Putting Education Reform To The Test

Ad Compares U.S. Schools To Pudgy, Flailing Olympic Athlete

The Olympics kick off in London today (yes, soccer kicked off a couple days ago), and former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst is out with an Olympics-themed ad criticizing the U.S. education system.

The ad shows a chubby man ineptly competing in rhythmic gymnastics while a commentator observes “the once-proud U.S. program has been relying too much on their reputation. I’d say they’re completely unprepared.”

The U.S. education system is that flabby OIympic athlete and needs reform, the ad concludes.

The ad is designed to provoke, and judging by the reaction on the Internet it has achieved its goal.

Florida education activist Rita Solnet called the ad “insulting” and “demoralizing.”

Two analysts at the Fordham Institute characterized the ad as “sophomoric” and “overdone.

The ad notes that the U.S. rank on international science and math exams is falling, but teacher and author Gary Rubinstein says those rankings are misleading.

The U.S. has never ranked at the top of the world, he notes. And despite the world’s highest obesity rate, the U.S. still racks up as many Olympic medals as any country:

Actually, we never have done well on these.  In the 1964 FIMS test, we were 11th out of 12.  These tests are not predictors of future economic strength, obviously since our students from 1964 have helped make the U.S. economy very strong.

It is also unfair to compare our scores to the scores of the other countries since we have 22% of our students in poverty compared to single digits in most of the top countries.  In an interesting analysis here we see that if we compare our schools with countries that have similar poverty levels, we would be at the top of the world in every category.

But to take this Olympics analogy further, the United States has the highest obesity rate in the developed world.  Even so, we still are very competitive in the Olympics.  Yet, we still got the most medals (second most gold medals) in the 2008 summer games.  So just because we have a higher percentage of students doing poorly on the PISA does not mean that we have lost our competitive edge.

But the ad also has been praised by RiShawn Biddle at Dropout Nation for not turning a blind eye to problems because the system works for some:

But the bigger issue is that these dear folks insist that everything is fine in American public education, that the failure mills and dropout factories in big cities are mere anomalies in a super-cluster that is doing well by all children. It is nice to accentuate positives only when they are worthy of being mentioned. The reality is that American public education is like a obsolete and broken down Model T Ford. And there is nothing positive about it.

How do you highlight the “positive” of three out of every ten children dropping out into poverty and prison? Or accentuate the “positive” of 39 percent of college freshmen being relegated into remedial education courses to learn what should have been taught to them in high school?

And at Skeptic’s Politics, they argue StudentsFirst is correct to ignore poverty to pursue policy changes that are more politically realistic.

Is the ad effective? Will those who don’t closely follow education issues sit up and pay attention?


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