“Won’t Back Down” will be released in theaters on September 28, but the new film is already stirring up controversy. Produced by the team who brought us “Waiting for Superman,” the movie stars Maggie Gyllanhaal and Viola Davis as two moms who use a “parent trigger” law to turn around a failing school. Michelle Rhee screened the movie at the Democratic and Republican Conventions, and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, attacked the film in a press release, saying: “…the movie resorts to falsehoods and anti-union stereotypes.” The film is the latest dust up in the school reform wars. One side blames teachers’ unions for blocking change, and the other side characterizes school reform as a corporate privatization scheme.
The movie’s story line should feel familiar to local folks. Oakland’s parents and teachers have created scores of new schools over the last decade. Yet school reform Oakland-style does not fit easily into the overheated narratives competing on the national stage. The rhetoric of school reform resorts to gross oversimplifications that play well to a crowd. The reality of school reform involves real people navigating a marvelously complex world.
I have seen Oakland parents and teachers come together to start new schools dozens of times, and I have witnessed first hand the accomplishments of traditional schools that are dramatically improving outcomes for all students. I’ve learned that the answers lie within our reach. We know what to do, and we can do it, if the public will for change exists. Organized communities have been key to Oakland’s success: school reform started long before the billionaire philanthropists arrived, and continued long after they left.
I raised my family in the heartlands of Oakland, where traditional schools and new schools are triumphing with students from high poverty, high crime neighborhoods. Something wonderful happens when families who live and work in the blocks surrounding a school come to see the school as their most important public asset—a vehicle for personal and communal transformation.
From 2000 to 2010, more than 80 new schools were created in Oakland, one-third as independent charters, and two-thirds as new, small, autonomous schools within the district, working under the teachers’ union contract. Most of the new schools succeeded and some failed, but all have contributed to a dramatic shift in the way people think about Oakland’s kids. Now grade-level achievement is the expectation, and childhood poverty is seen as an obstacle that can be overcome. Schools serving low-income students match the performance of schools in wealthy neighborhoods when committed educators and families unite around a shared vision and pedagogy, and when the district joins with community partners to provide necessary support services.
The creation of new schools has caused tension with the union, especially over the placement of teachers who were required to reapply for their jobs. This tension continues even now, as school closures force dozens of teachers to shift to different schools. In a perfect world, all teachers within a district would meet a similar level of mastery, so that the placement of teachers would not be an issue. I have seen two California districts where this is the case: Poway and San Juan. In these districts the unions have taken responsibility for supporting and evaluating new teachers and struggling veteran teachers. Union leaders believe that the quality of the teaching profession should not be left in the hands of those who no longer practice the profession.
The school reform experience in Oakland suggests that community has a vital role to play in interrupting patterns of failure for low-income children of color. Just as whole communities have re-envisioned local schools, perhaps teachers can re-envision their union so that it takes responsibility for an area where management has struggled: teacher development. But will creative proposals for change be heard through the polarized din of union bashing and privatization conspiracies? I’m afraid that the release of “Wont’ Back Down,” just made the conversation a little harder.