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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
  • 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)

    Part 1 and Part 2 can be viewed on the 180 Days page on the PBS 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)

    Find information about upcoming screenings or purchase the DVD on the film 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)

    The entire film can be viewed on the film website; also, look there for information about upcoming screenings and events.

  • Previously Featured Films

    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)

Originally Published September 15, 2010

Comments (24)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rose's picture

Just finished watching Education Nation on MSNBC and I get so frustrated when the blame game begins. I am a former teacher with a M.Ed. and familiar with a host of theories and practices but firmly believe that the problem with our system today needs to be solved holistically; the solution must involve administrators, teachers, students and last but not least PARENTS. This country has focused all its efforts on educating children only, it works for a lot of kids most of the time BUT not for all of the kids all of the time. Recent studies reveal that poverty has a negative effect on a child's brain development especially the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity. One study (ScienceDaily 12-6-08) also concluded that with proper training and intervention these deficits can be overcome. Education experts say parental involvement is essential for student success. But what if the parents were raised in poverty? They too could have developmental problems and may never have received proper training or intervention thus you have the blind leading the blind.
Charter schools succeed because the lottery process serves as a sorting machine. It sorts the students who have responsible, functional parents that are actively involved in their children's lives and willing to go through the lottery process from the students whose parents may not have the ability, skills or initiative to endure the process because they were raised in poverty and may have innate or acquired developmental issues that were never addressed properly. Charter schools claim success because they are different but really they are different because they are EXCLUSIVE. In many cases they exclude those children whose parents are not actively involved in their lives. Those kids are left to attend public schools yet they are often the ones who need the help most because their parents can not provide them with what they need. This is how the cycle of poverty and overcrowded, underachieving inner city schools continues and until we as a nation are willing to give parents living in poverty the support and skills they need, the cycle will not be broken, not by teacher accountability nor by Charter schools, not by innovative methods, nor by "super" teachers.
We need Public Adult Learning Centers in every community across this nation to educate, remediate and provide resources and ongoing support to help those parents who have innate or acquired deficiencies. A wise Chinese proverb rings true here, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is now." Instead of labeling individuals who lack these skills as abnormal and allowing them to drift in a sea of confusion on the ship of poverty and stagnation, our government could intervene and provide the neglected, disadvantaged or simply uninformed with the skills, expert advice and ongoing support they need to live a productive and joyful life. By participating in these classes an individual would become skilled and competent in managing their own life and family thus making them better neighbors, friends, employees, even if their income remains low. Parents would be better able to guide their own children and improve the quality of life for all their descendants therefore breaking the cycle of true poverty. It really does take a village. It's time to think outside the box and focus on educating parents too. "Why should society feel responsible only for the education of children, and not for the education of all adults of every age?" - Erich Fromm

Kim Wilkens's picture
Kim Wilkens
technology activity

I haven't seen any of these films yet, although I have heard about Superman and really want the opportunity to see it. I think Sir Ken Robinson in his TEDTalk called Bring on the Learning Revolution! explains the problem and solution maybe too broadly, but pretty succinctly. In a nutshell, we need to move from a manufacturing/industrial model of education (which is squashing students natural talents) to an agricultural/organic model (which is customized to the local circumstances and the people actually being taught). I am lucky to be part of a Montessori school that embraces this vision, but it takes an awful lot of time, energy and buy-in from all parties involved (parents, teachers, admin, students, community).

There is a great film with a positive spin on education reform that shows an amazing example of teaching and learning in a school system willing to take risks - World Peace and other 4th Grade Achievements (http://www.rosaliafilms.com/)

Jeremy Stuart's picture

I'm curious as to why neither of these films talk about Homeschooling as a viable option to educating our kids. Both films highlight serious and troubling problems within the current educational model, yet they seem to be unwilling to admit that perhaps the one size fits all approach to education is part of the problem. If the box is broken, maybe it's time to look outside the box. While Homeschooling is definitely not for everyone, it works and works well for a growing number of families from all walks of life. One of the gifts homeschooling has to offer is a personalized and flexible approach to education, that may in the end serve our young people more effectively.

