On Sept. 28, the film Won't Back Down opens in theatres.
Won't Back Down is the Hollywood tale of a group of California parents and their attempt to reform their children's failing elementary school by actually taking it over and running it themselves. In California, such parent coup d'état are possible through what are called trigger laws. To date, California and six other states have parent trigger laws on the books. There is a really nice summary of the laws here: http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/educ/state-parent-trigger-laws.aspx.
Keep in mind that these laws, however, have yet to produce one successful coup. The real parents in Won't Back Down are still fighting it out in court with their local school board.
I have no plans to see Won't Back Down. I say that mostly because I think trigger laws themselves don't really seem like a very effective means of change. And I’m not going to pretend in this blog that I know what the answers are for chronically failing schools across the country. I don't. All I know is this reality—the end game of any coup is not actually taking over things but rather taking over things and changing things for the better. And change is a long term process—failed schools don't become healthy schools overnight.
(By the way, I also don't plan to see Won't Back Down because I'm not a fan of the Hollywood teacher-school genre. Films such as To Sir, with Love, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds, and Take the Lead—all of which I have seen—are pretty much the same the film. They are films about a single hero fighting "da man" (the "system") which is hostile and indifferent to the education of poor kids of color. And in these films the vast majority of school staff are simply protrayed as the "enemy." This makes for great Hollywood plots, but it simply is not real.)
There are a number of recent books that do a great job of capturing the difficult work of turning failed schools around. And so if you go out to see Won't Back Down and you get all fired up, return home and order up one of the books below, and read about how much work really goes into turning failed schools into successful schools.
- Getting It Done (2011), by Karin Chenoweth. It also is worth reading her 2009 book, How It’s Being Done.
- Whatever It Takes (2008), by Paul Tough. This book actually is about the Harlem Children’s Zone and what is being done to alter an entire neighborhood, but a great deal of the book looks at reforming schools.
- Ahead of the Class (2003), by Marie Stubbs. I found this book in a London bookstore and it is an amazing true story about how a failed inner city London school gets turned around.
- What I Learned in School (2009), by James Comer. I have always appreciated the work of Comer because he teaches us that there is no such thing as easy school reform.