Sunday, September 30, 2012

Critics and audiences agree: "Won't Back Down" a tremendous flop

FINAL REVISED UPDATE: with the complete weekend  box-office figures now available, it is now clear that the film  had the WORST opening for ANY film in wide release (2500+ theaters) in at least thirty years, or since data is available.
 UPDATE:  "Won't Back Down" had the second worst opening weekend of any film in wide release (2500 screens or more) since 1982.  The only worry is whether the right-wing producer, Philip Anschutz, will keep it in the theaters since he also owns the largest movie chain in the nation. And will Murdoch, the distributor, keep financing free screenings and claim them as tax-deductible contributions, to be able to offset some of his losses?  Anyone who has a thought on this, please leave a comment below.

 The reviews are out, the box office returns have been counted and it's clear that the pro-charter propaganda film "Won't Back Down" is a huge critical and commercial flop.

All the advance screenings sponsored by astroturf corp reform groups and the film's distributor, Rupert Murdoch, the big push by CBS and Walmart, the promotion by NBC's Education Nation, the multi-million dollar advertising campaign financed by right-wing producer Philip Anschutz, and Students First sending in their staffers to write glowing reviews didn't bring people into the theaters.  One assessment says it is likely to be one of the worst openings for a film ever, with an estimated gross of only $82 per screening in its first weekend.

Many of the critics' reviews mentioned  the obvious political motives behind the film as part of an orchestrated campaign to blame all the ills of our schools on teachers unions and to privatize our public schools through the use of a "Parent Trigger."  For once reality seemed to penetrate the well-financed PR fog surrounding these issues.  Check out also this excellent radio show on the  the deceptive "Parent Trigger" -- or as some call it, "the parent tricker" --  including interviews with several parent activists, including me.  The most interesting is perhaps the parent from Adelanto CA, who describes how the staffers from the astroturf organization Parent Revolution went in and told parents they were signing petitions for cleaner bathrooms rather than conversion to a charter school.

The truth is that most parents do not want to close their schools or turn them over to private corporations, where parents are apt to have even less voice and their children fewer rights. For more on what parents really want, check out my piece in Friday's SchoolBook, Parents Want Options Beyond a Trigger.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Attention Parents - Get Ready for Another Surprise: More Field Tests in October

The following was written by Fred Smith, former testing expert for the NYC Board of Education. The list of 169 NYC schools in which another round of field tests  will be imposed raises more questions, such as how were these schools chosen?  And why do certain districts, like District 1, have nearly twice as many schools required to give them than other districts such as District 2, which is much larger?

Did you know that the New York State Education Department has assigned 169 schools to administer stand-alone field tests next month?  Your child may be in one of these schools and you will not be notified beforehand. 
This is a repeat performance of the way SED handled the field tests that were given in June.  Most parents only learned about them at the last minute. While it was too late for them to ask questions, some of us found out, protested at several schools and boycotted the tests.
That’s why we're posting a list of the schools scheduled to be tested along with the grade level and subject (ELA or math) involved.  Otherwise parents won’t know in advance that their children will be tested.
Nor will they be told that the purpose of these exams is to provide the test publisher – Pearson, a profit-making company – with free data supplied by our children, enabling Pearson to assemble next April's statewide exams.
The field tests, which are not mandatory for children, are due to be given on October 23rd, 24th or 25th; the principal of each school selects the date.  And there will be still more separate, stand-alone field tests this spring.
Although your child may not be slated for field testing now, he or she is likely to be tapped in the spring and in the next few years, as Pearson’s contract calls for stand-alone field tests until 2015.
The parents and teachers of Change the Stakes object to these tests and SED’s blatant disregard of parents’ legitimate concerns:
  • Students already lose too much valuable class time to the annual statewide exams and test preparation activities surrounding them, compromising the quality of our children’s education. The list of assessments in various stages of development keeps on expanding...
  • Not only are the tests themselves seriously flawed, the already high stakes attached to the tests are even higher this year. For the first time, teachers will be evaluated on their students’ test scores even though research shows that the tests are not a reliable measure of teacher performance.
  • Parents have the right to know that their children are spending class time to benefit a profit-making company. Before proceeding with the field tests, SED should be required to obtain informed parental consent.
Keeping parents in the dark, sacrificing learning opportunities to support commercial interests, turning our schools into testing labs and running our children through a measurement maze is unacceptable.
For information about which schools have been assigned to administer the October field tests, see the attached spreadsheet. To learn more about high-stakes testing and how to join those of us who are fighting back against test-driven education, please go to .

~Fred Smith

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Arne Duncan makes a startling admission: online learning doesn't work

At the conclusion of the NBC Education Nation conference in New York today, writer William Doyle (co-author with James Meredith of  A MISSION FROM GOD) asked U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a question involving billions of dollars of taxpayer funds.

The video below is hard to hear, but here is a transcript of the substance of the conversation, which began before the video rolled:

Doyle: "Are you aware of the fact that your own What Works Clearinghouse [U.S. Department of Education research department] has found virtually no [K-8] technology interventions with solid evidence of academic benefit [exception: special needs and distance learners]?"

