Oprah Winfrey’s Education Reform Infomercial

The talk show hosts brings together the country's most volatile education reformers.

By Julianne Hing Sep 24, 2010

Education reform was Oprah Winfrey’s star guest for two full days this week when she hosted a two-part series on the new education documentary "Waiting for Superman," and it was a sight to behold. "Today you’re going to learn things that you had no idea were going on in this country in our schools," were Oprah’s ominous opening words, and so was the beginning of what turned out to be a two-hour infomercial for the Obama administration’s education reform agenda.

The all-stars of the liberal education reform movement were there: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Harlem Children’s Zone icon Geoffrey Canada, billionaire-philanthropist Bill Gates, the newly inducted education reform celebrity spokesperson John Legend, and of course Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. With that lineup, the stage was perfectly set for what would ultimately become another chapter in the current teacher-bashing trend. The administration couldn’t have scripted a better show.

Ostensibly the crew had gathered to promote "Waiting for Superman," the new education film by "Inconvenient Truth" documentarian Davis Guggenheim. And promote the film they did; "Waiting for Superman" is about the crisis of the American education system and the nation’s current efforts to overhaul the its public schools. While the film does feature almost all of the people who made the trip to Chicago to sit on Oprah’s couches and pitch their education policies to America, Rhee, Canada, Legend and Friday’s new guest Newark Mayor Cory Booker are also the cheerleaders and darlings (or bankrollers) of Obama’s education reform agenda, which targets teacher unions’ as the main culprit of the country’s crumbling education system.

The arc of the story should be familiar by now: the nation’s poor, often black, kids are being shafted by an outdated, bureaucratic education system that’s resistant to change. Not only has the country slipped from first to twelfth in college graduation rates, but kids in poor neighborhoods end up having to compete for neighborhood charter school lotteries to make it into the few decent schools that exist. 

And who are the folks holding up the train of progress, the evildoers and self-centered villains? Easy. The teacher’s unions.

The diagnosis is correct: when it comes to the depth of the racial disparities, the persistence of the inequity, there is no way to understate the gravity or the urgency of the situation. Except that all the proposed solutions–merit pay and pay-for-performance mechanisms, value-added teacher evaluation systems, turnaround school models–come at the expense of teachers, whose job security is increasingly tied to the performance of their students on standardized tests.

On Wednesday Oprah introduced Michelle Rhee, the controversial D.C. schools chief whose job is in peril after her primary backer Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his primary to Vincent Gray. She opened Rhee’s segment with an authoritative question, "So who’s most at fault for failing schools and for failing our children?" And then, after a dramatic pause: "Michelle Rhee says that she knows, and she has taken a very controversial stand," cueing a montage that showed Rhee’s crusade against teachers in the D.C. public schools system to overhaul what was the worst-performing district in the country. Rhee’s reforms make for scary headlines: since 2007, she’s fired hundreds of teachers every year, shut down dozens of schools and consolidated the central D.C. schools office. She’s unapologetic for, even proud of, the fact that she fired the principal of her daughter’s own school.

But the problems pointed out by Rhee, Oprah, and the film tell a simplified and dramatic narrative of the state of America’s schools and the solutions to fix the system. And they exclude crucial details. 

First, while teachers have an enormous influence in the educational advancement of a student, teachers are not the only actors who influence the education system. Teachers have been the foot soldiers implementing national policy overhauls and 20 years of a reform movement that is never short on new innovations but hasn’t made a lot of progress in closing the national achievement gap.

And second, teachers have actually made huge concessions in the name of education reform. The national American Federation of Teachers union president Randi Weingarten is "Waiting for Superman"’s Lex Luthor, a fire-breathing, politically calculating, cruelly blind politician. And yet earlier this year she flew to Colorado to urge teachers there to accept Obama administration policy overhauls that would weaken teacher tenure and overhaul teacher evaluation schemes. "Everybody must be willing to sacrifice something," said Duncan this morning on Oprah’s show, and yet all the demands fall on teachers, who often appear out of touch and spoiled for demanding workers’ rights that are antiquated in today’s economy: tenure, pensions, job stability.

But this is exactly the version of the story the Obama administration often tells itself. Oprah’s fallen for the easy narrative, which is admittedly captivating and heart-wrenching–just watch the "Waiting for Superman" trailer on YouTube and you’ll see. But in exchange, Oprah, the film’s makers and the leaders of the educational reform movement miss not just the nuances but the big picture.

The Nation‘s Dana Goldstein saw the documentary, and talks about what it leaves out:

Here’s what you don’t see: the four out of five charters that are no better, on average, than traditional neighborhood public schools (and are sometimes much worse); charter school teachers, like those at the Green Dot schools in Los Angeles, who are unionized and like it that way…You don’t see teen moms, households without an adult English speaker or headed by a drug addict, or any of the millions of children who never have a chance to enter a charter school lottery (or get help with their homework or a nice breakfast) because adults simply aren’t engaged in their education. These children, of course, are often the ones who are most difficult to educate, and the ones neighborhood public schools can’t turn away.

You also don’t learn that in the Finnish education system, much cited in the film as the best in the world, teachers are–gasp!–unionized and granted tenure, and families benefit from a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that includes universal daycare, preschool and healthcare, all of which are proven to help children achieve better results at school.

But Oprah never had time to deal with the parts of the education world that deviated from the mainstream narrative, the parts that had been subsumed in our country’s hunger for heroes to lionize and villains to scapegoat. The only time Oprah stepped away from this narrative was to anticipate her critics, and tell them to lay off. "Everybody knows I love good teachers, and there are so many thousands of you great ones in this country. So we’re not talking about you, if you’re a good teacher."

"So," Oprah said defiantly, "save your time getting upset."