The Olympic Games are a time for the world's nations to showcase their very best, but a new ad from Michelle Rhee's education reform group Students First has chosen to use the games to shine an unflattering spotlight on America's public schools.
The 30-second ad features an overweight man performing a ridiculous rhythmic gymnastics routine while announcers mockingly critique him, saying "It appears that the once proud U.S. program has been relying too much on its reputation. I’d say they’re completely unprepared." As he flops onto his back, stats from the PISA, an international test given every three years to 15-year-olds around the globe appear on the screen telling us that we're ranked 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. Then a voice over tells us, "The sad truth is this is our education system and we can't compete with the rest of the world. We need reform now."
The stats the ad uses perpetuate the lie that in her glory days America scored highest in the world on these tests and has now lost her footing. Since the first administration of international tests in 1964, we've never been number one. In fact, we scored second to last back then. Now we're scoring in the middle of the pack and actually improving.
Even though top education experts say that ending child poverty is the key to improving our education results, Rhee fails to mention how according to a recent UNICEF study, the United States has the second-highest child poverty rate—22 percent—out of 35 developed nations. The higher the child poverty rate, the lower PISA scores fall. Finland, whose education system has become a real model of what's possible, only has a 5.3 percent child poverty rate. An analysis of America's PISA scores reveals that if we just took the scores of students attending schools with less than 10 percent of the population coming from low income backgrounds we'd have the highest scores in the world.
Teacher and education activist Gary Rubinstein takes the ad's Olympics analogy further and points out that "just because we have a higher percentage of students doing poorly on the PISA does not mean that we have lost our competitive edge." After all, says Rubinstein, even though we have "the highest obesity rate in the developed world" the United States "still got the most medals (second most gold medals) in the 2008 summer games."
Even if you believe that our schools are completely failing and that our society is doomed because of these PISA scores, there's no denying the ad sends some particularly troubling social messages. As Education Week Teacher points out, "it seems questionable for an education organization to be playing up obesity for laughs, especially as more people acknowledge bullying as a rampant school problem."
Prominent educator Anthony Cody, who calls the ad "insulting to our schools, and to our intelligence," also notes that along with mocking overweight people, there's "an underlying homophobia in the piece, in that the male "athlete" is flopping around doing a sport that is associated with women." Cody says the athlete is "feminized by this performance, and that is held up to ridicule."
Indeed, it's sad that an organization that calls itself Students First would choose to ridicule students and our schools in this way. The messaging of this ad also feels pretty unpatriotic. Imagine if instead of the incredibly inspiring "Made in Detroit" Chrysler ads featuring Eminem that ran during the 2011 Super Bowl, some organization had run an ad depicting our automobile industry as an out-of-shape football player?
If only Rhee had chosen to air an Olympic-themed ad spotlighting the progress our schools are making and called for greater community support of teachers and students. At a time when our athletes are about to compete on a world stage, Rhee should be embarrassed that she endorsed such a shameful, snide "let me tell the world just how much our schools suck" point of view.