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Fact Checking "Whatever It Takes" (Or: The Trouble with Heroes)

Over at eduwonk, guest blogger Michael Goldstein points us to an inspirational trailer for a documentary, Whatever It Takes, about a new small school in the South Bronx. This is American education's favorite past-time - find inspirational principal/teacher and tell an uplifting/touching story about how kids from tough backgrounds beat the odds. Preferably, someone easy on the eyes like Hilary Swank or Morgan Freeman plays the lead.

I see two problems with this phenomenon: First, it's almost always the case that these heroic tales leave out some critical details. While I'm sure the school profiled in "Whatever It Takes" is doing important, laudable work, let me fill in the blanks about the process for selecting the first cohort of students to the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics. As I explained in When a Lottery is Not a Lottery, some "unscreened" small schools in NYC - including the Bronx school profiled in this movie - have required students to fill out applications to verify that they made an "informed choice" to attend the school; students who the school reports as making an "informed choice" received first preference in the "lottery."

To apply to be part of the first entering class at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, students were asked to provide their most recent report card and two letters of recommendation, one from an 8th grade teacher and one from a guidance counselor, principal, or assistant principal. The application also asked for the student's test scores, retention history, and involvement in advanced courses during the 8th grade. Finally, applicants to the "unscreened" school profiled in "Whatever It Takes" had to answer the following essay questions:
1) What are three things your teachers would say about you?
2) What makes you want to attend a school that will demand your very best academically and will expect you to work harder than you probably ever have before?
3) What are five future goals you have for yourself?
4) Mention the title and authors of some books you would like to discuss during your interview.
5) What are some activities to which you belong either in school or outside of school?
You can decide for yourself whether this should be called an "unscreened" school. But data from their most recent School Report Card suggest that the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics isn't serving a population typical of the South Bronx: only 18% qualified for free lunch, 0% were in full-time special education, .9% were in part-time special education, .9% were English Language Learners, students had an average daily attendance of 90.5% in the previous year, and 53% and 51% of students entered 9th grade proficient in reading and math, respectively.

Here's the second problem: We do teachers and schools a great disservice by clinging to the teachers/principals as heroic, self-effacing figures storyline. This argument is best made in a New York Times op-ed, Classroom Distinctions:
The most dangerous message such films promote is that what schools really need are heroes. This is the Myth of the Great Teacher.

Films like “Freedom Writers” portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job.

Her behavior is not represented as obsessive or self-destructive, but driven — necessary, even. She is forced into making these sacrifices by the aggressive neglect of the school’s administrators, who won’t even let her take books from the bookroom. The film applauds Ms. Gruwell’s dedication, but also implies that she has no other choice. In order to be a good teacher, she has to be a hero.

(...)Every day teachers are blamed for what the system they’re just a part of doesn’t provide: safe, adequately staffed schools with the highest expectations for all students. But that’s not something one maverick teacher, no matter how idealistic, perky or self-sacrificing, can accomplish.

Yes, yes, yes! There is also the accompanying implicit or explicit presumption that "if this school can do it, then any school can." I.e. that the problem is not a lack of resources or talent, but rather a lack of will (this also explains why I am not breaking swimming records in the Olympics like Michael Phelps--I'm just a defeatist).

See Checker Finn's re-statement of this mantra in today's Education Gadfly, where he writes about yet another inspirational school film:

"It tells the story of six remarkable inner-city secondary schools that have eliminated the achievement gap--or at least come close. They are living proof that poor, minority kids can learn as much as middle class white kids--and that great schools can make an enormous difference in their lives, thus giving the lie to defeatists, determinists, and apologists who insist that this isn't really possible in today's America."

Great post, Eduwonkette. In response to the quote Doug includes above ("...poor, minority kids can learn as much as middle class white kids..."), I will add the following:

Of course they can - as long as the school hand-selects only those children who are genuinely motivated, and who care enough about their education to apply to, attend, and be accepted by selective magnet or charter schools.

