Dynamic Mix of Voices in Livermore, California Sparking Change

As we engage in complicated work of mending our schools, it’s easy to point fingers, to place blame, to scapegoat somebody for failing our children. It might be the powerful teachers unions. It might be the burned out teachers. It might the entrenched administrators. It might be the uninvolved parents or, perhaps, the too-involved parents.

The just-released film Won’t Back Down — a Hollywood movie about parents who fight the powers that be to reform their inner city school — fuels this blame mentality.

Everyone loves a hero, especially a tirelessly-crusading-mom-hero who is, against all odds, fixing her child’s school. The problem is that every hero must have a villain. Who is that villain?

Won’t Back Down tells us that the villains are entrenched teachers unions that enable mediocre or downright terrible teachers to keep their jobs at the expense of our students and schools. These are the villains imagined by movie-backers Walden Media, owned by multi-billionaire Philip Anschutz, a proponent of school choice and privatization. These are the same folks who bankrolled the documentary Waiting for Superman.

This movie may inspire discussion, maybe even a passionate discussion, about the future of our schools. Unfortunately, it’s a discussion that lionizes some and leaves out others.

I am gratified that Race to Nowhere is sparking a more holistic discussion, one that includes a dynamic mix of voices. After thousands of screenings across the country, this film is still bringing people together and empowering them to break the cycle of fear, competition, and standardization in our schools.

I have witnessed these discussions in hundreds of communities, from San Ramon, California, to Fayetteville, Arkansas, over the past three years — slightly different in each place, but always full of engaged parents, students, and educators.

I saw it in Livermore, California last week. Following a film screening for more than 200 parents, teachers, students, and community members at Livermore High School, a PTSA panel discussion included a student, teacher, district administrator, principal, parent, and me.

Dawn Matthews, who teaches U.S. history and AP Psychology at Livermore High School, discussed the intensive nature of AP courses that generally require a lot of reading and writing. Even so, she has changed homework expectations (after seeing Race to Nowhere three times) to forgo assignments on weekends and holidays. “I want them to have time just to be and to be with their families,” she said of her students.

She emphasized that homework should be relevant — or not given out.  “I think that if the homework isn’t connected directly to what you’re doing in class, and relevant…then it’s not a valuable use of time,” she said.

Livermore High Principal Alberto Solorzano said he is working with his teachers on the importance of relevant homework in lieu of busy homework. To make his point, in his previous district, he gave teachers an assignment to read an article that wasn’t particularly relevant to their work. “Can you imagine how many teachers read the article? How many were cramming the five minutes before the meeting was about to begin?” he said. “We had a fairly lengthy discussion over why we do homework, and the relevance connected to it.”

Livermore High senior Kathleen Hornbacker said she really didn’t enjoy her entire junior year of high school because she took four AP courses, sang in the choir, participated in the spring musical, and at one point was so overloaded she got sick for two weeks.  She said her own parents cautioned her against signing up for so many AP classes, but she didn’t heed their warnings. When asked what a parent should do in that situation, she said parents should step in to set limits. “Make them choose their favorite things,” she said. “Make sure they have free time to sleep, read a book, and hang out with friends on the weekends."

Livermore Valley Assistant Superintendent Chris Van Schaack echoed the focus on balance — “making drama club as important as an AP class, and making homecoming week as important as a testing week.”

During the panel, I affirmed this sentiment, asking that if we spend eight hours a day in the office, do we really want to come home to a second shift? We are, in fact, asking our kids to put in a second shift and then wondering why so many are turned off to school. It’s not so hard to understand.

The Livermore discussion once again affirmed the power of pairing the film with a panel and discussion. These discussions give us a chance to talk with our fellow parents, teachers, and neighbors to build a movement that makes the health and well-being of children a top priority. It allows us to take in different perspectives and not cast any one group as the villain.

After the screening, a parent came over to hug me. She said the film made her realize she could and should relax and not obsess about her student’s homework or school performance. This one revelation does not make a revolution, but it will affect that child’s experience in school and in life — forever.  

Another parent said emphatically that she wished the film could be shown to every parent and every teacher, every year.

Thankfully, we’ll keep showing the film—long after the made-in-Hollywood Won’t Back Down conversation has passed—to engage, inspire, and encourage everyone to come to the table.