Won’t Back Down won’t be real about school reform

Thinking about seeing a movie this weekend?  Take our advice and avoid Won’t Back Down. Below, Helen Gym, a Rethinking Schools editorial associate and parent activist in Philadelphia, shares why.  Her commentary was first published at The Philadelphia Public School Notebook

Won’t Back Down won’t be real about school reform

by Helen Gym

Last week I attended a local screening of Won’t Back Down, the latest flick from the producers behind the controversial documentary Waiting for Superman.

The film stars Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal as two moms of special-needs children, one also a teacher, trapped inside their failing public schools while battling an evil union leadership. They decide to take advantage of a state law called the FailSafe (known as the “parent trigger” in most states) in order to take over their public school, close it down, and re-open it under their personal and private management.

The film has its tender moments, particularly between Viola Davis and her bullied son. A scene where Maggie Gyllenhaal stares into the soulless eyes of her daughter’s do-nothing teacher induced shudders of similar experiences.

At the end of the day though, Won’t Back Down is a Hollywood fantasy, complete with the requisite soap opera melodrama, a cheesy love interest sidebar, and an all-star cast. The union hack caricatures and Gyllenhaal’s eager beaver mom role were particularly grating, if not outright insulting.

But let’s face it. Movie producers Philip Anschutz and Rupert Murdoch didn’t bankroll Won’t Back Down to win Academy Awards. They’ve entered it as a yet another piece in the contentious education reform debate using as their premise the idea of “parent empowerment” and “parent choice.” And on that level, there is some serious substance to reflect upon.

One of the ideas promoted by the movie is that failing public schools deserve to be closed down or “blown up” in some way. In place of that public institution, so says the movie, is the belief that motivated individuals should run these schools as they see fit. After all, anything must be better than this, right?

I’ve faced jaw-dropping school environments and leadership. I understand the knee-jerk frustration and the grasping at quick solutions. But what strikes me most is not the easy idea of “blowing things up.” Rather it’s how those who propose these measures are so thin on how to put it all back together in a truly transformational way.

Won’t Back Down takes excruciating pains to emphasize how terrible the public school is and how it has failed children. It’s interesting that the movie focuses on students with special needs, who are rarely served in non-public settings. When the actors explain the school of their dreams, they speak in simplified platitudes almost meaningless in their generality: “I just want a place where I can teach.” “I just want a school that works for my kid.

But there’s almost no explanation about what kind of place or school that is, how it operates and functions, how heart and love — which all of us share for our children — translates into meaningful classroom and community practices. The movie never explains how the new school transforms into a great one that serves these children. Yes, the takeover school has a new paint job. Butterfly mobiles hang in the hallways, and there’s a brief scene about how the curriculum will now include Shakespeare.

But were more resources brought in? Many of the original teachers stayed. Did the professional development suddenly improve? Did they get trained in special-needs teaching? How did a dyslexic child, neglected if not effectively abused at the school, suddenly learn to read? Is there even a mission to the school? None of that is explored.

The second point to consider is the contentiousness of the new education reform efforts today. The FailSafe law in Won’t Back Down seems to glorify division. Parents are pitted against one another. Teachers are pitted against the principal. And the teachers’ union is pitted against all humankind. One of the most telling scenes of the movie is a climactic rally where one side has signs stating: PUBLIC SCHOOL ADVOCATES. The other side has signs that say: GOT SCHOOL CHOICE?

I’d like to think that even if you supported school choice options that you could also be a public school advocate and think about public systems responsibly. Instead we get heroes vs. villains and a my-way-or-the-highway approach to ed reform. On the heels of a seven-day Chicago teachers’ strike, we should be reminded that we need a reform movement that brings all of us to the table in a communal and collective effort to build our schools.

Finally, I had some serious issues around the race dynamics of the movie. I was troubled that the school in Won’t Back Down was portrayed as majority White because it masks the frequent focus of parent trigger legislation. Nationwide, parent triggers target schools with predominantly poor children of color: Black, Latino, and immigrant.

The fact that Maggie Gyllenhaal saunters into the school in her very first year and decides to take it over for herself, while scolding parents of color who seem to have given up hope, also bothered me. In one scene, she talks to an Asian father and references rat tails in restaurant food to explain the significance of the school’s failure – bizarre to say the least.

