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)

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Lucia's picture

Please don't forget the documentary "The Rubber Room" (see info at 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?

Lisa Rachal's picture

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!

Wayne Sargent's picture

[quote]Please don't forget the documentary "The Rubber Room" (see info at 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]

Lisa Payton's picture

Race to Nowhere is playing on September 30 at 7pm at the Chicago Waldorf School, 1300 W Loyola Ave, Chicago (Rogers Park). The director of the film, Vicki Abeles, will be there for a Q&A following the film. Visit for more information and tickets

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 (

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!

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