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Fact Checking “Whatever It Takes” (Or: The Trouble with Heroes)

By Eduwonkette — August 14, 2008 2 min read

Over at eduwonk, guest blogger Michael Goldstein points us to an inspirational trailer for a documentary, Whatever It Takes, about a new small school in the South Bronx. This is American education’s favorite past-time - find inspirational principal/teacher and tell an uplifting/touching story about how kids from tough backgrounds beat the odds. Preferably, someone easy on the eyes like Hilary Swank or Morgan Freeman plays the lead.

I see two problems with this phenomenon: First, it’s almost always the case that these heroic tales leave out some critical details. While I’m sure the school profiled in “Whatever It Takes” is doing important, laudable work, let me fill in the blanks about the process for selecting the first cohort of students to the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics. As I explained in
When a Lottery is Not a Lottery
, some “unscreened” small schools in NYC - including the Bronx school profiled in this movie - have required students to fill out applications to verify that they made an “informed choice” to attend the school; students who the school reports as making an “informed choice” received first preference in the “lottery.”

To apply to be part of the first entering class at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, students were asked to provide their most recent report card and two letters of recommendation, one from an 8th grade teacher and one from a guidance counselor, principal, or assistant principal. The application also asked for the student’s test scores, retention history, and involvement in advanced courses during the 8th grade. Finally, applicants to the “unscreened” school profiled in “Whatever It Takes” had to answer the following essay questions:

1) What are three things your teachers would say about you? 2) What makes you want to attend a school that will demand your very best academically and will expect you to work harder than you probably ever have before? 3) What are five future goals you have for yourself? 4) Mention the title and authors of some books you would like to discuss during your interview. 5) What are some activities to which you belong either in school or outside of school?

You can decide for yourself whether this should be called an “unscreened” school. But data from their most recent School Report Card suggest that the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics isn’t serving a population typical of the South Bronx: only 18% qualified for free lunch, 0% were in full-time special education, .9% were in part-time special education, .9% were English Language Learners, students had an average daily attendance of 90.5% in the previous year, and 53% and 51% of students entered 9th grade proficient in reading and math, respectively.

Here’s the second problem: We do teachers and schools a great disservice by clinging to the teachers/principals as heroic, self-effacing figures storyline. This argument is best made in a New York Times op-ed, Classroom Distinctions:

The most dangerous message such films promote is that what schools really need are heroes. This is the Myth of the Great Teacher. Films like “Freedom Writers” portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job. Her behavior is not represented as obsessive or self-destructive, but driven — necessary, even. She is forced into making these sacrifices by the aggressive neglect of the school’s administrators, who won’t even let her take books from the bookroom. The film applauds Ms. Gruwell’s dedication, but also implies that she has no other choice. In order to be a good teacher, she has to be a hero. (...)Every day teachers are blamed for what the system they’re just a part of doesn’t provide: safe, adequately staffed schools with the highest expectations for all students. But that’s not something one maverick teacher, no matter how idealistic, perky or self-sacrificing, can accomplish.

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