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Bruno: Sometimes It Makes Sense To Back Down

BombIt looks like the controversial edu-movie Won't Back Down was an epic flop at the box office, barely even squeaking in to the weekend box office top-ten list. By most accounts it also isn't very good, although I haven't seen it.

Given that all signs point to the movie being completely forgettable on its own terms, it's probably safe to say that all of the hand-wringing and protesting by parent trigger opponents was much ado about nothing. In fact, I'd go so far to say that the movie's opponents probably shot themselves in the foot by turning a movie nobody was going to care about into a "nationwide conversation" in which parent trigger advocates could make their case.

If you'd asked teachers' unions a year ago whether they'd like to be having a nationwide conversation about parent trigger laws I think the answer would have been "no", but that's exactly where we're at today. If we're having that conversation despite the fact that Won't Back Down was a commercial dud, it's hard to see that as a tactical victory for parent trigger opponents.  (My local NPR affiliate teased a related segment as being about "the new movie the teachers' unions hate", which is the kind of framing that indicates that this isn't a debate the unions are likely to cleanly "win.")

I thought it was pretty clear from the first trailer that Won't Back Down wasn't going to be very good or very popular, but it still would have made sense for the movie's opponents to take a sober informative public stand against the dubious logic of parent triggers. By refusing to let the movie die its own quiet death, however, its opponents may have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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I have to disagree. The premise of this post is that "Won't Back Down" has gained publicity from the teachers' union responses, and that it would have been an even quieter dud without that publicity. Perhaps, but this is easy Monday-morning quarterbacking. It's a fact that this film gained unusual notice by being screened at both the Democratic and Republican conventions, and its production company was successful in getting its stars booked on a large variety of talk shows and the like. The strategy for an Erin Brockovich-like movie, which this one aspired to replicate, was to gain a lot of buzz and strong reviews so as to create a word-of-mouth-based hit; the controversy surrounding the theme was intended to get audiences into the theaters on the opening weekend, but does not appear to have succeeded, so the logic of an argument insinuating that teachers' union responses were excessive and counterproductively influential and may have driven people into the theaters does not seem to be supported by facts -- unless the union responses really were influential in keeping people out of the theaters, but that too would be speculation.

A national conversation is exactly what we need, and the vocal opposition to this piece of propaganda has exposed its right-wing billionaire backers and their agenda. The mainstream media has taken note of its sleazy tactics. Read back over your post, and you'll notice from the tone that it was written by a supporter of corporate reform, not an opponent.

Thanks for the advice, but it's colored by the fact that you're on the other side in this.

I know that's the line throughout the reformy world now, presumably straight out of one of their propaganda shops: haw haw, you critics shot yourselves in the foot by increasing the attention to the movie.

That line worked better before it became clear that the movie is a flop; that it makes the parent trigger look like a fantasy nostrum; and that the movie has gotten out in front of the reform hype to discredit the parent trigger to an audience that would never have heard the previous hype for it.

It's been really interesting to see high-profile critics like Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times give very clear-eyed and accurate descriptions of the real-life parent trigger -- far more so than their own papers' education reporters and editorial writers.

In any case, the logical time to haw-haw at us critics was back when it seemed possible that the movie would appealingly and convincingly sell the parent trigger to a wide audience rather than discrediting it as a silly, unworkable scam.

@Bruce - My claim is not that union responses drove people to the movie. (Any forces that *did* drive people to the movie were apparently not operating with much magnitude.) My claim is that many of the union responses helped to turn the movie into a conversation piece, and thereby gave parent trigger advocates probably their biggest platform to date to make their case to a wide audience. This controversy-generated platform's got nothing to do with people having seen or not seen the movie, and everything to do with people thinking of the movie as "controversial".

By the way, Parents Across America was out there first with responses to the movie, ahead of the teachers' union voices. I'm saying that not to criticize one or the other but to correct the inaccurate indication that the unions were the only voice, or the first.

Considering we're all-volunteer and have practically no budget, I think we at PAA were pretty effective at being visible. At least, as PAA's resident parent trigger expert, my information suddenly was in demand, and I wrote a commentary for the New York Times (at their request) and was interviewed by USA Today, People Magazine, Ed Week, Reuters and others. So we are not chopped liver in this discussion.

All that said, I don't think you can have it both ways. Either we shot ourselves in the foot by drawing big attention to the movie, which is how the reform line had it before the movie opened, or we didn't draw big attention to the movie.

My take is that the movie, while not widely viewed, is still informing more people about the parent trigger than would have otherwise known about it -- in a manner that discredits the parent trigger.

Yet again this all reminds me of for-profit Edison Schools, the failed "reform" fad of more than a decade ago. In 2001, Edison decided to build a PR campaign around the fact that my school district, San Francisco USD, was trying to get rid of an Edison school. The press was amazingly compliant and told the story Edison's (inaccurate) way for a time, but in the end, Edison's own efforts had put its own failures in the spotlight, discrediting only Edison Schools.

How does this all affect the kids? That's complicated, but falsehoods and hype are never a good thing.

I don't accept for one moment that we should sit silent as we are vilified for no reason. I am sick and tired of being stereotyped in the media, of being painted with a broad brush by people who know nothing about me or what I do. Parent Trigger hasn't worked, ever, and we're saddled with a government that prescribes junk science like VAM to solve problem.

We should have spoken up sooner. Every moment we neglect in speaking truth to corporate nonsense is a moment lost. We are educators, and it's our duty to tell the truth. This is our time, and I've nothing but respect for parents like Caroline and Leonie to stand up for us and our children every day.

In fact, those who finance propaganda like this have a lot of money, and that is clearly what they use to garner attention. We have numbers, and that's what we will use to answer them.

Paul, I agree that the movie has become a conversation piece, if only for a few weeks (the movie carousel is ever turning, and most films have short life spans), but think the advice "you should have stayed quiet" unrealistic: people like Caroline and so many others have genuine, passionate beliefs about their positions, as do those who favour the Parent Trigger, and to expect people to remain quiet about matters they care so deeply about just wasn't going to happen and is inconsistent with our political culture. I think Caroline's view in her fourth paragraph correct, except that I don't think the movie discredits the Parent Trigger, which is never directly mentioned in the movie (which depends upon a fictional "Fail-Safe" law, and requires teacher support to change the management of a school) but which is garnering a lot of discussion anyway.

@Bruce, I meant because so many people who are seeing the movie are rolling their eyes at the magical-thinking notion that the overwhelmed single mom with the two jobs and dyslexic daughter can fit the petition drive and school turnaround into her daily schedule. And because many of its stereotypes are cartoonish, that's provoking many reviewers to take a sharper look at the "unions evil/private management good" message. If the movie had had some artistry, it might not have had that effect.

Caroline, I wonder if you've seen the movie. There is no "unions evil/private management good" message; in fact, there is no private management at all, except that the teacher who leads the rebellion becomes the principal, presumably under a renewable charter (although this word, and issue, are also skirted by the movie). Conflicting feelings about teachers' unions are present in two of the main characters of the movie, the TFA teacher who breaks with his girlfriend's school transformation drive because he doesn't want to be known to be anti-labor and the teachers' union's site rep who doubts some of the tactics being employed by her union. When I was on stage after a screening last week, the moderator called this "the most anti-union movie" he had ever seen (a right-winger, he may have meant that as a compliment); I differed, believing "Waiting for Superman" to be far more anti-union and simplistic than this picture.

I haven't seen it (there were no previews in my area, and on the opening weekend I was staying at my 94-year-old mother-in-law's and wasn't free for a movie outing, since she needs constant attention). I was able to read many reviews -- I've probably read 15 of them at least -- so my comments are entirely based on interpreting what the reviewers said. I've been startled and amused that some newspaper film critics are quite well informed about the parent trigger.

The takeover management as portrayed in the film would inherently be private management, however. It's no longer under the public governance of a school district with an elected board, correct? The reviewers indicated that the film is entirely vague about all that, but if such a takeover were effected, that's how it would work.

If trigger opponents like PAA had not gotten out in front of this movie, then the majority of the clear-eyed reviews would not have spelled out the backers' agenda.

That the movie is crap and poorly attended is moot. The key point is that trigger opponents framed the conversation with real-world context. That was a critical strategic move and it has proven to be effective.

Caroline, when you see the movie (I predict you will, because you like to be informed about these things -- although if I learned you waited until you could watch it on computer or some other venue where you don't have to pay for it, I wouldn't be surprised, since I suspect you don't want to give money to Walden Media in any manner), you will see that there is no answer in it to your question, since there is only one, epilogue scene about the new school after the vote. But you're still making assumptions about governance and management in your comment, and should recognize that this is a fictitious school being transformed under a fictitious law. I would argue that charter schools are still under public governance, since their charters require renewing by a publicly elected school board at five-year (or other, depending upon the state) intervals; their day-to-day management becomes more independent, but it's hard to see the difference between how Adams Elementary is ultimately managed in the film and some of the new pilot schools being developed in Los Angeles and other cities.

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