Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Won't Back Down - An Informed Review

-Won't Back Down is a 20th Century Fox film, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter

Finally a film has been made to dramatize the real education debate. Won’t Back Down, featuring a Pittsburgh school called Adams Elementary, is said to be “inspired by actual events,” which means a lot of liberty has been taken with the true story.

I decided to see the film because, first of all, I like movies that are about something (so, I haven’t seen Battleship). Second, as a teacher, it is refreshing to see a film tackling my field with a degree of seriousness, unlike the less than impressive Bad Teacher from a couple years ago. So, let’s get to the film.

Adams is a failing school. We hear a lot about these. The film goes to some lengths (though, not nearly enough in my opinion) to show us what a failing school looks like. Single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick has a dyslexic daughter in the second grade, stuck with a truly awful teacher. This teacher shops the web and plays on her cell phone during class, lets students tease each other and even get in physical altercations, and is generally a loser of the highest degree.

Jamie, unable to convince the power-hungry principal to bend the rules and switch her daughter to a different class, begins to feel the inflexibility of the entire system.

At the same time, Viola Davis plays teacher Nona Alberts at Adams, who has a son who seems a little slow developmentally and is having trouble in school. Nona takes some convincing, but Jamie eventually wins her over in a quest to officially remake the school, which will require filling out a million forms, meeting dozens of bureaucrats, and finally winning over a majority of the school board.

Complicating matters, of course, is the TAP union (Teachers Association of Pennsylvania), which opposes any changes to the system that may jeopardize the job security and seniority and predictability of teachers.

You can guess who wins.

Some Positives
The film has some things in its favor. First off, from a film perspective (which I do know something about), the acting is very good, and the narrative effectively conveys the frustration of the parents, the complications within the system, and most of the multitude of hands in the bag who have a stake in educational outcomes.

I say ‘most,’ because it leaves out the one represented by Michelle Rhee, who, not so subtly, has an advertisement airing before the movie begins. I’m not sure if this happens in every theater in the nation that shows the movie, but she certainly endorses the film, believing it shows the plight our nation’s schools are supposedly facing. Rhee and the other meddlers in education have their own interests, not the least of which include charter schools, standardized testing every month, merit pay, and a general ideology of blame teachers first, ask questions later.

Second, the film presents a reasonably balanced set of perspectives. Now, it’s clear which one is the “right” one, but they do at least give a fair shake to the complications teachers know too well. One teacher, a Teach For America (TFA) grad who sings to his students and is the cool, good-looking, compassionate teacher, says at one point, “I teach, that’s not nothing,” in response to Jaime berating him for being uncertain about joining her cause.

While it’s certainly a deliberate ploy to make the most endearing teacher a TFA alum, he does make a number of good points throughout the film. He is aware of the complications affecting instruction, such as failing communities, poverty, and broken families. In fact, somewhat ironically, the children of both Nona and Jaime come from broken homes. 

But the film loses some credibility when most of these very legitimate complications kind of just fade into the sunshine that comes out whenever Jaime and Nona hold a rally.

Jamie says, “When I drink, I marry losers.” Thus, she’s now a single parent who lets her daughter zone out on DVDs and television, who has the awareness to know the effects poverty has on education, and yet who believes the school is responsible for doing all the educating. She gets up too late, rushes her daughter to school, and is generally pretty irresponsible.

Now, no one’s perfect, but it’s sure interesting that someone like this is the one telling a school that it isn’t functioning right, and that she knows how to do it better.

To the film’s credit again, she does get a lot of resistance, even from Nona. She and the other (presumably good) teachers from Adams also want job security, and they understand the complexity of running a school. Most new schools fail, they say at one point, in part because a school is a difficult institution to maintain. This complexity is completely lost on Jamie.

And again, this is where the film loses it.

Unanswered Questions
They never answer these questions. What does Jamie know about running a school? What does she know about quality teaching? What is this new school going to do that the old school wasn’t doing?

There’s a frantic scene where Nona races through the staff lounge passing out copies of her proposal for the new school. She quickly mentions a number of their ideas, but it’s so fast you can barely catch them all.

