Flunked Shows Pressing Need for Choice

Published January 1, 2009

Narrated by actor Joe Mantegna, the new documentary film Flunked takes a cold, hard look at the problems plaguing the American education system.

In just 45 minutes the film offers in-depth information on how the nation got into its current academic pit, how to start crawling out of it, and why it is imperative that we do so.

The award-winning film highlights the nation’s academic downward spiral over the past 50 years. It was produced by EFF Productions with the help of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, an organization based in Washington that advocates free enterprise and limited government. Flunked won the “Best Film” award at the San Fernando Valley International Film Festival in October.

Citing data from the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment, in which the United States ranked 24th of 29 nations, the film illustrates just how low America’s education system ranks on the global totem pole in terms of academic performance.

“This has been the story of every education reform effort since 1957,” Mantegna said. “Big promises, massive budgets, and no improvements to speak of.”

Success Stories

The film features educators from across the country who are using innovative tactics to improve their students’ academic achievement. From the Bronx to the Bay Area, administrators from charter schools and other alternative forms of education explain how a new, personalized approach better serves their students in measurable ways such as much-improved test scores.

One of those is Ben Chavis, principal of the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, California. Facing a 68 percent attendance rate when he took over the school in 2001, Chavis said he used “good ol’ capitalism” to get the students back in school: At graduation, he stacked a large amount of money on a table and handed it out to those who had good attendance.

Once students started attending, Chavis eliminated the traditional middle-school model of rotating classrooms and created self-contained classes that change teachers only for physical education classes.

“It creates stability,” Chavis said in the documentary. “I think you cannot create a better system to destroy kids than the middle-school concept that we have today of the rotating [classes]. A middle-school child is constantly changing; … that’s what the research says. So [we say], ‘Let’s give them seven classes, that will really screw them up.’ I did away with that rotating system.”

It worked. A year later, American Indian Public School had the most-improved standardized test scores in the city.

Problems, Solutions

Big budgets for ineffective and failing schools that use out-of-date teaching techniques and materials are highlighted in the film as major problems for the nation’s education system.

The filmmakers also note some possible solutions. For example, the film shows successful schools seem to have four things in common: strong leaders, good teachers, the best curricula possible, and high standards of excellence.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.