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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 10/ 7/2010

Jon Stewart and Lewis Black blew it on schools

By Valerie Strauss

Lewis Black’s piece on “the public school crisis” that aired on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” the other night left me wondering why education reform hasn’t been more of a high value target for Stewart or, for that matter, Stephen Colbert.

The reform world is dripping with hilarious promise.

There are characters to lampoon: School superintendents who are education’s fundamentalists, believing only they know the way to reform heaven.

There are issues to rip open: The standardized testing obsession, the charter school obsession, the insistence on first the Bush administration and now the Obama administration to turn the nation’s leading civic institution, the public school system, into a market-driven industry.

Black’s piece (not his finest work) seemed to be inspired by the new education movie “Waiting for Superman,” which paints a false picture of
the education reform scene, and by NBC's recent Education Nation summit, which, in a different way, did the same thing.

He spoke about public charter schools, and said “Charter schools are better,” and then, after showing a clip of kids, said, “But those kids are in public schools. What ideas do we have for fixing them?”

Charter schools, as Black apparently doesn’t know, ARE public schools, and, incidentally, educate less than 5 percent of the country’s kids.

As for being “better,” the biggest research study on them, conducted by Stanford University researchers, showed that only 17 percent of them produce better test scores than their local traditional public schools and the rest were either worse or the same.

Stewart and Colbert both had the perfect chance to wade into this wacky world earlier this year when Diane Ravitch’s book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” was published and became a bestseller on the New York Times list.

Ravitch, the country’s leading education historian, tells of how she once supported No Child Left Behind but looked at the evidence of its effects on schools and came to realize it was terrible policy. Now the Obama administration is taking some of the worst aspects of No Child Left Behind to new levels of awfulness.

I asked Comedy Central why Stewart hasn’t invited Ravitch, or, for that matter, someone else who could talk about the education reform madness, but a vice president there said they don’t talk about the guest selection process. I heard elsewhere that the show wants “edgy” guests; Ravitch is actually edgier than virtually all of the guests both men have on their shows. (I know because I watch them.)

Colbert, on his Colbert Report, invited Education Secretary Arne Duncan on for an interview last year, but, frankly Colbert let Duncan off the hook.

Stewart has become more than just a funny guy on television. He has become a cultural force who routinely attacks hypocrisy and stupidity in all kinds of arenas. Colbert is too.

If Stewart and Black and Colbert can’t find fun in the hypocrisy of public school reform, they are losing their touch.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 7, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  charter schools, colbert report, jon stewart, lewis black, school reform, steven colbert, the colbert report, the daily show, waiting for superman  
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Yeah, those guys kind of missed the subversive "edgy" angle on the education debate.

For a bit of caustic humor on current events in education check out the twitter account for @EdReformPR. Perhaps Black, Colbert & Stewart could take some notes.


Posted by: jasonflom | October 7, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Why haven't Jon Stewart and Colbert lampooned current ed-reformers?


It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this one out. Stewart and Colbert are liberals. They do pick on some liberal politicans, but to no where near the same degree as they lampoon conservatives.

So, whether you're talking about education reform or the strategies employed in Iraq and Afghanistan, you should expect people like Stewart and Colbert to apply a different degree of lampooning to Democrats than Republicans... and that is true even if the two parties push the same agendas.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | October 7, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse


Are you suggesting the corporate-sponsored "school reform" movement, financed by Wal-Mart, Union-Carbide, Gates, Broad and investment bankers, and whose prime motive is to privatize education and destroy unions (thus ensuring no competion for elite college slots for the poor and middle class) is a LIBERAL policy? Obama has too many in his administration who are captives of corporate interests. Summers, Salazar and Duncan top the list. Summers is gone. Let's hope Duncan is the next to go. Perhaps they could hire ex-Bushie Diane Ravitch so she could fix the mess she helped create.

Posted by: mcstowy | October 7, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse


No, I am not suggesting the current "school reform" movement is a LIBERAL policy. If you had read my post carefully, you would have picked up on that.

