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Why 'Won't Back Down' Just Doesn't Stack Up

A former teacher takes on the untruths at the heart of this anti-union film.
 
 
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A passion for teaching and a hunger for educational change are what drove me into the classroom a few years ago. That’s also how I ended up exhausted a few autumns later, when I dragged myself home to my apartment around 8:30 at night, slunk down into the nearest chair, reached for my laptop and Googled “downshifting + career.”

It was my second year as a classroom teacher in a so-called "failing" school, and I was feeling overwhelmed and depleted after yet another 12-hour day where I didn’t actually feel finished with my work. There were still projects to be graded, reading groups to be sorted, lessons to be planned, parents to be called... the list went on. Yet the first article I clicked on after my desperate Googling listed teaching as one of the top “family friendly” careers – because, it claimed, “you work the same hours as your kids!”

I wanted to scream. (In fact, I think I might have.)

I recalled this episode recently after watching the film Won’t Back Down, Hollywood’s engaging but controversial take on the latest corporate education policy trend, the Parent Trigger. The “day’s-done-at-3” myth it cultivates is just one tiny reason the movie has already proven almost as divisive and polarizing as the educational policy it promotes. That divisiveness does a disservice both to the issue and the communities that will be affected by it. Students and schools cannot succeed if the adults in the community don’t work together to make a high-quality public education for all kids a reality. And while Won’t Back Downpurportedly supports such a goal, the stereotypes it promotes-- and the agenda it hides-- could threaten that effort if people don’t understand the reality beneath the Hollywood gloss.

“Who are these people?”

As a former union teacher and present union staff member, what struck me most profoundly while watching Won’t Back Down was the stark disconnect between the way people and schools were characterized in the film and the way they are in the real world. That isn’t surprising given that it’s a Hollywood film, but it is harmful -- precisely because these kinds of stereotypes often fuel destructive and unnecessary divisions and tensions among parents, teachers and students in real life. Those divisions often stop people from working together to find effective, win-win solutions to problems that affect all of us.

In my work, I’ve spent time with hundreds of teachers, mostly in high-poverty schools that get low test scores. From teaching and preparing to teach for hours on end, to providing food, care and inspiration for hurting kids, these are dedicated, hard-working people who routinely go well above and beyond in their work. (A popular joke among teachers hinges on the notion that the hours in your contract aren’t the hours you’ll actually work, but the hours for which the district will begrudgingly pay you. It’s well understood by all that it is literally impossible to get everything done in that time period.)

I personally remember lots of overstuffed rolling tote bags (an especially popular option among teachers who needed to bring work home after school ended) and reusable coffee mugs (popular among us newbies who often worked such long hours we barely saw daylight during the fall and winter months) in the school I worked in. Likewise, the school day itself was often a whirr, with teachers bouncing around among 25, 30 or more students at a time during lessons; moving in and out of meetings, planning and professional development sessions; and making calls and handling other daily logistics during “free” periods.

Yet in the movie, it is repeatedly asserted that the union contract prevents exactly this kind of work from taking place. (I suppose all those graded papers, lesson plans, letters of recommendation and after-school activities just happen by magic?) In this school, the contract and the union that backs it are blamed for teachers not helping kids and refusing to work after school. And except for the two teachers closest to the desperate mother played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, these teachers don’t appear to do all that much during the school day, either. The dour, bitter teachers on display during the first two-thirds of this movie looked very little like the committed, passionate teachers I know-- though I suppose it’s easy for a screenwriter to misread teachers’ bouts of fatigue or frustration as bitterness if they don’t understand where that frustration comes from. Managing 30 or so people at once requires a constant stream of attention and thousands of split-second decisions every day. Add to that inadequate resources and escalating demands, and formerly bright smiles will indeed begin to dim.

