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Engagement, Equity, Promising Practices

Reel Reform: Documentaries Spur Debate About Educational Reform

There’s a rather uncomplicated story that we’ve been telling ourselves for decades now, a story that draws a fairly straight line between success in school and success in life. One thread of this story centers specifically on students and has consistently assured them that most any barrier to school success can be overcome by hard work and dedication. Poor performance in school, the story goes, can usually be attributed to laziness, lack of motivation or simply not caring enough. It’s a story that was told to me by my own parents, and by my grandparents. It is a story that was repeated by my teachers throughout my elementary and secondary years, and it’s a story that is still part of the many back-to-school rituals each autumn. On September 8, 2009, U.S. President Barak Obama told the story again to all American youth in his publicly broadcast speech to a group of students at the Mann Elementary School in Boone, Kentucky. His message was clear and familiar: success will come from hard work, setting goals, and taking responsibility for your own learning.

At the same time, Hollywood has been very good at inspiring us with a parallel thread in our inherited school story, this one with a focus on teachers. It tells us that a passionate and dedicated teacher can make a huge difference in the lives of students, especially those who are struggling to get on the right track. Films as seemingly different as To Sir With Love, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dead Poet’s Society, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver and The Freedom Writer’s Diary all share a basic and well-known story line: a newly minted, and as yet unaffected, teacher is placed in a challenging and seemingly undesirable context, usually with a group of students who lack the motivation, energy, insight, or socio-economic means to achieve success in school. The teacher-hero slowly recognizes this and, after an initial refusal of the call to act, jumps in, faces a series of personal and institutional demons but, in the end, successfully transforms a once-barren and uninspiring classroom space into a virtual educational oasis, full of confident, enthusiastic, critically-thinking kids ready to – you guessed it – work hard, set goals, and take responsibility for their own lives. A classic hero’s journey narrative, this thread continues to inspire and motivate existing educators, and even draw new ones to pursue a career in the field.

We’ve been pretty comfortable with these rather simple, uncluttered storylines. They are familiar to us and have gone relatively unchallenged in the larger public narrative for nearly 50 years—unchallenged, that is, until recently. Some film critics have dubbed 2010 as the year of the documentary and, in particular, the year of the educational documentary. Three new American offerings including Waiting for Superman, The Lottery, Race to Nowhere and one British entry, We are the People We’ve Been Waiting For, have attempted to push their way into the school reform debates by pulling at the threads of our existing school narrative.

And there is good reason to believe that their efforts couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. The films have been introduced in a year when the American public, in particular, has been struggling to come to terms with a socio-political context shaped by major economic recession, increased foreign competition for both jobs and market share, poor student performance on national and international assessments, as well as the stubborn and confounding problem of the gap in school success that still exists between the poor and the wealthy. All of this has created a perfect storm, pushing Americans to look for answers, search for scapegoats, and demand quick and effective solutions. In its own way, each of these documentaries seeks to disturb the rather entrenched and stubborn thinking that exists around public schools, by claiming that our educational institutions are suffering from a malaise that is preventing them from adequately preparing students for life in a 21st century society, let alone a 21st century economy. For each of these films, there is a clear source of the problem and a relatively simple solution.

Although Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman was the last of the four films to hit theatres, it certainly carried with it the most advance publicity, media coverage, and blogospheric buzz. In fact, in the two weeks prior to its general release, Superman premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, inspired a full week of special education coverage from a major American television network, and was promoted on not just one, but two episodes of Oprah. A combination of savvy marketing and the credibility banked by An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim’s earlier work, guaranteed that Waiting for Superman  would catch the attention of an American public at the start of a new school year. In doing so, it managed to carry the other educational documentaries along in its wake.

Now that several months have passed since the release of the documentaries, and now that the media hype and furor has subsided somewhat, it may be time to take a more objective look at the narrative threads.

Now that several months have passed since the release of the documentaries, and now that the media hype and furor has subsided somewhat, it may be time to take a more objective look at the narrative threads that these films sought to weave into our story of school and the degree to which they were successful in doing so.