It reminds me of the Mad TV clip about how all that urban schools really need is "a nice white lady." It's a theme that is pervasive in so many films.

I couldn't agree more!!! Media portrayals of teachers as superhuman heroes (who work for peanuts) and NEVER seem to fail are damaging. Maybe we should all start wearing capes and making up superhero names...it would make it easier to get dressed in the morning.

Mimi - I'm happy to lend you something from my closet;)

Rebecca - That is one of the funniest clips about education I've ever seen.

Attorney DC - You hit the nail on the head there.

Doug - I think you're just making excuses. If Michael Phelps can do it, why can't all of us?

The thing I hate about these stories is they're presented as solutions, and they're not. It's great that there are some people out there who are willing to lay it all on the line like that, but it's not a scalable solution. You'll never find enough of them for substantial change -- but people who read these uplifting books and watch these movies will *feel* as if they've just been offered a solution, which lets them shy away from more complex but plausible ones, and blame anyone who isn't conforming to the solution-story they've just been offered.

It's worse than not a solution -- it's an anti-solution, because as long as we're stuck on a mold where teachers must be heroes, we'll have shut ourselves off from sustainable solutions.

Did anyone else pick up on the scene where the principal gets the police to roust a couple of intruders near the school proprty? At dismissal time at my school we always have a couple of a dozen rival, jeering gang members standing just off school property where the cops can't touch them. In some big cities, the police mobilze their entire force responding after the fact to daily afternoon conflicts. Its a matter of degree. Problems go up geometrically as they cross a certain critical mass. In neighborhood schools we are so far beyond the tipping point.

I think there needs to be a distinction made between heroes and missionaries. I think its possible for teachers to be heroes in the same since that a firefighter, soldier, or policeman can be a hero. Some of my teachers are heroes to me, but I wouldn't classify them as missionaries who sacrificed their own lives to give me a fighting chance in the world.

A few other movies that weren't mentioned in the above post that demonstrate the "missionary" versus "professional" discussion:

The Ron Clark Story

Stand and Deliver (The Jaime Escalante Story)

Dangerous Minds

There may be important lessons that we can learn from these examples. But, the idea that complete self-sacrifice by teachers is a reasonable expectation completely misses the mark.

I am much more a fan of the documentaries that offer comparisons or ethnographic studies of students - such as the PBS Frontline Growing Up Online documentary.

Of course, those documentaries can suffer from the sames problem Whatever It Takes has - unfair skewing, such as that found in the scare tactics of 2 Million Minutes.

Thanks for trotting out one of my favorite NY Times Op-Eds. I remember a follow-up letter to the editor pointing out that the real heroes aren't those like Erin Gruwell (and myself) who sacrifice a few years of their life and then move on but, rather, those who keep at it for 30 years.

And we've seen them do this elsewhere in the Bronx. Hm. "Them" I guess is a bunch of different people, institutions, officials.

But leaving that aside for the moment, where do the non-selected kids go? Who's doing good work with them?


Great post I'm glad I found it. I think that there is an underlying assumption in films and politics that those in the school system are neglectful or obstructionist towards "real" change that helps all students. I feel that teachers, administrators, and others in the school system are all doing the best they can with the tools they are given. More efforts to implement the programs that we know work (without micromanaging the administration of schools and classrooms by governments) would lead to the same results.

(Of course, most of these programs require adequate, sustained funding which requires a political answer.)

There are pros and cons to any story line you apply to schools. I work in a high needs school. I have seen it transformed by a leader like the one portrayed in the film. I think the point of the hero storyline is that it takes more than the status quo to create real change.

What would really be heroic is if somebody was honest with the public about what it is like in a failing school. What it takes is a concerted effort on a systemic and personal level. I know because I saw it happen.

