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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

At the Movies: Films Focused on Education Reform

There's been quite a bit of buzz about documentary films that take a look at issues within the American education system. Whether you agree with the point of view of any of these films or not, they are sure to get you thinking.
By Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy), Ashley Cronin
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  • The Road to Teach (2015)

    The Road to Teach follows three young aspiring teachers as they embark on a cross-country roadtrip in an effort to learn about the state of education in America today. Along the way they interview current teachers about the challenges and rewards of the profession and speak to their own feelings about their future career choices. The film includes a Q&A with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. (Source: The Road to Teach website)

    The Road to Teach premiered at SXSWedu in March 2015, and you can watch the full documentary online here.

  • Finding the Gold Within (2014)

    Director Karina Epperlein follows six young black men from Akron, Ohio as they navigate the end of high school and their first two years of college. Working through a local character-education program called Alchemy, they struggle to balance the effects of their upbringing with their drive to succeed academically. This film is an introspective meditation on what it means to be young, black, and male in America. (Source: Finding the Gold Within website)

    Find more information about the film and screenings in your area on the film's website.

Finding the Gold Within - a film by Karina Epperlein - 2014 Trailer from Karinafilms on Vimeo.

  • Doing it for Me (2013)

    Although the dropout rate is steadily declining, 7% of high school students dropped out in the year 2014. This student-produced film offers much-needed insight into how and why students leave school, and what might motivate them to stay. Over the course of one year, student co-directors Precious Lambert and Leah Edwards interviewed three of their friends about their lives after dropping out, bringing an important student voice component to the conversation around school retention. (Source: Meridian Hill Pictures website)

    Doing it for Me is currently being shown at film festivals. Check out the website for information about a screening near you. 

  • The Homestretch (2014)

    The Homestretch, from directors Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly, chronicles the lives of three homeless teens as they fight to stay in high school and transition beyond graduation. In the process, this film encourages audiences to reexamine stereotypes about homelessness and consider the realities and challenges faced by homeless youth in America today. (Source: The Homestretch website)

    Pledge to take action to fight to #EndYouthHomelessness. The film’s discussion guide may help facilitate conversations about issues discussed in the film. In addition, information about upcoming screenings can be found on the film’s website.

Previously Featured Films

Most Likely to Succeed (2015)

Dissatisfied with his daughter’s schooling, director Greg Whitely documented his exploration of alternatives in this documentary about the project-based learning approach at High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego, California. Through interviews with students, parents, and teachers, viewers are asked to consider what types of educational environments will best equip students to succeed in the 21st century. (Source: Most Likely to Succeed website)

The Address (2014)

This documentary by Ken Burns provides a glimpse into an annual tradition at The Greenwood School, a tiny boarding school in Vermont that serves young men with learning differences and disabilities in grades 6-12. Each year, educators encourage students to study and memorize the Gettysburg Address in order to recite it publicly in front of parents and other community members. In the process, the boys learn lessons about courage and overcoming challenges. (Source: The Address website)

I Learn America (2013)

From directors Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng, I Learn America follows five students through one school year at International High School at Lafayette, a small, public, alternative high school in Brooklyn, New York, dedicated to teaching foreign-born, non-native English speakers who are newly arrived to the United States. Through their stories, viewers gain insight into situations and challenges faced by immigrant students and their families. (Source: I Learn America website)

Underwater Dreams (2014)

Written and directed by Mary Mazzio, Underwater Dreams tells the story of four sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants and how they learned to build an underwater robot from Home Depot parts while still in high school, defeating college students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at an underwater-robotics competition in the process. (Source: Underwater Dreams website)

The Rule (2014)

Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School, a high school in Newark, New Jersey, run by the Benedictine monks of Newark Abbey, has recorded a near 100 percent college-acceptance rate for their predominantly African American and Latino young men -- a rate that soars well above the average for the city. Filmmakers Marylou and Jerome Bongiorno profile the school and the monks to learn how and why they achieve what they do. (Source: The Rule website)

