I will see almost any film, however lame, that deals with schools/students/teachers/etc --I'm always interested in how those institutions and relationships get represented on screen. Lately I've been noticing how larger anxieties about standardized testing are making their way into films. Better Luck Tomorrow tried to debunk all sorts of stereotypes of young Asians, including a plan to sell test answers (although that's not the main plot of the film). A recent MTV-produced movie, The Perfect Score, pokes fun at the importance placed on SAT tests -- the standard motley crew of highschool stereotypes (the stoner, the jock, the outcast) band together to steal the answers so that they can each go on to pursue their respective dreams (college ball, a girl, etc). It's not a great movie, but it is interesting in terms of how the pressures on middle/upper-class students today to apply to/get into college are being acknowledged, parodied -- though ultimately upheld as well.

Far more interesting -- Cheaters, which I just watched the other night from Netflix. Based on an actual case in Chicago, it follows an academic decathalon team and their coach from Steinmetz High School, an underfunded public school, as they compete in regional academic competition. They are the underdog team -- no one at their own school expects them to do well, and they don't even believe in themselves initially. They make it into the state competition -- and that's when the film gets interesting. It's not simply the usual "teacher motivates underprivileged kids" or "underdog team wins out over the preps" plot. They obtain a copy of the questions for the state competition and prepare their answers ahead of time; after their scores are challenged after winning the state competition, they deny having cheated. Their lawyer defends their right not to retake the test, and the media is all over it. The film suggests that their cheating was only exposed because of a disgruntled former team member who knew about it -- I don't know if that was relevant in the actual case.

So the film tries to make the following claims:

  1. schools in lower-income / racially diverse neighborhoods are underfunded in comparison with other public high schools. (often true, certainly in city like Chicago)
  2. Neither students from lower-income/immigrant backgrounds or their parents know how to "work the system" to be able to attend a better public school. (often true)
  3. the once-common ideal of working hard to succeed (in this film linked to German and Polish immigrants) is no longer relevant, since corporations can't be trusted to take care of their workers (certainly the ideal of the benevolent paternal corporation of the turn of the century has been shredded in recent decades)
  4. the "system" only rewards winners (probably true)
  5. winning is so beneficial to students' self-esteem that it doesn't matter how they won (WHAT???)
  6. for these students to cheat in the competition was a victory for underserved schools and immigrant students against the wealthy, white, preppy students whose school always won (and, it was implied, may have had access to answers since the decathalon offices were housed at their school) (I'm all for championing the underserved -- that's in part why I teach at Large Urban University. But cheating isn't the way to do it.)
  7. the teacher/coach wasn't responsible, because he let the kids vote on it. (WHAT???)

This film raised lots of issues for me. I'd have to see it again to really be precise about the director's beliefs/arguments -- but this was not a simple "caper against the evil system" kind of movie. As much as I wanted to (and did) sympathize with the English teacher teaching the uninterested, the nerdy kids trapped in a hellhole of a school, and their desire to prove themselves -- I think what they did was wrong, and there's no way around that.

Part of what makes the film so problematic is that basically it's a sports movie -- the team that cheats in the big game. It's not really a movie about academic cheating of the usual sort, in the classroom, or even on the SAT. When I was in high school, there was no such thing as academic decathalon (or at least not in my semi-rural location), mathletes, or any of these other attempts to make academically-oriented students fit the Always Compete model that's so prevalent today. (Back in my day, the nerds just got beat up a lot by the jocks, and ignored by the teachers.) A film trying to defend a sports team who took steroids because they were ignored by the system wouldn't get very far, I don't think, despite all the scandals that remind us that sports are not an arena of honesty either.

At the film's close, statistics are run on the screen reminding us that 80 percent of high school students admit to having cheated on a quiz or test, and over half of them don't think it's wrong. But this story isn't really about those students. This story is something else -- and the film tries to blur the lines for added "relevance". Giving, I think, the false sense that it's ok for some students to cheat because there's no other way to make it in the system.

I think our academic systems and institutions are definitely in need of overhaul -- the over-reliance on standardized testing is one thing that's having dreadful effects on the average high school student's ability to think and communicate. And this film is right to point out some of the racial and economic politics that get played out in the competition between schools for scarce resources. But it's deeply problematic in other ways.