Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Choose Your Horror Story

vonzastrowc's picture

The film Two Million Minutes made news by claiming that even the best U.S. high schools leave their students unprepared to compete with the academic whiz kids who brandish heavy calculus textbooks on every Chinese street corner. Now comes a new documentary, Race to Nowhere, which depicts U.S. schools as pressure cookers that stifle all passion for learning and drive kids to suicide. Which crisis to believe? Take your pick. Crisis itself has become the commodity here. After a while, the specific content of such films will hardly matter anymore.

Such films' PR tactics are overwhelming their specific lessons about school improvement. After a while, all these films will leave only one big lesson behind: Things are bad, very bad, in our public schools, so pull your kids out now! This kind of disengagement spells disaster in the long run.

Eagle-eyed Alexander Russo recently spotted what looks like the most alarmist film to come out in a while: The War on Kids. Judging from the over-the-top trailer, this film paints schools as prisons that assign crushing punishments for tiny infractions. They kill students' spirits, the film suggests.

Once again, schools just can't win. Ask most Americans what's wrong with public schools, and they'll tell you that the kids are violent and out of control. Watch CNN for any length of time, and you'll learn that every other Kindergartner is landing in the slammer for taking scissors to school. Schools, it seems, are both out of control and too controlling--bad no matter how you slice them. The different horror stories might contradict one another, but they all pack an emotional punch.

Each film may have something important to contribute to the debate on school reform. But their cumulative effects are what worry me. Every filmmaker has to turn up the volume--heighten the drama--to get noticed. With its ominous music and inflammatory images, the War on Kids trailer has the look and feel of a disaster flick. Watch enough of these movies, and you'll think it's 2012 for our schools. And the causes of this disaster are, well, everything, so head for the hills.

We do face big, big challenges in our schools. These challenges loom especially large in schools that serve our poorest children. Big inequities outside of schools exacerbate these problems.

But the solutions aren't all the stuff of Hollywood. We need better curriculum, better staff development, better ties between schools and communities, better early childhood education, better health care for our poorest children, etc.... And we need better processes to ensure that our reforms actually take hold. Yawn.

The crisis documentary genre seems to fuel talk of more dramatic solutions. Make every school a charter school! Make every child an engineer! Make many more and much harder tests! Kill all the tests! Unschool your children! Get your kids out of the system while there's still time!

The spate of school disaster movies teaches an entirely different lesson, though this one seldom gets the attention it deserves: It's high time to engage communities in their schools. Schools inflame passions because they're important. Americans still feel they have a stake in schools' success. As long as people believe schools do not support their aspirations--or acknowledge their fears--they will be susceptible to all the horror stories. Reform strategies proclaimed from on high will not stem the tide.

So, where does one start? Have a look, for example, at Larry Ferlazzo's excellent new book, Building Parent Engagement in Schools. Or you might want review the work of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.

There's far more to say about this topic, and we'll be returning to it in the coming weeks. For now, I just had to comment on the industry of school crisis films. We're in for a lot more of them unless we can enlist people as actors rather than spectators.