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'Won't Back Down': Turning Around a Failing School Is Everyone's Business

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By Anne L. Bryant, Executive Director of the National School Boards Association (NSBA)

One of the "big events" at NBC's Education Nation in New York this week was a screening of a new film called "Won't Back Down," starring actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holly Hunter, and Viola Davis. The film presents a compelling but fictional situation surrounding the relatively new topic of parent trigger laws — laws that in certain instances allow the majority of parents at failing schools to call for interventions.

While we wouldn't expect a Hollywood production about public schools to be grounded in research-based facts, there are many reasons to be concerned about the images of educators portrayed in the movie and the fanfare surrounding this type of law — which so far has only been used in one instance but has piqued the interest of legislatures in several states. While "parent involvement" always sounds agreeable, we have research showing that certain parental strategies work much better than others — and parent trigger laws are far from being a proven methodology.

"Won't Back Down" is a fictitious story inspired by a few local situations in California, and the stereotypes of teachers, parents, staff, and administrators are an extreme example of Hollywood running with its biases. Nevertheless, the story has poignancy because it involves the students in a poorly performing school — it reminds us what's at stake for a child who does not receive a great education.

Fictionalized accounts that pit parents against schools may make an interesting and profitable story, but these dramatic story lines don't reflect the on-the-ground reality. The so-called parent trigger approach, where a majority of parents/guardians may petition a school board to implement a new intervention model for their children's school, has only been used once, with questionable outcomes.

Here's what we know: In most public schools, teachers, administrators, and school boards are working together to ensure that all children receive a strong public education.

Making dramatic improvements in underperforming schools should be a concern to all of us. It is important we work to close achievement gaps, increase graduation rates, promote parent involvement, and give all our students a world class education. Turning around a failing school is everyone's business.

And here's what we know works: School boards play a critical role in holding superintendents and staff accountable for student learning and ensuring that schools meet the unique needs of their local communities. School boards are the representatives elected locally by parents and community members to be the governors or trustees of their schools — and to reflect their communities' values and to support their schools. Simply put, the vast majority of parents do not have the time, interest or ability to manage a school system, but they need an independent representative that they can turn to when they do not see their children's needs being met.

There are many ways for parents to get involved in their children's educations, both at school and at home, and last year NSBA's Center for Public Education examined the research on which parental involvement strategies are most effective. According to the Center, a major report by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) found one common factor: "Programs and interventions that engage families in supporting their children's learning at home are linked to higher student achievement." For students in middle or high schools, parent involvement with academics encouraged students to enroll in and succeed in higher-level classes. According to the Center, the issue of parent expectations had the strongest effect on grade 12 test scores in all subjects.

That said, the SELD report found that parent involvement is important, "but excellent classroom teaching will be needed to dramatically improve students' writing, reading, and math skills to meet the state's standards."

"Won't Back Down" is produced by Walden Media, whose owner Philip F. Anschutz is a strong supporter of anti-union and conservative causes. Not surprisingly, the movie continues his agenda by showing parent trigger efforts as the preferred way to improve a failing school. Along with depictions of good teachers and bad teachers, the characterizations of school board members are equally stereotyped.

In the end, though, does the fictional, much-maligned school board make the right decision for the needs of its community? We think so.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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