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. (Updated: 2/2014)

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. (Updated: 2/2014)
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  • 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)

    Information about upcoming screenings can be found on the film's 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)

    Information about upcoming screenings can be found on the film's website. Also, read Edutopia blogger Todd Finley’s review of this film, “Listen: The Movie Challenges the Culture of Standardized Testing.”

  • 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)

    Information about upcoming screenings can be found on the film's website. Also, as of February 17, 2014, the film is available for home viewing on DVD.

  • Previously Featured Films

    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)

This article originally published on 9/15/2010

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[quote]Please don't forget the documentary "The Rubber Room" (see info at http://www.rubberroommovie.com/). I've seen it and hope it gets more distribution so many others can see it, too. Among other things, it makes a great point that ADMINISTRATORS need to be accountable as well. Both in public schools (where teachers have some level of protection from Unions) and private schools (where teachers have no unions and no advocacy... this is especially important now in a bad economy when admissions are low and schools need to cut staff -- often unethically and unfairly). Lots of folks talk about how important it is to have great quality, dedicated teachers with proven success with students... but when such teachers can be replaced by those who are younger and less experienced for a much lower rate of pay, that "priority" often goes out the window. Tragic. Can you think of any other profession where the more education you have, and the more experience you have, the LESS likely you are to be hired?[/quote]

Parent of Three

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I hear you and I agree administration must be made accountable as well. I was moved to tears after watching the clips from "Waiting for Superman" because as a mother of three children who are in a great charter school it broke my heart to see how many children are not getting a great education like my children and who deserve it! This movie is a must see by EVERYONE because regardless of what anyone thinks we are all in this together and when it is all said and done we ALL will be affected by it! By the way, I will check out the title you suggested!

Long time Teacher in Independent School - scared

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Please don't forget the documentary "The Rubber Room" (see info at http://www.rubberroommovie.com/). I've seen it and hope it gets more distribution so many others can see it, too. Among other things, it makes a great point that ADMINISTRATORS need to be accountable as well. Both in public schools (where teachers have some level of protection from Unions) and private schools (where teachers have no unions and no advocacy... this is especially important now in a bad economy when admissions are low and schools need to cut staff -- often unethically and unfairly). Lots of folks talk about how important it is to have great quality, dedicated teachers with proven success with students... but when such teachers can be replaced by those who are younger and less experienced for a much lower rate of pay, that "priority" often goes out the window. Tragic.

Can you think of any other profession where the more education you have, and the more experience you have, the LESS likely you are to be hired?

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