Films that Attack Public Education
"Parent Trigger" Movie, Won't Back Down, Opened in Theaters in September, 2012
Won't Back Down, a movie promoting privatized school reform method opened in theaters in September 2012. It is a fictional account—not a true story, of the operation of a school reform strategy called the parent trigger. Won't Back Down was produced by Philip Anschutz's company, Walden Media, the same group that produced Waiting for Superman. Won't Back Down's subject is the "parent trigger,"a strategy being promoted by the pro-privatization organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and an organization called Parent Revolution, which was launched by charter school operator Steve Barr with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers and others. Parent Revolution is an example of what is known as an "astroturf" organization; it pretends to be a grassroots group of parents, but it has, in reality, no significant grassroots.
In California in 2010, the legislature passed "parent trigger" enabling legislation for parents to be able to seize a school by petition, replace staff, and turn operations over to a charter management organization. No real life example of a "parent trigger school" exists at this time. Parents tried a parent trigger petition at one school in Compton, California, but the charter school that was to have taken over the school instead founded a school at a nearby location. At another site, the parents' seizure of the school has been held up in a court action.
September 27, 2012: In a related item, here in this video, The United States of ALEC, Bill Moyers explores the reach of the American Legislative Exchange Council across the statehouses. It is a scathing video report.
2013: UCC Publication Decries Privatization
Our own UCC JWM in-depth resource for the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year explores the public value of public education and the danger of privatization.
Thinking About the Film, Waiting for Superman
The new film, Waiting for Superman, has been hyped due to its creation by Davis Guggenheim, who also made the climate change film, An Inconvenient Truth. Waiting for Superman also won an Audience Award at Sundance.
Most reviewers agree that the film is moving, even heart-wrenching, as it explores the lives of children who have been "left behind" in public schools that continue to reflect large inequities. Guggenheim admits he sent his own children to private schools, but in the film he portrays four youths who participate in lotteries for places in small charter schools so that they can avoid large high schools portrayed as "dropout factories."
This is a story of individual heroes against an evil system, which is not to criticize the work of dedicated people, including Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone. It is just that heroes are portrayed as the solution and "entrenched" school bureaucracies and teacher’s unions as the enemy. The primary problem with this "good vs. evil" narrative is that the solution for better education for the mass of our nation’s 50 million children can’t possibly be through the work of individuals or individual schools, but must instead be achieved by improving the system of public schools the mass of children are likely to attend.
If you plan to see the film or to discuss it with a group in your congregation, we suggest you also explore the following resources for an alternative framing of the challenges for public education.
Resources from the church...
These resources present a very different way of assessing the problem and therefore a very different way to move forward. As a people called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we in the church have looked for school reform that balances the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. All the evidence suggests we must heap attention and resource opportunities on the public schools that society has left behind, rather than imagining we can find a quick "superman" solution by turning over the future of our poorest children to charter schools. After all, charter schools serve only about 4 percent of the children in school in the United States. Here are four policy directions the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries has continued to support as basic to school improvement:
- Federal policy must address public school inequality.
- Federal policy must reduce reliance on standardized tests as a primary “school improvement” strategy.
- Federal policy must support and improve, not punish, public schools in America’s poorest communities.
- Federal policy must improve public education as the bedrock of our democracy and public schools as the anchors of communities.
Reviews and articles...
- In “The Myth of Charter Schools,” NY Review of Books, Diane Ravitch refutes the myths, misinformation, and propaganda of “Waiting for Superman.”
- Here are talking points,"Why We Can't Wait for Superman," from our partners at the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign.
- Journalist, LynNell Hancock reviews the film for the Columbia Journalism Review: Waiting for Substance.
- Well known educator, Deborah Meier, explores what it means when a film maker declares that he made a film out of his own guilt for chosing a private school for his own child, but then creates a movie that blames the public schools for not having all the advantages he opted for.
- Here is a review by educational sociologist, Aaron Pallas... An Inconvenient Truthiness.
- Read this careful, point-by-point reflection on the film by Rick Ayers, adjunct professor in teacher education at the University of San Francisco: "What 'Superman" Got Wrong, Point by Point."
- Rethinking Schools, the education magazine, has launched NOT Waiting for Superman, a web page of articles related to the film.
- Here is a balanced and thoughtful review by Scott Stephens for Ohio Catalyst: "After Class--Commentary.
- "Grading 'Waiting for Superman," (The Nation) is a thoughtful, in-depth piece responding to the film and media coverage of public education in recent months.
