Detachment: a film review and commentary on public education

22 Dec

My wife and I watched Tony Kay’s Detachment on DVD last week—a film that came out in 2012, with a substitute teacher as the main character. Henry Barthes was played by Academy Award winner Adrien Brody—who in the film struggles to keep others at a distance.

Henry’s mother was a sexually abused alcoholic who committed suicide when he was a child. His grandfather, who raised Henry, has dementia; lives in a home for the elderly and is haunted by guilt for sexually molesting his own daughter.

The schools where Henry substitutes are labeled failing schools by President Bush’s No Child Left Behind that—like President Obama’s Race to the Top—always places the blame on teachers, and the few teachers we meet in the film are burned out, depressed hulks. I can’t blame them, because I taught in schools for thirty years that were very close to the one we see in Detachment.

Detachment offers a depressing story that counters—with a serous dose of reality—the message we see in films like “Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down”.

“Waiting for Superman” was a 2010 documentary filled with half-truths and distortions that also had the benefit of a heavy marketing campaign. This propaganda masquerading as a documentary analyzed the so-called failures of the American public education system. When I saw this documentary, I left the theater boiling with rage.

I was also angry after seeing “Won’t Back Down” (2012) starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal—another film full of lies and distortions.

There’s a lot of information out there about the funding behind films like “Won’t Back Down” and “Waiting for Superman” that traces the money back to Hedge Funds and billionaires who have one goal: destroy public education in the United States and profit off the more than $1 Trillion in tax dollars spent by the states on public education.

Stephen Holden wrote a review of Detachment for the New York Times, and he concluded that “Ultimately, ‘Detachment’ blames parental indifference for everything: students who hurl profanity at their teachers, teachers who collapse in histrionic despair [I recall only one scene like this, and the character was played by Lucy Liu who was not a teacher but a frustrated counselor], and total classroom dysfunction. I also didn’t see “total” classroom dysfunction in the film. There were scenes where learning was taking place and the students behaved.

“Is it really this bad?” Holden asks, “Or is ‘Detachment’ a flashy educational horror movie masquerading as nightmarish reality?”

I’m going to answer Mr. Holden’s questions but first let’s meet this New York Times reviewer and learn something about him.

Holden is an older white man [born in 1941] who earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Yale University in 1963. He worked as a photo editor, staff writer, and eventually became an A&R executive for RCA Records before turning to writing pop music reviews and related articles for Rolling Stone, Blender, The Village Voice, The Atlantic, and Vanity Fair, among other publications. He joined the staff of the New York Times in 1981, and subsequently became one of the newspaper’s leading theatre and film critics.

Nowhere does the Wiki piece mention that Holden ever worked as a classroom teacher, and I doubt if he grew up in poverty or lived in a gang infested barrio.

The New York Times should have had someone else review the film—someone like me who was born in poverty and taught for thirty years in public schools that were close to the high school depicted in Detachment.

Mr. Holden asked, “Is it really this bad?” My answer: It’s very close with an emphasis on very.

Mr. Holden’s second question: “Is ‘Detachment’ a flashy educational horror movie masquerading as nightmarish reality?”

No, Mr. Holden. I’ve attended many parent conferences as a teacher and usually only saw parents of the students who were passing my classes but saw few of the parents of failing kids. In fact, the fail rate in my classroom fluctuated between 30 and 50%. But on parent conference nights, I saw maybe 10 – 15% of the parents of my students. No parents attended the parent conference scene in Detachment, but it wasn’t far from the truth.

Detachment takes place in a community and high school that seems worse than where I taught for thirties years but not by much. Where I taught, burned out teachers usually left and the survivors supported each other but students I worked with behaved as a few of the worst students in the film did. I know, because I dealt with this type of behavior almost daily as a teacher. Teen gangbangers verbally threatened me every year, and I’ve known teachers who were physically attacked by students. I also was an eye witness to a drive by shooting while standing in my classroom doorway. And one night, while I was working late, a student on expulsion was shot dead by shotgun at point blank range a few feet from the classroom where I was working with several student editors of the high school newspaper.

Mr. Holden, if you had actually paid attention, you would have noticed that in the background there were kids who were not threatening their teachers; were not disrupting the classroom and actually paid attention and turned in work. Detachment’s weakness was focusing on the worst kids and ignoring those who were closer to average or normal, and the film focuses on a handful of teachers who were burned out.

We even see one young teacher working after school helping a student.

At the one meeting where the entire staff gathered there were many teachers in attendance who we didn’t get to know in the film. There could have been a better attempt to offer a balance but what the film shows is not a flashy educational horror movie masquerading as nightmarish reality—that description fits misleading propaganda films like “Waiting for Superman and “Won’t Back Down”.

A 2009, study out of Stanford sets the record straight. The study found that, on average, charter schools performed about the same or worse than traditional public schools. The Stanford study reported that 46% of Charter schools were the same; 37% were worse [which means 37% of public schools were better], and only 17% of the Charter schools were better.

In conclusion, I think Detachment is an honest film that shows the harsh reality of public education in an inner city high school surrounded by poverty and neglect. In no way should anyone think this is the way it is in the other 98,816 public schools spread across 50 states with 13,600 school districts that are run by democratically elected school boards made up mostly of parents. Trust me, concerned parents who are involved are not going to abandon the schools their kids attend.

If you learned anything from the Stanford study, 83% of the public schools are not failing and are equal to or better than Charter schools funded by vouchers.

Why should we punish all of the public schools because of the few that are suffering like the high school we see in Detachment? Instead, we should be supporting public schools that are seen as failing—not attacking and condemning them and their teachers as if they were prisons and the teachers criminals.

Added on December 24, 2013:
How do private schools compare to public?