In a sense, Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman and Madeline Sackler’s The Lottery set out to tell the same story. Both films follow the lives of several American children and their families as they attempt to escape a dysfunctional and broken public school system. It is a system that spends more on its students than most other countries, yet falls far behind when it comes to basic proficiencies in math, science, and literacy. It is a system that is divided along socio-economic lines, to the point where zip code and school zone can really determine the quality of education that a child receives. And it is a system that, in many ways, stands in the way of improvement by allowing unions to protect the jobs of underperforming teachers. In both films, there is an underlying sense that most public schools, especially those caught in “Inner City, U.S.A.”, are beyond repair and beyond salvation. In this story thread, it’s not the lack of effort that children are putting in that accounts for poor performance; instead, it’s the lack of effort being put in by the adults at all levels of the system that is the real smoking gun!

Both films tell the story of a school system that has become so overburdened with poor quality teaching, bureaucratic mismanagement, and lack of ability to deal with the inequitable access to quality education caused by a wide gap between rich and poor that the only hope for many students is to somehow opt out and pursue an alternative form of schooling. Enter the charter school option – schools that operate with public money, but stand outside of many of the rules and regulations that impede traditional public schools from offering quality education. The charter schools featured in both films are able to craft rigorous curriculum designed to lead to college acceptance, set high expectations for all students, and extend the number of hours that both teachers and students spend in school each day and each week. For many charter schools, an implicit guarantee of success attracts many who feel disadvantaged by their local public schools. 

Although Waiting for Superman and The Lottery support their storylines with a collage of talking heads and sobering statistics, the real power of both films lies in the compelling connection that the audience makes with the families around which the narratives turn. For the most part, the parents and children followed throughout both documentaries are placing all of their hope for a quality education in winning a lottery that will determine who will be admitted to a successful charter school. This becomes the question on which the both films ultimately rest their case, “Should a quality education be left to the luck of the draw?”

While the stories told in Superman and The Lottery focus mainly on a economically and culturally disadvantaged sector of the population, Vicki Abeles’ Race to Nowhere shines a light on school life in middle class America. This is a world characterized by private education, well-resourced public schools, and financially successful families. At first glance, in fact, one would question whether there was a story here at all.

But, as Abeles looks deeper into the lives of students and their families, she reveals a world where the race towards higher levels of achievement is really having an opposite and rather ironic effect. In an effort to increase test scores, graduation rates, and college admission numbers, students are being subjected to tremendous amounts of undue and unnecessary pressure. Instead of demanding schools that nurture a passion for learning and a curiosity about the world, we are accepting schools that foster the belief that education – and, indeed, childhood – is all about developing a robust resume, inscribed with high academic standing, a full slate of extracurricular activities, and little evidence of failure.

In Race To Nowhere, the pressure under which students operate doesn’t stop when the bell rings at the end of the day. Instead, as Abeles illustrates, the pressure that young people are facing inside the schoolhouse is a reflection of the same pressure to be great in the rest of their lives. The student voices that are heard throughout the film reflect on the need to be beautiful, athletic, and socially active. Abeles does not have to go beyond the boundaries of her own family to find evidence for this. In one rather poignant statement, her own daughter, who was diagnosed with a stress-related disease when she was in Grade 8, muses, “I can’t remember the last time I had a chance to go in the backyard and just run around.”

The larger storyline told in Race To Nowhere represents a type of counter-narrative to Superman and The Lottery. It hearkens back to our original thread about hard work and dedication resulting in school success but, for Abeles, the plea is for society to carefully examine the criteria with which we judge success. In Abeles’ view students are being forced to be their own superheroes in a world that judges them more on the symptoms of success then on what lies beneath the surface. In Abeles’ story, this is not a school problem but a social problem, and it needs to be addressed as such.

The British film, We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For, goes one step further than Race to Nowhere by challenging the ideological roots of modern schooling. Arguing that we are labouring under a model of education designed for a historical period that has long passed, We Are The People also challenges our understandings of success and happiness and calls for a major redesign of our education systems to reflect these values. It questions the deeper purpose of school, claiming that education that fails to ignite a sense of passion, curiosity and interest in the world will not be able to keep up with 21st century demands for a passionate, curious, and interested citizenry. Academic learning, literacy, and numeracy are important, but insufficient on their own to meet the demands of modern society. We Are The People attempts to shift the narrative away from costly efforts to retrofit an old model and calls on us to develop a whole new way of thinking about school and large-scale public education.

