My View: The curious paradox of 'Won't Back Down'
Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal star in "Won't Back Down."
September 27th, 2012
01:50 PM ET

My View: The curious paradox of 'Won't Back Down'

Courtesy Becky HaleBy Sam Chaltain, Special to CNN

Editor's Note: Sam Chaltain is a Washington-based writer and education advocate. He can be found on Twitter at @samchaltain.

(CNN) - "Won’t Back Down," the new Hollywood film about two mothers determined to take over their children's failing inner city school, represents everything that’s wrong with the present way we talk about school reform – and everything we need to talk about more in the future.

The film itself feels like Soviet-era propaganda. No characters are well-developed; they’re all two-dimensional mouthpieces for different constituency groups’ pet programs and policy proposals. Even when the filmmakers try to instill a bit of complexity – such as the Teach for America alum who works in a neighborhood school and was raised in a family with deep union ties – the strings of the puppeteer are too easily visible for anyone interested in the story more than the sound bite.

It’s a lousy movie, plain and simple.

"Won’t Back Down" is also lousy at orienting viewers to the complexity of our current efforts to improve public education. School choice is presented as a panacea in and of itself, and the process of turning a struggling school into a successful one seems to involve little more than a few all-nighters, some dogged persistence and an unwavering belief in the rightness of one’s cause. If viewers took this film at its word, they might think that all we’d need to do to transform public education is scream “Power to the People” and presto! No more failing schools.

Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. And yet, even though the film’s treatment of school reform is misleadingly simplistic, it would be equally misleading to dismiss it altogether. In fact, the core issues it raises – the importance of parental engagement, the injustice of American education and the illogic of a sclerotic system of schools that has outgrown its Industrial-era mission – are exactly the sorts of issues we need to explore more deeply as a nation.

That is the paradox of "Won’t Back Down." It’s wrong to suggest that school choice is all we need, and it’s right to highlight the unique power that comes from creating public school communities in which everyone – teachers, families and children – gets to decide whether they want in. It’s wrong to suggest that parent trigger laws provide straightforward paths for school improvement, and it’s right to call out the institutionalized racism of having one’s ZIP code be one’s destiny.

And while it’s reckless to suggest that fulfilling America’s historic commitment to freedom requires little more than giving everybody freedom of choice, the right to do what one wants, it’s essential to remind each other that what really makes us American is our freedom of conscience, the right to do what one must.

"Won’t Back Down" won’t help anyone figure out how to improve our nation’s schools. It also won’t make for a great night at the movies. But maybe it can help some of us wake up to a core inequity we have tolerated for far too long. And maybe, if it does, that alone will be worth the price of admission.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sam Chaltain.

Posted by
Filed under: Parent trigger • Parents • Sam Chaltain • School choice • Teachers • Voices • Won't Back Down
soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Big Tex

    Just think, hundreds of thousands of academically qualified, inspiring teachers are biding their time, just waiting for a charter school to open in their neighborhoods. These idealists do not want to dirty their hands in public schools or teachers' unions, so they make ends meet by working odd jobs. They long for the chance to really "make a difference" in children's educations, as soon as the right charter school opens.
    If you believe this, you will believe that quality schools can be thrown together and fully staffed overnight by a few inexperienced amateurs.

    October 5, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  2. Carrots Rock

    Can we have no more wars and have world peace? People need to love others not hate and then fight. All we need is love. What do you think about this? Just think.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  3. Carrots

    we need lesser grammer :D

    October 3, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  4. Irma

    Education today is in dire need of a system that works for all children. As an educator I know that what works in my classroom, in my school, in my district, and in my state may not work somewhere else. I do know that the No Child Left Behind syndrome has had serious effects that are now reaching higher education. Although movies like these may inspire, they do not give solutions to all problems. Politicians and special interest groups run the American educational system. Until education is geared to the academic needs of students instead of the usual money making business, children will not receive what they need to achieve academic success. When questions like these arise, ask a teacher...

    October 1, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  5. Talley-Wacker

    Typical liberal defending the unions and bashing a film that exposes the truth about the teachers unions.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  6. Michael Kinzig

    It would be easy to improve our schools...just stop playing to the LCD. MAKE Blacks come up and do NOT go down to their level.

    September 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Steven

      "Make blacks come up and do not go down to their level."
      So is the arguement that black students are the problem with public schools?

      October 1, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Gastone Black

      I came up through the Massachusetts school system–ranked highest in the nation– and graduated 18th in my class at Taunton High. I've seen more than my fair share of idiots of all races. Actually, your lack of critical analysis and lumping of all dark skinned people as the LCD is showing that you're more than likely a white male who could have benefited from paying a bit more attention rather than assuming your superior white mind just absorbed the information.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  7. Frederick1337

    Id like to hear the author of this articles take on the form revisionism has taken in our school system. Do you feel its wrong to demoralize a generation of studentsbwith such obvious lies as " i cannot tell a lie" which never happened in washingtons youth or his adult life for that matter. Its purely demoralizing and to top it all off its embarrasing for our youth whom are subjected to such a degree as that evrryone tells a lie in their lifetime and they might not feel they live up to the standards of our forefathers and that may lead them to beleive they are not as good of people, which might cause them to fail or to allow themselves to admit they have lies and therefore be properly reformed.

    September 28, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Student

      That is an important part of American lore. Yes it should be taught, but if you teach them well enough than they should be able to think through the possibilities of never telling a lie. Demoralizing, give me a break.

      September 29, 2012 at 12:10 am |
    • Michael Kinzig

      How ironic.A commentary on education filled with grammar errors, misspellings, skewed logic, and blatant ignorance...i.e., this articles...its ...washingtons ...our youth whom are..... evrryone ...their lifetime ...beleive ....they are not as good of people... admit they have lies..??? pathetic...why don't you just shaddup?

      September 29, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
      • Gastone Black

        You're complaining about grammar and syntax issues and you have no clue how to use "ie" or an ellipsis. Stop criticizing people online and read a style manual before you try to correct people on an English language website you piece of elitist Euro garbage.

        October 9, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  8. Steve

    Take a chill pill bro! Tell me the last movie you saw that advertised itself as "inspired by real events" that painted a complete picture.
    I haven't seen the film (yet), but I have a feeling it is more geared to make a buck in 90 minutes than change minds in 90 minutes.
    I am 99.9% for school choice but I recognize that it takes a bit more than that.

    September 27, 2012 at 2:27 pm |