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Five of Jon Stewart’s greatest hits on teachers, school reform and stupidity

Jon Stewart during a taping of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in New York, Wednesday Nov. 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Brad Barket)

Education and school reform weren’t topics that Jon Stewart (whose mother is a veteran educator) spent a great deal of time exploring on “The Daily Show” but when he did, it was worthwhile listening. Never the hard-line critic of corporate school reform that many would have liked him to be, Stewart still poked holes in it on occasion. Now that the show is ending, here are some of his greatest education hits on the show:

1. Cheating teachers go to jail. Cheating Wall Streeters don’t. What’s up with that? — April 2015

Stewart makes the inevitable comparison between  former teachers and administrators in Atlanta who were sentenced for cheating on standardized tests — a few for as much as seven years — with the folks on Wall Street who in 2008 nearly brought down the country’s financial system. Only one Wall Streeter was sentenced to 12 months in jail. The Atlanta convictions, of racketeering and other crimes in a standardized test-cheating scandal, were believed to be the worst of a wave of test cheating in nearly 40 states and Washington, D.C. — not by students but by teachers and administrators who were under pressure to meet score goals.

The case stemmed from a 2013 indictment by a grand jury of Beverly Hall, the now-deceased Atlanta schools superintendent, and 34 teachers, principals and others. Twelve teachers eventually went to trial; one was acquitted of all charges and the 11 others were all convicted of racketeering — under a law used against the Gambino organized-crime family — plus a variety of other charges. Prosecutors alleged that Hall had run a “corrupt” organization that used test scores to financially reward and punish teachers. Hall passed away earlier this year.


2. Bill allows  teachers, parents to hit kids hard enough to bruise — February 2014

A legislator in Kansas was pushing legislation to allow teachers and parents to whack kids hard enough to bruise, apparently out of the mistaken belief that beating up children is an effective disciplinary method. A legislative committee killed the bill, but the sorry fact is that someone thought it was worth committing to paper. Said Stewart, invoking the name of a bill sponsor:

Hello, my name is Representative Gail Finney. Are you holding back from punching the **** out of your children because you fear legal repercussions? Well, fear no more. Your nightmare is over, whereas theirs is just beginning.

The bill called for permitting teachers, caretakers and anybody else with permission from a child’s guardian to hit them really, really hard — hard enough to bruise.


Whoever it is in your life that you believe hits the hardest. … “Hey, uh, while you’re here to fix the cable, would you mind going upstairs. I’ve got a 9-year-old that won’t make the bed. A quick shot to the chops should do it …

Under House Bill 2699:

‘Corporal punishment’ means 10 forceful applications in succession of a bare open-hand palm against the clothed buttocks of a child acknowledging that redness or bruising may occur on the tender skin of a child as a result.

The video:


3. What are critics of preschool talking about?  — March 2013

After President Obama advanced an expansion of high-quality preschool in his 2013 State of the Union speech, critics went after the idea, and Stewart went after them, saying:

…. If these children want an education, they should get jobs and pay for it themselves. But that’s illegal, Thanks nanny state…

4. Taking on Michelle Rhee — February 2013

It was a big deal when Stewart invited school reform leader Michelle Rhee on the show after her memoir, “Radical,” was published, and though he didn’t rip her to pieces in the way her critics wanted, he did test her about whether her brand of reform unfairly targeted teachers. He also said something that Rhee and other reformers could take insult from: that there has been “no real innovation in education since John Dewey.”

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Teachers, he told Rhee, 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.”

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.

Unfortunately, Stewart didn’t ask her about some of her more provocative actions — such as firing a principal on television 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.

5. Trying to talk to Education Secretary Arne Duncan — February 2012

Duncan was so programmed that Stewart was unable to get the basketball-playing secretary to have some fun talking about the New York Knicks’  hero, Jeremy Lin. When Stewart jokingly asked Duncan whether, having graduated from Harvard, it was “a disappointment” that he “ended up as just the secretary of education” and not as an NBA superstar, Duncan’s only response was about how great a role model the hard-working Lin was for young people.

Stewart knew at that point he would get nothing from Duncan, but he made a polite effort anyway, because he had time to fill and, perhaps, because he knew his mother, a teacher who apparently can’t stand Duncan’s policies, would be watching. Stewart told Duncan that his mother tells him that the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative is exacerbating the standardized testing obsession of No Child Left Behind and making it harder for teachers to creatively do their jobs. When Stewart said that a lot of the rhetoric about Race to the Top centers around innovation and creativity but that the reality is the opposite, and that teachers shouldn’t be teaching to the test, Duncan said: “I actually agree with that.” Stewart did not follow with the obvious question: “Then why are your policies driving schools to do just that?”