"Won’t Back Down" — Seriously?

You’ve probably heard about “Won’t Back Down,” the film where the mom and the disillusioned teacher take on a failing school and turn it around. And who’s the villain in this film? The teachers’ union, of course. I haven’t seen the movie. I’ve read enough about it that I know I won’t go see it, especially since it comes from Walden Media, the same company — backed by the Koch Brothers — who put out the other anti-public school propaganda film “Waiting for Superman.” I did see that one. Here’s a good review of “Won’t Back Down”: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-wont-back-down-review-20120928,0,2053199.story.

I just spent the weekend with a close friend who has been a teacher for 33 years. She’s currently the head of the International Baccalaureate program at a school of 2300 kids (70% of whom are on free lunch, i.e. live in poverty) in Wichita, Kansas. She teaches some IB classes (just finished writing 88 college recommendation letters) and some regular classes. We talked about how she can’t sleep many nights because she lies awake worrying about how to reach some of her students. She never gives up on them — she keeps pushing, trying different things, challenging them. Some have parents who don’t care. Some have parents who can’t care. Some are first generation Americans. Most have the myriad problems that poverty brings — they’re hungry, often sick, move a lot, have sporatic electricity, no computers or books, etc. They’re the kids that “choice” and “privatization” and “competition” can’t help. She knows the problems that public schools face. And the answers that policy-makers have been coming up with in Kansas and Oklahoma are not real solutions. Vouchers, more charter schools and now, partly because of this film, we’ll probably see a rash of “parent trigger” laws. Vouchers and charter schools, under the auspices of “choice” and “competition” don’t solve the larger issues. Can every child go to a charter school? Will private schools invite all children to enroll? How will families without transportation get their children to a school across town? And what about for-profit businesses who get into the business of education using our tax dollars? They’ll be looking after the bottom line — and the bottom line won’t be the kids; it will be profit. Charter schools might help a handful of kids, and that’s great, but they aren’t the total solution.

My friend isn’t afraid of accountability or reform, but most school reform is meaningless and unhelpful. More standardized testing isn’t helping her students achieve. More teacher reforms that take her out of the classroom for day-long workshops on behavior modification don’t help her students achieve. Getting rid of teachers’ unions won’t achieve meaningful reform. Ask a few good teachers what would help them in their schools, and you’ll get some answers on what meaningful reform is. One area that my friend has noticed since No Child Left Behind and the push for more and more standardized tests is a room full of disengaged, zombie-like high school students. Reading has become standardized test reading. Remember those tests? You’re required to read a portion of some innane passage, out of context, and then answer dumb questions about it. So, you might be reading about mixing cake batter. What’s wrong with that, you might ask. Well, reading used to be reading literature at appropriate levels, understanding our culture and other cultures through novels, plays and poetry. Reading biographies of historical figures instills a sense of patriotism and pride in those larger-than-life people from our past. Reading primary source materials such as the Constitution and the Federalist Papers help young people understand our country. Reading used to take students to other places and times. No time for that now. Reading is a passage here and a passage there so that a kid can score well on a test. No time for critical thinking!

Teachers aren’t afraid of standardized tests. They can be part of a larger picture of a child and a child’s progress. But when did they become the be all and end all? And I still haven’t heard a good explanation of how teachers can be evaluated or rewarded based on students’ test scores. Many public schools have a very fluid student population. Schools with low attrition could follow a kid from the beginning of the year to the end. But what about those schools where a teacher might have two-thirds of a class turn over — move in and out — over the course of a year? If the class the teacher started with is not the one he or she ends with, how do you measure the growth of those kids? It could become a nightmare to calculate.

Back to “Won’t Back Down.” One of our Oklahoma State Senators, Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, wants to introduce a Parent Trigger bill, where a parent with a child in a low-performing school  could take over the school by getting the signatures of 51% of the parents of that school. Then what? Does Maggie Gyllenhaal playing a blue-collar worker, step in and save the day? I can just see the aftermath of that. The parent comes in and says, “Hey, all you teachers are fired! We’re in control now!”  So, who decides what will be taught? Maybe one parent feels that algebra for 2nd graders is important. Another wants everything high tech. Another wants the kids to have a farm and learn to cook. Another wants the kids to read only Shakespeare. Is this really the way to deal with low-performing schools? Who teaches in these schools once the teachers have been thrown out? Are the parents going to quit their jobs and take over? It’s a nice fantasy for a film, but I’d like to know how it would actually work.

I’m not against school reform or accountability. But can’t we be serious? Are there bad teachers? Yes. But there are also many, many good ones. What about treating teachers as professionals? What about getting special services in schools that need them? Smaller classes. Better trained teachers. More counselors. More social services where kids need them. And, if the Legislature wants to impose “reforms” on schools, then the Legislature should also fund them. Unfunded mandates only set up schools for failure.

I saw a piece on the news recently about a school in West Virginia that was providing not only breakfast and lunch, but dinner for the kids. Students would stay after school and get extra help with schoolwork as well. As a result, the kids were doing better in school. That’s real reform — looking at a real problem and answering it in a real way. Of course, there was the interview with one concerned woman who wondered what would happen to family dinner hour. Uh, that’s the point, lady, there WAS no family dinner. Too often, that’s the problem — we can’t imagine that there are children in our own city who are not only computer-less, but hungry, homeless and barely making it day-to-day, so our “solutions” are based on what we want to believe, not what really exists.

If you want to hear what Oklahoma candidates for office have to say about public education, there’s a forum sponsored by the Parent Legislative Action Committee (PLAC) and 49th is Not OK at Will Rogers High School on Tues., Oct. 9 from 6-8 p.m. Candidates will speak and you’ll have a chance to ask questions as well.

Categories: Editor’s Blog