Bill Maher takes on Michelle Rhee

Bill Maher (hbo.com)
Bill Maher (hbo.com)

Bill Maher clearly had done some homework when he sat down with to über-school reformer Michelle Rhee on his HBO show, challenging her “no-excuses” philosophy on teachers by saying that he thinks the problem with public education is “poverty and parents.”

On Friday night’s episode of “Real Time With Bill Maher,” he wasn’t the sledgehammer that he can be on other topics, but he did push back on some of her major talking points: teachers can overcome poverty, teachers don’t need tenure, etc.

After asking her to explain why she left as D.C. public schools chancellor after Adrian Fenty, the mayor who hired her in 2007, was tossed out by voters in 2010, in part because of her performance, he moved on to some of her common bromides about school reform. The issue of closing down schools came up, and he asked her, “Where do the kids go then?”

Her response: “… You can close down the low-performing schools, and then, hopefully, send the kids to somewhat higher-performing schools.” (That’s quite a plan.) Actually, Rhee closed down 23 schools in 2008 because she said they were underenrolled and the district could save money,  but an audit later showed that it cost the city $40 million to shut them down. (Another great plan.) And Washington, D.C., still has the largest achievement gap between white and black students of any major urban area in the country.

At one point, Maher noted that in Rhee’s new memoir, “Radical,” she mentions seeing a sign in a school that said, “Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do.” And he said: “I kind of agree with that statement.”

Rhee told him, essentially, that he shouldn’t agree with it.

Rhee: “It really says, ‘As teachers, there’s nothing we can do.’ ”

Maher: “That’s not what it says. … They [teachers] are not miracle workers.”

At another point, he said that his sister, a teacher, has told him that too many parents don’t pay attention until their child fails.

“The problem, I think, is poverty and parents,” he said. “Because I have some statistics on studies they have done on schools here … and it doesn’t really indicate that it is the schools that are the problem.”

He pointed out that on international test scores, American students from low-poverty schools do as well as any students in the world. Rhee said that that was a false measure because the students in other countries who score high are the “average” and not the privileged students; actually many other countries track students into college and non-college tracks and only the former take the exams. The issue of poverty also factors in; high-performing countries such as Finland, for example, have a poverty rate of about 2 percent, while the United States has a 22 percent child poverty rate. Given that the strongest link in education is between socioeconomic background and student achievement, this matters.

He even defended a teacher’s right to have tenure — which she opposes — saying that Supreme Court justices can’t be fired because they have to make tough decisions, and teachers, too, should have job protection because they also make hard choices.

Jon Stewart had Rhee on “The Daily Show” recently to discuss her new book and also took her on, gently. It’s important that Maher and Stewart present their audiences with the real story behind school reform, because they aren’t getting it from Michelle Rhee.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 18, 2013