This information comes from a study reported by the National Center for Education Statistics:

The goal of the study was to examine differences in mean National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and mathematics scores between public and private schools when selected characteristics of students and/or schools were taken into account. Among the student characteristics considered were gender, race/ethnicity, disability status, and identification as an English language learner. Among the school characteristics considered were school size and location, and composition of the student body and of the teaching staff.

From the Summary:

For Catholic and Lutheran schools for both reading and mathematics, the results were again similar to those based on all private schools. For Conservative Christian schools, the average adjusted school mean in reading was not significantly different from that of public schools. In mathematics, the average adjusted school mean for Conservative Christian schools was significantly lower than that of public schools.

Note: Why has Congress and two presidents, Bush and Obama, persecuted the public schools and blamed public school teachers for cultural problems they are not responsible for? Who gains?  Who loses?


Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran,
who taught in the public schools for thirty years (1975 – 2005).

His third book is Crazy is Normal, a classroom exposé, a memoir. “Lofthouse presents us with grungy classrooms, kids who don’t want to be in school, and the consequences of growing up in a hardscrabble world. While some parents support his efforts, many sabotage them—and isolated administrators make the work of Lofthouse and his peers even more difficult.” – Bruce Reeves


Lofthouse’s first novel was the award winning historical fiction My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. His second novel was the award winning thriller Running with the Enemy. His short story A Night at the “Well of Purity” was named a finalist of the 2007 Chicago Literary Awards. His wife is Anchee Min, the international, best-selling, award winning author of Red Azalea, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (1992).

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8 responses to “Detachment: a film review and commentary on public education

  1. morgan

    December 26, 2013 at 05:51

    I couldn’t resist commenting. Very well written!

  2. Willa Z. Sears

    December 30, 2013 at 19:22

    The Common Core exists as a control mechanism and high stakes testing delivery system that are to measure the failure of public schools in order that the corporatization and privatization by charters and vouchers may continue where NCLB left off.

    • Lloyd Lofthouse

      December 31, 2013 at 07:20

      What you say is true but you didn’t mention that that NCLB and Obama’s Race to the Top do nothing monitor any of the private and charter schools to see if they are better than the public schools.

      But private sector studies—for example the studies out of Stanford—that have compared the private and charter schools to the public schools show that the charter and private voucher schools are no better, on average, and in some cases are worse than the public schools. In fact, those nonprofit, unbiased studies [that were not controlled by the corporate interests that want to get their greedy, filthy hands on the public’s taxes meant to pay for public schools] reveal that almost 90% of the public schools are doing as well as or better than the private sector and charter schools.

      And most of the public schools that appear to be failing exist in mostly minority communities mired in poverty and crime. When we measure the growth of students by family socioeconomic and education level, the United States beats every country on the earth—when compar3ed to similar families—hands down when the kids come from middle class—or better—families where the parents are literate and well educated and that holds true for every race at that socioeconomic, educated level.

      But we will not hear these facts from the greedy bastards who want to destroy public education for reasons that have nothing to do with teaching kids. Instead, it has to do with lots of money, religion and politics. If conservatives and evangelical Christians gain control of the education system, then they control what kids are taught.

      The corporate controlled critics of public education hate a liberal education that does not teach their brand of dogma exclusively. In this case, the word “liberal” does not mean the definition created by the far right in the United States. In this case “liberal” means an education that is science based and exposes children to both progressive, moderate and conservative thinking.

      And before any idiot starts screaming how liberals are evil and are brainwashing our children in the schools, that fool must stop and think—if thinking is possible for them.

      If the public schools have been brainwashing children for the last century, explain why most of the people in America aren’t liberal, progressive democrats?

      Gallup reported on December 8, 2013″

      Republicans make up 24% of registered voters
      Independents make up 44% of registered voters (I belong in this group)
      Demococrats make up 30% of registered voters

      Among Independents, 42% lean Republican and 44% lean toward the Democrats. That means 14% don’t lean either way.

      Among those who consider themselves conservatives and.or republicans, the Tea Party makes up about 5% of all adults. That’s 15 million adults. The majority of the Tea Party are evangelical Protestants.

      And yesterday, a survey says that 33% of Americans [that’s over 100 million people]—who I’m sure attended public schools too—do not believe in evolution but believe God made us all at the same time in an eye blink, and humans did not evolve as science shows us with lots of genetic evidence.

      Since most of those people attended public schools, why aren’t they all progressive democrats?

  3. Lanora

    January 6, 2014 at 04:50

    I got what you mean. “Success is dependent on effort.” by Sophocles.

    • Lloyd Lofthouse

      January 6, 2014 at 07:26

      by “Success is dependent on effort”, I take it that kids don’t learn if they make no effort to learn no matter how hard a teacher struggles to teach them.

      If so, I agree. And that is the reason Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s so-called “Race to the Top” will fail because these laws do not hold kids and parents accountable for any effort.

      Only teachers are held accountable and punished if kids make no effort and parents offer no support.

  4. Sofia

    April 17, 2014 at 23:38

    Is there a way to find out where schools like the one in this movie are?

    • Lloyd Lofthouse

      April 18, 2014 at 07:22

      Yes. Public schools are required by law, at least in California, to post detailed school report cards on the Internet. But private schools, even private Charters paid for by tax payers, are not required to reveal anything—even how they spend the tax payers money.

      Once you find a specific public school’s report card, look at the number of students on free/reduced breakfast or lunch and then look at the schools ranking in the state compared to all other schools. If the percentage of students on free/reduced breakfast/lunch is high and the school’s academic ranking is low, you found one of those schools and they are usually in areas of high poverty with high ratios of black of Latino students. Those areas are also usually dominated by violent street gangs of which there are more than 38,000 in the US with more than a million members.


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