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Commentary: 'Won't Back Down' won't be real about school reform

By Helen Gym on Sep 25, 2012 01:16 PM

In this scene from the movie "Won't Back Down," a rally pits "Public School Advocates" against the "Got School Choice?" takeover proponents.

Helen GymLast 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.

For more background on parent trigger laws, read Parents Across America’s FAQ: What Parents Need to Know about Won’t Back Down and the Parent Trigger.



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Comments (17)

Submitted by Julie Woestehoff (not verified) on September 25, 2012 4:32 pm

Helen, this is an excellent, thoughtful piece that raises some of the same questions and concerns I had seeing the movie. The "choice" corporate reformers offer is between the status quo and blowing up a school. People in schools know that there is a better way - collaboration with adequate resources and real accountability.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on September 26, 2012 3:36 pm

When you say real accountability, what do you mean?

Submitted by Helen Gym on September 28, 2012 10:00 am

That's a great question. For me accountability has to be about identifying factors that matter as inputs into a child's learning. A major mistake of ed reformers (in my opinion) is that they focus on accountability based on crude outcomes, which are an amalgamation of inputs. I want accountability for inputs - these are things within our control. For example, accountability in high school might mean whether teachers are trained in their content areas in high schools (I met an art teacher subbing as a reading support specialist once - NOT a quality input, something we can control and something an administrator should be held accountable for), peer mentoring when teachers struggle in a classroom, opportunity to learn standards, a diverse assessment system so we're able to identify learning problems/gaps before we get to final outcomes, interventions/supports for struggling students, etc. As of now we can't even agree upon traditionally understood, researched factors that go into a child's learning process - arts/ music?Pshaw! Equitable adequate funding? Says who! Librarians, nurses, mentors - bleeding heart liberals! Quality rich curriculum vs. standardized scripted pablum? Who's got the time! Experienced teaching force - union hack!

We do need a conversation around REAL accountability for inputs within our control. Instead we get a bunch of people freaking out over blunt instruments like test scores and saying what's wrong? who's at fault?

I am deeply concerned about outcomes. I care about the number of children who graduate not only with "21st century work-ready" skills, but also with the type of compassion, critical thinking skills and community investment that gets them tackling tough issues whatever job position they hold. But I really do think there's a need to shift to a framework for understanding and measuring accountability that's radically different from the reformer rhetoric today.




Submitted by lagibby (not verified) on September 28, 2012 7:15 pm

Hear, hear Helen! "Accountability" has become a code word for standardized tests, and the reliance on them has done immeasurable damage to our schools. The qualities of a good school that you mention cannot be measured by standardized tests, and that's the point. Such tests do not measure what is important in schools.

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2012 7:19 pm

Wonderful piece!

Just a question though... can someone clarify what ""dawn of debra" zombie teachers"" is referring to?


Submitted by Helen Gym on September 25, 2012 9:00 pm

Sorry! That was a reference the movie made to a fictional teacher at the school named Debra. Viola Davis called her "Dawn of the Debra" to describe how awful she was. In retrospect, while I've had some pretty disappointing teachers,I have never met a Dawn of the Debra type who talked all day on the phone AND made second graders wet their pants on purpose AND lock them into a closet AND fail to diagnose them for learning supports AND humiliate them in class AND humiliate the parent. So perhaps it was a bit of hyperbole to allude to her since her character was so over the top.

