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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 06/ 3/2010

Movies and School Reform: Lessons from ‘An Inconvenient Truth’

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Frederick M. Hess, director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

By Frederick M. Hess
I can’t recall how many times over the years I’ve heard from school reformers, "We need our own ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’ "

You know, a cinematic indictment of the educational status quo jarring enough to stir a lethargic public. Well, all of a sudden, we’ve got a whole bunch of them, and we’re about to see how much they matter. A spate of three-hanky edu-flicks are storming the landscape, with some heading to mainstream theaters near you—movies like ‘The Cartel,’ ‘Waiting for Superman,’ and ‘The Lottery.’

Proponents hope that these films, which massively one-up former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 magnum opus “An Inconvenient Truth” when it comes to raw sentiment, are finally going to awaken Americans to the villainy of teachers unions and get them emotionally invested in school reform.

The premise is that no one has ever told Americans, in sufficiently poignant terms, about the troubled state of urban schooling or what to do about it.

We’re about to see how much difference these movies make. Me, I’m dubious that even this blast of emotionally manipulative filmmaking will lead to much change in attitudes or behavior.

Just consider “An Inconvenient Truth.”

For those who don’t recall, the movie was released in May 2006 and billed as a spectacular alert to the perils of global warming. It did huge box office, won Gore an Academy Award and helped him claim a Nobel Prize, and was credited with riling a previously lethargic public. This was as good as it gets when it comes to Hollywood propaganda, the one-in-a-million shot.

But how much did the film actually shift public opinion on global warming? Even a cursory look at the data seems to suggest that over the long term, not much.

Consider this: When asked by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal in July 1999 for their views on global warming, 23% of respondents said, "Global climate change has been established as a serious problem, and immediate action in necessary." By June 2006, right after “An Inconvenient Truth” came out, that rose to 29%. The figure peaked at 34% in January 2007. Less than three years later, however, by December 2009, the number was back down to where it had been in 1999--at 23%.

A CBS News poll found similar results. The poll asked, "Do you think global warming is an environmental problem that is causing a serious impact now, or do you think the impact of global warming won’t happen until sometime in the future, or do you think global warming won’t have a serious impact at all?"

|n June 2001, 35% of respondents answered that it was already having an impact. By mid-2006, that number soared to 67% and peaked at 70% in January 2007, before plummeting to 43% by February 2009. In other words, less than three years after the movie was released, the shift in public sentiment had largely dissipated.

At least three lessons here. One, a hugely successful movie can cause a shift. Two, it looks like that shift has a limited shelf life. And three, the Green Movement never had much success harnessing that temporary boost in a meaningful fashion. If education reformers want to better schools, they ought to bring a new playbook.

Even in education, it’s not like we’ve never seen this show before. The “ED in ‘08” campaign was supposed to spark a similar public awakening, with the aid of sophisticated polling, viral marketing, celebrity endorsements, and the rest. In fact, I’d argue that decades of school reform with efforts like these have relied, in ways big and small, on the "boil the sea" strategy.

The problem is that people are busy. They care a lot about their own kid, but they just don’t have that much time or energy to worry about improving systems of schooling for all kids. Reformers often gloss over this fact, because reformers typically have loads of time to worry about school systems and everyone else’s kids (either because it’s their job or because they’re wealthy). If you want people to act, they need specific, concrete, and personally satisfying steps they can take.

Parents are happy to get their child out of a lousy teacher’s class and into a good one. Parents wait-listed for a charter school are eager to rally for the availability of more seats. Parents with friends and neighbors in a PTA are pretty good about hosting events. Parents can be prompted to send an e-mail or make a phone call to influence a specific school board policy.

But vague, generic notions that we’re going to get people to be "more aware" and to "get involved" are likely to fall flat, especially when we recognize that they’re hearing similar pleas about going green, fighting childhood obesity, cleaning up government, caring for the homeless, and so on.

Would-be reformers, be advised.


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By Valerie Strauss  | June 3, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  documentaries on education, education movies, education reform, frederick hess, guest bloggers, movies and school reform, the cartel and movie, the lottery and movie, waiting for superman  
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What do you think about the movie about Jaime Escalante? Don't you think that helped to "show" that low-income kids could pass AP Exams? Didn't it have an impact?
It would be fun to analyze how teachers are portrayed in the movies.
A funny take on schools is shown in Matilda. Did you see that one?

Posted by: celestun100 | June 3, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if any of these movies will draw attention to the corporate profit side of reform? Will they mention anything about Diane Ravitch's changed point of view? It will be interesting.

Posted by: aed3 | June 3, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

TEAHCERS with Nick Nolte, JoBeth Williams, Judd Hirsch

The scenes with "Ditto" were a rip.
First he explodes over use of the purple ink ditto machine, then he dies sitting in his chair in his classroom.
He had a routine where the kids came in, picked up the ditto packet, filled it out, and left it on his desk on their way out.
So when he died, no one noticed til much later in the day.
Then one of the "best" teachers was the escaped mental patient who took over a history class.
He looked at the book, called it a joke and tossed it out the window, followed by the students' copies.
He then had the class re-enact historical events like Washington crossing the Delaware.

On a more serious side, To Sir With Love, title song courtesy of LuLu.

Posted by: edlharris | June 3, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

I did have a friend send me the trailer for "Waiting for Superman." It's very pro charter and aed3, won't show Diane Ravitch's side. The movies are being created by the billionaire boys club. In the trailer it has Joe Kline and Michelle Rhee being interviewed. Michelle Rhee, "I don't think kids are getting a bad education, I know they are." (Or something along that lines. It's not a quote for quote.)
Why is Joe Kline promoting charters when he's in charge of public schools? Seems like he's saying his leadership is a failure.
The movie shows the lottery system for a charter school. The kids and parents who win are ecstatic while the ones who don't get in are traumatized because there kids have no future now.
So we have this group, like Ravitch etc. promoting a new era of public education reform, and we have the department of education heavily influenced by the billionares, whose reform is very similiar to the flawed NCLB system, which created this mess in the first place.
I don't see how proponents of public education can win against the money going into these movies. Money speaks.
Diane Ravitch says she's the messanger. Who is going to be our leader?
Will this eliminate public schools and create a class system in education?

Posted by: tutucker | June 3, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Interesting reference to "To Sir with Love." As I remember, in the book, at least, the teacher began addressing male students by their surnames and female students as Miss surname, according to the customary British way of addressing adults in business circumstances, and they began behaving much more maturely.

My mother did that one year with fifth-graders (in her case because she had 30 students and approximately a dozen first names!) and had the same results.

Another former teacher I know tried the same experiment. She was getting the same results, but the principal found out and ordered her to stop it: "We don't want to let them forget they're just kids and need to do what grown-ups tell them."

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 4, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

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