Hollywood and the Politics of School Reform

Won-t-back-down-movie-posterOver at The Nation I've written an essay about "Won't Back Down," the latest feel-good school reform movie financed by conservative entrepreneur and Weekly Standard publisher Phil Anschutz. The film, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, has been a centerpiece of NBC's "Education Nation" conference this week, in which both presidential candidates participated. Michelle Rhee also hosted a screening of "Won't Back Down" at the Democratic National Convention, and folks like Bill Gates, Cory Booker, and Antonio Villaraigosa are promoting the movie.

In short, there is a lot of money, political influence, and star power behind this vehicle, just as there was behind "Waiting for Superman" two years ago. I didn't like the oversimplified politics of "Waiting for Superman," but that documentary was at least well-directed and featured some charming real-life families and schools.  "Won't Back Down," on the other hand, is a bad, hackneyed film that is difficult to sit through. I didn't have space to fully explain this in my Nation piece, which appears in the Oct. 11 print issue, but while there is plenty of room for reform in teacher evaluation, pay, and tenure policies, this film's anti-union talking points veer toward parody. The most misleading suggestion is that teachers' union contracts prevent educators from staying after school to give students extra help, even if individual teachers would like to do so! It really made me wonder if anyone involved with writing this film has had any contact at all with public schools or public school teachers.

But actually, as I watched "Won't Back Down," I had the sense it had been written by some sort of committee, so painstakingly does the screenplay repeat the overused talking points we hear again and again in debates over school accountability and choice. ("We're here for the children, not the teachers!" "A good school can cure neighborhood poverty!") One of the main characters, the Teach for America alum Michael, experiences a conversion over the course of the film from pro-union to anti-union politics. The explicit message is that effective teachers don't actively choose to be unionized — which is pretty disturbing, considering the amazing, union activist educators I've met around the country over the past six years — folks whom any parent would want teaching his or her child. I'm thinking of Alex Caputo-Pearl in Los Angeles; Mark Anderson in the Bronx; and the entire team at the Math and Sciences Leadership Academy in Denver, just to name a few. 

Teachers are a diverse group of millions of people with a broad range of views on organized labor. But if you hear the suggestion that good teachers don't want to be in a union, you should raise your eyebrows. This simply does not correspond to real life in the real world. Poll after poll of teachers' attitudes show the majority appreciate their union representation. That's why these sorts of gross caraciatures of teachers' unions will not  move the education reform debate forward; they will calcify people into self-protective camps, feeling attacked, misunderstood, and blamed. What we need instead are productive, cooperative partnerships to improve schools and elevate the teaching profession.

Read more at The Nation.

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