Why Can't Hollywood Get Education Right?

The real problems in America's schools are hard to dramatize, so the entertainment industry gives us Cameron Diaz's breasts instead.

If the slate of upcoming movies and TV shows is any indication, the education drama may be the new cop drama. Several new films and series about teachers and schools are set to be unleashed on the masses. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry isn't exactly known for its accurate portrayals of American schools.

On the big screen, actresses Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal are set to start shooting the movie Still I Rise in Pittsburgh. Davis will star as "a middle-class teacher and mother of one child in a story about two strong women who channel their frustration into action and join forces to transform an inner-city school." But real school transformation is rarely the work of one or two individuals, no matter how strong. In reality, if parents or other influential community parties aren't invested, achieving academic goals with students is pretty difficult. School-wide change rarely happens without the close collaboration of an entire community. Still, in movies like Lean on Me or Freedom Writers, we see some superhuman protagonist (or two) saving a school.

When Hollywood isn't selling tickets with portrayals of savior teachers, they try to "humanize" educators. Enter "The New Girl," an upcoming Fox sitcom starring Zooey Deschanel. Deschanel will play a young teacher who moves in with three guys after breaking up with her boyfriend. It's doubtful we'll see her spend too much time in front of a classroom since the original title of the show was "Chicks & Dicks." We'll probably learn about the trials of dating when you're a teacher—Deschanel's prospects won't understand why she has to go to bed so early (teachers often have to be at work at 7 a.m.) Otherwise, we're not counting on this show offering any insight into the day-to-day teaching experience.

Finally, there's the soon-to-be-released film Bad Teacher, which stars Cameron Diaz as an foul-mouthed, hard drinking teacher who is competing with a female colleague for the affections of a new substitute played by Justin Timberlake. It gets worse: To attract Timberlake's attention, Diaz's character wants her students to do well on standardized tests so she can get merit pay. To buy herself breast implants. There's nothing wrong with a low-brow comedy about a teacher with base motivations per se, but it is discouraging to think that people who see this will probably associate high-stakes standardized testing and merit pay more with Diaz's sexy carwash than with their sometimes negative effects—like endless test prep and a narrowing of the curriculum—on public education.

Why is it so hard for Hollywood to do a good job with education-related entertainment? Part of the reason is that the real issues in education—the role of government funding, the question of how to measure performance, the broader issues of socio-economic inequality—are complex. They don't lend themselves to simple dramatization. It's easier to have a teacher transform a student's life with a speech about whether to pick up a pencil or a gun, or try to raise test scores to get a pair of double D's.

In fact, the only piece of recent entertainment to address education with the real nuance and depth the issue deserves has been The Wire, which went off the air in 2008. The excellent fourth season provided a truly insightful portrait of Baltimore's schools, showing the pros and cons of rigid curricula that make accountability possible but hamper the most effective teachers, and illustrating how effective programs can be shut down in an instant by an out-of-touch education board or the short-sighted political priorities of City Hall.

Indeed, the only bright spot in this coming blitz of education entertainment comes from Ed Burns, co-creator of The Wire. He's tapped actress Amber Tamblyn to star in a still untitled show about a young public school teacher. Let's hope she's not just in it to buy herself a bigger cup size.


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