Education Reform and Options in Movies
This was first published in August 2015; we updated it with more movies that will provoke, educate, and inspire people about educational opportunities. Enjoy and grab the popcorn.
Movies can communicate in ways that the most persuasive Letter to the Editor or legislation testimony cannot. They can reach people who may not understand the challenges students and families may face with the traditional public-school system. Below is a list of wonderful movies and documentaries about educational reform and options that are very compelling. Some are available free online. Get some popcorn, invite some friends over, and enjoy.
The Beautiful Truth (2008)
Although not directly about homeschooling, this movie portrays a fifteen-year-old who starts homeschooling after the tragic death of his mother. His first homeschool assignment starts him on a path of extensive research between the effects of diet and cancer. This review is not a comment on the content of the movie, rather the positive portrayal of a homeschooled teen.
Best Kept Secret (2013)
This film focuses on John F. Kennedy High School in Newark, New Jersey, a public school dedicated to supporting students with special needs. This story follows three students with autism as they transition from school to adult life. It raises questions about educational opportunities available to minorities and students with neuro-diversities.
Beyond Measure (2015)
From Vicki Abeles, the director of Race to Nowhere, comes the follow-up documentary of three sets of teachers and students as they struggle with high-stakes testing and the stifling one-size-fits-all public education system.
Building the Machine (2014)
This film talks about the federal education reform, Common Core State Standards (aka College and Career Readiness Standards). It interviews two key professionals who served on the validation committee. The documentary criticizes the way Common Core was adopted and challenges the appropriateness of a single national standard.
This film focuses on five students in different states over the 2009-2010 school-year as they struggle with bullying in their schools and communities. The compelling and troubling documentary redefines the social problem and says bullying cannot be accepted as “just kids being kids.” Bullying and safety are among the leading reasons families seek educational options. This film may not be appropriate for young viewers.
Captain Fantastic (2016)
This comedy-drama is about a homeschooling family living off-grid in the Pacific Northwest. They struggle when a family tragedy forces them to reintegrate into society and extended family memvers that do not support their way of life. It portrays homeschoolers as isolationists and leftists, lacking in social skills, but also as self-reliant, well-read, and individualistic.
The Cartel (2009)
This documentary questions why American public schools fall short of the educational standards many industrialized countries take as a given. It also makes the case that teacher unions are detrimental to public education and that increased competition, particularly vouchers and charter schools, would revitalize and improve the system.
Class Dismissed (2014)
This movie is about educational options beyond the traditional public schools. It follows one family on their initial homeschool journey.
The Marva Collins Story (1981)
Marva Collins was a teacher in a Chicago ghetto who saw inherent problems in the public-school system and how it did not give students an opportunity to reach their potential. She had to overcome multiple obstacles to start an independent school to serve her community.
Dolphin’s Tale (2011)
This movie, based on a book by the same name, is about the true story of a bottled-nosed dolphin rescued off the Florida coast. The film positively portrays a young homeschooled girl growing up with her widowed father as they care for the injured dolphin.
Grown Without Schooling (2001)
This documentary features ten homeschooled adults as they talk about the impact it had on their education and lives.
Heal Our Schools (2015)
This documentary is from teachers’ point-of-view. It is critical of politicians and private corporations that are driving educational reform.
If You Build It (2013)
This documentary is about a poor rural community in North Carolina that reinvented education. The movie is available on YouTube here.
The Kids We Lose (2019)
This documentary is about behaviorally-challenged and neuro-diverse students who do not fit the public-education model and the system that is unable to help them navigate these difficulties.
Learn Free (2010)
This short documentary is about a child-led educational approached called “unschooling.”
This movie reveals flaws in the education system from a student’s perspective. It is not a polished documentary, but the rawness shows the struggles that many students face trying to fit in and be successful in schools that don’t fit their needs. It is critical of top-down education reform and the over-emphasis on testing.