I wrote this summer about why I hate Hollywood teachers: even if they are missionary-hero-gods, the film will exaggerate them further. Reason Magazine had a great piece about Jaime Escalante. That class didn't exist. It took him 10 years to implement vertical teaming to the point where that cohort came through his calc class. That's two presidential terms. Who is going to invest that kind of time in any educational reform?

Good school leadership can make all the difference in the world and truly transform a school; I know I wouldn't be half the teacher I am today without it. Too bad we see so little emphasis on it.

Personally, I'm going for the gold in dressage. Ha.

Poster Jonathan asked who takes the non-selected kids that schools like Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics doesn't take. Well, the answer to that is simple: Failing, terrible schools like Eximius College Preparatory Academy, which shares the same building as Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics. Those are the kinds of schools that take the non-selected. Oh, the justice of it all, the neediest kids get the worst schools while the least needy students get the best. Tsk.Tsk. How unfortunate!! However, all facetiousness aside, I almost believe that Eximius is only being allowed to exist for one reason and one reason only, and that is to take the neediest, weakest students so that places like Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics don't have to even deal with these kinds of students at all. Moreover, there are people who have the nerve to compare Eximius to Bronx Center in the most negative ways, which isn't quite fair when you consider that the 2 schools serve 2 entirely different student populations. I mean, at least Eximius takes in all kinds of kids rather than just the bright, talented, and/or gifted, which is actually quite commendable. (See JD2718.wordpress.com for the full story on Eximius)

I want to see a movie about a teacher/hero that starts a school that ONLY takes kids with no motivation, only takes kids from poverty, only takes kids whose parents couldn't care less about education, only takes special education students working at the 3% level in math and reading, only take students that speak Spanish/watch Spanish TV, listen to Spanish radio, go to Mexico for six weeks every Christmas, and only take students that miss forty days of school each year for other reasons, including doctor/dentist appointments, court, illness, or just don't want to come to school. Man, that's a movie I'll see twice. Of course, I also go to Supeman and 007 movies, because I love the impossible. Every time some self-congradulating hero stands up and says what a great job HE is doing, the rest of us need to question his statistics and then yell out "Bul.....!" Teaching is tough work, and it has some great rewards, but we get stabbed in the back when the public thinks a pick-and-choose school is the same as a regular public school where WE take everyone that walks in off the street and those schools DO NOT! It is like comparing "State College" to Harvard and Yale.

Wow! I am amazed with the inaccuracies of the data cited by eduwonkette over the recruitment process in 2005 at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics. Before you fill in the blanks for others make sure you have the facts straight. I am here to starighten out those facts. The reason I am so sure the proclaimed tactics and statistics are inaccurate is that I am the Principal who is featured in Whatever It Takes. If eduwonkette wanted the true facts and accurate statistics all they needed to do was ask.

I respect everyones right to his/her opinion on the matter but it imperative that we base our judgements of other people's work on real facts not those pieced together by interviews of people with their own personal agendas (for example disgruntled parents, teachers, or colleagues).

To set the record straight applications were required of our students to allow for them to experience the college application process as early as the 8th grade since we pride ourselves as being a college prep school with over 85% of our scholars positioned to graduate on time in 4 years of which 95% of those students will graduate with NYS Regents diplomas.

What the writer of eduwonkette failed to tell everyone is that the Department fo Education automatically matches "unscreened schools" like the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics with a bell curve distribution of kids performing on standardized English and Math scores between levels 1-4 with 1 and 2's not meeting NYS standards and 3's and 4's meeting standards. In 2005 we welcomed 108 freshmen with 2/3 of the student population performing at levels 1 and 2 NOT meeting NYS 8th grade standards in English and Math.

In terms of asking for students report cards. Every school who receieved a student application to their school for 8th grade admissions had full access on-line to the student's transcript and 8th grade performance levels in English and Math. To suggest that I hand-picked my students, therefore, it was no major accomplishment to GRADUATE 85% OF MY FIRST CLASS versus 52% graduation rate in NYC, is nothing to be proud of in a community (Morrisania, South Bronx)that former President Jimmy Carter called the neediest community in America is clearly insulting.

