Saturday, September 29, 2012

"Won't Back Down": To reform underperforming public schools, you need to win converts, not arguments

I went to see “Won’t Back Down”, the next “high stakes” drama about an inner city (Pittsburgh) school late last night, after another engagement “failed”, and with vivid memories of my own history as a substitute teacher a few years ago.  The film, directed by Daniel Bartz and written with Brin Hill, plays heavily on audience rooting interest in what is legally and politically a complicated problem to address:  the idea that teachers’ unions protect ineffective teachers who then don’t try hard enough in low income schools.  I’m not sure that this always plays out.  Michelle Rhee, Washington DC’s controversial school counselor, was able to shake things up within the union framework.  Teachers’ unions in large cities have always been politically powerful.  In New York City, the teachers’ union (under Shanker) helped save the City from its financial crisis in 1975 (the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” incident), but the same union has supported “rubber rooms” that waste taxpayer money on failed classroom careerists.  (For more on Rhee, see "Waiting for Superman", in which she appears, reviewed Oct. 1, 2010). 

The film, from 20th Century Fox, was produced by Walden Media, known for family-related dramas.  
Maggie Gyllenhaal is overbearing as the mom Jamie who will lead a charge to help her dyslexic little girl (Emily Alyn Lind) have a chance to become president (or a surgeon) some day.  Her interpersonal technique is to win converts, not just arguments.  She knocks on doors and barges in on people – exactly the kind of activity that normally repels me.  Quickly, she recruits fifth grade English teacher Nona (Viola Davis), who quickly decides, for the sake of her own son who had become somewhat disabled in a tragic childhood accident, to join leading the charge to restructure Adams school, in a way that non-performing teachers will no longer have job security.

There’s an interesting subplot involving a private school, and its administrator (Holly Hunter), who tells Jamie that most school board administrators send their own kids to private schools.  Shouldn’t Jamie do the same thing because that would be best for her own daughter?  They’ll even get her daughter a “scholarship” if she’ll just back down on her threats to the teachers’ union.

This sequence raises a question about the balance between individual self-interest and eusocial altruism.  Is putting her own child first the “altruistic” thing to do, in the best interest of family?  Or is taking a bigger risk so that other people’s children will have a better chance part of the moral assessment of possible sacrifice that should occur?  Jamie, after all, is “just” a parent, struggling to keep her job as used car salesman (within site of the Pirates’ ballpark).  She isn’t a teacher herself.  She should be.

There’s a male math teacher (Oscar Isaac), who loves to teach and entertain his kids with his ukulele, whose lines reveal the quandary for “real teachers”.  “I’m not anti-union” he says.

The retiring school board chief (Dante Brown) is quite feisty and takes charge of the final board meeting to bring the film to an “end”.

There are some supporting scenes about sports, in this case, ice hockey (the Pittsburgn Penguins) and only incidentally, baseball.  

Walden’s site for the film is here

I saw this in a renovated auditorium at the AMC Courthouse in Arlington, only five other people in the audience for the 10 PM show. 

This is a good place to mention another film, in early 2007, "Freedom Writers", starring Hilary Swank as the creative English teacher in a low income LA school, from Paramount and director Richard LaGravenese.

Pictures: Mine, from a 2007 trip.  Pittsburgh is the "Denver of the East". 

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