Pop Cultural Education Reform-Watch

By Alyssa Rosenberg

Given the buzz around, if not necessarily box-office success of, documentaries like Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere, it was probably inevitable that education would bubble up to the top of the List of Issues Hollywood Makes Things About. Between the new Ed Burns show about a public school starring Amber Tamblyn, the news that Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis are starring in a new movie where they play mothers who “join forces to transform an inner-city public school,” and Fox’s pickup of Zooey Deschanel’s young-teacher-and-her-roommates comedy, teachers are claiming some of the space traditionally dominated by doctors and cops.

I don’t really expect Deschanel’s show to spend much time in the classroom or thinking about the political forces shaping what Deschanel does there. But both Burns’ show and Gyllenhaal and Davis’ movie are explicitly about how to make schools better. The key question for both projects will be what they identify as the problems with American education, and how they define the scope of reform.

Given Burns’ track record on The Wire, and the focus on parents in the movie, I doubt either the show or the movie will focus on a model where all you need is a single charismatic teacher to turn a classroom around. But that leaves a lot of open territory. Will Davis and Gyllenhaal’s characters fight for smaller class sizes? Get frustrated and found a charter school? Will Tamblyn’s character come into her school as a Teach for America recruit? Trying to save her job in the face of Last In First Out-governed layoffs? Burns has a fairly well-developed perspective on education, but it’ll be interesting to see how being on Fox rather than HBO influences how he conveys it. The bigger test might be with Gyllenhaal and Davis’s project: whatever the script identifies as the problems and solutions in public education will say something about where the studio thinks the American public stands on reform.