Does "Won't Back Down" Square with Research?

David Osher, Institute Fellow
PARENTAL ACTIVISM WITH TEETH - Families who engage with their kids improve their school and developmental outcomes, and focused family advocacy can also help drive system reform. But families who want to support their children and be their advocates need information about what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, Won’t Back Down does little to educate families on what can work and how to ensure that the right practices and interventions get put to use in the right way. The film also ignores the broader context—national and local fiscal and educational policy. That might have been harder to make a movie about, but it’d be worth trying since students, teachers, and schools flourish or flounder within it.

In Won’t Back Down, parental activism veers far from the root causes of the challenges that schools face as they strive to create the appropriate conditions for teaching and learning. Students, particularly those who experience learning challenges (like the two leads’ children) require high quality instruction and support, and teachers, while rightly accountable for student results, benefit from coaching, planning time, and professional learning communities. Instead of showing what good teaching is or how to build the best possible conditions for teaching and learning, this movie offers a set of ideologically driven bromides that lack research support.

If you want to find out what the research actually says, check out the work that my colleagues and I developed for families on evidence-based practices that help students with emotional and behavioral disorders and our work with the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Heath and the federal government to conceptualize and operationalize family driven practice.

Ellen Behrstock Sherratt, Researcher
The film does a great job highlighting the message “We Can’t Wait!” years for better schools and bringing to life the desperation of families to provide their children effective teachers today. However, the portrayal of stereotypical roadblocks to reform (i.e., lazy, backwards principals and school boards, out-of-touch union leaders that don’t care about students) seemed utterly unrealistic. As a researcher, I am very concerned with presenting the truth of a situation and of the 30 or so union presidents whom I have interviewed for my work, only two or three even vaguely resemble those depicted in the film—defensive, detached, and deceptive—with the others more akin to Gyllenhaal’s character’s boyfriend—dedicated teacher leaders who step up to help make strong policy decisions for their schools.

Fueling anti-union sentiment through cinema does not seem like a promising approach to bringing teachers and districts together to the table to constructively seek out solutions for schools that cannot wait. Better might be to jointly determine the types of supports and accountability measures that will attract and retain beyond five years teachers who are true professionals—highly competent and committed individuals who do not require a rally or parental takeover to be the best teachers possible.

Megan Sambolt, Researcher
IF PARENTS ARE DAVID, WHO IS GOLIATH? - Won’t Back Down is meant to be a film that inspires, a modern-day David and Goliath story in which a plucky parent galvanizes a community to topple an ineffectual bureaucracy. Instead, the film conflates fighting for children with fighting against the district and teachers’ union. The overwhelming majority of educators want to ensure that students learn to the best of their abilities. And most failing teachers don’t enter the classroom lacking the motivation to help students. But many do lack the skills needed to keep students on track academically and so fall prey to burnout like that exhibited by the movie’s most flagrantly bad teacher. But though unions sometimes protect these teachers, they don’t cause the fatigue that is cited as the leading cause of teachers’ high rates of leaving the classroom (see research citations at the end of these reviews).

If the endgame is just to get rid of unsuccessful teachers, Parent Trigger laws like those invoked in Won’t Back Down may help subvert policies that keep ineffective teachers around. But it won’t help other teachers improve. It won’t help prepare pre-service teachers to use scientifically based reading instruction in their classrooms (Schumaker, 2009); it won’t help current teachers adopt research-based practices such as balanced or integrated learning, tiered interventions, or learning strategy instruction (Griffiths et al., 2007; NCES, 2006); and it won’t teach kids to read. If passionate parents and teachers are the “Davids” of this story, then the reality of the educational climate—millions of students performing below grade level—is Goliath. Attacking bureaucracy won’t bring the giant down. The “Davids” need better sling shots.

