When it comes to courting controversy — and making strong points about the need to transform American public education — Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst has gotten it down pat. This was proven especially true this week when the school reform outfit unveiled its Olympics-themed collection of commercials, which dared to make light of the nation’s woes in preparing all children — especially poor and minority kids — for success in an increasingly global knowledge-based economy (including the woeful literacy and math performance on the 2009 PISA exam of international student achievement).
The commercial certainly rubbed education traditionalists and reporters the wrong way. Gary Rubinstein, who has made his bones off of retelling his apparently poor showing as a Teach For America recruit, complained that the StudentsFirst ad failed to note that American students “ dominate in the ‘important’ events throughout our history, like having creativity and going on to win Nobel Prizes”, while GOOD’s Liz Dwyer felt that the ad was “unpatriotic” and failed to call “for greater community support of teachers and students”. Nearly all complained that the featuring of an out of shape man flopping around on gymnastic balance beams was making fun of those who were obese (and promoting bullying to boot). And there are others who argue that the StudentsFirst ad ignores their embrace of the Poverty Myth of Education that proclaims that poor kids can’t ever learn because low-income economic status naturally equals educational destiny.
But the biggest complaint from all traditionalists and other commentators was that the StudentsFirst ad failed to accentuate the positives of American public education. From where they sit, the nation has never done well on international exams, but is otherwise doing fine in preparing kids for life. Declared Carolyn Foote in the Huffington Post: “If you really want to help the nation’s schools, start highlighting the positive and reach out and help those in need. Not by insulting those who will be helping them.”
As with so many things involving StudentsFirst, it’s hard to separate the disdain traditionalists and others have for the organization in general (and Rhee in particular) from the rest of the rhetoric. Given Rhee’s fierceness and Churchillian manner, some of the reaction is quite understandable. Chances are these folks would complain even if StudentsFirst offered up an ad touting their party line. More than likely, they would be up in arms even if the ad came from Democrats for Education Reform, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, or another school reform outfit because the arguments made in the ad would challenge their defense of failed education policies and practices to which they adhere. The very fact that StudentsFirst essentially declares that the Poverty Myth is just an excuse for aiding and abetting policies and practices — including zone schooling and other Zip Code Education rules — that keep poor kids from getting high quality education; this is especially true when one looks at the reality that even middle class black and Latino kids in suburbia are often shunted aside by teachers and school leaders who think they aren’t deserving of good and great teaching and curricula. (Philadelphia teacher Jacob Waters rightly notes the political futility of embracing the progressive thinking on poverty that is as much at the heart of education traditionalist thinking as their unwillingness to admit that traditional education practices deserve to be tossed into the ashbin of history.)
But the bigger issue is that these dear folks insist that everything is fine in American public education, that the failure mills and dropout factories in big cities are mere anomalies in a super-cluster that is doing well by all children. It is nice to accentuate positives only when they are worthy of being mentioned. The reality is that American public education is like a obsolete and broken down Model T Ford. And there is nothing positive about it.
How do you highlight the “positive” of three out of every ten children dropping out into poverty and prison? Or accentuate the “positive” of 39 percent of college freshmen being relegated into remedial education courses to learn what should have been taught to them in high school?
How do you boost about the “positive” of 44 percent of black high school students being relegated to dropout factories where they have a two-in-five chance of dropping out (and getting low-quality instruction and curricula in the process)? Or tout the “positive” of the nations’ top-performing high school sophomores performing worse than peers in 21 other countries?
And how can you call “positive” a traditional teacher compensation system in which high-performing teachers are paid the same as laggard peers who will keep their jobs despite perpetuating educationally (and occasionally, criminally) abuse and neglect? Or proclaim that it is “positive” that we recruit aspiring teachers badly and train them abysmally for the complex work of educating young minds?
Let’s be clear: If you think low graduation rates are a positive, then you are engaging in intellectual and moral sophistry. If you think minority kids being denied to college prep courses is positive, then you are morally and intellectually impoverished. And if you think that this state of affairs is positive for many American children, then you are out of your mind. Because each and every hour, 150 kids say with their feet that there is nothing positive for them in sitting in classes where they are subjected to laggard teaching, shoddy curricula, and cultures of low expectations that insult (instead of nurture) their potential.
Simply put, there is little positive to be said about the super-cluster of failure that is American public education except that the school reform movement is pushing to transform it. That in the past decade, thanks to those efforts at least 217,432 fewer fourth-graders were functionally illiterate — and likely to drop out — in 2011 than in the year after No Child Left Behind Act passed. And that we still have some time to save another generation of children from falling into the educational, economic, and social abyss.
Instead of complaining about StudentsFirst’s ads, education traditionalists should abandon their failed thinking. And get to work with reformers on overhauling systems that ought to do better for our children.