I teach a May Experience course, The Reel World: The Depiction of Schools on Film. A colleague of mine in the education department and I designed the course before Waiting for “Superman,” but the course is intended as a way to examine how political and public discourse shapes perceptions about public schools as well as policy. The course was revised to include Poverty Studies credit so many of the films explore how education intersects class and race.
This May X, I added the choice of reading either Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, by Kathleen Nolan, or Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children, by Sarah Carr.
The focus of the discussion, however, remains on the eight documentaries below with some annotations about what aspects of education each film highlights. I do recommend all of these films, although each has some limitations as most documentaries do.
Recommended Documentaries on Education:
This documentary focuses on a court case in South Carolina initiated by high-poverty school districts surrounding primarily the I-95 corridor of the state, paralleling the east coast and stretching from the NE to the SE region. The documentary suffers from melodramatic production values (music, slow-motion panning of sad children’s faces), but the essential claim of the film is important for confronting the social inequity that is reflected in educational inequity, particularly in the South. Issues included in the film are school funding, community-based schools, access to high-quality educational opportunities and facilities, teacher assignments related to student characteristics, and state education accountability mechanisms. Some related resources (SC school report cards, poverty indices, related blog posts) to the documentary can be found HERE.
Ron Stone stands at the center of this film about an urban high school in New Jersey. The film is solid and interesting—while also creating a good deal of tension and presenting a surprise ending. Many important issues are raised, notably the controversial stance of Stone as principal toward gangs and gang leaders attending the high school. This is an ideal companion to Police in the Hallways and it confronts several important issues about education and education reform—urban schools, high-poverty/majority-minority schools, zero tolerance policies, deficit views of minorities and impoverished children, gang presence and violence, leadership styles, police in schools.
The controversy, teaching evolution in public schools, that will not die—although it has evolved, ironically—is explored by this film that is engagingly personal and often humorous. The Intelligent Design (ID) movement is the approach of the moment for creating debates about if and how evolution should be taught in schools. While the filmmaker is upfront with his allegiances to science, the documentary is fair, almost to a fault as it allows the scientists to show why their expertise is often lost in their arrogance. The film successfully helps viewers navigate the definitions of science, evolution, ID, and creationism; it also confronts the roles of religion, ideology, and politics (specifically the power of school boards) in the “teach the controversy” assertions found among ID advocates. An interesting connection to this documentary is the news coverage of a creationist test given to students in a SC charter school.
These documentaries often soar because of the people allowed to speak for themselves. This excellent HBO film opens with Minnijean Brown Trickey returning to Little Rock Central High, and then it never fails to deliver throughout. I would rate this a must-see among the selections in this course. The film confronts Brown v. Board, separate and unequal, schools within schools, the return of segregation (especially in the South), and the lingering tensions between the ideal and reality of racial harmony. Related pieces on the rise of the segregated South and education reform in the New Jim Crow Era are recommended. Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is also an excellent connection.
When Waiting for “Superman” was released and disproportionately praised in the media, I wrote a piece on this documentary to suggest it is far superior and to ask viewers what these administration and teachers at Douglass High were supposed to do. The focus of this film is No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in the context of a high-poverty, majority minority urban high school. Some of the most significant moments of the documentary are disturbing scenes of violence in the hallways and one female student recounting a fight with an adult male relative. Teachers struggling with the students, including one TFA recruit, are included, and this is also a strength of the film. The film addresses accountability, administrator/faculty relationships, the roles of teachers (especially young teachers), the influence and struggles of parents, the voices of students, the significance of extracurricular activities, and the limitations of school-only reform and accountability under the weight of poverty and racial inequity.
Who controls the money, controls everything—or at least who controls the money wants to control everything. This documentary examines the clash between a family funding scholarships and the science curriculum in a logging community. This is a powerful pairing with Flock of Dodos since both documentaries dramatize the debate over who should determine the curriculum in public schools serving a free society. Clearcut and Flock of Dodos also highlight the culture war that simmers beneath almost all educational controversies. The issues raised in this documentary can be linked to the influence of entrepreneurs in the current reform movement, such as Bill Gates, and the role of school boards is also a central issue, again as in Flock of Dodos.
Morgan Freeman challenges his childhood hometown to integrate the prom, and he’ll foot the bill; this is the focus of an engaging and powerful documentary on the persistence of segregated proms in the twenty-first century. The voices of students, parents, and administrators drive this film, and the intersection of racism and public education takes center stage through those voices. A potential pairing (non-education related) is the documentary The Loving Story about the 1967 Supreme Court case addressing interracial marriage. The 2013 prom integration in Georgia also is a suitable companion to this film.
Neoliberalism driving education reform in Mexico is confronted in this documentary, which provides a strong conclusion to the May experience addressing education. Corporations (Walmart, Coca-Cola, Ford), corrupt unions, and President Fox provide a matrix of influential forces shaping and even dismantling public education in Mexico, paralleling the same neoliberal agenda highlighted under George W. Bush and increased under Obama. A combative and disturbing documentary, Grain of Sand forces viewers to consider the value of the Commons and the dangers of privatization. Like Hard Times at Douglass High, this film suggests that accountability reform based on high-stakes testing poses much greater harm than good for schools and students.
