If It Is About the Students, Why Insult Them?

In her recent ad campaign linking failing education to a flabby American Olympian, Michelle Rhee insults American students everywhere.
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In her recent ad campaign linking failing education to a flabby American Olympian, Michelle Rhee insults American students everywhere, which is, of course, ironic for an organization known as Students First.

The more I watched the ad, the more angry it made me. I'm sick and tired of these broad brush strokes about the state of American education anyway. But her ad was an appalling misstep and an insult to our students (and our Olympians, frankly.) The ad implies that our students are like clumsy, middle aged, overweight and inept athletes competing in the global economy. And it comes at the moment when the best of our young people are about to compete in the Olympics. To say the ad is tasteless and tactless is an understatement.

Even though some of our students are in situations where they aren't getting the best education they should, the students themselves are hardly clumsy or inept, nor necessarily are the resource-strapped schools they are in. Every time I look at the portrayal of the clumsy and out of shape athlete in the ad, I feel insulted for our young students who are talented in so many ways. The ad disrespects them. If the actor is supposed to represent "education" in general, the metaphor flops completely. All I could picture while watching it was the gifted students in every one of our schools who are singers, dancers, mathematicians, artists and more. Rhee's advertisement denigrates their efforts and the efforts of the teachers who work to develop their minds and their talents. And it insults all the successful schools and teachers and students around the country, implying they are ALL stumbling buffoons. (Contrast this campaign with Michelle Obama's positive and supportive efforts to promote healthy eating by our students, leading by example).

But even more critical -- if an organization calls itself "Students First," then shouldn't it be highlighting the successes of students and schools who are making changes, pouring its efforts into SUPPORT for students (not negative campaign tactics), and helping uplift our students by telling positive stories about their accomplishments? Sure, negative ads get attention but they drag down the tone of the conversation, perpetuate negative stereotypes about our schools that many of them don't need in this increasingly difficult economy, and tell students who see them that they are failures. Negative reinforcement is not a recommended teaching strategy, by the way.

I could argue the statistics and how they can be manipulated to show whatever we want. But I'd rather point out Yong Zhao's keynote at the International Society in Technology Conference -- he reminded the audience that the reason other countries come to study our economy, the reason they come to visit our schools, is because we are doing things they are not. We are fostering creativity that, as he says, other countries envy. All of this is not to ignore the fact that some schools aren't succeeding and there are many students who deserve more. But again, these sweeping generalizations do little to help them, because every time you convince a taxpayer ALL of our schools are failing, that's one less person who supports public education funding. And every time you cut public education funding, you are impacting those students who you say you want to "put first." You are waging a public relations campaign against education that in essence says it cannot succeed. What I would like to know is: how does that put all the students who attend our nation's public schools first?

It's time for those spewing inflammatory statistics and rhetoric to stop. If you really want to help the nation's schools, start highlighting the positive and reach out and help those in need. Not by insulting those who will be helping them, or the profession, or education in general. But by putting "students first."

Carolyn Foote also blogs at Not so Distant Future.

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