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In September 2013, documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim and his production partners at Participant Media debuted TEACH, a two-hour documentary following four classroom teachers during an eventful 2011-2012 school year.
This wasn’t Guggenheim’s first foray into making movies about education. It was actually the wavy-haired, chunky-glassed filmmaker’s third such effort – and his second education-themed documentary in just three years.
But the 2013 documentary that aired on broadcast television was certainly Guggenheim’s most blandly uplifting education film, almost entirely optimistic in its depiction of schools and classroom teachers. It omitted any real discussion of teacher preparation, the teachers union’s role, ineffective teachers, or charter schools. It took “no position on educational reform or state and federal policies.”
The New York Times described it as a “valentine” to the teaching profession.
This was a far cry from Guggenheim’s previous effort, 2010’s Waiting For “Superman” (Superman), which described inadequate schools, indifferent teachers, under-educated students, and extremely frustrated parents turning to charter schools as an escape from district offerings.
The result of that hard-hitting effort was a film that attracted massive media attention and heated public debate. According to Participant, the film’s production company, Superman helped 2.8 million students through donations and attracted 10,000 participants to town hall meetings and online screenings of the film.
“For a moment in time, public education was truly top of mind in a way it had not been before,” said John Schreiber, Participant’s head of social action campaigns at the time.
It was “a moment of remarkable synchronicity for education issues,” noted the New York Times.
But the 2010 film was also much more controversial than Guggenheim’s other efforts, previous or since. Those skeptical of charter schools and school reform strategies believed that it was a grotesquely misleading and manipulative film that – ineffectively – blamed teachers and unions for education’s woes. Another set of critics, including many school reformers likely to be sympathetic to the film’s underlying message, believed that Superman was a massive disappointment that polarized viewers and didn’t seem to have changed the way many Americans thought about education, much less how they behaved.
“Movies that sell charter schools as a salvation are peddling a simple-minded remedy that takes us back to the worst charter puffery of a decade ago, is at odds with the evidence, and can blind viewers to what it takes to launch and grow truly great charters,” wrote the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess. The movie “wildly romanticizes charters, charter school teachers, and the kids and families, making it harder to speak honestly or bluntly” about charter schooling.
Which side was right in its criticism of the movie? Neither, really.
A careful re-examination of the making of the film and the social action campaign that accompanied it – as well as a review of two independent studies of the film’s impacts that have not been widely discussed before now – suggests that Superman was neither an overwhelming success nor an abject failure – and that its long-term impact is not yet fully understood.
Just as important as its potential impact, Superman is a vivid example of a somewhat different kind of education advocacy at work – an attempt to win the public’s sympathy and support through film and other forms of popular media that is increasingly being adopted by school reform advocates across the ideological spectrum. (Case in point: Participant’s latest education effort – Ivory Tower – is slated for release in June, suggesting the use of movies as advocacy shows no signs of abating.) This is a markedly different strategy from earlier efforts by these same advocates and major education foundations that tended to limit their investments to funding specific programs or direct services to schools. As such, it is full of lessons for funders and nonprofit leaders who seem bound and determined to pursue mass media films and social impact campaigns as part of their advocacy efforts.
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