A companion video worth pairing with any of the above films is Tupac Shakur at 17 discussing education.
Recently, I was at the window of my allergist, paying for my allergy shots. The receptionist asked me something about enjoying my break, but I noted I was currently teaching a May course. Her response was something like “Sorry.”
I said that I enjoyed my May class and ending with “I love my students.” The receptionist stopped typing my information into the computer and looked up at me, her brow furrowed.
“Are you being serious?” she asked.
“Yes,” I explained, “I love my students, I love teaching.”
She explained to me that another professor came to the same office and only said that sarcastically so she assumed I was also.
This moment came back to me as I watched CNN’s coverage of the tornado destroying a school in Moore, OK. Anderson Cooper, echoing comments made by the media during the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, interviewed a teacher who had gathered all of her students under their desks during the storm—and no children from her class were injured—and stated that teachers do amazing things every day, heroic things every day, but this women had gone above her duty.
I have now grown tired of this token and blatantly superficial (and insincere) praise of teachers.
Token praise cannot, or at least should not, mask the disdain expressed about not only teachers but also workers in general in the U.S. The reposted blog below, then, remains a valid concern.
Children and adults in poverty, the working poor, and the working class are increasing; the middle-class is eroding; and the pooling of capital among the 1% is expanding, forming the anchor stalling the progress of the USS Democracy.
In The State of Working America (12th ed), Mishel, Bivens, Gould, and Shierholz identify the disturbing trends that signal the approaching death of the American worker:
America’s vast middle class has suffered a ‘lost decade’ and faces the threat of another (p. 5)….
Income and wage inequality have risen sharply over the last 30 years (p. 6)….
Rising inequality is the major cause of wage stagnation for workers and of the failure of low- and middle-income families to appropriately benefit from growth (p. 6)….
Economic policies caused increased inequality of wages and incomes (p. 7)….
Claims that growing inequality has not hurt middle-income families are flawed (p. 8)….
Growing income inequality has not been offset by increased mobility (p. 9)….
Inequalities persist by race and gender. (p. 9)
Currently, the American worker—like those trapped in poverty and the working poor—have no political party because, ironically, the democratic process in the U.S. has been bought by Corporate America and democracy has been left in that wake.
Public school teachers also have no political party, and since the Chicago teachers’ strike, teachers now more than ever represent the political and public failure to appreciate and recognize the importance of the American worker.
Teachers as Workers
Early and mid-twentieth century America may have been a turning point for unionization in a country that lives more by ideology than evidence, but even that assessment may be tinted by the rose-colored glasses of hindsight.
The truth is likely that Americans’ embracing of rugged individualism has always been an impenetrable wall between the American character and the community and solidarity at the core of unions.
Nonetheless, the American public school teacher has over the past decade—during the demonstrable decline of the working and middle class as well as the rise of poverty in the U.S.—gradually become the target of the popular corporate agenda to end tenure and break unions, despite the essential democratic nature of both.
Politicians, corporate advocates, and the media have fed a willing public a steady diet of false but robust narratives that characterize teachers as the sole force behind misleading claims of failed public schools. Any evidence- and experience-based rebuttal to the “bad” teacher claim or the corrupt union mantra has been met with a “no excuses” ideology that chants “poverty is not destiny.”
This corporate agenda has no basis in fact, but the abundant commentaries and scholarship refuting this drum beat have failed to pierce the American public’s self-defeating faith in America the meritocracy.
The political and corporate elite know this, and they have little motivation to set aside their lies since they work, and since they benefit in the end.
And during the teachers’ strike in Chicago, the media and political leaders mischaracterized unions and teachers in Chicago and across the U.S.—more laziness and greediness heaped on teachers, and more evidence that the Democratic party is indistinguishable from the Republican party in terms of education and labor policy.
What is most disturbing ultimately about the demonizing of teachers and in effect all American workers is that most Americans are and will always be those exact workers who are being stripped of their rights, dignity, and access to the American Dream that the political and corporate elite along with the public claim to be protecting.
The Chicago teachers’ strike was yet another referendum on the failing education reform agenda that is destined to strip teachers of their professionalism and to further stratify the education system of the U.S. so that affluent children (mostly white) gain even more advantage in their schooling than they have in their lives over children living in working class, working poor, and impoverished homes (disproportionately people of color).
It was a political lie to claim that the Chicago teachers’ strike was the fault of lazy and greedy teachers supported by their corrupt union. It was a political lie to ignore the central demand of those teachers—a stand against test-based teacher accountability.
But neither the political elite nor the corporate elite will eventually lose in this debate because a public embracing of the corporate agenda and rejection of the striking teachers is a self-defeating commitment that will guarantee what appears inevitable now—the death of the American worker.
Teachers are not alone in this, but public school teachers are great American workers. I cannot fathom how we have come to a day when Americans no longer value something that cannot be more American than workers in solidarity.
* Reposted from Daily Kos, Teachers and the Death of the American Worker (September 11, 2012)