Movie on 'reforming' schools distorts reality


(Note: This article appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune, Sept. 23, 2012.)

The movie "Won't Back Down," soon to be released in theaters, is a fictional account of parents seeking to transform a school in Pittsburgh. The movie producers proclaim the movie is "inspired by actual events." The movie could not be further from the truth and I am compelled to set the record straight.

The lead actress, Maggie Gyllenhaal, says that the movie is "not ultra-realistic in style or even in terms of the story that it tells."

"Won't Back Down" is based on a process referred to as the "parent trigger," which purports to empower parents by allowing them to take control of a school. Who wouldn't support such an idea? But before jumping on this bandwagon, it is wise to dig deeper into the actual events and facts surrounding parent-trigger laws.

So far, parent trigger has a 100 percent failure rate, has pitted parents against parents and has torn school communities apart where it has been tried. The first parent-trigger attempt took place in Compton, Calif., in 2010 and is the supposed basis for this movie.

Contrary to the movie portrayal of a parent-led group which later contacts an outside organizer for support, Compton was entirely organized by outside operators. According to Caroline Grannan, a founding member of Parents Across America, "Parent Revolution, the billionaire-funded California operation that created the parent-trigger law, looked around for a school to target, chose Compton's McKinley Elementary, and pre-selected a charter school operator to take it over."

Grannan goes on to say, "Paid Parent Revolution employees went door-to-door in Compton with petitions. This was the first time parents had heard of this takeover. Hundreds turned out to a school board meeting to oppose the charter takeover." Parents protested that they had been misled into signing the petition and they did not want their school to become a charter, she said. The charter operator ended up opening a school near McKinley rather than taking it over. The majority of parents kept their children at McKinley, with a small percentage transferring to the new charter.

Struggling schools are not acceptable. We should be working to make our public schools better for all students, but parent trigger is not a real solution. What works? Here's what research tells us:

First, parents are the first teachers of their children. Genuine parental engagement can advance a child's ability to achieve academic and social success and diminish behavioral problems.

Second, education excellence is everyone's responsibility. Schools are like ecosystems — all of their many parts support one another and are critical to success. A longitudinal study by the University of Chicago identified five essential, inter-related elements of school transformation: leadership, professional capacity, academic content/instructional guidance, student-centered learning climate and parent-school-community ties.

As for "Won't Back Down," Julie Woestehoff, co-founder and executive director of Chicago's Parents United for Responsible Education, put it this way, "We believe that corporate school reformers are once again turning to Hollywood to sell a version of school reform that many parents reject, as they did with 'Waiting for Superman' and its biased attack on public school teachers."

We must stop looking for silver bullets — they do not exist. Reorganizing a school does not magically lead to improved results. We must build a greater sense of inclusion and social trust among members of the community, administrators, teachers, parents and students.


Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh is president of the Utah Education Association and the 2009 Utah Teacher of the Year.


Inspiring movie in many ways

Date Posted: 9/30/2012 6:59:36 PM
Name: Addie

Mr. Kirchner, a lot of those textbooks are overpriced. Some are $400. (like the infamous $400 hammer in the military). Maybe we could try to get the board of edu to look into other avenues for textbooks, we could save a lot of money and could afford up to date textbooks. I saw the movie Friday night. Most of the teachers in the struggling school were actually portrayed as heroic. Viola Davis played the main teacher, who had been a teacher of the year, with whom the parent, Maggie Gyllenhaal, partnered with to improve the school. It wasn't solely a parent-driven movement. It was concerned parents and teachers working hand in hand to put the needs of the students first. It may be naive, but I found it inspiring in many ways. The main character was a poor, divorced mom who had dyslexia (spoiler) and no college, but had a positive attitude and hope that wouldn't give up and she accomplished her goal of improving the situation for her daughter and other children in the neighborhood. Just think what I could accomplish if I put my heart into something. Just think what kind of parent and teacher I can be. The movie is not anti-teacher by any means. It may be anti-teachers' union, though. The union was portrayed in the movie as protecting their interests of power in the community and of protecting underperforming teachers. Sorry to say that there may be some truth to that, unfortunately. Though we know that the UEA does so many positive things. But the release of this movie is a timely coincidence with the recent teachers' strike in Chicago. 400,000 students were left without schools for that time. And parents struggled to make sure their children were safe during the day while they had to work. Before the strike, the teachers got, I think, a 16% raise and other good things, but still went on strike, I think over teacher evaluations, or something like that. They didn't want to be evaluated. Please correct me if I'm wrong. Critics around the country voiced that it was obvious that the teachers union in Chicago, at least, was not putting students first. In the movie, many teachers who had been weary, were energized as they were reminded why they got into teaching in the first place--for the kids.

I wish Nadine Wimmer had read your article...

Date Posted: 9/24/2012 2:49:35 PM
Name: Jennifer Baker

Her "report" last night on the news about "Won't Back Down" was so distorted that I had to change the channel. She's usually a fair reporter, but this was ridiculous. I think we need to contact ALL the media, both print and broadcast, in this state to correct these impressions. Excellent article!

Change ain't easy or always necessary

Date Posted: 9/24/2012 1:15:45 PM
Name: Richard Kirschner

I remember a high school teacher telling us that if something wasn't "broke, it oughtn't be fixed." The education system in this country is under tremendous pressure to measure up globally, to perform miracles with students who themselves do not see the system or teachers as broken. It is important to remember that in this country, unlike the rest of teh world, we educate everyone who walks through our doors. That means everyone regardless of color, country of origin, or language and citizenship status. All are welcome in our classrooms. If anything is broken it is the system that tells us to do more with an increasingly smaller share of the pie. Teachers are told to take larger classroom sizes because they can. They are told to make do with older textbooks, because they will. Teachers are told to spend more of their own money on their classrooms because they are paid too much. The business powers that be have recognised the untapped treasure that is education and they are clamoring to get in on the pie. It is sad when we as a society are willing to throw our chidren under the bus because we could make a profit. When will we learn that this most precious of resources should not be sacrificed on the altar of the almighty dollar? In the end it is about all of us stadning up to the capital interests and saying, "I'm mad as hell and I won't take it any more!"


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