Joe Clark is a real man who really did whip a New Jersey high school into shape. I know this because I have been told it a dozen times in the past week by people who think that explains the behavior of "Joe Clark," the hero of "Lean on Me." But "Lean on Me" is not a documentary about the real Joe Clark. It is a fiction film about a character who is so troubled, obsessed and angry that the film is never able to say quite what it thinks of him. After the movie, neither are we.
Clark is played by 1988 Oscar nominee Morgan Freeman in a performance that is powerful and consistent and thus all the more troubling. Although he has taught in schools for more than 20 years, he never has really fit in anywhere. He has an unshakable belief in his own opinions, a disinterest in anyone else's, and a personality so abrasive it's no wonder his wife left him and he has only one friend.
As an administrator, he shoots first and doesn't ask questions afterwards: He's sort of the Dirty Harry of the Paterson, N.J., educational system.
"Lean on Me" opens with a brief sequence showing Clark starting out at a well-run Eastside High in the 1960s, alienating his principal and being transferred out. It continues 20 years later, with Clark more-or-less happily teaching in a good school in a nice neighborhood.
Then we get an updated look at Eastside High, which has become the town's deeply troubled, mostly minority high school, where violence, drug-dealing and intimidation are facts of life, and little or no learning takes place. John Avildsen, the director, is so concerned with showing us the hell of Eastside High that he goes overboard; the corridors look like a cross between a prison riot and a Hells' Angel rally.
There obviously is only one man capable of turning this situation around, and so "Crazy" Joe Clark is brought back to Eastside.
His first act is to call an all-school assembly, gather all the druggies and troublemakers onstage, and expel them en masse. Then he begins to stalk the school corridors, enforcing his own reign of terror. He orders all of the graffiti painted over. Fine. He orders everyone to learn the school song, on pain of expulsion. Sort of fine.
He suspends a teacher for daring to stoop over and pick up a piece of scrap paper while Clark was talking. Not fine. He insults teachers in front of students, behaves in an erratic and irrational way, and conducts himself like an autocratic dictator. Bad.
This is a seriously troubled man. As the movie progresses, we wait for Clark to undergo a personality change, to soften, to grow, to start learning to respect the right of other people to have an opinion. But with the exception of one halfhearted apology, Clark never does change.
He is an arrogant bully, a martinet who demands instant, unquestioning obedience.
Yes, he does clean up Eastside High. And, yes, the students are able to pass a state proficiency exam, so the school can remain under local control and not be taken over by the state. But we never see how this is done. "Stand and Deliver," last year's film about a dedicated Hispanic math teacher, was about a teaching and learning process. "Lean on Me" is about a disciplinary process. The movie's most bizarre scene has Clark onstage at a pre-exam pep rally, ranting and raving and leading the school song, as if the test were a football game. But you can't pass a test simply because your spirits are high. And I am not convinced that any kind of meaningful learning can take place under Clark's reign of public humiliation. Discipline is not the same thing as intimidation.
"Lean on Me" has been widely sneak-previewed, as part of the studio's marketing strategy, and I've talked with a lot of the people who have seen it. They all admit they're bothered by Clark's personality. But some argue that (a) Clark really exists, so this is a "true" story; (b) out-of-control high schools like Eastside need a strong administrator to whip them into shape, and (c) besides, Hollywood makes so few films like this that it's a duty to support them, no matter what we really think.
I've already replied to the first argument. The third is beneath contempt. But it is true that tough schools need mad-dog teachers? One of the sneaky, uneasy feelings I got while watching "Lean on Me" is that the movie makes a subtle appeal to those who are afraid of unruly, loud, violent black teenagers. As Clark takes a baseball bat and begins to whip them into shape (at one point even physically fighting a student), the audience is cheered, not because education is being served, but because Clark is a combination of Dirty Harry and Billy Jack, enforcing the law on his own terms.
A couple of years ago I gave a good review to "The Principal," a film starring James Belushi as a tough high school principal who took a baseball bat to the drug dealers. Why did I like that movie more than "Lean on Me?" Both movies are well-made and well-acted, but "The Principal" is more honest about its real intentions. It's an action drama, depending on violence, comedy and a showdown to get its job done. "Lean on Me" wants to be taken as a serious, even noble film about an admirable man. And yet it never honestly looks at Clark for what he really is: a grownup example of the very troublemakers he hates so much, still unable even in adulthood to doubt his right to do what he wants, when he wants, as he wants. How can he teach, when he's unteachable? His values have little to do with learning how to learn.
by Bert Clere
1 April 2015
As narrative art, the 1989 film Lean on Me holds up very well after 25 years. The story is compelling, the acting powerful, and the topic more relevant than ever. Unfortunately, the film’s entire premise is based on a convenient falsehood: the idea that all public schools need for success is for kids to pull up their pants and behave. This is driven home by the fact that, while the film is based on a true story, it takes numerous liberties with historical truth. This isn’t a bad thing so far as story goes. But it is a bad thing if a film is used as a reform model.
The film’s premise is relatively simple and familiar. Eastside High in New Jersey is a failing school, riddled with drugs, disruptive students, and painfully low test scores. Morgan Freeman plays Joe Clarke, the tough-talking principal sent to clean up Eastside and boost its test scores. In this goal, he is successful, but his methods involve a leadership method of “tough-love” that at times comes close to fascistic intimidation.
Roger Ebert wrote that Lean on Me “is a fiction film about a character who is so troubled, obsessed and angry that the film is never able to say quite what it thinks of him. After the movie, neither are we.” This is quite true, and it is the ambiguity with which Morgan Freeman portrays the character that makes him so compelling. Clarke is most definitely a bully. He’s verbally, and at times physically, abusive with teachers and students. Yet he builds powerful bonds with them, nonetheless. And his commitment and desire for their greater achievement is clear.
