At the Movies: Films Focused on Education Reform | Edutopia
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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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  • 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)

    Most Likely to Succeed was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015. Find more information about the film on the film's 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)

    The Address premiered on PBS in spring 2014. More information about the film, including how to purchase the DVD, is available from the PBS website.

  • Previously Featured Films

    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 (2013)

    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)

Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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.

jack tudor's picture

If you wish to read a success story of a group of charter schools, you can take a look at the article by Dr. William Martin of Rice University in "Texas Monthly", the most prestigious monthly magazine of Texas, about Harmony Public Schools and charter schools in general.
This is really a sound article with full of scientific facts and figures. To read the full article, visit this website:

http://www.divedu.com/articles/15/head-class.html

Jodi Goodman's picture
Jodi Goodman
K-1-2 multi age classroom teacher from Charlotte, NC

@ Jeremy Stuart - Homeschooling

While homeschooling has been, and continues to be a successful option for many families across the nation, I do not in any way find this a viable option for the improvement of schools nation-wide. As Rose (above) so wonderfully articulated, a huge barrier in public education comes when we end up with a concentrated area of high-poverty, over crowded, low achieving students that come from less than desireable circumstances. They come to school with few of their basic needs met (appropriate shelter, sleep, food, love), putting teachers in a position to try to meet these needs before they can begin their job of teaching core subjects. Not all blame can be put to the parents of these under-priveledged, as Rose stated, because many of these families are subject to a very viscious cycle of poverty which their children are also being subjected to.

All of this to say: If much of the problem comes from unsuccessful home lives and broken communities, what makes you think these parents have the time, money, support, resources, or education to properly educate their children in their home, which is already an unsuitable environment for children? To families that have the comfort, financial stability, resources, motivation, and education to homeschool and still provide their child with a well-rounded education...kudos! For others that didn't have the support to get a college education themselves, don't have the finances to spend their day teaching their children instead of working, or don't have the education themselves to properly educate their children...public school is their only option and it our responsiblity as a nation to provide those students to a free, public, and quality education.

On a different note: I can agree with you that we need to get away from a "one size fits all" model in education. We have real, live, human beings (!) in our classrooms that need to be dealt with as such. They have personal needs, wants, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. We should take the time, as teachers, to discover these things and teach to them.

Jeremy Stuart's picture

Jodi,

I do agree with all that you are saying. I never intended to mean that homeschooling is a viable option for everyone. Homeschooling is definitely not for everyone, for many reasons, some of which you accurately point out. My initial post was really to point out that neither film ever mentioned homeschooling at all, and I sincerely believe that for some, it can be a viable option that many people may not even be aware of. One of the unique advantages to homeschooling in whatever form you choose to do it, is that it offers an individualized education, which schools, no matter hard good they are, can never offer. I particularly appreciated your last comment about having "real live human beings in our classrooms, with real need wants and interests..." and it's this fact that gets sorely overlooked in the current educational model.

[quote]@ Jeremy Stuart - Homeschooling

While homeschooling has been, and continues to be a successful option for many families across the nation, I do not in any way find this a viable option for the improvement of schools nation-wide. As Rose (above) so wonderfully articulated, a huge barrier in public education comes when we end up with a concentrated area of high-poverty, over crowded, low achieving students that come from less than desireable circumstances. They come to school with few of their basic needs met (appropriate shelter, sleep, food, love), putting teachers in a position to try to meet these needs before they can begin their job of teaching core subjects. Not all blame can be put to the parents of these under-priveledged, as Rose stated, because many of these families are subject to a very viscious cycle of poverty which their children are also being subjected to.

All of this to say: If much of the problem comes from unsuccessful home lives and broken communities, what makes you think these parents have the time, money, support, resources, or education to properly educate their children in their home, which is already an unsuitable environment for children? To families that have the comfort, financial stability, resources, motivation, and education to homeschool and still provide their child with a well-rounded education...kudos! For others that didn't have the support to get a college education themselves, don't have the finances to spend their day teaching their children instead of working, or don't have the education themselves to properly educate their children...public school is their only option and it our responsiblity as a nation to provide those students to a free, public, and quality education.

On a different note: I can agree with you that we need to get away from a "one size fits all" model in education. We have real, live, human beings (!) in our classrooms that need to be dealt with as such. They have personal needs, wants, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. We should take the time, as teachers, to discover these things and teach to them.[/quote]@ Jodi Goodman

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