White knights and false villains

“Bad teachers, bad  unions and heroic white saviors” are the staples of Hollywood school movies, writes Deborah Meier on Bridging Differences. Small Wonders, a documentary about her East Harlem school’s violin program, inspired Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep. But Hollywood needed more conflict, so a dedicated music teacher was turned into the villain.

They publicized it as the “true” history of the music program at Central Park East school in East Harlem. They even had shots of the exterior of the actual CPE and roughly followed the history of the violin teacher. Except …

They made the school’s longtime, full-time music teacher — a remarkable guy named Barry Solowey — into a lazy, incompetent teacher who depended on the union to keep his job while the hero — Roberta — was threatened by a citywide lay-off. Barry had served 250 kids a year for more than a decade; Roberta served 100 eager volunteers — in three CPE-like East Harlem Schools (about 30-40 in each) for three or four years (at that time). Barry saw every class weekly, produced an annual opera and a Broadway musical, and ran three choral groups,—who also sang in Carnegie Hall— and he taught recorder to every interested child. Both teachers did superb work. But imagine our shame when we saw what Hollywood had done to the character clearly meant to describe Barry and a school called Central Park East.

Sometimes movies star “a strong black man, but usually it’s a highly cultured but tough white person who refuses to lower his/her expectations and never gives an inch,” Meier writes.

As for Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman, Meier will see it, reluctantly. The new reformers have cast people who’ve worked all their lives for better schools as the “status quo,” she complains. The veterans of the fight are labled “lazy, self-interested, money-grubbing purveyors of low expectations.”

She recommends a French movie, The Class, for its honesty. It’s on my Netflix list.

About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    This reminded me of something that once made me laugh:

  2. Ultimately, the true villain is not lazy established teachers or the unions, but instead layers and layers of regulations that prevent school administrators and teachers from actually running the schools they work in. About half of my time is spent fulfilling regulations that are created by individuals who have never stepped foot in my school district or worked a day in any classroom…most of which have no effect or even a negative effect on my ability to teach my students.
    These same regulators certify schools that have poor track records of graduating effective teacher candidates and then certify those same ineffective teachers that clog the ranks of job seekers, making it hard to hire good candidates.

  3. These same regulators certify schools that have poor track records of graduating effective teacher candidates and then certify those same ineffective teachers that clog the ranks of job seekers, making it hard to hire good candidates.

    Please specify how having poor candidates in an application field makes it hard to hire good candidates.

  4. The Class is a good movie if you want to see a wishy-washy a-hole mess with the minds of his students while teaching them nothing, and (then make a psuedo-mentary about himself staring himself as his incompetent self).

  5. In upstate NY where there is 4 different grad programs within an hour’s drive the job search process is vicious. Last I heard there were 300-400 “qualified” applicants per job opening, even in science and math.

    Last year we had a long-term maternity position, and they had the teacher going out take an active role in the selection and interview process…which was a mess.
    They had to make cuts based solely upon resumes and applications, the least reliable portion of the process. My coworker said that they likely turned away a lot of good candidates because of the flood of applications.
    I have also noticed other local positions being re-opened once or even twice after the initial selection process proved fruitless.

    The problem is that just about anyone with a bachelor’s degree can receive a teaching degree after only two years(and with it state certification)… grad school is no longer a hurdle for teachers but instead a slide that they can quickly go down. How can school districts separate the wheat from the chaff when everyone looks the exact same on paper?

  6. How can school districts separate the wheat from the chaff when everyone looks the exact same on paper?

    They only look the same to people who don’t know how to read resumes, application letters, or letters of recommendation. Now, I’ll grant you that such administrators exist, but the blame should lie with those administrators, rather than with the applicants.

    I’ve been involved in such job searches: they’re taxing, but hardly a nightmare.

  7. Personally, my favorite teacher movie is “The Substitute.”

  8. Mike
    I’m not blaming the applicants… I’m blaming the state certification systems that qualify ineffective teachers and schools that ‘train’ them. When the state takes upon itself the authority to qualify who can and can’t teach in the state, it also takes upon itself the responsibility for any teacher it qualifies.
    With medical professions, degree-granting schools are consistently viewed with scrutiny to ensure a minimal level of competence. Required exams are also at a level of difficulty such that they can effectively separate the competent from the incompetent.
    I’ve known certified teachers who took 3-4 times to pass the liberal arts certification exam… a test that any high schooler with an average over 75 could pass.
    Now, an ineffective teacher won’t kill their students if they make a mistake, but there is definitely some profound and long-lasting harm done to those students.

  9. @ Michael Lopez: Thanks for sharing that video!! I laughed my backside off for like 10 solid minutes! Made my day!

    Hope all’s well, BTW …

  10. SuperSub, it seems to me that with fifty different systems, no consistent tests, and a wide variety of prep programs that meet the minimum standard (of which there are fifty), it shouldn’t be surprising that we have a wide disparity of quality. My state, Illinois, is a net exporter of teachers, at least in part because we have some excellent teacher training programs here (the Basic Skills Test for admission to such programs is, anecdotally at least, harder than most of what I read about in other states, and the cut score will increase within the next month).

    If you want a uniform system of evaluation and training, you’ll have to nationalize teacher training.

  11. Thanks for posting this, Joanne. I have an idea (but not the wherewithal to organize it) — a film festival of all these “it’s a miracle!’ movies about supermen and superwomen who swoop in to save downtrodden youth from callous educrats — and the festival would follow up with some kind of presentation on the long-term outcomes of all of those “miracles.”

    I haven’t actually seen many of these movies, but with that disclaimer, I hear but have not confirmed that the superhero principal in New Jersey (was this one played by Morgan Freeman, if I have that right) who wielded a baseball bat in the halls of his school actually achieved his “miracles” by tossing all the troublemakers out of the school rather than reforming them, and that the school is just as ****ed-up as ever, while the principal now works for the prison system. My apologies for posting hearsay, but it’s an example of what this project would actually research. Oh yeah, and there’s one on a miracle-working teacher in Long Beach — I read that that teacher has left teaching.

    I realize that it’s a shame to blow up everyone’s naive faith in superhumans working miracles, but that naive faith leads to baseless bashing of public schools and teachers and wrongheaded rushes to adulation of false insta-cures. Skepticism is warranted.


  1. “Nice white lady”…

    Edu-blogger Joanne Jacobs notes an article about the Hollywood formula of “white knight” teachers that come in to “save the day” for tough, urban schools. I had written about precisely this almost four years ago (and to which Joanne linked)……