But, somewhere in there she clearly mentions “standardized testing.” I thought this particularly ironic, because Nona’s primary selling point to the other teachers on the new school is that finally, they will be able to teach the way they’ve always wanted to. One teacher responds, “Who’s saying we’re not?” Another good question that never gets answered.

But the irony of the testing comment is that, under the shackles of programs such as No Child Left Behind, schools, districts, and states are weighed down with burdensome testing requirements which are the very antithesis of teaching “the way we’ve always wanted to.” Teachers who work in districts and states with onerous testing programs are forced to adjust their curriculums and how they use their time to meet the requirements of these tests.

We have to spend time getting our kids used to the goofy formatting, the kinds of questions the tests ask, and yes, even some of the content. Now, in my experience, the content is less of an issue. It’s the way questions are structured, and the disconnect between the test and the course it is supposed to be assessing, that produces most of the bad scores.

I have detailed this elsewhere on the blog, but at my high school, our state math test passing rates routinely hovered in the thirty percent range, for years. Then, when they altered the test to a new format, our scores doubled in a single year. Then last year, they went even higher, so that about 75% of our students passed the Algebra and Geometry End of Course exams.

Likewise, when the general science test was altered to an End of Course Biology test, our passing rates went from 38% to 51%, in a single year.

These kinds of changes are basically unexplainable by any other variable. Our teaching strategies did not change that significantly in a single year. Our student population demographics did not shift much. The same teachers were here through all these years. Yet our scores are skyrocketing.  Why? The only significant change was the format of the tests.

The point is, these tests have been a burden. They have forced us to waste valuable class time preparing kids for the goofy formats and question types like they don’t encounter in a regular class, and even when we tried to adapt our courses to fit them, it still failed to make much difference. Only when the tests themselves changed did huge gains occur.

Excessive testing is extraordinarily burdensome, and prevents teachers from fully implementing their instructional expertise. It robs us of some of our freedom to teach “the way we’ve always wanted.”

The film, though, never really gets into what will be better in the new school. The only clear point is that the teachers will have no job security. And as far as we can tell, the only reason this seems necessary is because of one terrible teacher who can’t be fired, and a vindictive principal who cares only about meeting district requirements and preserving his position.

Union Restrictions?
One other issue raised is that teachers aren’t able to be at school past 3pm. This was very confusing. Teachers are never forced to leave the building where I teach. Most of us come before our required time, and also stay after our paid time expires. We are paid from 7:30 to 3:00, but I am routinely at school before 7, and usually stay until close to 4.

It is almost impossible to imagine that in Pittsburgh, security roams through the school at 2:59 and forces teachers and students to leave, and that this is done in service of the union.  Now, if their union contract does say that, then I agree this is absurd. A person should be able to stay as long as they want, provided the building is still open.

The TFA teacher makes another good point about unions. He tells a story about his favorite teacher in high school who was accused of teaching objectionable reading material, and was put on leave. The union defended him, and he got to keep his job.

This is the other side of things. Imagine having a principal, kind of like the one in this movie. This man tells his staff to falsify their attendance data. Nona, early in the film, resigns herself to how pathetic this is, and goes along with it. Presumably, the principal does this because he wants his school attendance data to look good so he can keep his job.

But, later in the film, he fires Nona for falsifying her attendance! And, when she protests that it was him who asked her to do it, he says, with bureaucratic sternness, that falsifying attendance is a crime, and I would never ask my staff to do something like that.

He lies. And uses his own illegal tactics to get her fired. A union can fight this sort of thing. 

Now, there are issues with unions. The incompetent teacher Jamie’s daughter is stuck with should be fired. This is obvious. But the solution to that is not to revamp the entire school!

A Practical Approach
The solution is much, much simpler. Improve the evaluation system. If you want to remove bad teachers, make the evaluation process more than the paper-pushing joke that it is right now in many places.