And while it’s true that almost every group featured in the movie-- parents who ignore petition requests, skeptical teachers, school board members, administrators, even the broad category of people who identify as “public school advocates”-- gets their moment to look unduly awful and uncaring, union leaders are clearly held up as uber-villains, from the fake anti-kid quotes they speak to the comic-book-style lair that is their office headquarters (which, if you ask me, could have been lifted right out of Gotham City). This portrayal completely ignores the care with which union leaders, too, approach their work -- on behalf of not just their members, but the cause of public education more generally. It’s especially ironic to see such a characterization now, when there are more examples than ever of union leaders and members going beyond their regular work (creating safe and effective teaching and learning environments) to initiate groundbreaking collaborative initiatives that benefit students and communities.

So what’s really going on here?

In real life, there has yet to be a completed instance of parents pulling the Parent Trigger, a law that allows 51% of parents at a low-scoring school to vote to impose more or less the same turnaround options the government currently imposes on schools under No Child Left Behind. Despite being hailed as yet another silver bullet to fix ailing schools, these options -- which include closure, restart (turning a school over to a private operator), and turnaround (where the principal and at least half the staff are fired) -- have largely failed to benefit the schools in question. Because the problems these schools face owe more to severe underfunding, failed policies like NCLB, and the injurious poverty many kids experience outside of school than anything that’s going on within the building, shutting down or charter-izing the schools simply can’t fix what’s wrong.

Nevertheless, certain policies embedded within NCLB remain very attractive to the corporate interest groups that stand to profit as all schools are forced to increase the high-stakes testing required to rank and sort schools, others that profit as low-ranked schools are turned over to education management firms (EMOs), and to ideologues who believe that privately run schools are inherently better than public ones. Perhaps recognizing that these conversion policies will have more credibility if they’re requested by parents rather than government bureaucrats, for-profit education companies have funded and backed astroturf groups to manufacture local support for trigger petition drives in states like California. Meanwhile, parents in Parent Trigger sites like Adelanto, CA have reported feeling deceived throughout the process, and local school officials are still trying to sort through the legal and practical problems the trigger petition has caused. 

Yet despite the turmoil caused in local communities, these special interest groups have set their sights nationwide. And many of the same interests who have funded and backed the Parent Trigger in general are also backing this movie. Philip Anschutz, an oil billionaire turned media mogul known for supporting radical right-wing causes and union-busting, owns the company responsible for the film, Walden Media. He has also contributed to ALEC, the now-notorious corporate legislation mill, which pushes the Parent Trigger bill, among many other profit-driven education policies, in state legislatures across the country. (As a black woman, I find it especially troubling to see the same organization responsible for the Stand Your Ground laws that delayed justice for Trayvon Martin, pushing a "trigger" that is being aimed primarily at schools in poor black and brown communities. Likewise, it’s disturbing to see groups like Michelle Rhee’s “StudentsFirst” marketing the efforts of people who actively promote voter suppression as “empowerment”-- in the very communities where that suppression is occurring.)

Notwithstanding its shady provenance, and the many things it gets wrong about how teachers and unions work, I actually see this film as an opportunity -- as long as the general public knows the truth about who’s behind this movie, and avoids the trap of using its untruths to wage war against each other. As someone who recognizes the value of inspiring people to act on behalf of public schools, and who shares the film’s sense of urgency embodied in the mothers fighting for a better school for their kids, I want as many people as possible to think about how to improve schools for all children. But we can’t let misleading portrayals divide the very people who will be responsible for carrying out that improvement-- the united teachers, parents, students and communities in public schools-- or deceive them into seeking easy solutions to challenging problems.

It will be easy for those who are less familiar with education policy issues to passively accept the movie’s messages, and for those who know more to angrily rail against them—as we’ve already started to see in the online conversation around the picture. But that conflict only serves the corporate interest groups who benefit when regular people are too distracted by each other to effectively resist their agenda and pursue our shared interests. Instead, I hope we’ll take this moment to engage each other in a real conversation about uniting, not just fighting, for public schools.

Sabrina Stevens is a teacher-turned-education advocate and writer living in Washington, DC. She recently joined the American Federation of Teachers to lead its Voices from the Classroom project.