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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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RHSU Classic: Summer Movie Break: Ed Flicks to Catch

By Rick Hess — February 06, 2020 4 min read
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This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rick Hess Straight Up, making it a propitious time to revisit some favorites from the past decade. For each of the Top 20 which run this month, I’ve offered a quick reflection or thought as to why it remains a personal favorite.

I’ve loved movies about schools and teachers forever. When I taught, I’d be exhausted in late August because I’d stay up half the night watching in anticipation of the new the school year. When I left to go to grad school and started mentoring student-teachers, I’d watch—hoping to recapture snippets of that feeling. And, all these years later, I still love these movies. That said, the list is (obviously) a decade out of date. Moreover, there were clearly some brain-freeze moments in whipping up the list. Most egregiously, as any number of readers noted, it’s unbelievable that I forgot Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Now, onto number 17, originally published on June 9, 2010.

It’s summer, and I’m going to be ratcheting back RHSU to something more like three days a week, with a few guests stepping in to boot. Now, I can already hear the gnashing teeth and wails of, “What will I do with all that spare time?” OK, maybe not so much teeth-gnashing. Regardless, and with graduation season upon us, I thought I’d offer a few suggestions regarding some of my favorite terrific, cheese-tastic movies about teaching, schooling, and adolescence. Now, we’re going to shy away here from heavy, serious flicks like The Blackboard Jungle and To Sir, With Love, just because then you risk getting into precious one-upsmanship, and the whole thing just gets too intense.

So, I’ve opted for the kinds of films that you can Netflix and watch on a Tuesday night and that can spark a Doritos-fueled discussion about teens, teachers, and schools. You’ll notice the heavy dollop of movies circa 1980s and 1990s. So be it; it’s my list. And hey, if you don’t like ‘em, that’s cool, too. Feel free to suggest your own alternatives.

I wouldn’t read too much science into this list: The rankings and even the list of films would probably look semi-different if I did this yesterday or tomorrow. Anyway, here we go:

10] Summer School - Mark Harmon, Kirstie Alley, and Courtney Thorne-Smith, with Harmon as a reluctant summer school teacher who learns his chops along the way? ... C’mon, it’s popcorn and soda, but it is the summertime.

9] Lean on Me - OK, so it’s kind of an awful movie, with all kinds of troubling messages. But Morgan Freeman is volcanic, there are a couple of really touching scenes, and I’ve always thought the opening montage set to G&R’s “Welcome to the Jungle” was pretty cool. (Alternatively, you can go with Coach Carterwhich is basically the same movie with Samuel L. Jackson doing his own iconic, volcanic routine, but with fewer troubling messages.)

8] Friday Night Lights - I thought the movie better than the book, but the film still pales next to the remarkable TV series. If you’ve seen the TV show, no need to go back and see this. And, even if you haven’t, you would probably be inclined to watch that rather than the film. But, if you want two good hours, it’s worth a look.

7] Ten Things I Hate About You - As tongue-in-cheek adaptations of Shakespeare go, this was phenomenal. And the casting was enormously fun, including a memorable (and memorably young) Heath Ledger. And between Allison Janney’s guidance counselor and the intense literature teacher, there are a couple of really quirky adult figures.

6] Superbad - It just captures the joys and tribulations of home economics. And McLovin was an iconic character about 48 hours after the movie debuted.

5] Clueless - Yeah, I dig this. So sue me ...

4] The Breakfast Club - A quarter-century later, still a classic window into how we think about high school life. And the same goes for Sixteen Candles. Both movies evoke a time (the now-distant 1980s) and a place (suburbia) that resonated for a generation.

3] Stand and Deliver - Edward James Olmos and Lou Diamond Phillips doing a sanitized version of the Jaime Escalante story. Used to watch it every semester when I was teaching. No one says you’ve got to do the same, but it is really something. Something even a little more over-the-top is “Teachers.” With Ralph Macchio, Laura Dern, Judd Hirsch, and Nick Nolte’s burned-out everyman teacher-cum-radiator repairman, it culminates with a final scene-chewing epiphany that still brings tears to my eyes.

2] Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society - When they came out (Boyz in 1991 and Menace in 1993), well into the reign of violence crack had unleashed in the inner city, they launched the careers of John Singleton and the Hughes brothers. They offered a powerful, riveting window into an adolescence framed more by guns and drugs than schooling or parenting. The two movies sufficed to spawn a whole genre, but none of the latter films did it nearly as well—and none featured anything like Laurence Fishburne’s portrayal of Furious Styles in Boyz. Furious still stands in my mind as one of the great, complex, riveting role models in cinema. Love it when Furious and Reva’s son Trey answers the phone, “Who dis?” Reva, on the other end of the line, snaps, “Boy, what are you talking about, ‘Who dis?’ I know you been raised better than that! Now put your father on the phone.” And Furious picks up, “Who dis?” Really, these films are too good for this list, but such is life.

1] Dazed and Confused - Richard Linklater’s brilliant look at graduation day in small-town Texas in the 1970s (with star-making turns for several, including a magnetic Matthew McConaughey). Again, another film that’s really too sublime to belong on this list, but what are you going to do?

Happy viewing. And, like I said, if you disagree—feel free to comment away.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.