peanut gallery

City teachers give mixed reviews to new movie that pans unions

The lights dimmed and the screen lit up with the face of an 8-year-old girl staring at a chalkboard and struggling to read the sentence written upon it. The camera flashed to the teacher sitting at her desk, texting on her cellphone and shopping for shoes on the computer.

“Try again,” the teacher said.

“I can’t,” she answered, and the scene ended.

The scene opens “Won’t Back Down,” a new film by Walden Media, the same company that produced the 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” which extolled charter schools. The advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence held a private advance screening of the movie for its members, all city teachers, Wednesday night at the Regal Cinemas in Union Square.

“Won’t Back Down” riffs off real-life parents’ efforts to turn a struggling California school into a non-unionized charter school.

The drama has come under scrutiny as it approaches its Sept. 28 release because of its harsh, and sometimes inaccurate, treatment of teachers unions. “This fictional portrayal, which makes the unions the culprit for all of the problems facing our schools, is divisive and demoralizes millions of great teachers,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten in a statement last month.

“We cannot pretend there’s not a debate around this movie,” said E4E’s New York Executive Director Jonathan Schleifer to the crowd before the movie began. “That’s why you’re here – you want to be informed.”

Sydney Morris, E4E’s co-founder and chief executive director, warned the crowd that the story told in the movie didn’t accurately mirror real events.

“It’s not in any way a perfect depiction of reality,” she said. “But it is a bold depiction of teachers as change agents — it shows what teacher empowerment and parent involvement could and should look like.”

“Won’t Back Down” is a film about a desperate mother, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is too poor to move her dyslexic daughter out of a failing school in Pennsylvania. In her attempt to find another options, she learns about the state’s “Fail Safe Law,” which is very loosely based on California’s “Parent Trigger Law.”

Passed in early 2010, Parent Trigger Law gave parents the right to take charge of a failing school by gathering petition signatures from at least 50 percent of the school’s parent population. Advocates heralded it as empowering parents to lead school reform efforts. But critics charged that the law privileges savvier parents, and also benefits private corporations that could gain control over the management of public schools.

Currently, 20 states have some kind of trigger law on the table, but New York is not among them. Efforts to enact a bill here have gained little traction.

In the movie, the law is different: It bringing teachers into the equation. Under the “Fail Safe Law,” if 50 percent of parents and 50 percent of teachers at a struggling school sign a petition, submit a 400-page proposal, and get approval from the school board, they can take their over the school.

But at Gyllenhaal’s daughter’s school— where the principal enlists staff to fudge attendance records and pass students illicitly — few teachers want to sign on. Some are portrayed as ineffective and disengaged, holding on to their jobs only because they have tenure. Others know the system is broken but are too afraid of losing their jobs to come forward.

And the union is the real obstacle, seeing the trigger law as a direct threat to its existence and battling tooth and nail against the coalition that aims to take advantage of the option. At one point, the head of the union says, “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, we will start advocating for the interests of school children.”

The harsh portrayal did not sit well with the teachers in the audience. Educators 4 Excellence is aimed at advancing teacher voice in education policy, and some of its members are active in the United Federation of Teachers, even though they do not always agree with traditional union policy positions.

Susan Bovet, a high school English teacher in her early sixties, said she was dismayed by the movie’s depiction of the union.

“The union wants us to have better schools,” she said. “No one in their right mind would act like that — employees of unions are no doubt parents and former teachers themselves.”

Other teachers echoed her sentiments as they gathered to socialize after the movie, with several saying that it portrayed the union leaders as “caricatures.”

Yet this didn’t stop them from finding some value in the movie.

Andrew Karas, a fifth grade teacher at P.S. 86 in the Bronx, said that while the movie was obviously dramatized, many of the characters felt real to him. He related to a teacher named Rosie Perez who wanted to effect change but was afraid.

“As a teacher you get way more than you can handle put on your plate,” he said. “Anything outside of your classroom is too much to handle — it’s the normal response of someone who is overworked.” But in the end, Karas said, good teachers are always going to do what’s best for their students.

Other teachers said they thought the movie illuminated some of the challenges they face when dealing with forces outside of their control, such as bureaucracy, ineffective school leaders, or low levels of parent involvement.

“E4E is about helping teachers become informed about the issues, coming up with ideas, and then advocating for them,” Morris said. “Teachers are here having conversations about the issues in the film and talking about what they would do if they could change a school. That’s the indicator that the event was a success.”

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.

summer mix tape

Ten stories you might have missed over the summer (and should read now as a new school year begins)

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Stand for Children received funding to support parent education.

There is no such thing as time off from covering education. While school doors were shuttered, plenty happened this summer on the Colorado education beat. Here, we’ve compiled stories that we hope prove useful as you ease back into your fall routines.

We’ve got your immunization data right here … 

For the second year, Chalkbeat tracked down immunization data for more than 1,200 schools in Colorado’s largest school districts. Our database revealed that Boulder remains a hotspot for the anti-vaccination movement, students in districts with racial and income diversity are more likely to get their shots and nearly half of schools in the database did a better job this year tracking students’ immunization records. Read our news story about the findings, check out these six charts that dig into the numbers and search for school-level data here.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg reflects on his sabbatical (a break not everyone appreciated)

In June, Denver Public Schools’ longtime schools chief returned from a six-month unpaid sabbatical in South America with his family. “It made us appreciate the extraordinary resources we have here,” he said in an interview about his experience.

A milestone for Colorado charter schools on diversity, but not so much on integration

For the first time, Colorado’s charter schools educated a larger proportion of racial and ethnic minorities than district-run schools, a state report showed. We took a closer look and found that does not mean charter schools are more integrated.

Race, policing and education during a summer on edge

This summer sadly provided no shortage of violence and heartache over issues that sometimes feel like they’re tearing America apart at the seams. We sought to bring some local perspective (and wisdom) to the debate by talking to an ambitious Manual High School student who took up a bullhorn at Denver street protests and to Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

A middle school’s last-ditch effort to save itself 

An Adams County middle school running out of time to improve has placed its bet on more challenging, more personal teaching — and zero test preparation. Watch Chalkbeat later this week for a report on whether these efforts paid off in the form of improved state test scores. (Hopefully … the data are set to be made public Thursday).

Guess which Colorado school district had a high proportion of teachers designated to lose tenure …

Compared with other large Colorado school districts, Denver Public Schools had a higher proportion of teachers set to lose tenure under a sweeping educator effectiveness law passed six years ago. We surveyed big districts about one of the consequences of Senate Bill 191.

Too darn hot to teach and learn 

As part of its big bond request of voters this fall, Denver Public Schools wants to try to cool off some of its hottest schools. We took a look at where the mercury soars the highest and found that in 12 of the 18 hottest buildings — some of which house more than one school — the number of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch exceeds the district average.

But the University Club has a lovely lunch menu (and squash courts, too)…  

What if the State Board of Education held a not-so-public meeting with the education commissioner at a private club downtown to prioritize goals, but didn’t get much of anything accomplished? That happened.

What we know — and don’t know — about Colorado remediation rates

Colorado’s college remediation rates inched upward after years of steady decline, a disheartening development. On top of that, we’re not getting the full picture, either, because of incomplete school-level numbers and non-existent district-level data.

Diet Coke: Coming soon to a high school vending machine near you? 

Despite opposition from advocacy groups, Colorado appears headed toward lifting a seven-year ban on diet soda in high schools. The rule change would clear the way for diet soda to be sold in high school vending machines and school stores, though districts could decide not to stock the drinks. We covered the issue before and after the State Board of Education’s initial vote.