'Won't Back Down' fails to show collaboration, which has made school turnaround efforts in Massachusetts successful.
In the opening weeks of my first year teaching at a public elementary school in Boston in the fall of 2010, the students were jaded -- and they were hurting. Their school was one of 35 schools in the state designated as significantly under-performing. Under a new state school reform law, new policies and tools would be used to turn around these schools.
Now, in the beginning of our third and final year of the turnaround process, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick declared during his recent address at the Democratic convention that our school is "one of the best in the state." Our first graders recently traveled to the White House to perform Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech for President Obama. Parents of wait-listed students are calling and begging for admittance. On the first day of school this fall, my students walked in eager to learn and happy to be back in school.
The new film Won't Back Down -- based on "parent-trigger" laws that provide parents with a process in which to take over and reform a public school -- doesn't do justice to the process of fixing a struggling school.
Instead, it suggests that turning around a bad school can happen in a single year, led by an inspired few. In reality, truly remaking a school can only be successful with a collective effort. My school's success is rooted in collaboration at the school, district, and state level. Our union protects our rights as turnaround teachers, ensuring our fair pay for a longer day and for facing the daunting task of working in a "broken" school. Our state provides extra funding to cover essential resources for our students. And our district allows us to experiment with new strategies and curricula.
I left my teaching career behind in Los Angeles because I was inspired by the promise of this collective effort in Massachusetts -- it was something I never thought possible in urban education. The movie showcases none of this collaboration.
In the film, a parent uses a fictionalized version of the "parent trigger" law to successfully take over her daughter's failing school with the help of a once-jaded teacher. The film paints the teachers' union as the clear villain. I don't always agree with my union, but I do believe that it is vital to making sure teachers are valued. I'm fortunate to work in a place where the union and district were able to come together to make the turnaround process work. My union puts a priority on teacher leadership, and was willing to collaborate with a program that places effective, experienced teachers in Boston turnaround schools. Those teacher leaders are now a critical part of the schools' turnaround efforts.
True school turnaround works best with buy-in from all involved parties, including unions, parents, students, teachers and school and district leaders. By ignoring this reality, the film only contributes to the ongoing divisive dialogue in education reform.
A good Hollywood story has to have a villain. But when addressing a problem as real and vital as America's failing schools, placing blame is not going to help ensure that all children have access to a quality education. I challenge the filmmakers behind Won't Back Down to make a documentary (free of dramatic hyperbole) about what is possible when all stakeholders work together to turn around a school.
Come to my school, where teachers and administrators work under a common vision; where we use our extra funding to extend the day for our students with academic support and enrichment; where teachers take an active interest in their union and in the issues facing their profession; and where we engage with policymakers to share our success stories, as a means of moving the conversation forward. I challenge you, Hollywood, to start telling those stories. My students' stories. Our story.
I believe, after two years at my school, that turnaround is possible and that our parents and teachers need a bigger voice in education policy. I just hope the public realizes that the task is much more complicated than the film suggests. And, above all, there can be no "bad guy" in the war against the opportunity gap — except the gap itself.
When we adults take it upon ourselves to work collaboratively for the benefit of our children, dramatic reform in education is possible.
Andrew Vega teaches eighth-grade English Language Arts at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury, Mass. He is also a current teaching policy fellow at the nonprofit, Teach Plus, aimed at the need for effective teachers in urban classrooms.
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