Last week I was invited to attend a private screening of the soon to be released film, Won't Back Down. I already knew what the movie (based on a true story) was about -- parents attempting a takeover and reconstitution of an under-resourced, poorly managed, dilapidated school, with teachers (some anyway) who have lost their passion for teaching. While the movie was powerful, and touching, it creates something of a false hope for the millions of other parents facing similar situations in California: We simply aren't going to solve the education crisis, which is crippling six million students, one school/one parent-led initiative at a time.
Needless to say, I walked into the theater expecting to be disappointed by the film -- not because of its quality or the story, I knew it would be an excellent production -- but because I am in favor of developing solutions that scale, rather than just pointing out what's broken or finding one-off ways to succeed. Don't get me wrong, I know there is clearly a long list "broken" items in our educational system, but I am determined to advocate for real-world solutions, not simply complain about what's damaged. The fact is, although this movie highlighted an extremely ineffective teacher, most teachers are not "bad," and they are not the sole reason our public education system is failing the lion's share of children. There is blame enough to go around for almost everyone in our state for allowing the demise of the public school system over the past 40 years.
I also knew the film would be discussing the charter school movement -- a movement that has provided a few great insights and a few great successes, but that has also not yet proven to scale sufficient enough to move the entire state of California forward. Currently, 95 percent of California's students are still in traditional public schools and many of these schools have the lowest test scores in the country, the highest urban dropout rates, the largest class sizes, and the shortest school years -- and they ALL need help.
So there I sat, in a gorgeous Hollywood theater, with extremely low expectations. But as the film played on, I felt more and more engaged. I began to wonder if someone had been documenting events and experiences that I had had over the past five years as a public school advocate/parent, because my familiarity to the stories and situations was astounding. Like the main character, I, too, had to fight to get my child away from a "bad" teacher. (Read my blog about that here). Similarly, the main characters in the movie rallied hundreds of parents to fix their schools. In 2010, I, along with five other parents, hosted a town hall meeting that drew 1,000 concerned parents, our legislators, and every news station in the city. Yet, the most profound similarity was a feeling that "parent power" does not mean hosting a bake sale, but, instead, advocating for what's best for our children! (Raise your fist now.) Parent power!
When the movie ended, I overheard another moviegoer ask, "What is a parent supposed to do?"
What is a parent supposed to do if their child is stuck in a school with an ineffective teacher, ineffective principal, that is under-resourced and failing? The basic answer the movie presented was the parent trigger takeover, about which I've already spoken. However, the more complete answer that the film presented to was the power of organizing -- of speaking up and galvanizing parents, teachers, students and community members to move mountains. Only by working together can we inspire the change that's needed to create a REAL difference.
At the end of the evening, there was a short panel discussion. This panel consisted of the filmmaker, Daniel Barnz, who is a son of a teacher and a grandson of a teacher (and I think he listed about 5 other relatives in the profession). His passion for the issue was obvious. There were also three different parent advocates from around the state, each of whom had chosen a different pathway to organizing and mobilizing, after initially experiencing that common sense of despair about their schools and desire for change.
The last participant on the panel was Michelle Rhee, a lightning-rod figure for some, given her efforts as the former superintendent of the Washington, D.C., schools and the current CEO of the nationwide education advocacy organization StudentsFirst. I had some pre-conceived notions about her, just like I did about the movie, based on the image of her with a broom on the cover of Time, her confrontations with unions, and her cheerleading efforts for Teach For America and charter schools. But, I realized something important about her that evening that all those reporters and bloggers often forgot to mention: she is also a mom, a college graduate, a wife, and someone who wouldn't spend her time doing this challenging work if she didn't believe in it.
I felt a bit ashamed that I let my preconceptions distract me from the task at hand -- helping our kids and California's public education system. The truth is, we have reached a tipping point and, here in this audience, were hundreds of passionate advocates -- parents, teachers, unions, business leaders, philanthropists, community activists -- taking different approaches to reaching the same goal: Large-scale improvement to our education system. So let's do it already, together! I'm in!
If this film provokes even one more person to stand up and try to answer the question, "What is a parent supposed to do?" then the movie did its job. And I hope none of us "back down" until the problem is solved. I know I won't.