Secretary Duncan: "We're nuts on that. We've gotta fix it. It's a big problem. John Easton runs the IESD, have you talked to John?"

Doyle: "No, is that the What Works Clearinghouse?"

Secretary Duncan: "It comes out of his shop. This is not my first time hearing it. I haven't fixed it. I gotta figure it out. I got it. [ex-Apple exec] Karen Cator on my staff is my tech guru, she is phenomenal. She totally gets this."

Doyle: "I think maybe we should stop spending all these [many billions of] dollars [on those K-8 technology products that don't have strong evidence of academic benefit] until we validate it."

Secretary Duncan: "Talk to John."

Additional note from William Doyle: "Personally, I believe in the effective use of technology for learning by older children, once it has been found to have strong evidence of academic benefit through independent research. I am not certain that when Secretary Duncan said "I haven't fixed it," he meant the technology or the research."

Noah Gotbaum vs. Mitt Romney on who parents trust more, the union or Michael Bloomberg?

See the video below, in which NYC parent leader Noah Gotbaum confronts Mitt Romney at the propaganda fest known as Education Nation about how parents support the teachers union more than the Mayor, a proposition that Mitt says he doesn't believe. Noah is right , of course.

Parents do support the teachers union far more than they support Bloomberg and  the Chancellor as seen in this Quinnipiac poll from last February. The poll found that overall, NYC voters trust the teachers' union more than the mayor to protect the interest of public school children 56 - 31 percent; and public school parents trust the union by an even larger margin: 69 - 22 percent.

The same was true in Chicago, with most registered voters supporting the teachers, even during the strike, according to this Sun-Times poll. According to another independent poll, 66 percent of Chicago parents supported the striking teachers. Why?

Because parents understand that teachers are fighting for smaller classes and other reforms that would actually improve our neighborhood public schools, rather than impose even more high-stakes testing, increase class size, or close them down and turn them over to private corporations, and as the mayors of NYC and Chicago would like to do.

Despite all the corporate, venture philanthropy and hedge fund millions going to into campaigns to convince us to support mayoral control, the spread of charter schools and online learning, the weakening of union protections, and now the "Parent trigger", most public school parents are too smart to be tricked by their lies.

NJ parents occupy the NJ Dept of Education to fight the scourge of charter schools in their community!

Parents protesting at the NJ Department of Education credit: NJ Star Ledger
A few days ago we featured the real-life "Won't Back Down" story of a Brooklyn parent and teacher who together battled to prevent a billionaire-backed charter school from invading their successful public school building.  Today we feature the story of Darcie Cimarusti, who with other NJ parents, successfully fought to prevent a charter school from siphoning off funds from their public schools. You should also follow Darcie's terrific blog, Mother Crusader and she can be reached at  Please send us your own real-life "Won't Back Down" stories at

