Making the Grades
Every year our local school districts publish a ranking of all the elementary and secondary educational institutions in the region. At the top every year are the same two or three privately funded facilities where parents pay big tuition fees to have their children educated. That’s great if you can boast that your children attend one of those academies. But I’ve always wondered how the parents feel whose children’s schools fall at the very bottom of the list—especially since this comparison between have and have not facilities is hardly fair.
Now I think I know.
Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) lives in the wrong part of town, where poverty, a lack of opportunities and the weight of daily life hangs heavy on her slender shoulders. Still, the single mother knows enough to realize her dyslexic, third-grader daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) can’t read—and that isn’t likely to change in a classroom where an uninspiring and disengaged teacher sits at her desk texting or shopping online while her students stagnate at their desks.
Unable to afford another option, Jamie advocates, without success, for her daughter to be moved to a different classroom. Then she stumbles upon a little known law that allows parents to demand changes in their school. Needing a combination of parental and teacher support on the petition, she approaches Nona Alberta (Viola Davis), a teacher who realizes she too has succumbed to accepting mediocrity and failure in her students.
Of course a disgruntled mom and dissatisfied teacher waltzing into the school district’s headquarters with complaints against the system aren’t going to be warmly welcomed. And neither are these two. In fact, as Jamie and Nona go house to house soliciting parental support for their proposal, the teachers’ union issues its own press releases containing all the negative and fear mongering information they can compose.
To be fair, Won’t Back Down paints union leaders, teachers and even some parents with a broad brush that is never fair or completely accurate to the individual. However, many of us have been at enough parent teacher conferences to know that while there are scores of truly gifted and inspiring educators out there, there are also those that have no business being in a classroom. And sometimes the union is to blame for that.
Produced in part by Walden Media who also released the 2010 documentary Waiting for “Superman”, the film is based loosely on several parent groups who used the parent trigger law in the state of California to make improvements in their failing schools. While the movie neglects to address other issues that hamper education, such as hunger, poverty, the lack of parental involvement, discipline issues, crime, and the distraction of media, the reality remains that nothing changes until we are willing to acknowledge a problem exists.
Won’t Back Down might feel heavy-handed at times but it is also inspiring to see parents get off the sidelines. In one scene, a school administrator urges parents to leave the education of their children in the hands of the professionals. That advice is very dependant upon professionals that haven’t forgotten why they are there.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Won’t Back Down.
Should parents be forced to enter lotteries in order to give their children a better education? Despite the “leave no child behind” policies, are some segments of the nation’s youth being warehoused instead of really educated? Can disparities between have and have not schools be corrected? If so, how? What, besides funding, contributes to a good school?
In this film, two women decide to take over their school. In a less adversarial or extreme scenario, how can parents work with teachers and administrators to improve their schools? How can schools work better with parents?
What factors that affect education are not addressed in this film? How can receiving a good education be hampered by poverty, hunger, lack of parental involvement or education, media use such as television and video games, deficient discipline or support at home, and disrespect for teachers?