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 26, 2012 10:35 am

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 26, 2012 1:01 pm

To discredit a move that is produced and directed to entertain and get an audience, is dis ingenuousness on its attempt & on its merits. The movie espouse would take 4 hours! Rather than articulating the reality that public school "factory formula" of the 1930's must be replaced not reformed . The perfect example was "Waiting for Superman". It explain the malaise of Unionized Teacher and drop out factories for decades. This Documentary was well received but had zero audience. I saw 4 times at the theater. Each time I invited a school activist to join me. Each time I and the invitee and one older person (probably empty-nester) we in the audience. The film Director Davis Guggenheim, had just made Al Gore a Nobel peace prize winner with 'Inconvenience Truth"; global warning movie the year before. Yet Hollywood would not even consider W.for.Superman for an Oscar nomination. Does this not explain the indifference of society on the left that has the control over the public education narrative? It prefers "reform" rhetoric instead "replace" narrative. The Result: Mediocrity is the norm in our society and in the workplace without accountability in Family or work. High Divorce rate High Drop out rate Unemployment rate. Face it America is obsessed with equality and fairness in unfair world and unequal human race.A society were our youth has been embedded in their minds a notion that 'the deck is stacked against you"to succeed. Here is something ponder to validate my assertions on Macro scale . Consider the "Katrina Miracle"in Louisiana after the Hurricane. In the bayou 46% of public school were "F" schools before the storm hit. After 90+ plus school were leveled by the storm, the La. legislature used a educational taxing district fund established a year earlier to empower the Charter School community. Then it got its chance in an emergency it was empowered to rebuild all the damaged schools. It was the embodiment of cooperation of private and public sector using different formulas and Charter school administration platforms.The results were deafening to your argument you and your supporters have posted here. In less than 6 six years the 46% failure was reduced to 26%.Right next door, same storm same failure rate but the old narratives of left integrating race segregation as the motive behind charter ( your attempt ) only resulted in one charter school in Mississippi in the six years after the storm hit. Imagine if Charter becomes the norm, and schools appear on every corner in communities and the Democratic Party finally becomes the minority Party on the educational front? Change we can relieve in!!

Submitted by Ken Derstine on September 26, 2012 1:36 pm

"The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman" at

Submitted by Helen Gym on September 26, 2012 1:28 pm

Your partisan rhetoric aside, it's worth noting that you're posting on a Philadelphia blog where 25% of our children are in charters and where 2/3 of those charters perform no better or worse than the average District school. Charters - we saw that. did that. I would also remind you that we had NOLA's superintendent Paul Vallas before you did. So we actually know just a little bit about our experience with that leadership model.

Having seen the tragedy of beautiful New Orleans, I would never put a disaster like Katrina as an adjective to the word "miracle." That may be your viewpoint. I hope you didn't lose family, property and loved ones. New Orleans has had complicated results, not simple solutions - not the least of which has been the dramatic population loss. Census data shows that there are 44% less children in NOLA than pre-Katrina (

I am sure there are lessons to be learned, but simple cheerleading and telling us how dumb and Democratic we are doesn't help anyone understand tales of caution as well as tales of progress from our respective school experiences.

Submitted by GetItTogether (not verified) on September 26, 2012 5:18 pm

Wonderful response! I'm glad you're here for our public school children, Helen. We need more supportive parents like you. In addition, you're just plain smart. :-)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 27, 2012 7:32 am

Who are you and where did you get this crazy information about New Orleans from? Are you aware that the definition of a failing school was changed so that the state could steal the vast majority of our public schools. The state then ran them into the ground for the express purpose of chartering the schools. The parents and community had no voice in this takeover. The definition of a failing school was then changed back which makes it look like they improved schools. They did not to the degree of only 26% failing as you indicate. The data is simply incorrect. The state is not reporting all of the data on all of the schools to arrive at the number you quote. What educational taxing district fund do you speak of? Give me the bill, act or revised statue of such legislation. As a member of the New Orleans community, very active in public education, I can tell you that the "community" was not empowered. Charter schools were forced on us, plain and simple.

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on September 26, 2012 4:24 pm

For my take on parent trigger, how to actually empower parents, and some thoughts from Notebook commentators, you can view my last blog here

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 27, 2012 3:47 pm

Additional information on this topic:
“…the one most likely to be passed over in the debate surrounding “Won’t Back Down” (reviewed, and not kindly, by Salon’s own Andrew O’Hehir), is that Walden Media is itself an educational content company with a commercial interest in expanding private-sector access to American K-12 education, or what Rupert Murdoch, Walden’s distribution partner on “Won’t Back Down,” lip-lickingly calls “a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.”
THURSDAY, SEP 27, 2012 07:52 AM EDT

Submitted by Lisaw (not verified) on September 30, 2012 12:36 pm

Thank you for your intelligence, passion, and dedication to our Philadelphia Public School District. I recently attended the school district's town hall meeting at Enon Church. I haven't seen Waiting for Superman, and I will not see this movie, I am too busy teaching in Philadelphia. I and my colleagues get to work early and stay late every day. Frequently we work through lunch working with our students. I also am busy working a second job to support my sons through college, and this second job also provides me the ability to buy school supplies and cleaning supplies I need for my curriculum and to clean my room. I wonder where that movie is? In our school the teachers work with our principal and vice principal, I sat next to my vice principal at Enon. I value the parent's thoughts and opinions concerning their children as do my colleagues and administrators. Where is that movie? The day to day grind of working, studying, and stressing success in our school is not dramatic but it is accurate.

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