After announcing that U.S. education is a complete failure, unlike the Golden Era of the 1950s, on The Colbert Report , former DC chancellor Michelle Rhee has brought her celebrity crisis tour to CNN where she charged, once again, that public education is a failure based on recent PISA scores, ranked internationally.
Since I recently clarified Rhee’s historical incompetence (or bold dishonesty) concerning education in 1950s America, before desegregation and civil rights legislation that changed this country, let’s turn to the claims she made on CNN.
Is U.S. education in crisis? If it is, then we either need to changed the definition of the word or admit that a crisis can last more than a century because every single claim made by Rhee has been tossed at education since the mid-1800s.
About a year ago, a jet crash-landed in the Hudson River. That’s a crisis. The pilot, crew, passengers, and rescue personnel had to take quick and even drastic actions because the situation was life-or-death and bound by time.
Education is not a crashed jet. There is always time to make corrections to decisions made by children and their families (such as dropping out); there is always time to receive the education someone needs. Crying “crisis” fails any hope of educational reform because it distorts reality and places unrealistic expectations on a human endeavor that is complex and cumulative over a long period of time.
Interestingly, in her charges of “crisis,” Rhee espouses the sort of double talk we hear form Secretary Arne Duncan. Education is in crisis; it is failing our children and country!
But, according to Rhee, it is central to saving our economy and keeping us competitive internationally (a false claim). And, as Duncan claims:
“Education is still the key to eliminating gender inequities, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, and to fostering peace. And in a knowledge economy, education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity.”
Amazing! This institution, U.S. public education, that has been identified for over a century as a complete failure, is simultaneously also “the key” to erasing every evil known to humans, including keeping us number one in the world!
But Rhee goes beyond simple double-speak (crisis/failure v. our only hope). She also perpetuates misinformation (and likely knows better) about teacher quality, the teaching profession, tenure, and teachers unions.
In her CNN interview, she continued the false refrain that tenure is a job for life (tenure, in fact, is about academic freedom and due process, not a guarantee of a job regardless of expertise or quality), calling for merit pay and the ability fire those pesky “bad” teachers who, by implication, are characterized as the central problem with education (masking the fact that poverty accounts for about 80-90% of student achievement, not teacher or school quality).
Rhee, and Duncan, we must consider are political appointees. Is it somewhat contradictory and problematic for political appointees to call for (idealized) corporate standards for hiring, firing, and paying the teacher workforce in the U.S.?
Is it even more disturbing that Rhee is making these charges while doing her celebrity tour in order to secure another political appointment?
For me, the new reformers—Rhee, Duncan, Gates, and others—are without credibility because their messages are factually inaccurate, historically blind, and ethically challenged (reflecting a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality of the hypocritical authoritarian). The agenda of the new reformers is clearly about using education as a political capital to move themselves further along—this is not about reforming schools, but about advancing careers (and brands) within a corporate model.
But there is something beyond the hypocrisy of calling for corporate models for hiring, firing, and paying teachers from political appointees making double, triple, or more above what the average teacher makes. There is the culpability of the media.
CNN, HuffingtonPost, The Colbert Report, Oprah, Real Time with Bill Maher—these media outlets are not Fox News. They are often charged with being the “liberal media,” but they invite and endorse the exact misguided commentary I have identified in three pieces now—and while free speech means Rhee, Duncan, and Gates have every right to make their claims (although I am not sure free speech should encourage dishonesty), free speech and freedom of the press, I believe, allow and even encourage someone somewhere to raise a hand and say, “That’s misleading.” (Or, “Wait a minute; that’s not even true.”)
And that “someone” must be the media in a democracy. If it is true public education is failing us (and that is true, but not the way the new reformers claim), then it is also true the media is failing us.
On CNN, Rhee marched out the platitude that this generation will be the first generation less well educated than their parents. Well, let’s start there: “That’s misleading.”
It is conjecture, at best, and impossible to navigate (or even prove) at worst—making it ideal political discourse designed to manipulate.
We need education reform, but if anyone looks back over the past 150 years, what we need for certain is educational discourse reform, starting with holding the new education reformers accountable (since they seem eager to push accountability) for their lack of expertise, for their lack of historical context, and for their misinformation.
That would be a lesson more valuable to the children of this country than any test prep we could muster to raise our PISA scores.