I’m Not a Racist . . . Am I? (2013)

How will the next generation confront racism? This feature-length documentary, produced by Point Made Films in partnership with The Calhoun School, attempts to offer a roadmap through the story of 12 teens in New York City who come together for one school year to talk about race and privilege. (Source: I’m Not a Racist . . . Am I? website)

180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School (2013)

Produced by the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC), 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School tells the story of the first graduating class at Washington Metropolitan High School (DC Met), an alternative school for at-risk youth. 2 two-hour episodes follow the day-to-day lives of five students and the efforts of parents, teachers, and school leaders to help students stay on track to graduation. (Source: 180 Days website)

Who Cares About Kelsey? (2012)

Kelsey Caroll, a high school senior, has one goal: graduation. But the road there has not been easy. She’s dealt with homelessness, abuse, and ADHD -- and attends a school with one of the highest dropout rates in New Hampshire. Filmmaker Dan Habib’s story of Kelsey's transformation from a disruptive "problem student" to a motivated and self-confident young woman raises important questions about how to best support students with emotional and behavioral challenges and empower them to reach their goals. (Source: Who Cares About Kelsey? website)

Yuck: A 4th Grader’s Short Documentary About School Lunch (2012)

Zachary Maxwell, a fourth grader at a New York City public elementary school, went on an undercover, six-month mission to capture video footage highlighting the discrepancies between school lunches as described by the official Department of Education lunch menu and the food actually being served in his elementary school lunchroom. The result is this short and spirited documentary about school lunch that has been discussed by numerous news outlets and featured in several film festivals. (Source: Yuck website)

If You Build It (2013)

Directed by Patrick Creadon and produced by Christine O’Malley and Neal Baer, If You Build It tells the story of designer Emily Pilloton, architect Matt Miller, and the students in their in-school design and build class in Bertie County, the poorest county in North Carolina. Through the process of their year-long collaborative project, Pilloton’s and Miller’s students research, prototype, engineer, and build a farmer’s market pavilion, all the while discovering how design thinking can help them transform their community and reimagine what’s possible. (Source: If You Build It website)

Listen (2013)

College student Ankur Singh spent the spring semester of his freshman year researching the flaws in the American education system from a student perspective; the result of these efforts is Listen, a film about public education in the United States by students, for students. (Source: Listen website)

Room to Breathe (2013)

From filmmaker Russell Long, the documentary Room to Breathe follows a group of seventh-grade students at San Francisco’s Marina Middle School -- a school with the highest number of disciplinary suspensions in its district -- as they learn mindfulness techniques through training conducted by Mindful Schools. Though the new strategies are not a panacea for all of their challenges, the film highlights the potential of mindfulness practices to help students combat distraction and develop the social and emotional skills they need to succeed. (Source: Room to Breathe website)

GO PUBLIC (2012)

GO PUBLIC: A Day in the Life of an American School District is a 90-minute documentary that explores events during one day in the Pasadena Unified School District. For this unique film, fifty small camera crews followed teachers, students, principals, volunteers, and others across 28 public school campuses. The result is a compelling window into this district’s daily struggles and successes. Check out Edutopia’s Five Minute Film Festival: A Day in the Life of a Public School District for more information about the film and the filmmakers. (Source: GO PUBLIC website)

American Promise (2013)

American Promise, a film by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, captures the experiences of two middle-class African-American boys who enter a prestigious, historically white, private school in Manhattan. Recorded over 12 years of the boys’ journey from kindergarten through high school graduation, this film explores issues of race, class, and opportunity in America and raises provocative questions. (Source: American Promise POV page from PBS)

The Graduates/Los Graduados (2013)

In The Graduates/Los Graduados, a two-part bilingual film from Quiet Pictures, important educational issues are explored through the eyes of three Latino and three Latina students from across the United States. Their stories, which have a running theme of civic engagement, help the filmmakers explore issues and challenges facing Latino high school students and their families, educators, and community leaders. In "The Graduates: Another Film That Shouldn't Be Missed," Edutopia blogger Mark Phillips shares why he was so inspired by this film. (Source: The Graduates/Los Graduados on the Independent Lens PBS page)

