The U.S. is floundering at the bottom of international comparisons of education, and what makes this worse is that in the grand ol’ 1950s, the U.S. was at the top—at least that is one story offered by Michelle Rhee on a recent episode of the Colbert Report.
Like the discussion of Waiting for Superman by John Legend on Bill Maher’s Real Time, the celebrity tour of Rhee, who recently lost her job as chancellor of schools in DC, raises some real problems about not only what our self-appointed educational leaders are saying about education, but also how our so-called left-wing media helps (directly and indirectly) to perpetuate misinformation about our education system—misinformation that is being promoted to mask the real issues about poverty in our culture that the political and corporate elite do not want to face.
Rhee, in her interview with Colbert, makes several sweeping claims about schools, and as is the nature of contemporary media (recognizing, of course, that Colbert is satire), she is allowed to make those claims without any evidence and without anyone raising a hand to ask, “Really?”
Let’s unpack for a second just the one claim about the U.S. being number one in education and graduation in the 1950s.
First, Rhee is following a clever playbook of the new education reform movement: Make partial claims that few people will question because they sound true. While I find the claim itself misleading, even if the claim is true, Rhee is referring to the U.S. public education system before integration and the civil rights movement impacted a public education system that had closed doors to many American citizens. In short, the education system of the 1950s was an incomplete one that shunned many people marginalized by race and poverty.
Rhee trusts that most people embrace a misguided nostalgia for the past, a nostalgia lacking evidence for such faith in a better time, but once we actually return to that Golden Era, the message then is somewhat confusing in the light of Rhee’s claims.
Let me recommend some reading: Admiral Hyman Rickover’s Swiss Schools and Ours: Why Theirs are Better (1962) and American Education, a National Failure; The problem of our schools and what we can learn from England (1963)—both built on the argument that throughout the 1950s U.S. public schools were clear failures when compared internationally (sound familiar?), and sweeping educational reform (to eradicate the leftist influence, no less) was needed to address the crisis.
Or how about Rudolf Flesch? Try reading this Time article from 1955 or Flesch’s book—Why Johnny Can’t Read—And What You Can Do About It (1955).
The full truth, of course, is that corporate and political elites have been making the same exact charges heard from Rhee, Secretary Duncan, and Bill Gates, unwarranted and without much resistance, for at least half a century. Rhee’s misinformation is nothing new, but it is finding renewed traction because these messages are being reinforced through the cult of celebrity, and that cult of celebrity is being driven by the so-called left-wing media just as easily as anywhere else—Oprah, Maher’s Real Time, The Colbert Report.
The message must be challenged, however, and it must come from the field itself—educators and scholars alike. When the usual claims and patterns are raised, we must do as much maligned educator and activist Bill Ayers has implored us to do, “Talk back, speak up, be heard.”
Now, what are the claims, and what rebuttals must we offer?:
• All cries of educational crisis are misleading. A crisis requires drastic responses quickly; our education system is a reflection of historical patterns that require patience and nuance in facing and addressing those patterns. We do not have education crises; we have lingering and systemic social failures.
• Education leadership that has no experience or expertise doesn’t deserve to be at the head of the reform table. Celebrities—Oprah, Bill Gates, John Legend, Andre Agassi—are not experts in education just because they have fame and money. Leadership and money are not the credentials needed to drive educational reform.
• Data don’t prove much of anything when the data is cherry-picked, and incomplete. As Rhee in her Colbert interview demonstrated, the new education reform celebrities have learned the power of incomplete statistics; offer just enough data to trigger popular assumptions—as long as those popular assumptions fuel the corporate agenda. When a simplistic and obvious claim about education is made, we must always assume it is false. The truth about education is nuanced and complex—and numbers can lie.
• Let’s be more like Finland? Well let’s do that, but not the partial way Secretary Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee have claimed. Let’s admit the genuine influence of socialism in Finland, along with their commitment to healthcare and sex education. Let’s consider that the government pays for all teachers’ graduate courses, leading to every teacher having a Master’s degree before teaching. Let’s consider that 95% of teachers in Finland are unionized. And let’s note that Finland does not use standards-driven testing to label students, teachers, and schools. And let’s consider that childhood poverty is about 4% in Finland (while the U.S. child poverty rate is 22%).
• International comparisons of test scores? What about international comparisons of childhood poverty? When we stoop to rankings, we are always risking yet more oversimplification and distortion, but when our political and corporate elites cherry-pick rankings (test scores) while avoiding the big picture (childhood poverty rankings), we are once again falling victim to factual but misleading statistics. State schools in all countries are a reflection of social realities of those countries—not data that can be used to compare the educational quality among countries.
Historically, the political Left has been a direct and indirect supporter of public education. That tradition does not mean the Left gets a free pass.
President Obama and Secretary Duncan have abandoned democratic principles and the promise of public education for a free people; they have abdicated those principles for the lure of corporate ideology.
The so-called left-wing media is following right along. I happen to like Oprah, Bill Maher,and Stephen Colbert (and the causes they promote as well as the voices they provide our culture), but, again, that doesn’t mean they are above being called on the carpet for their negligence (and the negligence of the media across the board).
And it is negligence to allow and even embrace the distortions driving the new educational reform movement being fueled by a celebrity elite who have no business representing the education agenda of a free society that claims to value academic freedom, human empowerment, and the hope of democracy not yet fulfilled.