My name is Darcie Cimarusti, and I am a parent of twin six year olds who attend the Highland Park Public schools.  When my daughters were in Pre-K I became aware of a charter school that intended to open in our district.
 Our district was able to provide quality public schools, including free half day Pre-K, despite Governor Christie’s huge budget cuts.  I soon became concerned about how our district would absorb the additional financial burden of a charter school that would draw funds away from our public schools.
In March of 2011 the founders of the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School applied for a charter from the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) for the third time.  While there had been community opposition to the first two applications, the issue really heated up for the third one.
Darcie Cimarusti
One of the many reasons for the increased resistance was that after the founders were denied twice the opportunity to open in the diverse, successful districts of Highland Park and Edison, they chose to add the city of New Brunswick to their third application.
This angered all three communities, as it seemed to be an opportunistic attempt to exploit the needs of the New Brunswick community, which has many poor and minority students, to gain approval from the state.  Both Governor Christie and Commissioner Cerf had made it clear that their focus was on opening charters is struggling districts.  Parents in Edison and Highland Park were certain that the founders intended to draw the majority of their students from the Jewish populations in their own  districts, but added New Brunswick to increase the odds that they would receive approval from the state.  
When I became involved in the opposition to the charter, along with numerous other community members, we scoured the application to understand who wanted to open this charter, and what they intended to do with the almost $1.3 million they would divert from the budgets of the three districts.  I also researched New Jersey’s charter law to better understand what was and what wasn’t allowed in our state.
I learned that when New Jersey’s charter school law was enacted in 1995 it was intended to empower parents and teachers to identify unmet student needs in a particular school or district, and to create a place where those needs could be met. 
The law and existing regulations defined an "eligible applicant" as teaching staff or parents of children attending the schools of the “district board of education”, in other words, the PUBLIC SCHOOLS!
When we looked into the background of Tikun Olam’s founders, we discovered none of them had children enrolled in the public schools and none were teachers.  Rather, most had chosen to send their children to private, religious schools.. 
The NJDOE’s Office of Charter Schools had completely overlooked the fact that, by law, the founders of this charter WERE NOT eligible applicants, and allowed them to apply time and time again.  During the third application we submitted copious materials to the NJDOE alerting them to this oversight.  The application was denied for the third time in September of 2011, but when we received a report that stated the reasons for the denial, nowhere was it mentioned that the applicants were ineligible to apply for a charter.
And then in October of 2011, just before the next application cycle began, it was announced that the founders had received a $600,000 federal grant from the US Department of Education, which seemed to almost guarantee their eventual approval from the state.  The founders reapplied for a fourth time, but removed Highland Park from the application, no doubt thinking our opposition would die down.
It didn’t.  Instead, we mounted an unprecedented opposition campaign.
Parent activists, together with the Highland Park Board of Education and the Highland Park Borough Council held a Town Hall meeting in Highland Park to discuss the application, but representatives from the NJDOE, including then Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf, refused to attend.  So we organized an “Occupy the DOE” event and protested outside the NJDOE building (and even briefly occupied the lobby before the police were summoned.)  (see video below).  We invited parents from districts across the state to join us, and they came from as far north as Teaneck and as far south as Cherry Hill.  We asked to speak with anyone from the Office of Charter Schools, and also requested to schedule a meeting, but no one would come out and talk to us and no meetings were scheduled.
Shortly after our occupation, New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip began working on a column that questioned why a $600,000 federal grant was awarded to Tikun Olam when the proposed charter school had been denied three times and their application was filled with misrepresentations.  Only then did the NJDOE agree to meet with us to hear what we had to say.
In his column, Mr. Winerip noted the widespread backlash against charters in New Jersey, but concluded “it is an uphill battle against an education establishment that includes Democrats (President Obama) and Republicans (Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey) with strong financial backing (the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations).”
Despite the odds, parents in Highland Park, Edison and New Brunswick won our uphill battle.  The application was denied for the fourth time, and though the lead founder said that they would reapply for a fifth time, so far they have not.  Moreover, months after the denial, with the help of Congressman Frank Pallone, the federal grant to the charter was also rescinded.
The parents, teachers, and residents of these three communities were able to come together to successfully defend our public schools, and we refused to back down.  We were successful in stopping the corporate reformers and privatizers at the New Jersey and United States Departments of Education from forcing an unwanted, unneeded charter school down our throats. 

Critics pan “Won’t Back Down” as badly made propaganda film

UPDATE: As of Thursday morning, the reviews keep coming in, most of them extremely critical.  The rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 32% from all critics18% from top critics, which if it stands will make it one of the worst reviewed films of the year.  However, the user reviews are just as influential, if not more, for many people in deciding which movies to go see on the opening weekend; which in turn determines how long theaters will keep it going.   Students First, Michelle Rhee's group, is sending its staff people to write positive reviews; as Jersey Jazzman blogged about last night.  I strongly encourage anyone who has seen the film to send in your review, whatever you thought of the film, even if its only a few short lines, to Rotten Tomatoes as well.

Today there have been many scathing reviews of the new “parent tricker” film “Won’t Back Down” consistent with my view, that it is an extremely poorly made film as well as shameless propaganda.  

Hopefully the huge promotional push by privateer astroturf organizations like DFER and Students First, and the shameless publicity provided by MSNBC/NBC Education Nation won’t be able to overcome these terrible reviews (and bad word of mouth as well).  

As of 5;30 pm today, it is getting a 18% “Splat” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and 11% from top critics, meaning  eight out of nine reviews are bad..  If you’ve seen the film, please add your User review on that website as well.  Here are some excerpts from the critics: 
AP review Fails to make the grade”:  Theaters should install glow-in-the-dark versions of those old clunking classroom clocks so viewers can count the agonizing minutes ticking by as they watch the movie.”

NPR review:  “Too-Easy Way Out””  "something less honorable...propaganda piece with blame on its mind." 

Hollywood Reporter review:   pedestrian & insultingly tendentious…condescending... dumbed-down agenda film… Given the disingenuous way in which this lumbering movie pushes obvious buttons and manipulates the audience’s emotional investment while conveniently skimming the issues, it’s a mystery how some of these names got roped in.”

Variety review: "disingenuous pot-stirrer...taking public for dummies...cardboard characterizations..."

My favorite?  The Salon review, headlined “Won't Back Down" is an offensive, lame, union-bashing drama”:


“ …the movie is unbelievable crap and the whole project was financed by conservative Christian billionaire Phil Anschutz, also the moneybags behind the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” …“simpering, pseudo-inspirational pap, constructed with painful awkwardness and disconnected from any narrative plausibility or social reality…. script that has that disconnected, amateurish quality distinctive to conservative-oriented entertainment and plays written by fourth-graders…. a set of right-wing anti-union talking points disguised (with very limited success) as a mainstream motion-picture-type product. Someone needs to launch an investigation into what combination of crimes, dares, alcoholic binges and lapses in judgment got Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal into this movie….”

The only somewhat mixed review so far is from Rex Reed in the NY Observer

“As a message picture, its heart is in the right place. Too bad it doesn’t always manage to rise above a swirl of predictable Hollywood clich├ęs.”