In fact the only parent choice or empowerment presented in the movie is having low-income parents sign over their permission to empower Maggie Gyllenhaal. There’s no indication that other parents were engaged with designing the vision for the future school.

In Philadelphia in particular, the idea of two individuals closing down a public school in order to run it themselves is more likely to raise eyebrows than to elicit cheers. We’ve seen far too many charter school scandals, corruption investigations, and failed independent efforts to feign naivete that all you need is a good heart and some roll-up-your-sleeves attitude

I am no apologist for failing schools. I’ve seen South Philadelphia High School at one of its worst stages and worked for the past four years to see it evolve into something far greater. I’ve lived with horrible principals, “Dawn of the Debra” zombie teachers, and seen countless children, sometimes my own, written off. There’s no excuse for that. Ever.

There’s a real need in our schools for parent empowerment that’s meaningful and lasting. We don’t need fictional movie heroes to bring that point home. I see real-life Maggie Gyllenhaals and Viola Davises partnering in our schools everyday.

We are real people on the ground, in our schools and communities, working to create real models of transformative education practice that inspire great teaching and learning. We need help to make that happen, not derision and division. We want change that’s sustainable and makes a real difference in the lives of our children, in their classrooms, with their teachers, and within a system that works for all students. We don’t just want a “parent choice.” We want a real parent voice.

And that’s the difference between Hollywood and the true reality of our schools.

Related Resources

Trigger Laws: Does Signing a Petition Give Parents a Voice?  by David Bacon, Rethinking Schools Magazine, Fall 2011.

Parents Across America Toolkit for Won’t Back Down

Missing the Target? The Parent Trigger as a Strategy for Parental Engagement and School Reform, National Education Policy Center

Broad Foundation Wants to Step on the Gas

The Broad Foundation wants to step on the gas….A recent memo from The Broad Center (TBC) proposes a series of strategic shifts in the foundation’s education programs designed to “accelerate” the pace of “disruptive” and “transformational” change in big city school districts, and create a “go to group” of “the most promising [Broad] Academy graduates, and other education leaders, who are poised to advance the highest-leverage education reform policies on the national landscape.”

Broad Foundation’s plan to expand influence in school reform

by Ken Libby & Stan Karp
Re-posted from The Washington Post Answer Sheet

The Broad Foundation wants to step on the gas.

The California-based foundation, built on the housing and insurance empire of billionaire Eli Broad, has made “transforming K-12 urban public education” a major priority. Its training and placement of top administrators in urban districts across the country and support for charter schools, school turnaroundsmerit pay and other market-based reforms have put it at the center of a polarized national debate about education policy.

A recent memo from The Broad Center (TBC) proposes a series of strategic shifts in the foundation’s education programs designed to “accelerate” the pace of “disruptive” and “transformational” change in big city school districts, and create a “go to group” of “the most promising [Broad] Academy graduates, and other education leaders, who are poised to advance the highest-leverage education reform policies on the national landscape.”

The plans were contained in a March memo for discussion at TBC’s Board of Director’s meeting in April 2012. It was included in documents released to New Jersey’s Education Law Center under the state’s Open Public Records Act. ELC was seeking information on a series of recent Broad Foundation grants to New Jersey’s Department of Education, which is led by Commissioner Chris Cerf, a Broad Academy graduate.

According to the memo, the proposed changes include:

  • Merging The Broad Fellowship for Educational Leaders and The Broad Superintendents Academy. The new academy (dubbed “Academy 2” in the memo) will be called The Broad Leadership Academy to reflect the wider range of positions graduates will seek to fill.
  • Creating a new advocacy group comprised of a “powerful group of the most transformational and proven leaders” who will work to “change the national landscape to make it easier for superintendents to define policy agendas, influence public opinion, coalesce political forces, and advance bold reforms on the ground.

An email from TBC to Cerf describes the proposals as “high level strategies for the Center in 2012-2013 that reflect a significant shift away from a focus on individual leadership development and career paths to an approach that seeks to have greater impact through a stronger focus on transformational leaders, driving people to reform-ready locations, and accelerating reforms across [TBC’s] network.”

