“Can’t you understand that nothing is more important than a good education?”
“Except the basic right to it.”
These lines are spoken by two of the adult, and therefore less interesting, characters in the one movie I loved more than any other as a teenager, one designed to appeal to teen angst and budding lefty passion: 1990′s Pump Up the Volume. I hadn’t seen it in years, but Monday night it was on TV and it turns out I still know a not-inconsequential fraction of its lines a beat before they’re spoken. More, while I’m perhaps clearer-eyed about the movie’s overall quality, I’m also moved to make a pitch for it through adult eyes and in the context of American education today.
More than 22 years later, these lines, perhaps not unsurprisingly, seem much more central than they did when the movie came out. But it’s not just because I’ve grown and changed and teen angst is less central to my life. It’s because the conflict laid out in those two lines has moved to the center of American education, and the wrong side is ascendant. (Spoilers follow, if the concept of a spoiler is relevant to a movie this old.)
In Pump Up the Volume, Christian Slater plays a high school student whose parents have moved him from the east coast to suburban Arizona. He expresses his alienation and anger as a pirate radio DJ called Hard Harry, becoming unintentionally popular among his fellow students. But while Hard Harry, per his name, engages in a lot of masturbation humor and dick jokes more generally, he also becomes a voice for teenagers being abused by each other and, most of all, by their school. The school administration is kicking out “problem” students who will drag down SAT scores, while covering that up to keep government money coming in, and Harry (real name Mark) becomes a catalyst for uncovering that.
Let’s be clear: There’s a lot in Pump Up the Volume that’s cheesy—the FCC commissioner showing up in a stretch limo, two kids who’ve been kicked out of school showing up at the same moment for dramatic confrontations with administrators—and a lot that’s right—the alternating bravado and awkwardness of teenagers, the loneliness that you don’t know at the time is temporary. And a lot of what’s cheesy—”don’t you see, you’re the voice?”—is also right, because in that alternating bravado and awkwardness, teenagers can be cheesy. (She says, quite possibly having found that “you’re the voice” line inspiring at age 13.)
But I still find it compelling on two levels. For one thing, it’s about the move from isolation and individualism to community, to collective action, even. Harry initially rejects his role as “the voice,” rejects the idea that he has responsibility to anyone else even as students write to him for advice about their most painful problems. He ends by understanding himself as having a responsibility to his listeners. Similarly, students who begin listening to his show alone in their homes start calling each other, talking it over at school, pulling up their cars at the place reception is the best. In their cars, they begin the movie fragmented into their social groups, with contempt for each other. They end up in solidarity, troublemakers and star students having come to see shared interests with each other.
But beyond that, the story about what education is and should be is probably a more direct echo of today’s education debates than it was then. Pump Up the Volume is about a test score-driven high school that will expel students who might drag down its scores. Sound familiar? Because that’s what many, many charter schools do these days. Not all of them, but many of the charters that brag the most loudly about their high college acceptance rates and high graduation rates are just talking about the students that are left after the ones seen as disciplinary or academic problems have been pushed out. It’s true in New York:
As it turns out, high-performing charter middle schools in the New York City also have extremely high rates of attrition in their testing cohorts :
- Eight of the thirteen schools have enough data to allow us to examine cohort size between 5th grade, when students enter, and 8th grade, when they graduate. In four of these schools, more than 25% of the students vanished from the cohort. Of these four schools, three saw cohort declines of 30%, and one lost nearly 40%. All of these charters have been nationally or locally acclaimed as great schools that are in high demand. The average attrition for this group of eight is 23%.
- These attrition rates contrast starkly with what I found in regular public schools, where the size of cohorts tends to remain the same or rise.
Boston’s Commonwealth charter schools have significantly weak “promoting power,” that is, the number of seniors is routinely below 60 percent of the freshmen enrolled four years earlier. looking at it another way, for every five freshmen enrolled in Boston’s charter high schools in the fall of 2008 there were only two seniors: Senior enrollment was 42 percent of freshmen enrollment. in contrast, for every five freshmen enrolled in the Boston Public Schools that fall there were four seniors: Senior enrollment was 81 percent of freshmen enrollment.
The SEED School in Washington, D.C. has been widely lauded as a miracle of 100 percent graduation rates. Here’s what that looked like for the class of 2011:
Similar patterns can be found at charter schools in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. Again, it’s not necessarily all charters, but it’s enough. In 1990, kicking students out to make a school look better on paper was a movie plot. In 2013, it’s an educational model supported by politicians around the country in the name of “choice.” They claim that’s the choice of the students and their parents to go to these schools with their miraculous 100 percent graduation rates, but really, as is so often the case in politics today, the choice is given to those above, to the billionaire-backed charters, of which kids to education and which to kick to the curb.
Pump Up the Volume introduced me to Leonard Cohen and Concrete Blonde and the Pixies and more. But it also had this conversation, between the principal who’s been kicking students out and the school commissioner who’s starting to figure out that there’s a problem in this school:
Principal: “You can’t run a top school with troublemakers in the mix.”
Commissioner: “Okay, so what exactly is a troublemaker?”
Principal: “Someone who has no interest in education.”
Commissioner: “Oh, come on, that includes every teenager I know.”
Principal: “Can’t you understand that nothing is more important than a good education?”
Commissioner: “Except the basic right to it.”
Principal: “The point is, I have the highest average SAT scores in the state.”
Commissioner: “Yeah, but how?”
These are basic concepts and questions that the most powerful figures in American education seem to have abandoned.