Each of these four films has attempted to frame the story we tell about school in a different way. None of the filmmakers has tried to downplay the importance of school. If anything, each serves to revitalize the importance of change in order to make schools even more central to the social fabric. Each film does, however, offer a different perspective on what is most important in that change process.

If there is a common element that runs through all of the films, it would be that it is no longer helpful to talk about students who fail school without also talking about schools that fail students.

If there is a common element that runs through all of the films, it would be that it is no longer helpful to talk about students who fail school without also talking about schools that fail students. The main question with which all modern societies need to wrestle becomes how to deal with that sense of institutional failure.

If it truly is a matter of providing better trained, more dedicated teachers who are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that all children have a shot at academic success, then the voices of Guggenheim and Sackler become prophetic and their films provide a legitimate call to action. If, however, it is true that there is a strong need to redefine what success means, both academically and in the context of broader society, then we should heed Abeles’ plea to carefully examine where precisely the race to the top is taking us.. Finally, if we attend to the strongly presented message in We Are The People, then our priorities will shift from trying to reform what may, in fact, be beyond any kind of positive reformation.

Some Canadians will admit to watching the firestorm caused in the U.S. around the release of Waiting for Superman with a touch of voyeuristic envy. To be sure, online interactions over the past several months have been marked by passion and vitriol, rational conversation and visceral response.

At the same time, one wonders whether a similar intensity of discourse would be possible in Canada. By international standards, this country’s education is deemed one of the finest in the world. Even though Canada faces serious challenges when it comes to equity, the gap between rich and poor, and connections between culture, race, and school success, these are not part of the everyday water cooler conversations that Canadians have about school.

There is evidence, however, of opportunities emerging that could help draw attention to the story we are telling our citizens about schools and education in this country. In fact, as the final sentences of this article are being written, it seems that at least two of the main issues from the Waiting for Superman narrative are drifting north across the border. In B.C., a liberal leadership candidate is proposing that his province look at merit pay for teachers. At the same time, the province of Alberta is receiving visitors from abroad interested in borrowing some of Edmonton’s thinking around charter schools.

The story that we tell about school, its role and its place in any modern society, is well-established and firmly rooted in the lives of the citizenry. Waiting for Superman and its companions have helped to animate an American public at a time when complacency and inaction are not real options. They have worked to place education in the “worry pool” of the American people, and the people have responded. The threads involving teacher effectiveness and charter schools that have been introduced by Guggenheim and Sackler appear to have gained the most traction and seem poised to find a home within the larger school narrative. It is unfortunate that the equally important and admittedly more ideological messages of both Race to Nowhere and We Are The People may be overshadowed in the process.

While it remains to be seen whether the conversation in the United States will have any lasting impact on the Canadian discourse, it is clear that our efforts to work for deep educational transformation would be energized greatly by the introduction of some new narrative threads of our own. Lights? Camera? Documentary anyone?

EN BREF – Trois nouveaux documentaires américains – Waiting for Superman, The Lottery, Race to Nowhere – et un film britannique, We are the People We’ve Been Waiting For, ont animé les débats sur la réforme scolaire. Chacun de ces documentaires remet en question les idées reçues en affirmant que nos établissements d’éducation souffrent d’un malaise qui les empêche de préparer adéquatement les élèves au 21e siècle. L’un des éléments communs des quatre films, c’est le message selon lequel il n’est plus utile de parler des élèves qui échouent à l’école sans parler aussi des écoles qui ne sont pas à la hauteur pour les élèves. Ces films ont contribué à secouer le public américain alors même qu’une attitude de laissez-faire et d’inaction ne suffit pas. La situation canadienne diffère grandement de celle des États-Unis. D’après les normes internationales, nous avons l’un des meilleurs systèmes d’éducation du monde. Il reste à voir si le débat américain se répercutera durablement sur celui qui, au Canada, porte sur la transformation en profondeur de l’éducation.

Meet the Expert

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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