by “Bad Teacher” has no point except as a plot device to allow us to watch Cameron Diaz throw dodgeballs at twelve year olds. As a policy matter, it opens the door to the next step, as Kasden brings up when the principal complains about not being able to fire Halsey, which is tenure reform. You can imagine “Bad Teacher” sparking Governor Walker’s imagination to run wild with visions of tearing apart the teachers union so he can just start firing people! Like Michelle Rhee did! It’s fun! She’ll let you watch!
I would, however, argue with Kasden’s plot point that Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) won the top test scores award three years in a row. Squirrel is a horrifying vision of perkiness who thinks “enthusiasm” is “caring” about her students, which makes them want to learn. She rolls out practiced cornball puns nobody thinks is cute, and her “dynamic” style involves hand clapping and making kids stand up and say things. She is the worst kind of busybody teacher because she has “energy,” but her kids don’t learn anything because she’s impossible to respect. There’s no way she is able to command a middle school classroom to teach kids anything.
But I digress. Sure, “Bad Teacher” sells out at the end, and most of it is Cameron Diaz’s take on Billy Bob Thornton-style offensiveness. Still, at its heart, “Bad Teacher” offers the only real argument the Scott Walkers of the world have for punitive tenure reform and benefit reductions: that if you can’t get rid of Elizabeth Halsey, then who can you get rid of? And if you can’t get rid of her, then you have to “motivate” her. Which is a dumb strategy because BAD TEACHERS aren’t bad because they’re lazy; they’re bad because they lack the talent and skills to teach well. Just as kids won’t learn if you yell at them, teachers won’t teach better if you threaten them. Governor Walker, put down the dodgeball before you end up looking like an ineffectual bully—the state capitol’s version of Elizabeth Halsey.