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

Former Stand activists speak out on ballot initiative

Rethinking Schools supporter and education activist Alain Jehlen is involved in an organized effort to halt the corporate-driven reform agenda of Stand for Children.  Here’s the latest from Alain, including a call to action.

by Alain Jehlen

In the fall 2011 issue of Rethinking Schools, Ken Libby and Adam Sanchez described how Stand for Children abandoned its grassroots and started promoting the corporate, anti-union agenda of the Gates and Walton Family foundations at the same time that the foundations began pouring millions of dollars into Stand’s coffers.

My sidebar article on Massachusetts told the stories of local leaders who quit the organization in disgust when Stand pushed aside their priorities to get with the new national program.

But these activists didn’t go away. Now, many of them are fighting against Stand’s latest Massachusetts effort, a ballot initiative that would restrict collective bargaining and have the effect of handing more power to school administrators. At last count, 55 former Stand activists had signed an open letter blasting Stand for doing the corporations’ dirty work.

“The proposed ballot measure . . . does nothing to improve teaching in our schools,” they wrote. “What it does is put the careers of our teachers at the mercy of an untested rating system, violating the recommendations of the people who designed that system.

“We fear the result would be to drive some of our best teachers away from the schools that need them most.

“This ballot measure fits the ideology of its corporate sponsors, but it is not what we want for those who teach our children. Most of all, it is not what we want for our children.”

Among the biggest contributors to Stand for Children in Massachusetts are principals in Bain Capital, the private equity company co-founded by Mitt Romney.

Read the letter—and sign on if you’re a former Stand member.

Ballot Question in Boston Would Silence Teachers

As Rethinking Schools’ representative to the National Network of Teacher Activist Groups, I hear a lot of news about exciting organizing (and outrageous attacks on education). Recently, TAG Boston told us that Stand for Children has zeroed in on Massachusetts. That reminded me that last fall, Rethinking Schools published an investigative piece, “For or Against Children? The Problematic History of Stand for Children,” in which authors Ken Libby and Adam Sanchez described how Stand began as a parent-led organization with a progressive agenda, but has become a highly funded weapon in the attacks on teachers and teachers’ unions. I thought our blog readers would be interested in this update by Teacher Activist Group-Boston.

–Jody Sokolower, Policy and Production Editor


Stand for Children is at it again, this time in the state of Massachusetts. The self-proclaimed “independent social justice organization” has been organizing to curtail the rights of teacher unions across the country.

In Massachusetts, their recent and extremely complex ballot initiative, “Great Teachers Great Schools,” is focused on stripping due process rights, silencing the voices of child advocates, and forcing yet-to-be-tested evaluation rules onto school districts. The ballot initiative doesn’t mention children once and it’s quite possible that it will divide parents and teachers instead of bringing them together.

Why would any organization want to do this? After taking a closer look at who is on Stand For Children’s (SFC) advisory board these apparent contradictions make a little more sense.

In Massachusetts, the current board of advisors is composed of members who have more experience with running a business than a classroom. Members include the Managing Director at Spectrum Equity, a private equity firm, and a Vice President of Client Services at KGA who formerly worked for Fidelity Investments. Nationally SFC has received millions of dollars from The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the wealthy owners of Wal-Mart. They have been using their money and influence to lobby legislators all over America and convince them that cheaper, younger, unprotected teachers are good for corporations and good for our children.

Massachusetts is no different. SFC has already started using their cash and clout to collect more than 100,000 signatures in a matter of months. They believe our teachers need to be evaluated aggressively. SFC believes more expensive, veteran teachers who are historically the leaders of our schools shouldn’t be valued for their experience.

TAKING A STAND Members of the Boston Teacher Activist Group, who teach in public schools in and around Boston. The educators warn that a ballot question being pushed by Stand for Children would have a chilling effect on the ability of teachers to advocate for their students.

No teacher would disagree that there’s a need to better our current evaluation system in order to improve teacher quality. In fact, Massachusetts is already implementing a rigorous new teacher evaluation program that has been supported by AFT Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Why then do voters need to weigh-in on implementing another system before the new one is rolled out?

Good question. It appears that the bill is really about weakening unions and local control. If passed, there is little motivation for school districts and unions to agree on issues of evaluation or possibly, in the future, agree on anything at all. School districts can ask the state to make all final, binding decisions. The result is an attack on unions that undermines collective bargaining, which in turn is an attack on teachers and the young people that teachers care about most.

What’s worse is that even if the initiative does pass, it is hard to see how it can improve our public schools. As Mary Ann Stewart, president of the Massachusetts Parent Teacher Association, explained: “This is a huge distraction from what teachers and parents believe is most needed to help students succeed. We need small class sizes, excellent preschools, support services for at-risk students, and high quality professional development for teachers. Instead, this ballot question gives us more top-down mandates and red tape.” In addition, both associations of Massachusetts principals and the Secretary of Education Paul Reville are opposed to the initiative.

Lastly, and most importantly, this initiative silences the voices of teachers and makes it harder for them to advocate for their students. It weakens protections for teachers and will leave many of them too scared to speak out against the injustices their students face. Without protection, teachers may be afraid to stand up for an English language learner or a special education student who isn’t receiving the supports they deserve. Instead of standing for children, teachers will be forced to stand for silence, regardless of where the children fall.