TEACH (2013)

TEACH, a new film by Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim, profiles four very different elementary, middle, and high school teachers and their public school classrooms. Filmed during the 2013 school year, this year-in-the-life story follows the struggles and achievements of these educators as they mentor their students to overcome challenges and do their best. (Source: TEACH website)

The New Public (2012)

How do you reinvent urban education? The New Public is a documentary that takes a personal look into the lives of teachers, parents, and students who are part of a new high school community in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Through the story of their experiences, this film highlights some of the complexities faced by urban public schools and communities. (Source: The New Public website)

Best Kept Secret (2013)

Administrators at John F. Kennedy High School, in Newark, N.J., a public school dedicated to students with special needs, answer the phone by saying, “This is John F. Kennedy High School, Newark’s Best Kept Secret.” Directed by Samantha Buck, Best Kept Secret tells the story of three young men living with autism, their families, and the efforts of JFK High teacher Janet Mino to help her students transition into life beyond school. (Source: Best Kept Secret website)

First Generation (2011)

First Generation tells the story of four high school students - an inner city athlete, a small town waitress, a Samoan warrior dancer, and the daughter of migrant field workers - who set out to break the cycle of poverty and bring hope to their families and communities by pursuing a college education. This documentary explores the problem of college access faced by first generation and low-income students and how their success has major implications for the future of our nation. (Source: First Generation website)

Mitchell 20 (2011)

This education reform documentary, produced and directed by Randy Murray and Andrew James Benson, follows twenty of the twenty-nine teachers at a Phoenix, Arizona public school who set out on a journey toward improving the quality of their teaching by attempting to achieve National Board Certification. You can request screenings or get a copy of the film on their website. (Source: Mitchell 20 website)

Bully (2011)

Director Lee Hirsch's film Bully follows young Americans across the US as they battle their way through the confusing terrain of the American school system. The powerful film gives voice to the 5 million kids who are bullied each year. (Source: Bully website) Check out Edutopia's roundup page "Resources to Fight Bullying and Harassment at School."

American Teacher (2011)

The Teacher Salary Project encompasses the feature-length documentary film American Teacher, an interactive online resource, and a national outreach campaign that delves into the core of our educational crisis as seen through the eyes and experiences of our nation's teachers. Directed and produced by Vanessa Roth; and produced by Ninive Calegari and Dave Eggers, co-founders of the 826 National writing programs. Read an Edutopia review of the film. (Source: The Teacher Salary Project website)

Project Happiness (2011)

With the unspoken epidemic of stress and depression infiltrating every community, how can kids (of all ages) learn to generate their own happiness regardless of the situations they face? Follow three groups of high school students from three continents on a quest to understand the nature of lasting happiness. Read the first blog in a series by filmmaker Randy Taran for Edutopia. (Source: Project Happiness website)

Waiting for Superman (2010)

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) follows a handful of promising kids through a system that he suggests inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth. (Source: Waiting for Superman website)

Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture (2009)

Director Vicki Abeles' documentary is about the pressures faced by American schoolchildren and their teachers in a system and culture she describes as obsessed with the illusion of achievement, competition and the pressure to perform. (Source: Race to Nowhere website)

The Lottery (2010)

Madeleine Sackler's film The Lottery endeavors to uncover the failures of the traditional public school system by following four families from Harlem and the Bronx who have entered their children in a charter school lottery. (Source: The Lottery website)

The Cartel (2009)

The Cartel shows us our educational system like we've never seen it before. Balancing local storylines against interviews with education experts, this film explores what dedicated parents, committed teachers, clear-eyed officials, and tireless reformers are doing to make our schools better for our kids. (Source: The Cartel website)

