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The Limits of Cinematic Advocacy: Lessons from An Inconvenient Truth

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-movies are storming the landscape, with some heading to mainstream theaters near you--The Cartel, Waiting for Superman, and The Lottery.

Proponents hope that these flicks, which massively one-up Gore's 2006 magnum opus when it comes to raw sentiment, are finally going to awaken Americans to the villainy of the teachers unions and get them emotionally invested in school reform. The premise is that no one has ever told Americans, in sufficiently poignant and graphic terms, how bad urban schooling is or what should be done about it.

We're about to see how much difference these movies make. Me, I'm a skeptic. I'm doubtful that the message and getting people to sit for two hours of emotionally manipulative filmmaking really leads to changes in attitudes or behavior. How so? Heck, let's look at 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 in the box office, won Gore an Academy Award and a Nobel Peace Prize, and was credited with riling a previously docile public into action. This was as good as it gets when it comes to Hollywood-style 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?" In 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 they 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.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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