To the eduwonkette writer of this blog my only question is how many urban inner city high schools have you led? How much are you aware of the challenges in running such an institution?

If we treat educators and edcuational leaders with such a level of disrespect and skepticism about their work then this will be a battle that we will not overcome. The people that will suffer are not the adminstrators themselves but the children that they care so deeply about.

Together we can change the landscape of urban education. Please refrain from being judgemental and devisive.


Principal, Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics

It's me again!

A few more points of clarification and correction on the data cited by educawonkette on the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics:

1) Special ed population of my incoming freshman class in 2007 and 2008 were (14% and 16% respectively).
2) English Langauge Learners of my incoming freshman class in 2007 and 2008 were 10% for both years.

Lastly, this year of the 440 students at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics over 80% of our student body qualify for free and reduced lunch. I would be interested in where the writer received an 18% rate for free lunch in 2005. We have never experienced an 18% free lunch rate at the BCSM.

Thanks for listening and providing me with a forum to set the record straight.

As the filmmaker responsible for "Whatever It Takes", I also feel the need to respond to the extremely inaccurate (and strangely bitter) blog post by eduwonkette, as well as some of the other comments made by other members of this site.

First of all, please don't compare my film to fiction pieces like "Dangerous Minds" or "Freedom Writers". Those are Hollywood films that are only loosely based upon reality -- characters and scenes are often created from scratch in order to craft a more watchable, exciting film. On the other hand, "Whatever It Takes" is a work of pure nonfiction, where we stayed with the school for the entire first year, simply observing events as they happened.

To the accusation made that we portrayed the Principal and the student as heroes? Guilty as charged. What else would you call two people who have overcome obstacles that would have crippled almost anybody else? No one's blaming other teachers/principals for NOT being heroes or sacrificial martyrs, but let's not stoop to the level of resenting others for going above and beyond.

I agree that educators should not be expected to be superheroes. They should be expected to be well-prepared, competent in their subject, and creative in their instruction. But for any one who has ever worked in a poorly-funded inner-city school, those simple expectations don't go far enough. In these schools, educators have to sacrifice certain things (e.g. time, money, etc.) in order to get their students back on track. If a school fails, it's not the teachers' or principal's fault. But the only way such schools succeed is through the passionate dedication of educators and students (and parents!) working together.

Regarding the whole notion of "cherry-picking", I witnessed the Principal take in people that he knew were hard-core gang members -- in fact, one of these guys had missed 100 instructional days the prior year. If the principal were trying to protect his average or graduation rate, he never would have picked such a boy, or 10 others like him in the school.

As a filmmaker, I did indeed "cherry-pick" whom I would follow as my main student character. I made sure that I picked the student who came from the poorest family, who had the most difficult background in foster care, and who was way behind her grade level in almost every subject. I picked such a student so that no one could argue that she would have succeeded at any school. No, if she succeeded, then one could only conclude that her success stemmed from the structure and people of the Bronx Center for Science & Mathematics.

In summary, I would urge everyone to see the film before making uninformed criticisms. There was a lot of thought and a lot of integrity that went into making this film. Please give us a chance to show you a film that is far removed from the whole debate on public school reform; rather, come and see a true story that gets at the heart of the people who are most invested in our schools. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Thanks for allowing me into your forum.

Christopher Wong
"Whatever It Takes"

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Christopher Wong: As the filmmaker responsible for "Whatever It Takes", I also read more
  • Ed: It's me again! A few more points of clarification and read more
  • Ed: Wow! I am amazed with the inaccuracies of the data read more
  • Jeremy: I want to see a movie about a teacher/hero that read more
  • Lucky Star: Poster Jonathan asked who takes the non-selected kids that read more




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