Won’t Back Down: It’s The Action Outside The Theater That Matters

I’m not a film critic but I can’t say that I found “Won’t Back Down,” which opens nationally this weekend, to be a great film.  Nonetheless, it’s a very significant one for reasons that have little to do with its predictable storyline and a lot to do with our national conversation about schools. That’s what my TIME column today takes a look at: When mainstream actresses start taking on what would have been politically unpalatable roles just a few years ago, something is happening.

When the journalist Mickey Kaus reviewed cars, he would sometimes ask if they passed the “Saturday night test”—meaning regardless of how well they drove, would he want to pick a date up in one? After watching “Won’t Back Down” a few times in screenings this year, I found myself asking essentially the same question: my wife and I work in education, but I’m not sure the new Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter film clears the bar for date night. The predictable storyline feels more like a 1980s after-school special than a big screen movie. But what’s actually on the screen for two hours isn’t what makes “Won’t Back Down” matter so much for education.

The film is about a majority of parents who want to change their school but you don’t need a majority to read the entire column and find out, one click here will do it.

6 Replies to “Won’t Back Down: It’s The Action Outside The Theater That Matters”

  1. Why is it about an individual school? How about holding the school system of the state and the particular district school board responsible? What certifications are teachers expected to have? Are they trained in subject area and pedagogy? What professional development are teachers and administrators offered and expected to complete? What standards and measures (testing) is done for teachers as well as students? How something is taught is as important as what is taught, maybe more so. In Florida, we have the FCAT, a high-stakes test students must take to measure student achievement. Maybe we should have a test for teachers, too. Teacher testing in subject knowledge and pedagogy should be compared to to students’ standardized test scores. What is the correlation? Is there one? Are the tests themselves proper measurement instruments or just best guesses by for-profit testing agencies? There is a scientific way to approach our education short comings, but it is not about blame, it is about trust and working together. Teachers’ unions must look for ways to self-regulate and hold their own members to high standards and school systems must seek to innovate to compensate for the socio-economic factors that may be dragging student achievement down. If Intel had a plant that was producing sun-par computer chips would they simply blame the plant workers, or would they systematically and scientifically track the problem down and correct it by changing worker training, investing in better production equipment, and/or changing the manufacturing processes? Why should we treat our school children differently? Are they any less important of an investment? Let’s stop the finger pointing and roll up our sleeves, work together and look for real answers and actions to fix the current problems. No one said it would be easy to do, but do it we must.

  2. Back away from the caffeine Reid. It’s ok, calm down. We know a lot about the problems you mention. And unions are not really in the business of needing to self-regulate as you may think of it. Unions are there for worker protection. It’s the business of districts, schools, and other professional organizations to monitor and guide teachers although it’s nice when unions can assist in those efforts but I’d say it’s not their. raison d’être. Unionized states and districts actually have better test scores than non-union areas and states. Finland is unionized and has the best schools in the world, according to tests.

    It’s ok to people and institutions accountable but what’s the problem, exactly? Children are not chips and you simply have to allow for complexity to create ambiguity in numerical measurements. Most teachers and schools already compensate a lot for SES shortcomings, we already have our sleeves rolled up and doing things. BTW, most schools and students are doing fine. The media and the education reform elite would have you think all schools suck–when it’s really only those in low SES areas. And that can best addressed through not school reform so much as social welfare, jobs, and a rising standard of living.

  3. This film will likely not do anything to help improve education for all of our children, but something else will – the media is beginning to acknowledge the truth about education, which is:

    Our problems in education are extremely complex with no easy or simple solutions. See the Los Angeles Times editorial today.


    Thank you, Karin Klein. What education needs more than anything else is the truth.

  4. Not only is Karin Klein correct, but what in the world does it matter what a Hollywood actress thinks or signs onto? So, Maggie, Viola, and Holly made a mistake in joining this film. That’s all there is to it. They star in a movie that is fundamentally intellectually dishonest, not to mention cloying and simplistic. It can only hurt the people they mean to help. This is only Hollywood investors making money from a social issue that has enough traction to generate box office.

    The writer-director says, “”I’m a liberal Democrat, very pro-union, a member of two unions. I marched with my union a couple years ago when we were on strike. What I tried to do with the movie is celebrate all the things that unions do, while looking at some of the ways that the agenda of the teachers union may not always reflect the best interests of children.”

    And, “I researched the movie very carefully. Every aspect of the film is grounded in reality.” “What’s distressing to me about the controversy is that people make this into a very adult-centric debate, and really, what the whole movie is about is how we can come together to make things better for kids.” Oh, how sweet of him. How naive. Every aspect of the film is grounded in platitudes and simplifications and stereotypes. His Rotten Tomatoes history is not good and his most recent project fails for the same reason this movie fails. The production team, Walden Media, that was behind Waiting for Superman was behind this movie as well. The company is owned by the Christian conservative Philip Anschutz, who has said he expects their movies “to be entertaining, but also to be life affirming and to carry a moral message.” Go figure.


  5. “Maybe we should have a test for teachers, too. Teacher testing in subject knowledge and pedagogy should be compared to to students’ standardized test scores. What is the correlation? Is there one”

    Um. We do. Many. And there is next to no correlation between teacher credential test scores and student achievement. Lots of research on that, Read up.

  6. The weekend’s other new wide release, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis’ school drama “Won’t Back Down,” flopped at No. 10 with $2.7 million, averaging just $1,074 in 2,515 theaters. The movie centers on two mothers who organize a campaign to save a failing elementary school.

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