Live Free and Learn (2015)
This short documentary by the Cato Institute follows the origins, lawsuit, and progress of New Hampshire’s tax-credit scholarship program, originally available through the Network for Educational Opportunity. As of 2019, the Education Tax Credit program is available through two organizations: the Children’s Scholarship Fund NH and the Giving and Going Alliance. As of the 2018-2019 school year, the ETC scholarships have supported nearly 900 low-income students across the state through these privately-funded scholarships.
The Lottery (2010)
This documentary follows four New York families as they await their children’s chance to get into a successful charter school.
Most Likely to Succeed (2015)
This documentary is a family’s search for alternative high schools for their daughter. They discover a project-based charter school in California. The movie discusses various educational options that seek to fit each child’s unique learning needs and goals. It also is critical of the educational model developed at the beginning of the Industrial Age, more than a century ago, arguing that education needs to be individualized and better suited to the technological advancements in the world today.
This film is critical of the tremendous pressures students face throughout their educational journeys. It questions what is success and how to foster and encourage it for today’s students.
Rich Hill (2014)
This Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary tells the story about three young adults growing up in a small, impoverished Missouri community. It chronicles their hopes, dreams, and struggles. The film raises questions about the availability and equality of opportunities for socio-economically disadvantaged children. The movie is available here.
The Rule (2014)
This film shares the story of a Benedictine prep high school located in Newark, New Jersey. They defy the extreme poverty, inner-city crime, and other adversities with a nearly 100% college acceptance rate. This film strives to show that St. Benedict’s Prep can be a model for urban education reform.
School, Inc. (2017)
This documentary by the late Andrew Coulson is an Anthem Film Festival winner for “Excellence in Filmmaking – Documentary Feature.” It takes viewers on a world-wide search for excellence in education and tries to answer “if you build a better way to teach a subject, why doesn’t the world beat a path to your door?”
Stand and Deliver (1988)
This dramatized movie is based on the true story of a Los Angeles high-school math teacher, Jaime Escalante. He battles the system and low expectations to help his students take and pass the AP Calculus exam.
The Ticket (2014)
This short documentary by Bob Bowdon of Choice Media, traces various educational options across the country, including charter schools, vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, online education, and homeschooling. It is based on the premise that all children deserve an education that fits their needs and goals.
To Be and to Have (2002)
This award-winning documentary is about a one-room schoolhouse in France as it follows the children, aged 4 to 11, for one year.
Two Million Minutes (2008)
American students have approximately two million minutes from the time they finish eighth grade to high school graduation. This movie follows three groups of students — one American, one Indian, and one Chinese — as they spend this precious time preparing to enter their post-graduation years. The documentary highlights the significant cross-cultural differences in expectations and educational programs in these countries.
Underwater Dreams (2014)
This inspiring documentary follows four high-school students of undocumented immigrants who built an underwater robot that challenged power-house STEM schools. It shows that no matter their background or socio-economic standing, all students can achieve great things when given the opportunity.
This documentary follows three “unschooling” families. They talk openly and candidly about the positives and negatives with this particular type of homeschooling.
Waiting for Superman (2010)
This documentary portrays the failings of the public-school system as it follows several children in their efforts to get into a charter school.
The War on Kids (2009)
This documentary argues that the many failings of public education rob children of freedom. It compares public education with prison.
Who Cares about Kelsey (2012)
This documentary follows a Somersworth, NH teen who struggled with major educational, mental health, and substance abuse problems. The school introduced a youth-directed planning process and other reforms that helped Kelsey, and other at-risk students. This movie makes watchers re-think what it means to be a “problem student” and how youths in our own communities can be better served.
Won’t Back Down (2012)
This movie dramatizes the story of two California moms who battled bureaucracy and unions to better the inner-city school their children attended. It also refers to the Parent Trigger Law that passed in CA and several other states in 2010 that allows a community to demand an administrative overhaul of failing schools if petitioned.