Opinion
Education Opinion

How People Get Information About Schools

By Nancy Flanagan — June 29, 2011 2 min read

Watch this--it takes less than a minute: Bad Teacher @ Trailer Addiction.

Now, imagine that you are in one or several of these categories:
• Under the age of mature, informed reason--say, 17 or 18
• Not a public school parent
• Right-wing conservative / Tea Party enthusiast / Neo-Something Democrat Banker
• Temperamentally inclined to see the world as going to hell in a hand basket
• Not concerned with strict accuracy in media, preferring to consume “news” that reinforces opinion

What does this movie spot reveal to you, concerning our collective beliefs about education in America? We used to be number one--whatever that means--but now the immoral idiots who staff our schools have dragged us down to #17?

What does it say to the people in the captions above-- kids, cranky sorts, ideologues, average Joes who drive past public schools but haven’t been in one since 1975? Is it different for those who actually work in schools or have solid first-hand information because their children attend them?

Do most people view this as an ordinary advertising hook for a low-rent comic farce? Is there a common understanding that what makes broad satire amusing--or a nuclear disaster movie terrifying--is planting its roots in reality? Are we generally savvy enough to make the distinction between mindless entertainment and using topical issues to enlighten? Does a movie like Bad Teacher start good discussions--or reinforce misconceptions?

Sorry. That’s a whole lot of rhetorical questions.

But honestly--I am not convinced that people have good filters for what’s true and what’s distorted when it comes to the reality of public schooling. I worry, a lot, about discernment--the ability to figure out who’s zoomin’ who on complex education issues. I worry most about kids. What does it mean to a fifth grader when a two-minute movie trailer suggests that your school (not to put too fine a point on it) now sucks, compared to the rest of the world--and the reason is your lousy teachers?

Over at Straight Talk, Rick Hess considers (without a trace of irony) potential damage to merit pay initiatives that Bad Teacher could wreak-- a kind of funhouse-mirror image of my own angst over what the infamous Bad Teacher cover of Newsweek, a serious newsmagazine, did to the idea of professional teaching. Rick frets a bit about how Cameron Diaz’s bad-teacher character pursues high test scores for crass personal gain, then decides that, whether fiction or reality, it’s better for a teacher to ineptly teach to the test than show endless videos. As if those were the two most feasible choices.

Yeah, it’s just a dumb movie. But lots of entertaining flicks have altered the national perception on single issues: The Godfather. Citizen Kane. Apocalypse Now. Dr. Strangelove. To Kill a Mockingbird. Gone With the Wind.

Reviewers have been lobbing tomatoes at Bad Teacher, but even stupid movies often linger in the public’s vocabulary and consciousness. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Bad Teacher may sink rapidly into obscurity--but the faux “fact” that kicks off the advertising has the feel of science. Then there’s the far more truthy-seeming Waiting for Superman which also played fast and loose with veracity. The line between hard-hitting journalism and astro-turf advocacy has blurred. Where does the exaggerated fiction version fit into the mix?

More questions. What happened to faith in the power of education to strengthen democratic equality and build citizenship? Are we done with all that, in the post-ironic age? Are we (as the late Neil Postman suggested) amusing ourselves to death?

Just wondering.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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