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Rose's picture

Totally agree with you Jodi. Parents are the elephant in the room. How often do we hear that our school system is in crisis and that performance and graduation rates are abysmal in some districts? I attended teachers college during the 1970's and vividly remember the call for reform and school improvement. It seems our schools are in constant crisis. I propose that we need to look outside the box for solutions. We keep trying to change teaching methods, expectations and school environments. As I said in my earlier post it works for some of the kids some of the time. But what about those kids who failed in the 80's and 90's? They are now parents and lack the necessary skills to be involved with their kids to help them succeed. Why is this reality never discussed or addressed in any meaningful way? These parents need intervention, support and remediation so they can provide for their children. Until we deal with this essential part of the problem and acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between parents, children, schools and achievement I predict our public school system will still be spinning it's wheels in years to come. Maria Montessori wisely said "The greatest step forward in human evolution was made when society began to help the weak and the poor, instead of oppressing and despising them."
One solution would be to open the schools in the late afternoon and evening for adult education and support groups. Imagine how many jobs that would create- a whole other shift of administrators, teachers, social workers, psychologists, school nurses, maintenance, secretarial workers, etc. Hotlines could be staffed by experts for those parents who need immediate assistance with a parenting problem at home. Computer centers would be accessible for research and learning. Basic Life Management Skills classes would be available to all adults in the community and ongoing support groups for follow up with access to expert advice. For instance young parents needing to buy their first home could obtain advice from a real estate expert who could guide them through the process so they don't become victims of unscrupulous lenders and brokers. Parents with children who are struggling in school could attend classes on helping their child achieve, learning techniques to motivate and monitor their child's homework. Parents who are totally disorganized at home could attend classes on home organization and family management and be provided with a personal mentor to help them learn new habits. Nutritional classes, exercise classes, budgeting classes all would provide much needed assistance. There are so many possibilities and it would be trying something completely new and different that has the potential to finally break the cycle of poverty for many families. With a good foundation at home, school achievement and interest in learning would improve. Just the mere fact that parents would be actively involved with the school and setting an example of learning is motivational for their children. "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"-- Robert Francis Kennedy

Roy Robles's picture

Home schooling is definitely a viable option for communities in cycles of poverty, Native American, black, brown and white communities. Most of these communities historically have been stripped of their freedoms and powers to self govern. They have had their families divided, have been overcoming genocide; have been struggling with national oppressive policies that are bias to their needs as a whole person. What this nation needs is a large injection of family time. All families need to regroup and heal, especially families in communities that have been oppressed. People learn so much from being with their children and that process is extremely healing.

Homeschooling/unschooling as an option for these communities is always argued against, using a negative narrative of the community. There are soo many positive people, stories and leaders in these communities that are ignored. The national narrative on these communities is incomplete and bias. I don't think I need to convince anyone that the mainstream media portrays these communities by highlighting the most negative stories and ignoring the positive aspects. Historically and currently there are plenty of outstanding stories of overcoming challenges and of self-actualization, from John Brown to KRS one. These stories need to be told to the children in these communities . . . actually ALL communities. A person's story is extremely important in education. One's history, biology, language and dreams contextualize the content they are studying. Negative narratives should not be used when deciding what's viable and what's not.

Current schools are detached from this truth and try to standardize people, dehumanizing them. Historically, schools have been the mechanism to stratify society into classes, tracking the powerless and making sure that they do not become their best selves. Never was the intention to educate, but to school, and there is a difference between education and schooling. The most successful students become robot-like, learning how to memorize and spit out information, but not to deeply analyze it and assimilate it into their selves. They are fast tracked and their adolescence is delayed. "When they come of age, they are certain they must know something because their degrees and licenses say they do. They remain so convinced until an unexpectedly brutal divorce, corporate downsizing in midlife, or panic attacks of meaninglessness upset the precarious balance of their incomplete humanity, their stillborn adult lives...Years of intellectual and spiritual education would be needed to restore such faculties" John Taylor Gatto

Thank God for the heroes who have found true education and I admit a buncha' of these heroes are in the school system, but must fight against incredible and malintended forces. There's also the excuse of "keeping children safe" for families in crisis, to have a compulsory educational system and keep children institutionalized for 16 plus years. Other solutions are viable.

