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Depictions of Education in Film

Charlotte Williams's picture

Clearly both teachers and public education get a bad rap among many in America. And while defenders often point to unfavorable media coverage and blame by politicians, movie and TV show depictions of education are less frequently cited even though these domains can be hugely influential in forming public opinion. (Documentary films about education are especially trendy right now.)

Apparently Hollywood is irresistibly attracted to the same ideas as Michelle Rhee and many conservative pundits: that education in America can be saved by superhero teachers. In researching movie and TV depictions for this post, I came across many that focus on the messianic teacher who allows his or her students to overcome poverty, lack of parental involvement, disenfranchisement, peer pressure, lack of attention or recognition from other adults, cultural myopia, and a host of other deeply systemic issues. A partial list includes:

  • To Sir with Love,
  • Dangerous Minds
  • Mr. Holland’s Opus
  • The Corn is Green
  • The Miracle Worker
  • A Child is Waiting
  • Fame
  • Dead Poet’s Society
  • Music of the Heart
  • Stand and Deliver
  • Goodbye Mr. Chips
  • The Principal
  • Lean on Me
  • Freedom Writers
  • Mona Lisa Smile
  • High School High
  • 187
  • School of Rock
  • Precious
  • Finding Forrester
  • Blackboard Jungle
  • October Sky
  • Friday Night Lights
  • Remember the Titans
  • Glee

Not to say that these are not worthwhile stories, but they do provide an overwhelming depiction of the teacher-as-savior (even if the teachers are shown to have personal flaws). And ironically, they virtually always cast their teacher hero as one-in-a-million. Let’s consider how such depictions align with current education happenings.

Many political movements gaining momentum disincentivize talented young minds from becoming teachers (including political rhetoric attacking teachers, wage and benefit reductions, standardized testing and inflexible curricula that bar creative freedom, and taking away incentives for professional learning)—the sort of group from which super hero teachers—if they were to exist—would surely come from.  And counter to many of these films, often the most capable teachers avoid high-poverty schools because the obstacles associated with them are so difficult. Indeed, I think reality is more like this: there are great teachers in public education. They can reach, teach, and inspire. But the notion that such teachers can single-handedly push all or even a majority of their students to reach their highest potential despite overwhelming societal systemic problems is both an unrealistic and unfair expectation. And policies that promote that viewpoint have not helped. As Bob Herbert wrote in a recent New York Times article, “The current obsession with firing teachers, attacking unions and creating ever more charter schools has done very little to improve the academic outcomes of poor black and Latino students. Nothing has brought about gains on the scale that is needed.”

Indeed, as I have pointed out before, evidence overwhelming points to poverty and race as huge inhibitors for education, regardless of how stellar teachers are. Far fewer films and shows focus on the uninspiring realities that these constraints are virtually impossible to overcome on a broad scale as things currently stand (a notable exception is season four of HBO’s groundbreaking series The Wire reveals many of the dynamics students, educator, and politicians deal with in inner-city, low income schools). Too bad Hollywood has not been able to provide many other such depictions that might influence the public to look more at these deeper issues, and put less blame on teachers.


You left off Stand and

You left off Stand and Deliver...every math teacher is expected to be Jaime Escalante.

it is absolutely true that

it is absolutely true that there exist many systemic challenges to improving education.

you summarized the very issues within the education system that should not be overshadowed by the focus on "super" teachers, and should instead be garnering equal attention as the issue of teacher quality.

as far as the "poverty and race" argument - as a person in the education field fully dedicated to improving the education system, I am so tired of hearing that line. Does poverty matter? absolutely. can we do nothing for children in a decaying education system until we raise their standard of living outside the school walls?

if you answered yes, then I implore you to shift your energy and resources towards eradicating poverty, changing housing policies, and addressing health care issues. That way you can do something you truly find meaningful, and I can better do my job.

