Jon Stewart invited Michelle Rhee on “The Daily Show” Monday night and, while he didn’t skewer her the way some Rhee critics would have liked, he kept challenging her about whether her brand of school reform unfairly targets teachers. He also said something that Rhee and other reformers could take to be something of a slap: that there has been “no real innovation in education since John Dewey.”
Rhee has been making the rounds on television to sell her new memoir, “Radical,” and most of the interviews have been little more than puff pieces. But Stewart, whose mother is a teacher, tested her. He politely but firmly pressed her on the view of teachers, who think that new teacher evaluation systems, which Rhee pioneered as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools from 2007-2010, unfairly rely too much on student standardized test scores. (Assessment experts say the scores shouldn’t be used to evaluate teachers because they are unreliable for that purpose.)
And he talked about the impact of poverty on student achievement, a subject Rhee has in the past preferred to stay away from, except for saying that people who bring it up are using poverty as “an excuse” for poor teaching.
Teachers, he said, are demoralized. “Are we hanging them out to dry, coming in every three years, saying here’s the new reform, you are going to teach to that… increase your scores or you are fired?” He said the education scene is “like a football team who gets a new offensive coordinator every year.”
In explaining why her new memoir is titled “Radical,” Rhee expressed some surprise that she was seen as a radical when she first became chancellor of D.C. schools because all she was doing was taking “obvious” common-sense actions such as closing failing schools and firing bad teachers. (She posed on the cover of Time magazine with a broom, so it’s hard to really see how she was surprised.) Stewart pointed out, rightly, that the concern was how she decided to close the schools and fire the teachers, questioning whether the metrics for assessment were fair.
Rhee said “there has to be a balance” or test scores and other measures, such as classroom observation of a teacher, but she went ahead and exposed her real view: “You don’t want an overemphasis on the test yet you can’t have no accountability.” Translation: Real accountability means test scores.
But Stewart pushed her not only on the obsession with test scores to evaluate students and teachers and schools, but also on how much living conditions affect a student’s ability to do well in school.
When Rhee said that poverty only makes things more “challenging,” Stewart said, “It seems like education can only be put in place once the soil is fertile.” His suggestion — that for many children even great teachers can’t overcome the effects of hunger and poor nutrition and exhaustion and trauma from violence — was exactly right.
Stewart didn’t ask her about some of her more provocative actions — such as firing a principal on television. Or about the fact that her reforms haven’t done anything to close the achievement gap in D.C. schools. Or about the allegations of cheating on standardized tests during her chancellorship. Or that her StudentsFirst advocacy and lobbying organization supports candidates across the country who want to strip teachers of tenure and bargaining rights. Or that when she closed 23 schools she said it would save millions of dollars but it really wound up costing the city some $40 million, according to a city audit. Or about the famous incidents in which she was so desperate as a young teacher to keep her students under control that she taped their mouths shut, and, once, swatted a bee and popped it in her mouth to shock them.
Maybe next time. It was a good start.