The film Won't Back Down opened in wide release on September 28. Yet, weeks in advance of this date, there has been a veritable deluge of extremely strong emotional and critical responses. Both the film and the responses deserve our attention, because they are each symptomatic of the polarization that is plaguing both public education and national politics in this country. Every teacher and parent should see the film, but should also be fully prepared to view it critically.
Oversimplifying a Complex Problem
Some background first: The film is a major release from Paramount Pictures and Walden Media, focusing on two very determined mothers, one of them a teacher, who attempt to transform their children's "failing" inner city school. They face a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, dominated by teacher unions and apathetic leaders. But they take on the fight of making a difference in the education and future of their children. Given the effectively dramatic and emotionally gripping screenplay, the excellent starring actresses (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter), and a major promotional campaign, the film will reach and impact a large audience. Heroic mothers saving their children's education -- who couldn't be hooked by that?!
So what's the problem? To begin with, the film is in part a propaganda piece, designed to promote very specific points of view. Given the relative lack of audience sophistication regarding these issues and the emotional impact of the film, it has great potential to mislead. The film demonizes teacher unions, provides a distorted and extreme characterization of a failing school and its personnel, and sees parent empowerment laws (described in the film as a "fail-safe" law, and called "trigger" laws in California and some other states) and charter schools as THE solution. It provides a myopic and romanticized view of how to solve our educational problems. It's also important to note that a good part of the film's financing comes from Philip Anschutz, a multi-billionaire proponent of school choice and school privatization. He is the primary money behind Walden Media.
I find this all both disturbing and instructive. This is not an educative, careful, rational, balanced look at complex problems that require reasoned, non-extreme, effective responses. Won't Back Down will not enlighten. It will feed polarization and contribute to the misguided habits of thought that already plague educational policy-making in this country.
A Few Basic Questions
Are there failing schools? We know there are. Is the primary cause usually poor teaching and bad administrators? No. More often the cause is the socio-economic level of the student population, the dearth of resources, and inadequate or non-existent staff development. It should now be conventional wisdom that the measures determining which schools are failing are simplistic and of limited validity. And yes, there are some bad teachers and ineffective administrators. However, the proportion of those in comparison to, say, second-rate lawyers and third-rate politicians is probably fairly low.
Are teacher unions flawed, and do some provide too much protection for ineffective teachers? Yes. Teacher unions should take more responsibility for improving the quality of the profession. But they also protect teachers -- and, indirectly, students -- from misguided evaluation processes, policies that undermine teaching effectiveness, second-rate working conditions, and attempts to control the curriculum by groups who lack the expertise and often have an agenda that undermines the effective education of children. Attacks that verge on union-busting are highly destructive.
And now we come to the role of parents. I've spent most of my long professional career arguing strongly for the significant inclusion of parents in educational decision-making. But laws that give parents the power to take over a "failing" school bring parent involvement into the Twilight Zone. While this movie depicts an inspiring story of parental revolt, it fails to reveal that the actual efforts to use these laws have been significantly driven by billionaire-funded supporters of privatization, and have created great acrimony and division. There is no evidence that these efforts have improved any schools.
I wonder if anyone is thinking about proposing a law that would give patients the power to take over a "failing" hospital, perhaps measured by recovery rates. Think about how that might play out!
A Different Kind of Heroism
Parents who are working to improve their schools can really be heroes. But the greatest success has taken place where parents, teachers, educational leaders and sometimes policymakers have worked together to bring about change. This film is eliciting a lot of debate of the issues, but I don't think we should be debating. Our best response is to collaboratively wrestle with the very complex problems and challenges it raises, which will not be solved by simplistic diagnosis and simplistic answers.
The bottom line is that, while any filmmaker has the absolute right to present his or her point of view, this emotionally manipulative and dramatically effective film is a piece of propaganda that further polarizes parents and educators, distorts educational issues, and presents simplistic, misguided solutions. It doesn't help solve our educational problems; it magnifies them.
What They're Saying
I've chosen the following links to offer a perspective on Won't Back Down.
- A response from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
- The 20th Century Fox website
- A response from Save Our Schools March
- An article from Truthout.org about how the film portrays the ALEC Parent Trigger Proposal
This post first appeared on Edutopia.org.