I agree that this meme in

I agree that this meme in movies is frustrating--primarily because it suggests either that we can't reach most kids, or that it's okay if only a handful get help. But i don't see the connection to Rhee. I know she's a popular target, but wasn't she doing the opposite of these movies, and trying for systemic change? Even if you don't think her methods were right, they certainly weren't piecemeal. Her biggest firing was somewhere around 6% of the teachers. While that's a lot of teachers, it suggests that she was relying on the "top" 94% of teachers to help the kids--a far cry from holding out for a handful of superheroes.

The super-villain of course

The super-villain of course is hypocrisy. The "powers that be" pay lip service to the Super Teacher mythology while while anchoring Super Teachers to the academic kryptonite that is one-size-fits-all, rigidly scripted programs. They are rendered helpless by administrators who are under-trained and under-experienced who place more emphasis on drone-like adherence to these programs than they are to real results. And then, they are blamed because the decisions that they were powerless to make didn't achieve the success somebody arbitrarily mandated.
The reality of education is that many teachers are superheroes to many children every single day. Some of the great deeds they do are small things like giving a hug, or a snack, or a pair of socks. Teachers don't have to be Anne Sullivan or Jaime Escalante or Rafe Esquith to be heroes to children. The requisite super power is caring about and recognizing the beauty in their students in an environment that allows them to act on behalf of those students.
The proof of educational reality is that the people pushing mindless adherence to scripts don't send their own children to the schools they endorse. They send their children to schools where teachers are allowed to be heroes.

You can't have it both ways:

You can't have it both ways: superstar teachers who are non-conformist and do what's right by kids, and standardized curriculum and skill and drill for standardized tests.

I'd be interested to analyze these movies for another, subtler message: by the movie's standards, what made the teacher successful. In "Stand and Deliver" it was indeed test scores for the AP Exam, but it was also a rogue teaching style (not scripted) and a firm resolve to stand against prejudice that got the scores. In many of the other movies, it wasn't test scores that made great teachers great teachers-- it was what they did for students as human beings. Lives were changed, not necessarily scores. There's a message worth looking it.

Amen! Superstars who are

Amen!
Superstars who are stripped of their superpowers are just ordinary folks.

I also think these movies are

I also think these movies are about students as superstars, that is why I watched them

Anonymous: thanks for

Anonymous: thanks for bringing up Stand and Deliver. Another classic example.

Eddie: Those working on behalf of public schools are by definition the ones trying to educate and help ALL of America’s students—certainly including low-income students. No one is throwing their hands up, refusing to help these students until the nation achieves better socioeconomic equality (in fact, quite to the contrary). In fact, they are constantly trying to overcome the challenges that exist outside the school walls by doing what they can within the school walls. But it’s important for those within the system fail to continue to highlight the challenges they face – including those related to poverty and race.

James: I assume you are referring to the other blog post I linked to that discusses Michelle Rhee. Among her focuses, she clearly sees great teachers as the saving force for public education. True though, she was looking for a more systemic change, however misguided I might think her focus is.

Kinder-Teacher and David Lee Finkle: Agreed that standardized programs—whether they be for teaching protocol or in the form of tests for students—have many limitations, and focusing on standardization while paying lip-service to great teachers is hypocritical. I also agree that teachers do help their students constantly—as the examples you both cited show. Focusing on these sorts of reasonable expectations for teachers—that they care, that they help students learn and lend emotional support—is appropriate, in contrast with the expectations given in these films that teachers can/should single-handedly counter-act the enormous disadvantages heaped on some students and set them on a track to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.

Tim McClung: These films are definitely moving in various ways, but I think it’s important not to hold unreasonable expectations for disadvantaged students either. Certainly some overcome adversity; but the majority are unable to due to the major constraints they are under, and regardless of how stellar their teachers may be or how great their learning potential would be under better circumstances.

maybe I've missed something

maybe I've missed something but your response to Tim seems to contradict your reply to my comment. what are these "unreasonable expectations"? whatever they are, these disadvantaged students cannot meet them because of their circumstances (i.e. poverty!). are these hands in the air I see?

what are reasonable expectations then? (unlike the last question, this isn't rhetorical).

this article describes the so-called detrimental depictions of teachers as "super-heroes," but your comments allude to another, and I'd argue even more harmful, depiction. those of the kids. these films also tend to present students as animals, criminals, and drug addicts with parents who are violent, negligent, absent, or contrarian even in the face of things that the good (primarily) White people want for their kids.

