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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OMG! The Free Market Works!

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An unintentionally hilarious piece recently appeared in the Pravda of contemporary progressive liberalism, The New York Times.

This lachrymose report laments the fact that major public school districts around the country are losing customers — oops! students — and the result is layoffs. Of teacher union members, no less! Quelle horreur!

Between 2005 and 2010, Broward County (FL), Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus (OH), Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Bernardino, and Tucson have all lost students, some massively.

The article tells some tragic tales. LA let go of 8,500 teachers in the face of an enrollment drop of 56,000 students. Mesa Unified District lost 7,155 students and had to close four middle schools and lay off librarians — the ultimate evil.

The cutbacks are threatening offerings in art, foreign languages, and music.

But to what do the authors of this mournful article attribute this decline? They mention declining birthrates, unemployed parents moving elsewhere to find work, and illegal immigration crackdowns. But they also mention — tentatively and skeptically — the movement of students from regular district schools (essentially run by the teacher unions) to charter schools (run more or less autonomously, i.e., not under the unions’ thumb).

In Columbus, enrollment in charter schools rose by 9,000 students while enrollment in the public school district dropped by 6,150. One honest parent explained, “The classes were too big, the kids were unruly and didn’t pay attention to the teachers.” So she sent her dyslexic daughter to a nearby charter school, where — GASP! — “one of the teachers stayed after school every Friday to help her.”

In an institution where pleasing the customer is actually important, it’s no surprise that her daughter received the help she needed.

Nationwide, while the number of kids in regular public schools dropped by 5%, the number in charter schools rose by 60%.

Naturally, the public school system special interest groups — greedy unions, self-righteous teachers, callous administrators, and so on — are hysterical. For example, one Jeffrey Mirel, an “education historian” at the University of Michigan, bleated that public schools are in danger of becoming “the schools nobody wants.”

Wrong! Public schools have been for some timethe schools that nobody wants. Before the 1960s, teachers unions either didn't exist or — where they did — didn't exert the control they assumed in the 1970s. Teachers unions run schools for the benefit of their members only. So the problems started accelerating.But what’s happening right now is that some few lucky kids are being given the choice to get out — and they’re taking it.




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The Give Back Game

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This morning when I arrived at my job as the Director of Learning Centers for the college where I teach, the following directive was waiting in my inbox: “Join us for a celebration of service as We Give Back!” My first thought was, “Give what back? Did we borrow something?” I certainly don’t remember taking anything that doesn’t belong to me. Well, I did take a pencil home once. I suppose I could give that back. But I don’t see any reason to celebrate its return with a bunch of hoopla and publicity.

The point is, I’m tired about all this “let’s give back” rhetoric. If my college is really concerned about “giving,” how about “Let’s Give Teachers Enough!” Most of the teachers I know work second jobs and take on extra courses in order to supplement their meager incomes. We do all the teaching, and we get paid half what the administrators earn. If that. No wonder they feel guilty.

Moreover, we have our own service projects, thank you very much. I happily do things for my church, my family, and my friends. I consider teaching itself to be a community service project of sorts. But I don’t keep score. I’m not “giving back.” I do it because I want to. I don’t need to get involved in some do-good project at the school where I work, just so they can publicize it and make themselves look good. If they think they’ve taken too much from someone, they can give it back themselves.

Come to think of it, I use my own pens, pencils, and paper supplies at school so often that I don’t really need to feel guilty about taking that pilfered pencil home. In fact, I think I used it to grade papers. On my own unpaid time. Now who’s going to give that back?




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