Ed ‘Reformers’ Fumble Logic With Foolish Football Analogy

“It’s hard to watch Robert Griffin III play football and not think about education policy.” Education “reformers” Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein begin an op-ed (CNN.com, 1/7/13) with this dubious claim, then go on to flesh out their absurd football/education analogy:

Robert Griffin III (photo: Keith Allison)

Robert Griffin III: He’s kind of like an elementary school teacher, right? (Photo: Keith Allison)

 RG3, as fans call him, is a rookie who has been playing in the National Football League for all of 18 weeks, but led the Washington Redskins to twice as many victories as they had last year, their first winning season since 2007 and their first divisional championship in 13 years. Now imagine if the Redskins had a little less money to pay salaries next year and cut Griffin from the team, keeping instead a handful of bench-warmers. It sounds ridiculous, but that practice is exactly what happens in most school districts where policies require teachers to be laid off based on seniority, not talent.

If school districts succeeded on the strength of a few highly paid superstar teachers, the analogy might begin to make some kind of sense, but school districts actually depend on large numbers of well-trained but historically low-paid teachers–none of whom is a “bench-warmer.”

One might have thought that Rhee and Klein, who have worked very hard to weaken teachers’ bargaining power and unions, might hesitate to compare them to football players who, in addition to their huge salaries, are protected by a robust union. As it is, Rhee and Klein are engaging in unintentional truth-in-labeling when they follow this analogy with “here’s another nonsensical example.”

The occasion of the column was the release of a state-by-state “report card” by Rhee’s group, StudentsFirst, where Klein is a board member. StudentsFirst judges states on how thoroughly they have adopted corporate reforms of the sort preferred by Rhee and Klein: merit pay for teachers, standardized tests to evaluate students and teachers, the expansion of charter schools and voucher programs, and policies weakening teachers’ unions.

The StudentsFirst report card did not determine grades based on the testing metrics it pushes on schools; the StudentsFirst report card was uninterested in how students were doing, but only graded the states on how thoroughly they were enacting the group’s prescribed corporate reforms. Under its strange assessment method, 11 states received failing grades and nearly 90 percent were graded at less than a “C.”

And the states that got the highest grades–Louisiana and Florida each got a B minus–are surprising unless you remember that the measure doesn’t take into account how students are doing, or the quality of the education their state is providing for them. As Valerie Strauss, writer at the Washington Post‘s education blog, the Answer Sheet (1/7/13), observed:

Florida’s reform efforts were spearheaded more than a decade ago by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who was the national leader in these kinds of reforms.  The school accountability system that Bush set up, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, is scandal-ridden, but he still travels the country promoting his test-based reform model.

Louisiana is the state where Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal instituted a statewide voucher program that gave public money to scores of Christian schools that teach Young Earth Creationism, the belief that the Earth and the universe were created by God no more than 10,000 years ago. Kids learn that dinosaurs co-existed with humans. That’s the state that got Rhee’s top grade.

In their op-ed, Rhee and Klein lament the nonsensical opposition to charter schools, writing:

There’s overwhelming evidence that quality public charter schools provide a viable education option, particularly for students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

Back on Earth, where dinosaurs died out tens of millions of years before humans appeared, Diane Ravitch has been debunking the charter school hype for years. In the New York Review of Books (11/11/10), the NYU researcher and former undersecretary of Education consulted the evidence on charter schools versus public schools, citing a well-known Stanford University study:  

Known as the CREDO study, it evaluated student progress on math tests in half the nation’s five thousand charter schools and concluded that 17 percent were superior to a matched traditional public school; 37 percent were worse than the public school; and the remaining 46 percent had academic gains no different from that of a similar public school.

Not exactly the reality portrayed by Rhee and Klein, but then apparently CNN.com doesn’t do factchecking, which might be especially important before publishing a column that begins by finding uncanny parallels between a superstar athletic performances and education policy.

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.