By Vicki Abeles and Wendy Grolnick, Ph.D.
The release this week of the new education film, Won't Back Down, starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, adds another voice to the clamoring debate about education in the United States. Sadly, it's another voice of blame -- not one framed by reason, solution-based thinking, or bi-partisanship.
The film points an accusing finger at teachers unions and lazy educators, which is unsurprising, as the film was produced in part by Walden Media, whose primary funder is a powerful proponent of school privatization. More surprising is that when you dig beneath the surface narrative, the film also points a finger at parents themselves. Certainly, the film lionizes its main character, Jamie, a single mom who works tireless hours to take over a failing Pittsburgh elementary school. But the film also subtly condemns parents -- and especially mothers -- as well.
The film portrays Nona, the teacher/mom who worries over her child's learning disability, as pushy and anxious -- and suggests that her angst and guilt over a long-ago drunk-driving accident is the secret behind her child's poor performance in school. It proposes, too, that moms raising kids in single-parent or divorcing households have a special societal debt to pay when it comes to ensuring their kids' educational success. It is these moms, not parents in traditional, stable, two-parent homes who take on the task of improving their kids' educational opportunities. Moreover, the film implies -- through its hero's example -- that an intrepid, perky, working-class mom with two jobs can (and should) buck up and turn around her kids' woefully underperforming school, against all bureaucratic odds. Any parent who wouldn't do this, we're meant to see, would be no kind of parent at all. Under the guise of celebrating parental "choice" and autonomy, the film gently urges us to assume that when schools fail our children and kids fall behind, we have parents to blame as much as mercenary unions and shiftless educators.
Of course, Won't Back Down isn't the only media exploration of education or parenting that offers this view. Paul Tough's recent How Children Succeed and other popular parenting and education books including Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Bringing Up Bébé, join a long tradition of books that ponder our children's development and achievement through the lens of parental influence and involvement. And education films like Waiting for Superman (also funded in part by Walden Media, as other commentators have pointed out) and The Lottery also position parents, however well-meaning, as part of the problem, not the solution, behind failing public education.
Of course, parents aren't the only group to be assigned fault. Sometimes the focus is also on the quality of schools or teacher accountability. Other times, the spotlight is on neighborhoods and income levels. Unions take a good deal of blame as well. But parental blame is particularly insidious because it presents a no-win critique: one that suggests that parents either are not involved enough, or one that blames parents for being too involved. The former is typically lobbed at low-income parents, the latter at affluent ones.
The problem here is not that parents shouldn't be counted among the myriad factors that influence American education -- including family life, income, neighborhood safety or educators' motivation or job security. The problem is that our current tendency to either blame "bad" parents or exalt "good ones" discounts the very real distress that all parents and children feel as they negotiate the perilous path to success in school.
A case in point is a recent study conducted at Clark University. In this study, parents and their third graders did homework-like tasks under one of two conditions. One group of parents were told that its children's work would be evaluated to see if they "met standards." The other group received no such mention of evaluation. Then parents and children were observed as they worked together.
The results? Parents who had been primed to think about "standards" were more controlling with their children -- more likely to answer questions for them and tell them exactly what to do. Parents who had not received such priming held back and let their kids take the reins. The study revealed that academic pressure plants the seeds of control among parents -- and skews their children's ability to learn. But that's not even the interesting part. More fascinating is that when viewers watch videotapes of parents in the "standards" group, they respond with near-universal judgment and negativity. "She is a pushy person!" they say of the more controlling parents. "She obviously lives through her child!" Or "She's obsessed with her kid's performance!" Even while popular culture excoriates parents who are inattentive or disinterested in their children's academic lives, we all too often also incriminate those parents who seem too attentive, too interested. Grolnick describes the conundrum for parents as a tense negotiation between "stepping up" and "overstepping". It leaves parents with little margin for error.
Blaming parents -- in the lab or through Hollywood portrayals -- is easy. What's harder is to see -- and to seek to understand -- is why parents might pressure and control. The fact is that parents themselves are under pressure within an educational environment that tells them their children must not only be "normal" and "standard" but also high-achievers. This message combined with parents' biologically based propensities to protect their children, make it a set up for control. Our rhetoric for blame assures that the larger reasons parents feel this pressure thus remain invisible, as much in real life as it is in Won't Back Down, as much in all of our homes as it is in Grolnick's study. And blaming parents -- rather than fixing the roots of their feelings of anxiety, helplessness, or disengagement -- is handy because it shields us from having to confront larger questions. It helps us avoid working toward solutions in teacher-training and professional development. It drowns out contextual discussions about the impact of poverty on young learners. It's swifter and more handily leveraged than deep conversations about why we might revamp the priorities of a society that values product, performance, and financial incentive over learning and growth.
Perhaps we can't hope for nuance from a film whose producers and screenwriters are gunning for box-office blockbuster status. After all, Hollywood isn't typically lauded for its subtlety. But as parents, educators and advocates for better schools for America's students, we can hope for a truth-based, reasoned, blameless national conversation about education. Surely, Won't Back Down will stoke quite a few dinner table and boardroom dialogues about the state of our schools. Unfortunately, they won't be grounded in fact or driven by a quest for solutions that work for all--teachers, administrators, parents and students alike.
That conversation is, instead, up to us. And it's a challenge we can't back down from.