Kirk Walters, Principal Researcher
Let’s face it. Really good movies are rare. Really good movies about education are even rarer. For every good movie about education I’ve seen, I can think of several duds. Maybe you have to simplify the characters and plot to get enough people to pay $10 to see it. Maybe the issues are too complex to condense into two hours. Maybe it’s because I taught in the LA area for 10 years and know which parts are realistic and pure fantasy. It’s probably a combination of these factors, but I often I’m often quite skeptical when I see a movie about education reform, especially urban education. This was the case yesterday, when I saw Won’t Back Down.

First, let me be clear about a few things. I believe good teachers matter immensely—probably more than anything else, especially to underserved kids. We need more good teachers in the schools that need them most and better ways of recruiting, retaining, and rewarding these talented, dedicated people. We also need better mechanisms for removing those who shouldn’t be teaching. I also believe that some charter schools are doing amazing things because of their freedom to innovate. All of these issues are worthy of a spirited public debate. Unfortunately, Won’t Back Down failed to shed any new light on these complex, yet pressing issues. The plot was overly predictable and the characters were overly simplified. There was absolutely no nuance. These issues are too important to be the focus of yet another bad education movie. Ever seen Hoop Dreams? Season 4 of The Wire? Those are two examples of how film can do justice to pressing, complex social issues. Perhaps it’s time to have some of these film makers take a crack at the teacher quality issue?

Gretchen Weber, NBCT Director of Educator Effectiveness Programs
IDEAS VS FACTS ABOUT TEACHING – Now every time the Tom Petty song “Won’t Back Down” comes on my car radio, I’ll be tempted to switch channels since it will remind me of yet another mischaracterization of the teaching profession. The film that borrowed the Petty song’s name sorts everyone and everything into two convenient camps and promotes the same misinformed vision seen in Waiting for Superman—Teach for America teachers versus traditionally trained teachers, unions versus reform, charter schools versus public schools, parents versus schools, burnt-veterans versus idealistic newbies. This film sidesteps the true complexity of classroom teaching and learning and doesn’t capture the way highly accomplished teaching actually looks in practice.

Teaching is depicted in only two scenes—one showing line-dancing and singing about going to college, the other an enthusiastic choral recitation from a John Adams document. However exciting and motivational these examples of what the film considers effective teaching look, both suggest that teaching is easy and that any spirited person can do it. In fact, research tells us, highly effective teaching has many facets, and much of teachers’ work is done simultaneously and organically and “off screen.” For instance, we know that highly effective teachers draw on prevailing theories about cognition and intelligence, along with knowledge of human development, and structure lessons using specialized knowledge of the best way to convey subject matter and of students’ preconceptions and background knowledge. These teachers use multiple strategies and methods for measuring what individual students and whole classrooms learn and clearly explain this approach to students and parents. Effective teachers create and change instructional settings to capture and sustain students’ interest and use time well. And they help make their whole school more effective by collaborating on decisions about instructional policy, curriculum development, and the best use of school and community resources given state and local educational objectives. By portraying dumb teachers as the majority, Won’t Back Down ignores the art, science, and professionalism of teaching.

Research cited by Megan Sambolt
Griffiths, A., Parson, L. B., Burns, M. K., VanDerHeyden, A., & Tilly, W. D. (2007). Response to intervention: Research for practice. In Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education, Inc. Retrieved from

Guarino, C.M., Hamilton, L.S., Lockwood, J.R., and Rathbun, A.H. (2006). Teacher qualifications, instructional practices, and reading and mathematics gains of kindergartners (NCES 2006-031). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Ingersoll, R. M. (2001). A different approach to solving the teacher shortage problem. Teaching Quality Policy Brief No. 3. Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington, Seattle.

Schumaker, J. B. (2009). Teacher preparation and professional development in effective learning strategy instruction. National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality. Retrieved from

Smartt, S. M., & Reschly, D. J. (2007). Barriers to the preparation of highly qualified teachers in reading. National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality. Retrieved from

David Osher
Vice President and Institute Fellow
Megan Sambolt
Principal Researcher