Monday, March 31, 2014

Re: Building the Machine

I have just watched the Home School Legal Defense association's documentary, Building the Machine.

I must tell you that I approached this with some reservations. In my mind, there is an important distinction between different sorts of Common Core Testy Regime opponents. On one hand, we have people who are fighting the high stakes test-driven corporate agenda because they want to rescue the heart and soul of American public education. On the other hand, we have people who are fighting because they believe that all this reformy mess actually reveals the heart and soul of American public education. Where one group says, "We have to stop the corporate-federal takeover of schools," the other says, "See! I knew it! This is just what they've always been planning to do."

So when I saw the trailer, and that the film is produced by the Home School Legal Defense Association (not fans of public school) my first reaction was extreme caution. Every time a colleague posted the trailer, I popped up to say, "Let's not get too excited here." I believe my quotable line was "Sometimes the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy, too."

But tonight I watched, because I try to watch and read everything I can. Because I want to know. Because we have to judge truth and untruth and half-truth based on its own character, and not its source. I wanted you to know all my biases going into this review of the film. Okay? Let's begin.

The film is slick-- Hollywood documentary slick, with well-filmed interviews and music cues that stir whatever emotions the film-makers want to stir. Here an ominous humming, like the deadly gas is in the basement. There a anxious pulse, like the clutch in your gut that somethings not right in your home.

The film depends on a wide assortment of filmed interviews. Michael McShane, Wayne Brasler, Andrew Hacker, Ze'ev Wurman, Paul Horton, to name just a few. Mike Petrilli and Chester Finn are there to speak on the Core's behalf, and given a fair chance to present their usual assortment of lies and marketing spin. Sandra Stotsky and Jim Milgram are given ample room to tell their stories of their fall from grace as CCSS validators. Several CCSS crafters were given a chance to speak, but declined, and so David Coleman appears only by film clip. This is not the highly progressive crowd, but nobody is wearing his Tea Party Tin Hat, either. It's a well-rounded roster of knowledgeable grown-ups.

The films pace is slow and deliberate. The interviewed experts are given more than tiny sound bites. There is plenty of chance to hear the arguments, to let them make their points. The film is slick, but not used-car-salesman dazzling. It's a glossy magazine with long, serious articles.

It covers the genesis of the Core, the broad outlines of its placement in power (though curiously fails to connect the dots between NCLB and the pressure to buy a waiver with CCSS compliance). It fully notes the stealth and speed involved in CCSS adoption. Its experts are all highly articulate, and while they make points that many opponents of Reformy Stuff make with regularity, they make them with passion and clarity. This is a film that assembles some evidence, but also depends heavily on crafting convincing arguments aimed at least as much at your brains as at your heart.

I listened for the dog whistle of "This is why you must tear your kids out of public school and never look back." I never heard it. The film does fire some arrows straight at homeschool hearts. In particular, it notes that this reform agenda is reshaping colleges, and so homeschooling your K-12 child won't save you. It noted that we know after decades of research that the biggest single affect on a child's education is the parents. And it asked the question of whether it's the government's right to teach your child what it wants your child to know. Does the child belong to her family, or is her education to serve the needs of the government?

Yes, that's all pretty standard homeschool rhetoric, but I have just typed every single instance of those arguments in a forty-minute movie. In fact, the film seems at moments to acknowledge that homeschoolers and supporters of traditional public ed are allies in this fight.

There are many great moments in this film. An articulate explanation of why "college and career ready" is guaranteed to produce unsatisfactory standards. An impassioned chapter about how children are humans and not assembly line machines. It even addresses the usual reformy complaint-- if you don't want CCSS, what do you want? What are you for? And it has this quote by Wayne Brasler in response to the idea of a race in education:

What race? The race is to keep the Democracy alive and vibrant and safe, and to have thinking, caring, intelligent students.

The film includes many highly quotable moments. It is passionate and scary, but not angry or mean. It goes out of its way not to attack anybody's character or motives. It portrays this battle not as a crusade against evil-doers, but a fight against well-meaning but misguided men who believe in a centrally planned one-size-fits-all system. They are dead wrong, but they are not Satan incarnate.

This is a film you should watch, and this is a film that you should get others to watch-- particularly those who are still learning about the issues. It has some darkly "All the President's Men" moments, but it's not overwrought or crazy-sounding. It explains some of the facts and explains most of the issues clearly and directly. People who have been in this fight for a while will nod their heads, but civilians new to the field will understand easily, and they'll know better than they did what is going, who the players are, and what they've done.

So, as someone who was prepared to keep this film at arm's length, I'll be passing it on to colleagues, to friends, to family. I suggest you watch it and then do the same.

P.S. I've already heard from folks who want to let me know that there's a point stated somewhere in this film that they disagree with. All I can say is, if you're waiting for the film that says exactly what you want to say exactly the way you want it said, there's only one filmmaker who could create that film, and you'll find that person in your mirror. In the meantime, be a critical viewer and sift through what you see with your intellect and conscience.


  1. Thanks for the review Peter...I have not yet seen it, but held similar reservations that you mentioned......Because I see the high maintenance website, professional presentation, fancy editing, etc, I know this project cost a bundle. Ah Hah... Whose bundle? ...and is this film crammed with bundle owner's particular (and/or peculiar) ideology? Because I see the Homeschool organization, Heartland Institute and other tea party-ish groups listed in the trailer it makes me wonder even more...But then I see Paul Horton of the u of Chicago Lab School, also... I've read some of his articles about privatization and corporate reform and have always liked what he has to another part of me says 'hmmm'...I'll proceed with curiosity ...and caution, an odd combination of emotions; like sweet and sour sauce. After reading your review, I am now wondering how we can best make use of this film in our resistance to corporate reform. But first things first...I'm off to view (and critique) the film...again, thank you.

  2. Great review; I'll have to check it out. I've always thought homeschoolers and public school supporters should be allies (there's no reason why you couldn't be both). I think parents should have the right to homeschool their children. That's not to say most people can do it well or successfully. Indeed, I think just the opposite. It's really about knowing yourself, your kid, and the available schools. I have some friends who have one of their kids in a public school while they homeschool the other one.

    Also, we shouldn't let the media's caricature of Tea Partiers stand in our way. The few Tea Party people I know are sane and articulate. And as far as unwanted and unwarranted federal government intrusion into public education, well, they're right on that one.

  3. Thanks for the review. I will check it out.

    On this: "It noted that we know after decades of research that the biggest single affect on a child's education is the parents" I urge all to consider what a curriculum that alienates the parent helping children understand their homework will do with respect to parental involvement. We have all seen the crazy math homework and test problems that, once explained, are really not quite so crazy. But should we, as parents, have to consult the our friends and teachers to understand our third graders' math homework?

  4. Thank you- I didn't have the stomach for disappointment so grateful you previewed for me. I trust your judgement implicitly.