A's picture

Homeschooling and charter schools are NOT a viable option; they are a poor excuse for true education, as President John Adams clearly stated. We need parents to be held accountable even MORE than we do our educators and administrators. The buck has to start with parents!

Jeremy Stuart's picture

I'm confused by "A's" response. John Adams was homeschooled himself, along with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and may other successful people. I guess they did ok with their "poor excuses for education." And I agree that the buck has to start with parents and that's EXACTLY what happens with homeschooling. Homeschooling Parents are completely and totally involved in their kids education. And finally, I think it's important to realize that going to school does not guarantee that you'll get an education. Learning happens all the time.

Greg's picture

1) Quit hiring people to teach core curriculum, who only want to coach.
2) Get rid of education degrees for teachers. A high school teacher should have a degree in the area they are teaching.
3) Pay a decent salary.
4) Merit pay for good job performance.
5) School choice.

Mary Whalen's picture

I appreciate the movies that are critical of education. I ask students to do the same. But I want to be critical yet supportive. I want to applaud that which is good in most all schools without painting a broad brush stroke which will polarize instead of unify. Is there anyone else that feels that way?

RMC's picture

I've said these things for years! Most principals hire coaches then assign them a math or history class. I have a degree in my content area and am currently working on a second one. Those of us music teachers who are often marginalized as not "real teachers," actually have to have a degree in our content area as well as jumping through all of the college of education hoops. Most core teachers don't realize this as their degrees are in education rather than math, science, history, literature, etc. Yet, look at all of the people who do graduate with degrees in these areas and end up working retail because their options are limited. We need them in the schools! People who are passionate about their content area are usually the most motivated to become effective teachers.

Chris Santos's picture

I haven't seen any of the movies besides the trailers. What we need to understand, besides the core issue of education problems, is the perspective of the movies' directors. They create a spin too, let's not forget that. With that being said, I have more education than I know what to do with. The state of WA tells me I have to maintain my certification but doesn't provide compensation in lieu of this continued education. Boeing, Microsoft and other companies provide their employees a reimbursement system for continued. Even the military provides pathways for continued education. Teachers are constantly being told what to do, how to do it, and more is added everyday with no added compensation or time to do it in.

One of the realities is that we spend more instructional time than any other country with pupils in fewer days (Time.com). Students are disengaged - truly disengaged because school is boring - only 68.8% of HS students graduate. One third of college students drop out after their first year. 50% never finish. So can "for college" truly be the answer when statistically a third of HS students never go to college. So, they end up on the streets with little education or fewer skills. Balance a checkbook? Look at a bank statement? Fill out a 1040? Fix a car? Build a house?

I finally watched the Education Nation roundtable. What a farce! The political wrangling to figure out who is right and who is wrong was ridiculous. The 5 minute discussion between Michelle Rhee and Randi Weingarten about the $1 million campaign contribution from AFT union for the mayoral campaign in DC, again what's the purpose? Another reality: the political establishment truly does not care about children. There I've said it. They don't vote. They don't contribute to the campaigns. All children do is suck money out of the system. While politicians pander to the parents, because they have children, if this country truly cared, we would not be having this discussion. The national poverty rate has not changed in the last 40 years according to the new study recently released. Should we expect our children to fare any better in education? The education system is predicated on the 19th Century single room school house. Great for producing factory workers (from Ken Robinson, whom I admire too), but not creative, innovative 21st Century workers. Believing that we are a class-less society is a shortsighted. Many other countries have school systems that are skill/knowledge based. Not everyone should or can go to college - college isn't the answer for everyone. We need all forms of workers where having college-prep schools fail those students who never will go to college. No one says you can't go later!

Sheryl Gregg's picture

Your comments are the best articulated I have read so far. A book written a while back, The One Place, makes your point that schools should be resources for the entire family.

Thanks for speaking to the issue so well.

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