Recently, the state of North Carolina began a process of grading schools based on student performances on standardized tests. The results showed an overwhelming correlation between the percentage of students on free or reduced-price lunch, and low grades. However we choose to interpret this data, this one fact should be acknowledged: The socio-economic status of students is something that exists outside of the control of teachers and administrators. We have a poverty problem in education, and for the state to shame and punish schools for social factors outside of their control is both counterproductive and vindictive.
Many who watch Lean on Me might come to the conclusion that the Joe Clarke method of education is just what failing schools across North Carolina need. But there are a couple of problems with this thinking. First of all, very few people who enter education have the temperament to behave as Freeman’s character behaves in the movie. Most people in education cannot constantly harass, intimidate, and harshly punish other people. The fact that Freeman’s character does so makes him an interesting character, but a poor model for a high school principal who must live and manage in the real world.
The “tough love” view of education reform also fails to adequately address the socioeconomic problems that so often lead to educational disparities. Yes, disruptive classroom behavior is a huge barrier to educational achievement. But what happens when the causes of the disruptive behavior occur somewhere outside of a school’s control? Some argue that there was a time when low income kids did better in school because they were taught the right values at home. That’s a generalized (and probably naïve) idea that’s difficult to prove or disprove. There’s no doubt that children who come to school with a respect for teachers and an eagerness to learn are more likely to do well. But neither the school nor the state have the means to interfere in the values a child is taught at home, nor should they. Thus any school must deal with the student as they receive them, no more and no less.
Perhaps the most attractive part of the “tough love” view of educational reform is that it requires minimal spending on the part of the state. If all low performing students need is a tough-minded authority figure, then the state can attribute lack of student success to an unwillingness of teachers and administrators to show a Joe Clarke style toughness. And if everything is the educators’ fault, then the state need not worry about whether the school is adequately funded, or whether the teachers are being paid a fair wage. The fact that the majority of educators are not like Joe Clarke doesn’t make them bad educators, it just means that most educators don’t find Clarke’s brutal methods the most effective or practical way of dealing with disruption.
In a recent essay in The Atlantic, public school teacher Michael Godsey defended his decision to send his daughter to a private school. What attracted him most to the private school was that “kids take pride in their personal character, and they admit that they love learning.” He contrasts the atmosphere at the private school with what he observes in a fellow teacher’s class in the public school where he teaches:
The educator’s passion is evident, and his typed lesson plans are immaculate and thoughtful. It’s not completely clear how fluent he is in the subject matter, however, because he has been interrupted or distracted by 20 things in 20 minutes: a pencil being sharpened, a paper bag being crumpled and tossed, a few irrelevant jokes that ignite several side conversations, a tardy student sauntering in with a smirk, a student feeding yogurt to a friend, a random class clown outside the window, and the subsequent need to lower the blinds, to name a few. The teacher is probably distracted by a disconcerting suspicion that he’s talking primarily to himself. For the past half hour, I’ve been thinking about how I would teach this class—not what I would teach this class.
Any public school teacher can immediately relate to this scene. It is a very accurate description of the classroom environment we confront on a daily basis. The fact that public school teachers cannot simply teach, but must focus on “how” we teach illustrates the difficulty of the job. We are taught a subject to teach, but on the job we have to learn the ins and outs of how to manage challenging behaviors. Public school teachers are routinely asked to be both teachers and behavioral therapists. It is not a hopeless task: Over time you learn things that work and don’t work, and you learn ways to teach the material in spite of the disruptions and distractions in the classroom.
Some would no doubt argue that Joe Clarke’s methods are best suited to the classroom situation as described by Godsey. But what if such tough love methods merely quiet students down rather than help them learn? You can use those methods to make them stop cutting up with another classmate—and to make a student afraid. Does this create a better student? I’m not convinced. Fear is antithetical to learning, and students learn best when they are intrinsically motivated by the material rather than by fear of punishment. This doesn’t mean that you don’t use discipline in the classroom, because you have to. But you also have to be mindful that there is a point where shouting and threats can become as counterproductive a roadblock to student learning as the student’s own disruptive behavior.
I cannot blame parents like Godsey who decide to remove their children from a disruptive classroom environment to one with less disruption. Parents naturally want the best education possible for their child. But we should also acknowledge effect this kind of social sorting has on our society. Schools themselves, both public and private, are increasingly sorting themselves by socioeconomic status, and parents of higher economic status have more influence on government and a greater ability to ensure that their child’s school is funded as it needs to be.
I think there are ways that we can improve educational outcomes in high poverty schools, but they require a greater financial investment than our state is currently giving. For one thing, we need higher teacher salaries across the board. North Carolina should not have to settle for 42nd out of 50 in public education. A starting salary of 32,000 to 35,000 dollars a year just isn’t the best way to sustain young educators as they face the daunting classroom challenges in high poverty, low performing schools. The challenges of the job itself should merit better pay for all those brave enough to take it on.
We also need smaller class sizes, especially in underperforming schools. Teachers are much better able to effectively deal with disruptions and behavior issues when the class size is between 15 and 20 rather than 25. Underperforming schools also need more behavioral staff and resources who can target specific interventions to students struggling with behaviors and academic performance.
Performance gaps in education are directly correlated with gaps in socioeconomic status. Because so many students in failing schools do not receive the enrichment they need outside of school, they need more resources devoted to their school in order to make up the balance. Stricter discipline might make for quieter classrooms, but it is not a magic bullet that will lead to improved educational outcomes. Real education reform and improved test scores will require greater investment from all parts of society, and most importantly, from our state government in Raleigh.
Bert Clere teaches high school English in Wayne County, NC. He dreams of one more Led Zeppelin world tour, and a more just and sustainable world.