Neither Real nor Right

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Won’t Back Down is a feel-good film about the power of a single individual, armed with a vision and a voice, to move a bureaucracy.

Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a working class mother of a dyslexic second grader, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind). Malia has been assigned to the classroom of the weakest teacher in the school, and Jamie wants desperately to find a solution for her failing child. She asks the teacher to help Malia after school; she tries to have Malia transferred to the classroom of a better teacher; she signs up for the lottery of a successful charter school, where Malia must compete with 100 applicants for just three open slots. She even begs the administrator of her former school to take Malia back.

Eventually Jamie hears about a “parent-trigger law,” which provides a way for parents to take over a failing school. (“Parent-trigger law” is perhaps a poor choice of name, considering the level of frustration many parents experience, and the number of shootings that have occurred in schools recently!)

Parent-trigger laws are a fairly new concept in US public education. They were first introduced in California a few years ago, and six other states have followed so far. They apply only to failing schools, and require a majority of the parents to sign a petition and support the change. A successful bid can result in replacing the administration or faculty, creating a charter school, or closing the school and reassigning the students to better schools. Of course, teachers and their unions oppose these takeover bids, sometimes with threats and repercussions against the children of the most vocal parents.

Tenured teachers can’t be fired for being poor teachers, so they are moved from school to school. Woe to the children who are stuck in their classrooms for an entire year!

In the film, Jamie says “Let’s take over the school” with the same spritely optimism as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland saying “Let’s put on a show.” Through sheer force of personality and salesmanship, Jamie convinces a tired and frustrated teacher, Nona (Viola Davis), to join her, and together they work to gain the support of teachers and parents. But it isn’t that easy. They must first recruit 400 parents and 18 teachers, and file a 400-page document describing their new school — while fighting union leaders and school administrators with six-figure salaries to protect and an arsenal of dirty tricks to employ.

Along the way she cheerfully tramples the property rights of her two employers by giving away free booze to potential supporters at her bartending job and working on the school project during her receptionist duties at a car dealership. Her boss is portrayed as a sharp-nosed busybody, but she has a right to expect an employee’s full attention at work, doesn’t she? And what about Jamie’s responsibility as a mother? She complains about her daughter not getting extra help from the teacher, but shouldn’t she be helping her own child learn to read? How hard is it to read with a child at a second grade level?

The film addresses most of the right problems, with union bylaws and tenure protection at the top of the list. A teacher refuses to stay after school to help a dyslexic student with her reading; it turns out that teachers are actually prevented from staying after school by their union contract. An administrator responds to each complaint with the same tired phrase, “We are addressing that,” as a way to placate the parent while promising nothing. He acknowledges that tenured teachers can’t be fired for being poor teachers, so they are moved from school to school. Woe to the children who are stuck in their classrooms for an entire year!

(Years ago I complained about a teacher who showed movies almost every day, while she played games on the computer. When I told the administrator that she showed The Lion King that day, his face darkened. “Lion King??” he raged. “I told them they couldn’t show Lion King!” Then he shrugged and added, “I know she’s a lousy teacher. There’s nothing I can do. She has tenure.” And she was the department chair to boot. I moved my daughter to a private school. But many parents can’t afford that option.)

So why don’t more parents and teachers take over their failing schools? Time is the biggest deterrent. It usually takes three to five years to get through the process of gathering support, filing papers, writing a charter, hiring teachers, and selecting curriculum. By that time, most children will have moved on to middle school. It requires a person with genuine dedication to the neighborhood to be willing to go through this effort for someone else’s kids. In the film, one teachers’ union administrator complains cynically, “When students start paying union dues, I will start protecting the interests of children,” and he’s right about that. One of the biggest problems with the public school system is that the payer is not the recipient of the service.

Moreover, it takes skill and experience to teach a class or manage a school. That same union administrator suggests that having parents take over a school is “like handing over the plane to the passengers,” and to a certain extent, he is right about that, too. Consider the kinds of neighborhoods that harbor failing schools. Parents with good educations, good jobs, and good incomes will simply move to another neighborhood, or deposit their children in private schools, as I did. They are too busy earning a living to have time to run a school.

Nevertheless, this film ends with cheering crowds and a crescendo of violins. (But is it any surprise that they manage to succeed? In a matter of months? Does Secretariat win the Triple Crown?) But there is no true victory in this film. A charter school may be better than a failing public school, but it is still based on a failing premise: although they are run by parents and teachers, these are still government schools. Salaries are still funded by local property taxes, and students are still tested according to federal standardized guidelines. The film even ends with a rap version of Kennedy’s famous message: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The first is socialism, the second is feudalism. Neither bodes well for creativity and individual success. Whatever happened to “Do what you can to take care of yourself”?

