Bad Lessons From 'Won't Back Down'
September 26, 2012 | This article appeared in the October 15, 2012 edition of The Nation.
Won’t Back Down is a crude work of art.
Each character in the new film, about Pittsburgh parents and teachers who band together to take over a struggling school, is crafted less as a believable human being than as a talking point. First there are the students of F-rated Adams Elementary, a tapestry of white, black, Latino and Asian children. But racial diversity is not typical of failing schools; of the seven shut down in Pittsburgh this year because of low performance, two are more than 95 percent African-American, and the rest more than two-thirds black.
The idea of a parent takeover is based on laws recently passed in seven states, the most high-profile of which, in California, does not require any teacher buy-in at all—though it does offer the option of schools remaining unionized post-trigger. It could be years before any school fully completes the parent trigger process; the furthest along is Desert Trails Elementary, a predominantly Latino school in Adelanto, California. School choice activists there have been opposed by teachers unions and have received support from Parent Revolution, a nonprofit funded by Walden Media and the Gates and Wasserman foundations.Then there is the seedy union boss who couldn’t care less about children and who has politicians in his pocket; and the best teacher at Adams Elementary, who happens to be a young, white, male Teach for America alum named Michael, who grows more troubled each day by the excesses of organized labor—despite his liberal inclinations. While many Hollywood education melodramas feature a white teacher saving a school of poor children of color (think Dangerous Minds), Won’t Back Down strives for some modicum of political correctness. Here the reform spark is lit by a white, working-class single mom, Jamie Gallagher, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal with almost noxious levels of wide-eyed, girlish spunk. Frustrated by failed efforts to get her dyslexic daughter placed in the classroom of an effective teacher, Jamie convinces a veteran black educator, Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), to join her in enacting a “trigger” takeover of the school—that is, a majority of parents and teachers can sign petitions to oust a school’s management and reconstitute it as a nonunionized charter-type school. In this effort, Jamie and Nona are opposed every step of the way by a cartoonish teachers union, which bribes Jamie to give up her fight by offering her free private school admission for her daughter, and publishes a flier attacking Nona as a bad mother.
Though Won’t Back Down is hackneyed and sentimental, Davis’s restrained emotionalism breathes life into Nona, a middle-class divorcée who had idealistically followed her mother into teaching, only to become burned out after years of battling bureaucracy. I found the character of Jamie much more improbable. Although she works days at a used-car dealership and nights at a bar, she never seems sleep-deprived or sick or worried about health insurance. Jamie always has the energy to grab a stack of petitions and rally parents to her cause with a smile; somehow she also has time to begin a romance with Mr. Teach for America. And though Jamie’s boss is constantly yelling at her for spending more time on activism than on work, she miraculously never gets fired.
Of course, a mother’s love for her child can motivate superhuman feats. Yet there are only so many hours in a day—especially for the working class in a bad economy. That’s why it is highly unlikely that hundreds of low-income schools around the country will suddenly find themselves facing grassroots trigger movements of the kind imagined in Won’t Back Down.
Indeed, like Waiting for “Superman,” the last school reform film financed by Walden Media, which is owned by conservative entrepreneur Phil Anschutz, Won’t Back Down depicts urban poverty in deceptive ways—not only as less exhausting than it really is but also as less deep-seated. When one police officer mom warns the reformers that a school takeover can’t solve the neighborhood’s underlying problems, like gangs and drugs, Nona intones, “You change a school, you change a neighborhood.” This claim is misleading. As an education reporter, I’ve visited many urban schools that are beacons of hope in troubled neighborhoods, but no school can find decent jobs for under- or unemployed parents who can’t put nutritious food on the table; nor can a school make up for the chronic instability of a young life spent in foster care or moving from apartment to apartment in a futile quest for safe, affordable housing. Volumes of research show such experiences affect cognitive development and children’s ability to focus in school; dedicated educators and counselors work wonders with such children each day, but they don’t rescue neighborhoods from poverty.
To respond to such obvious caveats, the screenwriters of Won’t Back Down have larded the film with ham-handed truisms. “I can’t wait to figure it [school reform] out with 10,000 studies about how being poor affects education,” Jamie says at one point. In the film’s denouement, a school board meeting at which the activists’ trigger proposal will either be accepted or rejected, Mr. Teach for America lectures the crowd, “Do any of you remember what we’re doing here? We’re not here for unions and teachers. We’re here for kids.”
That said, there are some moments even a union organizer could love. In the teachers’ break room, Nona acknowledges that although Adams Elementary is officially “failing,” many of the educators on staff have excellent ideas about how to improve their school, from a broader curriculum to community volunteering for students. In a movie like this, the heartwarming ending is preordained, so it’s not giving much away to say that the film spends the vast majority of its two hours diagnosing what’s wrong with failing schools (lazy teachers, their unions and complacent principals) and only about two minutes on the “transformation” of Adams after the dramatic school board vote. In a single gauzy scene, Nona, as the new principal, is leading an assembly with Mr. Teach for America in which students sing about going to college. Lo and behold, Jamie’s daughter can now read.
There would be more drama and more truth, I think, in the story of a school in the process of transforming, like the one Alexander Russo told in his book Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors, about Locke High School in Los Angeles. In 2007 teachers there triggered a takeover by Green Dot charter schools, which are unionized, yet the aftermath was still contentious. Only 40 percent of the Locke educators who supported the transformation were rehired by Green Dot, and although student achievement is rising and Locke’s hallways are orderly, other South LA schools, like Crenshaw, have experienced major improvements without using a trigger, and through greater cooperation with organized labor.
Should parents and teachers have the right to take over schools? In Britain, parents can launch charterlike “free schools,” but even supporters worry that only the most involved and educated parents will go through the arduous process, which could further exacerbate educational inequality. I support many different pathways to school reform, including parent management—as long as it is closely monitored by proven educators, states and cities. Yet I’m not hopeful that this latest school choice trend will take off in any truly systemic way. Most single moms don’t have time for a third job, which is one good reason we must insist on understanding that quality education is not just a choice but a right the state must provide for all children.