When are we going to stand up and demand that the kids are portrayed as something more than that? That we can do much (much) more for them than what we do now. And that it's our obligation to see to it that we do.

When students come into

When students come into school without certain cognitive and social skills, do not have parents in the position to help them with school, have unaddressed health or behavioral needs, live in dangerous areas, have strong pressure (sometimes from their family) to make quick money—even if illegally, struggle with language barriers, feel they do not fit in with academic cultural norms, and other similar problems related to poverty and race, they simply will not succeed at the same rate as children without those disadvantages. Again, this does not mean none of them succeed, or that we stop trying to teach and help these kids, but the odds are stacked against them. I’m not totally sure what your position is—whether you think that teachers can in fact counter these massive systemic issues by themselves, or whether you don’t think these issues actually exist.

Some more specific examples: Is it reasonable to expect that a child new to this nation and illiterate in his native tongue will score proficient on a state test? Is it reasonable to expect a fifth grade teacher with forty kids in her classroom to have the time and resources to get to grade level a disadvantaged student with a learning disability and parents who cannot read? What about an abused child removed from her home and then bounced around the foster system during the course of the year, while missing a great deal of school during that time and then not passing the state test? Do we blame the child if they fail, for not putting forth superhuman efforts to learn? Do we blame the teacher? In each of these examples, maybe both the students and teachers put forth commendable effort in tough circumstances, and had things outside the school been different, outcomes inside the school would likewise be different.

my position is rather simple

my position is rather simple and I thought clear, but I'll reiterate. with regard to your original post, yes, the depictions in these films of teachers are often distracting and inaccurate. I also think the same is true for students. I don't understand why you seem so willing to say that these films are limited in what they say about the teachers but not students.
i also think that systemic issues do exist and no, I don't think teachers can do it alone (middle ground exists you know) but (again) that the education system can do much more than it currently does for all its students and in particular the disadvantaged students. there are schools out there who do that. sadly, too few, but they do it. they educate the poor, the ELLs, and the ones who's parents aren't 'engaged.'

and now to your other points:

Is it reasonable to expect that a child new to this nation and illiterate in his native tongue will score proficient on a state test?

-no it's not. but it's just as unreasonable to accept that it will take 7 years to get that child there.

Is it reasonable to expect a fifth grade teacher with forty kids in her classroom to have the time and resources to get to grade level a disadvantaged student with a learning disability and parents who cannot read? What about an abused child removed from her home and then bounced around the foster system during the course of the year, while missing a great deal of school during that time and then not passing the state test?

- i lumped these two questions together because the conditions you use as examples, while devastating, are frankly not as common as you're proposing they are. it's more common to find a fifth grade teacher with half those students not getting a student who doesn't have a learning disability up to grade level. and THAT is what the problem is.

Do we blame the child if they fail, for not putting forth superhuman efforts to learn? Do we blame the teacher? In each of these examples, maybe both the students and teachers put forth commendable effort in tough circumstances, and had things outside the school been different, outcomes inside the school would likewise be different.

- so A for effort? you're kidding, right? we're where we are precisely because of this kind of thinking. ok, well i did my best, so i'll keep doing what i'm doing over and over even though it doesn't work because it makes me feel good and besides, these kids are poor, it's not like i can do much more for them.
what about, ok well i did my best, didn't work, and i'll do something different because it is my job and my responsibility teach my kids DESPITE the conditions that exist beyond the floor walls of a school. Because that is what teaching is. it's when we have that conversation, along with looking at the systemic changes we can make to facilitate and improve teaching (and I'm talking about education system changes NOT societal system changes), that we'll get anywhere. it'll be a long time until things outside the school are different enough to start impacting schools. and i hope you're not holding your breathe for the to happen. I'm not.

Again, no one is throwing

Again, no one is throwing their hands in the air or arguing for mediocrity.

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