These communities are in high need of family time, healing, self-education, self-governance and ultimately, freedom. With that said, there seem to be double standards. There are wealthy families that also have troubled home environments. Parents that never spend time with their children, are on drugs, drug their children and/or have questionable morals and citizenship. These families are rarely highlighted or criticized. Family services don't go banging on their doors and break up the family. They can do whatever they want with their children because they have money, which is an indictment on our society's values. Money DOESN'T equal success; self-actualization and happiness is success. Some of history's greatest leaders were highly spiritual and monk-like. If a child wants to be a monk, how will schools prepare them for that path?

In practice, I identify a transitional stage for home schooling in these communities. During this transitional period, healthy families and those willing and wanting to home school, would pioneer home schooling in these neighborhoods and become examples for the rest of the community to witness. For example, a person who has an addiction may have a sibling with a healthy family life who could be a role model for their nephew or niece; they could even take them in and home school them themselves. This child may decide to home school their children in the future. This transitional period may take a few generations, but the idea of homeschooling would take root and begin to heal these communities.

In cases where there are no immediate family members able to home school, the current schools, ideally reformed to allow open source learning and self-education, could provide support for the child and community healing processes. I would love to see a post secondary education model starting at Kindergarten. It's during college that students are allowed to think and be part of finding their path, way too late in my opinion. Schools should not be compulsory. Families should be able to choose classes and have their children take as many or as little as they want. Classes should be a mix of free form, cross-generational, open source learning with contextualized curriculum. Classes should compete for attendance. Instructors would design quality classes, where families would be free to decide which class they want to take. Some classes could be modeled in the Suzuki method, where parents take classes with their children.

Finland has the highest rated schools in the world and they home school until age 8. When children are matriculated into the schools, they are provided with loop teaching (same teacher for four or more years), lots of free time (for students and teachers), and instructors are trusted and allowed to be as creative as they can be with their curriculum. Ultimately, it would be great if the current school model could be reformed and the community could regain these institutions of education. But so many of our institutions have been co-opted and are failing us: Government, Journalism, Music with their 3 minute factory produced hits - Stevie wonder, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, and Etta James would never make it in today's industry, very grateful for the internet. Now they are trying to co-opt the Internet by destroying net neutrality and creating a tiered system. Sorry for the rant, but the corruption has reached the core and we need to begin again, starting with the American family.

Here are some links:
Changing the Education Paradigm:

Schooling the world:

No More Prisons: Urban Life, homeschooling and Hip Hop Leadership:

Freedom schools

The Prohibited Education

Amy Valens's picture
Amy Valens
retired teacher, Lagunitas School District Open Classroom

Films that point our problems can be useful starting points, even if they misidentify the problems and the solutions, which was sometimes the case in these movies. The comments above (and the many articles Waiting for Superman in particular has ignited) that probe further, identify misleading statistics, missed opportunities, and ask how public schools and society can meet the missions of their times instead of throwing them out with the bath water are examples of that.

And then there are movies that give form and direction to what public school can be, building from current examples. World Peace and other 4th Grade Accomplishments has already been mentioned in these comments. Our film AUGUST TO JUNE Bringing LIFE To School will be out in January, and was recently reviewed by John Merrow Another look at directions that can and are being pursued is found in Speaking In Tongues, which has recently been showing on some PBS stations. These films have in common that they demonstrate what can actually happen when communities and teachers create learning situations that engage students. Rather than relying on easily manipulated statistics, they exemplify some specific directions we can take, while avoiding one size fits all solutions as well as being enjoyable to watch! I hope Edutopians will take a closer look at these, and demand media beyond Edutopia's pages that enrich our understanding of the many faces of good teaching.

Amy Valens's picture
Amy Valens
retired teacher, Lagunitas School District Open Classroom

Films that point our problems can be useful starting points, even if they misidentify the problems and the solutions, which was sometimes the case in these movies. The comments above (and the many articles Waiting for Superman in particular has ignited) that probe further, identify misleading statistics, missed opportunities, and ask how public schools and society can meet the missions of their times instead of throwing them out with the bath water are examples of that.