The biggest deterrent to good education — standardized testing — isn’t even addressed in this film. I could write a whole treatise on the unintended consequences of “No Child Left Behind.” We now have an entire generation of young people who have been taught that there is only one correct answer to any question: the one they have been spoonfed by the teacher. Creativity and innovation are rewarded with an F.

A charter school may be better than a failing public school, but it is still based on a failing premise.

As for the teachers? They’re getting burned out too. I attended an early evening screening. Just before the film began, several groups of women walked into the theater. All of them talked to each other throughout the screening, looked at their cell phones, and went out to buy treats or visit the bathroom. I would have been more distracted, had I not been used to this kind of behavior; I’m a teacher. I interviewed these ladies after the show. You guessed it: most were teachers. They probably didn’t even realize that they were acting like their students.

Won’t Back Down is an earnest little film, one that is well intentioned but overlong and overacted. Viola Davis looks too tired to be a fighter; and Holly Hunter, normally such a fine actress, is particularly posed and affected in her delivery, her trademark speech impediment, and her gigantic hairstyle. Maggie Gyllenhaal does her best to ignite the enthusiasm of the cast in the same way her character tries to ignite the enthusiasm of the community, brightening her eyes and smiling until her face nearly explodes with goodwill. But it doesn’t work. At just over two hours, the film is 30 minutes too long for a story with no action and little suspense.

Moreover, although Won’t Back Down claims to be “inspired by true events,” it is neither true nor realistic. I couldn’t find a single actual case in which parents have successfully taken over a school under a parent-trigger law. Some have tried, but my research did not turn up any that have succeeded.

If you are genuinely interested in films about failing school systems and want to know how to fix them, I recommend two recent documentaries: Waiting for Superman (2010, directed by Davis Guggenheim) and The Cartel (2009, directed by Bob Bowdon).


Editor's Note: Review of "Won’t Back Down," directed by Daniel Barnz. Walden Media, 2012, 121 minutes.



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All-American Johnny and the Educators

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The debate over Johnny and the American educators goes on. Who’s more to blame for the problems in our public schools? The star maverick educator Michelle Rhee said the other night on a talk show she could see students getting paid for a good performance. The conservative education professionals simply say that “Johnny,” meaning most of the public school students, has to do better, to make our schools better. Parents say that educators will have to teach him better to make our schools better. Educators are beating up Johnny in the press to make their accusation strong. He needs to get real (which is as strong as their language gets). Ordinary lay folk know things aren’t right in America’s public schools. Some powerful politicians are demanding our schools be the best in the world.

We don’t need to be in an international contest. We have a lot to do here at home. “High schools are the downfall of American school reform,” said Jack Jennings, President of the D.C. Center on Education Policy. This disclosure pointed the finger. Educators knew the problem was this deep. They kept the scandal this buried. The public high schools in America number 27,000, and they have on their rolls millions of students; and 7,000 drop out every day. Administrators don’t know what to do about the high schools.

Powerful politicians are also making us accept over 100,000-plus foreign students from Latin America and Asia in our schools, who depress the test scores. They have trouble with the tests in English, and sometimes with discipline. Johnny is in a classroom of noisy students from many cultures and can’t get serious about paying attention when the teacher is busy keeping order in the class. Johnny doesn’t get rigorous tutoring at home and study discipline. He doesn’t score well on tests, which is not totally his fault.

Our high schools can’t do better when they’re like this, forced to be politically correct. Is this why Johnny doesn’t like being taught with “them”? Donal O’Shea, Dean of Faculty, Mount Holyoke College, and author of The Poincare Conjecture (referring to the formidable topological theorem the western world has been trying to prove for 100 years) dropped another bomb on American education in his March 2007 Forbes essay, saying that in 1985, of the million students who received bachelor’s degrees that year, only 16,000 majored in math or statistics. More disturbing, of the 1.4 million who received bachelor’s degrees in 2004, only 13,300 majored in math or statistics. More and more of our high schools are letting their students graduate with little or no science and math and serious humanities education. Graduates who go to college anyway mostly are woefully weak.

