March 20, 2013

Friday night, Michelle Rhee took her endless book tour to Bill Maher's set, and found herself facing an interviewer who was at least somewhat less kind to her than all the others.

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.

Jersey Jazzman dug into the correlation between poverty and learning:

MAHER: "I have some statistics here on studies they have done on schools here in America, and it doesn't really indicate that it's the schools that is the problem. I mean, we hear all the time that America is falling behind, but in three major international tests - there's the one, Progress of International Reading and Literacy Study - I'll just give the two - the Trends in International Math and Science...

Students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate is less than 10% are first in reading and science in the world."

RHEE: "Compared to the average kids in the other countries - you can't do an apples to oranges comparison. If you look at the top quartile of kids in our country by income level - right, so the most privileged kids - and you compare them internationally to the top quartile of other countries, they rank 23rd."

I'd embed the video but HBO is funny about that, so here's the link for those of you who have HBO.

Maher hit the nail on the head with the question, which Rhee deflected by pointing at the most privileged. I can think of a lot of reasons why the most privileged don't stack up well next to the rest of the world (like entitled attitudes and far too much emphasis on sports), but she still didn't answer the question, and neither do any of the other reformer types out there. We get reams of data and barbs turned on teachers, but no one wants to address the most fundamental issue: Hungry kids don't learn. Click that chart at the top to see statistics backing that up.

Jersey Jazzman also zeroed in on why reformers would rather not discuss indelicate topics like poverty and want:

  1. No one argues that the lower performance of poor minority students is shameful and must be fixed. But in every country in the world, the poor have worse educational outcomes than the rich. Doesn't that tell you something?
  2. Affluent white students in America actually perform well in international comparisons. The few "studies" that claim otherwise do not take into account the curvilinearity of America's correlation between test scores and socio-economic status; in other words,poor and middle class students pay a greater price for not being rich than in other countries.
  3. At least 60% of student outcomes are based on student characteristics and background. America is a highly-unequal nation. While we can and should try to make our schools better, the solutions to the problems of inequality and chronic poverty clearly lie outside of our public education system.
  4. We will never equalize educational outcomes until we provide a basic standard of living for every citizen of this country. We could rapidly implement plans to provide universal health care, create jobs, rebuild our infrastructure, make taxes truly progressive, and get monied interests out of politics and our media. So why don't we? It is not a coincidence that the wealthiest people in this country are behind the corporate "reform" movement: they are happy to lay America's problems at the feet of our public schools system so that we, the people, are distracted from having a serious discussion about inequity, chronic poverty, and racism.

This book tour of Rhee's has largely been softball questions and fuzzy little interviews. It's nice to see one that at least attempts to cut past the corporate doublespeak and aims at the heart of the matter.

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