In Seattle, and soon in the entire state of Washington, they are moving to a multi-tiered approach, which is a vast improvement on the simplistic and pointless satisfactory/unsatisfactory system we had previously.  A better system should make it more clear what good teaching looks like, and who is doing it.

Interestingly, our system doesn’t say anything about singing to your students.

And this is the other primary complaint I have about the film. The only times we see “good” teaching, it’s either a teacher singing songs and playing his guitar while students sing with him, or it’s a teacher (Nona) giving an impassioned presentation about a reading assignment she gave her students (and that ALL of them did as homework...right). 

Catch what I just said? According to the movie, “good” teaching is a teacher performance. A “good” school, briefly shown to us as a ritzy private school Jaime gets lured to, has brand new computers filling its classrooms.

So, if we just had computers in all our classrooms, and super-inspiring teachers who know how to put on a great show, education would improve.

Nowhere here is any mention made, even in passing, of the most vital piece of it all–student work. Students have to do the work. Period. Exclamation point!

You can sing to your students till your voice blows out, and play your guitar until the strings all snap. But if your students never sit down, think, practice, try, fail, succeed, converse, challenge themselves, and produce something that demonstrates they have learned, then you have not taught them.

So, the film gives passing reference to some really crazy ideas (geometry for third graders?), and gives no mention of how the new school will solve most of the old problems (such as better handling of the bullying Jamie’s daughter and Nona’s son both experience because of their academic struggles).

And in spite of some of its attempts to provide clear reasoning for some of the different perspectives in education, the bias of the filmmakers can’t help but be ignored.

Their opening shot–the one that defines the rest of the film–says it all.

Jaime’s daughter stands up, alone, trying to read a sentence on the board. The other kids are giggling and laughing at her. The lousy teacher sits at her desk playing with her cell phone and shopping the internet, and gets annoyed, telling her to try it again. Some of the kids play with various gaming devices. No learning is happening.

And Jamie’s daughter says, finally, “I can’t.”

The filmmakers clearly believe the problem with education is teachers like her. They’re the ones ruining it all. Yet, even in the film, there’s little evidence any other teachers are this bad. And I know from personal experience that few of them are, at least in my building.

Are there any this bad? Well, yes. Probably one or two out of a hundred. Maybe.

And because of one out of a hundred rotten oranges, you want to burn down the entire orchard? Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply find a better way to identify, correct, and if necessary, remove the rotten ones, and leave the rest of the orchard in place?

Let’s see what happens if we remove the 3-5% of teachers who might be unqualified for the job. Let’s see what happens with this small change first. What if that makes a big difference?

It’s better to use a scalpel than a sledgehammer.

Oh, and let’s not delude ourselves that standardized testing and computers in the classroom will fix any of this.

I do encourage you to go see the movie, because it’s much more honest that the idealistic fantasies of films like Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds.  And it doesn’t play God with facts and distort reality like Waiting for Superman, though it does feature a brief lottery scene, no doubt familiar to viewers who were subjected to that film’s emotional and factual manipulations.

Won’t Back Down isn’t perfect, but as education-themed films go, it’s a step in the right direction.

What we need next is one where the villains aren’t the inflexible teachers, but the meddling PeWKoB forcing their untested, unprofessional, delusional ideologies on schools across the country.


Unknown said...

I just got done watching the movie and I actually did not see any of the teachers as villains except for the one you are talking about. I also agree with 99% of what you said in your review except for the fact that throughout the movie the idea of the kids doing their own thinking and doing the actual work is mentioned several times. It doesn't hurt that the movie was also filmed in Pittsburgh and that's where I live. It is a good movie and if you are interested in education and the bureaucracy that always seems to come along with changing anything, you should see this movie.

Seattle Teacher said...

Hi Alice and thanks for the comment.

It is rare to find a movie or show about education that feels authentic, and again I think this movie got it better than most.

If you can handle the more gritty aspects of The Wire, the 4th season of that show was incredibly insightful into education problems in inner city schools, and showed why even the best teachers can only be marginally effective in high needs classrooms. The Wire is exaggerated in some ways, but on the other hand, I've had students like all 4 of the ones featured in that season.