“Taking back the schools” is a growing battle cry in America and it has now attracted the attention of Hollywood. In late September 2012, the feature film Won’t Back Down will hit North American movie theatres and stir further school reform activity. The much anticipated movie, featuring frustrated parents seeking to transform a “failing school” in Pittsburgh, PA, is a Norma Rae for the 21st century. Produced by Walden Media, as a powerful sequel to Waiting for Superman (2010), the new drama film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a concerned parent and Academy Award nominee Viola Davis as a teacher working together to marshall community support for a petition to restructure and turn around a low performing school.
The film is already attracting widespread public attention and considerable critical fire from inside the school system. A Hollywood epic issuing a call to “Stand Up. Speak Out. Fight for Something Better” is sure to spark more “take back the schools” eruptions and might even fire-up parent activists with the film’s promotional cry of “Let’s Make our Schools Better!” That’s heady stuff for passionate American school reformers, but will it resonate with Canadian parents harbouring similar concerns about their own local schools and wondering who actually drives and controls the publicly-funded school system?
Educational happiness is difficult to gauge and rarely measured in an objective fashion. Annual parent satisfaction surveys conducted by Dr. David Livingston at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education have become something of a joke inside and outside the Ontario public education world. That is why the recent Ipsos Reid poll, released September 6, 2012, was so stunning for parents and educators. An overwhelming majority of Canadians (86%) now express concern about public elementary school children’s performance in Reading, Writing and Mathematics. Furthermore, three-quarters of those surveyed (75%) agree that “standardized testing” is “a good way” to measure and compare students’ performance against other provinces and countries.
Public concern about the state of K-12 public education, judging from the Epsos Reid survey, have rarely been higher. Since the mid-1990s, provincial testing and accountability programs have dampened down parental concerns and sent out signals that Education Ministries and school boards were capable of listening and appropriating the language of “improving student learning.” In major school boards like the Halifax Regional School Board, the public mantra has been “Every Child can Learn and Every School Can Improve.” It has, however, mostly been top-down, system-wide accountability meant to raise “the water levels” for all schools within a provincial or regional system.
School choice and charter schools are demonstrating to American parents and families that schooling can be better and far more responsive to the needs of students and the real concerns of today’s parents. While the American education system is in an absolute mess, public charters and independent “start-ups” are meeting a growing demand for quality education, particularly in poorer communities. Over the past few years, parent trigger laws have popped-up in states and school districts and opened the door to some radical strategies for fixing struggling schools. Parent-trigger laws—now in California and three other states—are even getting their “red carpet moment” at recent film showings of Won’t Back Down at both the Republican and Democratic conventions.
The CEO of Anschutz Film Group, David Weil, finds the irrational responses of Randi Weingarten to be completely over-the-top. He told Education Week that the film story is not tied to “any one law or event,” and that the film depicts a number of parents and teacherscollaborating in making changes to a school, not doing battle. Several key characters, he said, “are teachers and are central heroes to the story.”
“We believe that teachers are the unsung heroes of our society and they represent our hope for the future as a nation,” Weil said. “When audiences screen the film in its entirety, they’ll find that the film tells the story of a school where the majority of the teachers are engaged and working to find solutions to the challenges they face in the system.” Weil cautioned against judging “Won’t Back Down” by its trailer. “Would you judge a book by its cover?” he said. While the preview “depicts some of the storylines and issues that are featured in the film,” he said, it is not meant to “summarize the plot.”
How happy are Canadian parents with their provincial school systems and local public schools? Was the recent Ipsos Reid poll an accurate reflection of deep concerns over the teaching of Reading, Writing, and Math in public elementary schools? Will the American film Won’t Back Down get a fair hearing in Canada or be dismissed in a fashion similar to that of the powerful documentary film Waiting for Superman?