And then there are movies that give form and direction to what public school can be, building from current examples. World Peace and other 4th Grade Accomplishments has already been mentioned in these comments. Our film AUGUST TO JUNE Bringing LIFE To School will be out in January, and was recently reviewed by John Merrow Another look at directions that can and are being pursued is found in Speaking In Tongues, which has recently been showing on some PBS stations. These films have in common that they demonstrate what can actually happen when communities and teachers create learning situations that engage students. Rather than relying on easily manipulated statistics, they exemplify some specific directions we can take, while avoiding one-size-fits-all solutions, as well as being enjoyable to watch! I hope Edutopians will take a closer look at these, and demand media beyond Edutopia's pages that enrich our understanding of the many faces of good teaching.

Mary Ellen Bossack's picture
Mary Ellen Bossack
Elementary Counselor

I saw Waiting for Superman this week. I was disappointed to see that the portrayal of the children and parents were so idealized. I've worked in education since 1965, in private and public schools.
In the movie there were no children who seemed neglected, no discipline problems, no angry parents who had problems themselves. There were no rural schools.
I find most teachers work very hard in difficult situations. I see some who could do more, but they should have been weeded out before tenure. I didn't think tenure mattered until we had some really off balance administrators, one superintendent wanted to fire me because I questioned the dropout rate which was reported way below the real rate. Tenure isn't always a bad thing and tenured teachers can be fired. Our district has terminated several tenured and untenured teachers and administrators. Administration needs to be held accountable as much as teachers.
We work hard to engage parents, but some cannot respond. Not all are as concerned and active as the movie showed. This problem isn't only about teachers..It takes a village to raise a child.

Danielle Sigmon's picture
Danielle Sigmon
Social Media Marketing Coordinator

On Twitter, Gary Padgett (@DrGaryPadgett) highly recommends "Here Comes the Boom" as a great film to re-inspire and re-engage teachers.

kevshp's picture

No Excuses! A film about quality physical education is another must watch documentary. This documentary follows the transformation of the physical education program at the Storefront Academy in Harlem, transitioning from a "roll out the ball" program to a quality physical education program. No Excuses! is a great advocacy tool that should be seen by all teachers, administrators, legislators, parents, and community members. It's free to watch here (no ads or signups):

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

In Pakistan, students in English class often look forward to the end of literature units. Once the final test is over, they know that the teacher will bring in the video version of the book - giving students a two day break to sleep, pass notes to friends, finish homework for other classes, or maybe (just maybe) compare and contrast the movie with the novel.

Arlene @ Inspire Charter Schools's picture

I agree with Jeremy Stuart. While homeschooling may not be for everyone, for some people it is a very viable option and needs to be included in the mix. As a teacher in the public homeschool field since 1998, first at the Alta Loma School District's Independent Study program, then a decade at a virtual academy, and now at Inspire Charter Schools, I can share with you that children at either end of the bell curve often thrive academically at home. Their differentiated needs are not always well served in public school as harried teachers with large class sizes often teach to the students who are in the middle of the bell curve. There is a reason why Stanford and other colleges seek out homeschool students. These students are not burned out from jumping through hoops and are still actually curious about learning. I hear and witness countless success stories from families who are grateful they have options especially those who are in underperforming public schools, and those who are targets of bullies. At Inspire Charter Schools we are offering blended, or hybrid schooling for students who have a passion for performing arts, STEAM, or perhaps outdoor education. We are providing 2-3 days of project-based, thematic and collaborative learning for students in our Specialty Schools program as a part of their electives, and therefore at no cost for our students.

By the way, an excellent documentary that explores this subject is titled Class Dismissed. The film does a great job of following one family as they wrestle with the idea of schooling at home and then tracking them for a year. Check out the review on the Huffington Post: and visit their website: You will hear Jeremy's voice loud and clear in this wonderfully, well balanced documentary as he hand a large hand in it.

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