Is education reform the civil rights issue of today? That’s the question being asked more frequently and it’s getting louder as parents, teachers and concerned citizens aren’t willing to sit back in resignation and accept that our nation’s public school system is collectively failing.
The new movie “Won’t Back Down” begins with a heart-breaking scene of a young, dyslexic student forced to read aloud in front of her peers. Her teacher is disengaged and the class is chaotic while still managing to be cruel to her.
Viola Davis co-stars as a burned out second-grade teacher and Maggie Gyllenhall is a mother on a mission, who takes action upon learning there is a legal process for parents who want to take over their kids’ failing schools.
It is the behemoth of bureaucracy that is the enemy in the film — so much red tape is what keeps many concerned citizens quiet about their neighborhood schools. The movie serves as a reminder that we can all take action.
“Won’t Back Down” tackles many of the same themes as the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman.” Families competing for limited spots at the rare, decent schools in their neighborhoods are commonplace. Underfunding and teachers’ unions are underscored too.
Teachers’ unions are often pointed to as the chief culprits when discussing school system reform, with ineffective, tenured teachers standing smugly safeguarded behind them. But who are these teachers? Isn’t teaching a calling? Those of us who have done it, or are doing it, certainly aren’t called to the profession for the money. So what’s going on?
Davis’ character symbolizes the formerly idealistic teachers who have been beaten down by low expectations, low parental involvement and lack of support. Nona’s husband mentions that at first she (Viola Davis’ character) purposely chose a school that needed her most. Meanwhile Gyllenhall is her foil, an idealistic firecracker, reigniting Davis’ passion by reminding her why she was first called to teach.
“Won’t Back Down” makes me think about all schools, not only those in inner cities, and the challenges they face. The film makes it seem like only schools in tough urban areas have problems — that the panacea is to enroll one’s child in a suburban, “good” school. The recent cheating scandal at the elite Stuyvesant school in New York City highlights another set of problems — not low expectations, but expectations set so impossibly high students crack under the pressure. Stellar grades are not something to earn, but to grab at any cost. And often even these students with opportunities to learn handed to them on a silver platter don’t want to be asked to think deeply or critically. They want a box to check to move ever closer to the college of their choice.
Just like any of us, all schools have their own unique set of problems. I invite teens to be a part of this conversation. I encourage them to watch “Won’t Back Down” (which is PG-rated) with their parents and then join in to help answer: How do we help all schools succeed?
Julie Samrick is the mother of four young children and a resident of El Dorado Hills. She is also the founder of KidFocused.com, a site devoted to current children’s issues.