Walden Media's Won't Back Down portrays the heroism of one parent and one teacher fighting harmful educational practices by taking over their school. Their victory is as mythic as it is misleading. Those who should be celebrated by such media attention are the real-life heroes at the grassroots who have been fighting for meaningful educational change day-to-day, year-to-year.
Won't Back Down claims it is "inspired by real events" -- two unsuccessful attempts in California to implement "parent trigger laws" (called "Fail Safe" in the movie) by replacing traditional schools with charter schools. Unlike the movie, teachers had no voice or vote in the California efforts. And, while the movie shows Maggie Gyllenhaal, the mom, and Viola Davis, the teacher, valiantly going door to door by themselves, many of the parent petition signatures in the California campaign were gathered by organizers trained and paid by Parent Revolution, a group that is generously funded by Bill Gates and the Walton Foundation and created by Green Dot, a charter company vying to take over schools.
While it is imperative that we improve failing schools, that is not the goal of parent trigger laws. Pushed by ALEC, the Parent Trigger is simply one more attempt to divert public money into private pockets, empowering entrepreneurs, not parents.
Fortunately, there are true stories of courageous parents, students and educators whose lives don't make it into a Hollywood movie, but who persistently work to improve public education. Many of them challenge the policies of these same entrepreneurs who, along with charter schools, push excessive high-stakes testing, merit pay and the closing of under-resourced schools deemed failing based on student test scores.
Why not make a film about the bravery of South Texas student Marcario Guajardo who, when 11 years old, told his parents, "I want to protest the TAKS test. I don't want to take it. I don't like what the test is doing to my school." Marcario stayed home on the day of the test. His protest, an honest act of courage, motivated teachers and school leaders to alter their practices.
A film about the twenty five-year legacy of Chicago-based Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), now a base of the national organization Parents Across America, would tell the real story of audacious parents fighting for quality education. PURE parents would be seen organizing a 2004 major protest of school closings, camping out all night on the sidewalk outside the school district's loop headquarters in order to testify at Board of Education morning hearings.
They would be portrayed investigating then-district-CEO Arne Duncan's impressive news that a school "turned over" to a private management company had nearly doubled the achievement growth of the students who had been at the closed school. PURE's discovery that claims of this great success were based on only 12 of the 336 former students still enrolled in the re-opened school two years later highlighted that this and other Duncan-lauded "miracles" seem more about changing the student body than improving education.
Sam Coleman, elementary teacher of English Language Learners in Brooklyn, would challenge the stereotype of the self-serving teacher if cast as the lead in a film grounded in reality. Sam knew a district proposal for a merit-pay system based on standardized test scores would hurt students and teachers alike. Though the proposal could cost him and his colleagues bonuses of $1,500, Sam still encouraged his peers to consider how the plan: 1. assumed that the most reliable measure of a school's success is student test scores; 2. encouraged teachers to teach to the test; 3. assumed the problem in schools is that teachers are not working hard enough, rather than the larger issues that affect student success. Ultimately, Sam's faculty rejected the "bonus plan," challenging a business-based model of education and standing up together for children.
These and other local heroes deserve attention in the daily media as well as Hollywood films. They are among the thousands of others at the grassroots fighting for more equitable and democratic schools and whose stories can truly empower others because they are real.
Nancy Schniedewind is a Professor at SUNY New Paltz and co-editor with Mara Sapon-Shevin of Educational Courage: Resisting the Ambush of Public Education (Beacon Press 2012). Julie Woestehoff is a contributor to Educational Courage.