Broad Leadership — “Academy 2.0”

The new Leadership Academy will seek to deepen the pool of potential candidates, pulling in more participants from outside the field of education and reducing “the experience level required for entering [the] training program.” The Academy’s revised program of study will aim to prepare leaders for positions beyond the superintendency of districts to include leaders of charter management organizations and state education departments.

Reducing the experience level required for entry into the program is designed to attract candidates with “more entrepreneurial backgrounds” and those who may be further away from assuming district leadership positions. The memo says the shift would allow the program to train future leaders of “systems that may not even exist today.”

In addition to drawing from a larger pool, the memo proposes significant changes to the training program. In the past, roughly two-thirds of Broad Academy training was dedicated to “core knowledge” (e.g. “instruction 101” and “school operations”). The remaining third was divided into “reform priorities” (including “educator effectiveness,” “innovative learning models,” “accountability,” and “school choice”); “reform accelerators” (“change management,” “political navigation/stakeholder management,” “public contributions,” and “communication”); and “systems-level management” (“providing strategic frameworks,” “theory of action,” “applied learning projects”).

The proposed plan greatly reduces the time spent on “core knowledge” of school systems to less than 10% and instead puts much more emphasis on “reform priorities” (40%), “reform accelerators” (30%), and systems-level management (nearly 20%). The shift toward strategies that produce greater political and policy impact is a recurring theme. It is also consistent with Broad’s “approach to investing” as described on its website: “We practice ‘venture philanthropy.’And we expect a return on our investment.”

Additionally, the new program will seek out potential candidates more aligned with TBC’s reform priorities rather than simply candidates looking to improve school districts. Future members of the Academy will be required “to make public contributions tied to their work, with a particular emphasis on [TBC’s] reform agenda.”

The combination of seeking more candidates from outside the field of education and increasing the policy and political focus of the Academy’s curriculum likely means future graduates would be even less familiar with school and classroom realities, and more ideologically aligned with Broad’s priorities.

Post-Superintendency Advocacy Group — “Broad Superstars”

The other major change for TBC is the creation of “a select, invitation-only group that will collaborate to address some of the most pressing challenges facing the education sector, help shape policy agendas, influence public opinion, coalesce political forces, and advance bold reform on the ground.” Comprised of 5-10 active leaders, the group would meet twice a year in Washington, D.C. to “help create a more supportive environment and change the national landscape.” The advocacy group appears to be a high-powered version of “Chiefs for Change,” a collection of state education chiefs pushing for significant changes to state education systems.

Why the changes? — “Take this program to the next level”

The proposed shifts reflect the changing education landscape, which is much different now than it was in the early 2000’s when TBC first began training future district superintendents. While superintendents remain important actors, they are hardly the only CEO-level positions in education. The growth of charter management organizations, a more active role for state departments of education (greatly enhanced by the Race to the Top and NCLB waiver process), and a variety of new non-profit and for-profit companies involved in various aspects of public education have opened up more high-profile (and high-paying) positions in the field. TBC wants their graduates occupying these positions, and establishing a human capital pipeline to fill these positions strengthens and expands Broad’s influence.

Likewise, the creation of “a go-to group for reform leaders” is a sign of the growing emphasis on politicized education advocacy. As Broad looks to make more dramatic changes to K-12 schools, this advocacy becomes an important tool for promoting TBC’s core policies and priorities to a wider audience. School choice, test-based teacher evaluation, charter expansion and business-style management “all favorite policies of TBC and the Broad Foundation”already have robust, phenomenally well-funded advocates at the state and national level and have made dramatic political gains over the past decade. The creation of an organized national voice for the Broad “superstars” of corporate school reform is an effort to consolidate and accelerate these gains.

As the memo boasts, “We have filled more superintendent positions than any other national training program, and remain the only organization recruiting management talent from outside of education. We have over 30 sitting superintendents in large urban systems, as well as state superintendents in four of the most reform-oriented states (Delaware, Rhode Island, Louisiana, and New Jersey). Broad graduates are in the number one or number two seats in the three largest districts in the country (New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago), and lead the newest turnaround systems in Michigan and Tennessee.”

With TBC’s influence already spread far and wide, the Broad Foundation is looking for more.

Ken Libby is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Stan Karp is a Rethinking Schools editor and  director of the Secondary Reform Project for New Jersey’s Education Law Center.

Related Resources: