Review of “Won’t Back Down” — a sequel of sorts to “Waiting for Superman”


Won’t Back Down


Now showing

  Plot description: Two determined mothers, one a teacher, look to transform their children’s failing inner city school. Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, they risk everything to make a difference in the education and future of their children.

Starring Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Holly Hunter


I wanted to see Won’t Back Down for a glimpse of how Hollywood treats the school reform movement. Set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the movie is “Inspired by real events,” the opening credits claim. This film is, in a sense, a fictionalized sequel to Waiting for Superman: It begins with a failing public school and the disappointment of a lottery for a charter school.

How bad is John Adams Elementary? Kids play video games in class while the teacher texts on her cell phone, and struggling students are locked up in broom closets. (Hey, this stuff happens.).

What follows the failure of the lottery is the uphill battle by determined single parent Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and sometimes wavering teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) to “take over” the school and, in essence, bust the all-powerful teacher’s union and force a vote before the all-indifferent school board before the end of the school year.

Since teachers must abandon their union contracts to work in the school John Adams will become, the hidebound teacher’s union becomes the convenient villain. (For some reason, teachers at John Adams couldn’t stay one minute after school let out because of union rules. If such rules exist, they should be changed immediately.) Holly Hunter is lost in this movie. She’s assigned the role of a union official, but she doesn’t seem to know whether she’s playing Norma Rae or Ophelia.

The crusading parent, driven to the breaking point over the treatment of her dyslexic second-grade daughter, does a good job of being pushy and obnoxious. She must deal with a prototypical bad teacher who doesn’t have a personality (other than a certain surly apathy) but serves mainly as a symbol of what’s wrong with schools these days. Of course, she goes by the book when it comes to union rules. Nona Alberts, the reformist teacher, also has a child with some learning disabilities and must also cope with the breakup of her marriage.

Nona faces reprisals (for doing what the school’s administration demanded in the first place) and character assassination. Jamie falls for a ukulele-playing hunk of a teacher who performs all his lesson plans.

 The movie’s climax comes when the parents march down to try and force a vote on their school takeover before the Board of Education. I marveled at the dynamics of Won’t Back Down’s school board, which went into executive session for three hours on the issue before returning to announce its decision without bothering to vote.

Memo to reformers: Bring a lawyer.

I would have laughed off the episode as poor scriptwriting if I hadn’t seen school boards try to get by with this kind of behavior . And then there’s this.

As Mark Twain once noted, “In the beginning, God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made school boards.”

Will the good-hearted parents and teachers prevail? Hint:, this is Hollywood!

The script is earnest and formulaic; the outcome is predictable. As you might expect, complex issues are glossed over. The roles of budget cutbacks and failed federal policy are largely ignored, other than to note that teachers must buy school supplies for their classes (which is, unfortunately, the norm). By the way, John Adams showed no sign of a PTA or PTO –which would be the first step parents should take to improve their kids’ school.

I suspect that Metro Atlanta, with its surplus of accreditation-challenged school systems, may be one of the movie’s most lucrative markets.

Is Won’t Back Down worth seeing? Yes, although you might want to wait for the DVD.

About the author: Jonathan Grant, a former PTA president and local school council member, is the author of Chain Gang Elementary. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia. For more information about the book, visit

Father kills masked intruder, finds out it’s his son

A nightmare.

From the Associated Press:

NEW FAIRFIELD, Conn. — A man fatally shot a masked teenager in self-defense outside his neighbor’s house during what appeared to be an attempted late-night burglary and then discovered it was his son, state police said.

Police identified the dead boy as 15-year-old Tyler Giuliano, who was shot at about 1 a.m. Thursday in New Fairfield, a town along the New York line just north of Danbury.

A woman who was alone in the house believed someone was breaking in and called the teen’s father, who lives next door, and he grabbed a gun and went outside to investigate, police said.

The father confronted someone wearing a black ski mask and black clothing and then fired his gun when the person went at him with a shiny weapon in his hand, police said.

Pepper spray update: UC-Davis officer’s action costs $1 million

In case you haven’t heard, the local district attorney decided not to file charges against police in this case.

From Inside Higher Ed:

The 21 students and recent graduates who sued the University of California at Davis after they were pepper-sprayed by police at close range during a nonviolent Occupy protest last fall will receive a $1 million settlement, they announced Wednesday. The class action lawsuit targeted Chancellor Linda Katehi, UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza, and John Pike – the officer seen using pepper spray and who no longer works at Davis – among other administrators and police. The Davis regents approved the terms Sept. 13 and a federal judge is expected to approve the settlement agreement, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California said in a statement.

The ACLU will also receive $20,000 from the settlement and will work with the university to develop new student demonstration and crowd management policies. And $100,000 will be set aside for students and alumni who were pepper-sprayed or arrested but were not named plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Katehi announced just a couple of days after the Nov. 20 incident that the university would drop all charges against the students who were pepper-sprayed and pay their medical bills. The district attorney’s office in Yolo County last week announced there would be no criminal charges filed against the UC Davis police officers.

Nearly 20% of U.S. households have student debt

This comes on top of the recent news that student loan debt is now greater than credit card debt.

From The Pew Research Center:

About one out of five (19%) of the nation’s households owed student debt in 2010, more than double the share two decades earlier1and a significant rise from the 15% that owed such debt in 2007, just prior to the onset of the Great Recession, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly available government data.

The Pew Research analysis also finds that a record 40% of all households headed by someone younger than age 35 owe such debt, by far the highest share among any age group.

It also finds that, whether computed as a share of household income or assets, the relative burden of student loan debt is greatest for households in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum, even though members of such households are less likely than those in other groups to attend college in the first place.


Are you going to see “Won’t Back Down” this weekend?


The trailer for Won’t Back Down looks good, and the movie is  “Inspired by Real Events.”

Plot description: Two determined mothers­, one a teacher, look to transform their children’s failing inner city school. Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, they risk everything to make a difference in the education and future of their children.

Starring: Vip;a Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Holly Hunter

 I plan to see it this weekend and post a review.  In the meantime, if you want a story where NOBODY backs down, check out Chain Gang Elementary.

Website offered to take students’ online courses–until it was exposed

I meant to post on this subject last week when I saw the original story. Despite the end result, it points to some deep-seated problem with online courses, like how valuable are they and did the student actually take them? 

From Inside Higher Ed:, one of several websites featured in an Inside Higher Ed story last week about services that offer to complete a student’s online course for a fee, has been taken offline.

Inside Higher Ed received a call Tuesday from someone claiming to be the site’s owner. The caller, Kevin, who declined to give his last name, said the site was not all that lucrative and with the added attention garnered last week, he decided to take it down. He added that he does not think sites like We Take Your Class are a problem; the problem, he believes, is that education is structured in a way that makes it easy to cheat.

Read more.