The public high schools in have on their rolls millions of students; and 7,000 drop out every day.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently that Johnny should read more. Although no one of his stature should have to say that reading is serious, it's clear that Johnny has to do much more reading to improve his articulation and language crafts — the kind of reading that doesn't always register on standardized tests. Harvard educated actor Matt Damon recently told a reporter, “We’re tying teacher salaries to how well kids are performing on tests; that kind of mechanized thinking has nothing to do with higher order [thinking].” He may be right, not only about tests in English but also about tests in math-based subjects. President Obama and his advisers put education on their plate the first thing in 2008, recognizing that the high schools were shockingly unhealthy, especially in the math and science departments. His team selected STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — to do the job. The team promised high school students who go for these subjects that they would be richly rewarded upon graduation from college as a STEM major. They’ll enjoy the good life, a professional career, prestige, and security all their lives. The team was romantic. Yet mathematics is the most important subject — and not just for STEM subjects, but for all the other disciplines too. Mathematics is the yeast in all of them. No subject can grow, get strong, become precise without it. Every subject has to establish its foundation on sturdy logic to survive. Mathematics is logic in its supreme form.

Johnny doesn’t know this about math. He is taught math in school as a set of mechanical exercises, found in a “manual,” a textbook, filled with them. The textbook is dully and poorly written. The author isn’t well-read, and doesn’t have to be. The book is written to sell to the state’s textbook adoption committee. Publishers fight hard to win the contract, which is quite big if the state is big and buys one math textbook to be used by all its high school algebra students. Johnny can’t comprehend this “adopted” textbook; the “whizzes” in class don’t read it either, but understand what the math formulas and the “mechanical writings” are saying. The mechanical math geeks are educators’ darlings. They test brilliantly and are “inventive” and become gadgeteers.

Johnny is taught math in school as a set of mechanical exercises, found in a “manual,” a textbook that is dully and poorly written.

Test-driven educators need to see students less than as machines, but more, particularly teens, as fragile souls always in need of constant anchoring. The horrors they can commit! Think of the 1999 Columbine High (Colorado) massacre of 12 students and a teacher by two male seniors (a front page story), and even the 2005 brouhaha at Monta Vista High (Culpertino, California) of Asian and white students over who’s best in math. Some whites at the school moved out of town. (Front page story, “The New White Flight”!) Teens easily crack under pressure. If only they were disciplined to channel their energy to better use, they would make high school a healthier world and also ensure that our pride and joy — the 18 of the 20 best universities in the world that are American — retain their strength. Joseph Nye of the Harvard Kennedy School said there are 750,000 foreign college students in American colleges. But then he said, “We have to do something about our secondary education.”

Remember that the 750,000 foreign students don’t have the cultural wherewithal to create brilliant American writing. That task belongs to Johnny, and he shouldn’t be thrown away. If he's not a math geek, Johnny still may learn how to contribute to American letters, which aren't brilliant enough.

The annual State Regents Exams for New York high school seniors reveal why educators should get real. The exams demand that to be college-ready each senior score at least 80 in math (last year many failed to solve the simplest of quadratic equations) and 75 in English Language Arts (two essays have to be written). The high school graduating rate for 2009 was 77%, but only 41% of the class was prepared for college. The two-year college was the only hope of many of the graduates not prepared for four-year college. Poor inner-city Johnny has it the worst — nothing, nobody to help him hope for a good score on the impossible tests; and no hope that the education system will take an interest in him.

Miracles do happen. A New York inner-city Johnny was picked to star in a Walmart ad that takes place in a school library. Johnny glows as he’s helped with his reading by a retired, lawyerly, grandfatherly looking gentleman smiling like one with the patience of Job. The ad runs twice nightly on the PBS “Tavis Smiley Show.” Thanks to Walmart for telling inner-city Johnny across America that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” The ’hood does have rich soil worth cultivating. Will other big businesses come in and help other overwhelmed students? Remember that the great English novelist Charles Dickens was born dirt-poor.

By the way, no one at our 18 most hallowed universities proved the Poincare Conjecture. Last year, a reclusive Russian mathematician, Gregori Perelman, proved it but refused the Clay Institute’s $1,000,000 prize. This caliber of confident mathematician tends to be shy, and to have other baggage, such as being incomprehensible at points in his lectures. One can’t expect the high school geek math teacher to be less handicapped. He mumbles at the blackboard. So Johnny’s best shot is to do a lot of good reading with a dictionary to get verbal competence and confidence in writing. That would be quite an achievement — more of an achievement than a brilliant score on a math test.




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