Jon Stewart Puts Michelle Rhee in the Education Hotseat
Controversial education reformer Michelle Rhee stopped by The Daily Show on Monday night to promote her new book, Radical and host Jon Stewart kicked things off by acknowledging that people "either love" Rhee or "they're mad" at her. But Stewart also proved he's a teacher's son during the three segments with Rhee when he referred to teaching as an art form, defended how hard educators work, called the standardized testing in schools "broken," and acknowledged the impact of poverty on children's ability to learn.
Stewart pointed out that although the systemic problems of poverty, poor nutrition, and violence surely have an effect on children, we only tell teachers, "Fix it, or you're fired!" Rhee acknowledged poverty but stuck to her belief that the key to helping kids escape poverty is to ensure "every kid is in a high-quality school every day taught by a highly-effective teacher." When Stewart pressed her again on the issue, Rhee said that social service agencies outside of schools have to do their jobs and step in to help. Given that nearly 25 percent of American children now live in poverty, how that will happen without an infusion of cash and resources to those agencies wasn't explained.
Overall, it was one of the more nuanced interviews Stewart has done—watching part two and three is well worth your time—although, as the Washington Post's Valerie Strauss points out, there's plenty he didn't ask, either:
"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."
Strauss also notes that it's quite a slap in the face when Stewart tells Rhee—who considers herself to be an innovative, radical reformer—that there's been "no real innovation in education since John Dewey." Ouch.
Of course, since it was "The Daily Show," Stewart threw in his trademark jokes, too. While attempting to get Rhee to be more specific about the different solutions needed for both acute and chronic problems facing education, Stewart began joking about the slang term for the word "chronic." Rhee didn't understand, causing Stewart to quip, "You worked in D.C. for three years and you don't know what the chronic is?"