- Comment from the Education Law Center, "Superman Is from Another Planet."
- Here are "The Real Facts about Waiting for Superman" according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, FairTest.
- In "It's Not the Teachers' Unions," Richard D. Kahlenberg, of the Century Foundation, counters the film's blame of teachers unions.
- Education historian, Diane Ravitch, responds to the film in "Stop Trashing Teachers."
- Posted on the Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post is this clever reflection: "Why 'Superman' film should be 'Waiting for Batman'".
- Here is a reflection by NY Times columnist, Gail Collins, "Waiting for Somebody."
- Check out this thoughtful reflection by Nicholas Lemann in the September 27 issue of the New Yorker magazine.
- In this thoughtful piece, President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten answers her critics.
- Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University, attempts to create what he considers a balanced view of the movie: "Strengths and Weaknesses of 'Superman'."
You may also want to read and discuss this thoughtful review we reprint here from the San Francisco Chronicle, a review by Rachel Norton, a member of the San Francisco, California school board.
Last week I was invited to a screening of "Waiting for Superman ," a new education documentary that has attracted a lot of attention--it should be released in theaters in late September. 2010 seems to be the year of the "edumentary," with several films documenting various problems in the U.S. educational system.
I’m torn about how I feel about "Waiting for Superman," which is the highest-profile of the year’s documentaries.
Made by Davis Guggenheim, a filmmaker who won an Oscar for the climate documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," it’s entertaining, with great characters and subject matter that I, at least, find riveting. It’s an open question whether the moviegoing public will find education reform as compelling as melting polar ice caps, but based on the early buzz and the reactions of the audience I saw, it should do well. The man sitting next to me actually cried out in disbelief at several points; as the lights came up, many people pulled out their cellphones to text the word "Possible" to an address displayed on the screen. (Some kind of pledge to recommend the movie to friends, I think).
But the movie is also manipulative, over-simplified, and in the end, misleading about where the solutions are for increasing achievement across the board--and particularly for low-income kids of color. The film follows five families in Redwood City, Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C. as each searches for better educational options for their children, and ends with emotionally-wrenching scenes from public lotteries where families wait, in agony, to find out whether they have "won" a coveted charter school spot. The message of the film is that children who "lose" the lottery are doomed to spend the rest of their schooling in "dropout factories" staffed by teachers who only care about their paychecks and pensions.
Controversial D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee is set up as a straight-talking, take-no-prisoners reformer, as is Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone (I find Mr. Canada far more inspiring; I just am not sure his success is replicable because it is so intertwined with the force of his personality). Randi Weingarten (actually well-regarded as a progressive and thoughtful leader of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teacher’s union) is branded as the villain, as are teachers unions in general. Charter schools are held up as the answer, though the voice-over acknowledges early in the film that one in five charters are failing (and never mind that it would likely be impossible to convert our entire educational system to charters, even if anyone really wanted to). The most unforgivable claim is that "we’ve tried more money" and it hasn’t worked. Uh, no, not in California we haven’t. I guess some people honestly believe that teachers unions are the reason our schools are failing too many children, but I think that claim is both simplistic and illogical. If what matters, ultimately, is the skill level and accomplishment of the teacher, how is it that the best teachers would flock to generally lower-paid and less-secure jobs with private schools and charter schools? Wouldn’t the best teachers want higher-paid jobs and more job security?
Much has also been made over the idea that giving teachers tenure after three years in the classroom means that it’s impossible to get rid of bad teachers. Nope. It’s true that the disciplinary/coaching process takes time, and there are timelines and paperwork involved. But more often than not it ends either with a teacher receiving coaching that helps him or her improve or a retirement or other voluntary separation. Determined principals can and do make sure that substandard teachers either improve or leave the system. I don’t buy the argument that abolishing teacher tenure would cause any kind of noticeable improvement in achievement; it might make it even harder to attract quality teachers (they aren’t exactly beating a path to the profession as it is).
I am not sure whether to recommend this film or not, though I think people who are interested in education reform will not be able to stay away. If you see it, I hope you will take its statistics with a grain of salt (some are apples to oranges while others are mischaracterized), and realize that it is, ultimately, entertainment. The filmmaker has created archetypal characters out of real people, and a narrative sequence out of events that are unfolding simultaneously, unrelated to each other. If the film moves you to find out more about the problems facing public education and educate yourself on possible solutions, great. As long as you realize that those solutions are never as simple as a 90-minute movie lays them out to be.
Posted By: Rachel Norton, San Francisco Chronicle, July 20 2010 at 02:54 PM