What I am suggesting is that there is not too much of a difference between what Democrats and Republicans propose to do to improve education. The reason why people like Jon Stewart aren't satirizing the school reform movement right now is because it is Democrats who are pushing the initiatives. If Republicans proposed the very same reforms, Stewart would be all over it.

My point is that it is not the reforms that matter to satirists and ideologues - it is the people who happen to be in charge. Ever notice how pundits skewered Bush for his Iraq policies, but have been silent when Obama has continued the same policy?

Asking why Jon Stewart isn't lampooning ed-reformers is like asking why people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are harder on Obama for overspending than they were on Bush. These individuals are not objective observers.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | October 7, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Oh I don't know, is it because education is one of the most boring topics on the planet?

Posted by: brickerd | October 7, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Brickerd, please go away and let the grownups work this out.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | October 7, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Colbert and Stewart are liberals who by nature will not address what is wrong with the education establishment or any other liberal icon organization.

The teacher unions and their partners in administration, higher education and the accrediting racket all conspire to fleece the public.

Posted by: georgiarat | October 7, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Is Ms. Strauss suggesting that John Stewart and Steven Colbert [continue to] show a preference for liberal and anti-conservative viewpoints?

Posted by: cprferry | October 7, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry to hear that Lewis Black took the side of Davis Guggenheim. I hope someone sets him straight, but I doubt that will happen. Someday he probably will he will learn that Guggenheim lied, but not for awhile.

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 7, 2010 8:35 PM | Report abuse

I am disappointed to hear this. I really liked Lewis Black. But I guess for a while at least I won't listen to him anymore.

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 7, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

It could be that Stewart and Colbert have been conned by the phone education reform people, and don't actually know the truth.

They are both smart guys, but even smart people can be conned.

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 7, 2010 8:39 PM | Report abuse

The explanation for this can be easily had by watching Stewart's recent show with Bloomberg as a guest. They are obviously close friends with similar views on many things. He is undoubtedly influenced by that relationship.

Posted by: kmlisle | October 7, 2010 9:01 PM | Report abuse

It could also be that Rick Sanchez was right. Not the anti-Semitic stuff that he never said or implied. But that John Stewart comes from a privileged class and ridicules people unlike him. He simply can't relate.

Posted by: cprferry | October 7, 2010 11:31 PM | Report abuse

Stewart or Colbert could have a field day showing kids in a school working on P21 type activities like critical thinking and problem solving with little to zero background knowledge for their foundation.

Or they could show how the achievement gap was only an urban legend because there was no objective data (tests) to substantiate the premise.

They could also satirize a charter school lottery where parents and kids are dying to get into these schools that a Stanford study says are no better than regular public schools.

They could also make a mockery of NYC's "rubber room" where millions of dollars are spent keeping questionable teachers from contact with students.

They could also document (TIMSS, PISA, etc.) how over the past two decades US students have fallen in international rankings in math, science, etc.

They could also have a field day chronicling a chronically under performing school being left open despite its dismal record over time obtaining the appropriate label of drop out factory.

They could also document how one side of the ed reform debate wants to rush into a 21st century skills approach which has a track record (progressive's past failures) of being totally misguided and without foundation.

Etc., etc., etc. Yes, Stewart and Colbert could have a field day with these issues - and then some. The problem - in the end their audiences would NOT be laughing. And if you think about it, neither would the American public.

Posted by: phoss1 | October 8, 2010 7:00 AM | Report abuse

Cprferry writes, "It could also be that Rick Sanchez was right. Not the anti-Semitic stuff that he never said or implied. But that John Stewart comes from a privileged class and ridicules people unlike him. He simply can't relate."

Actually on Monday's (October 4, 2010) Daily Show, Stewart did a nine minute piece called 'Hurty Sanchez'. You can see it here:

Stewart talks about being the son of a single mother in the education field in the '70's. No silver spoon here. And one would hope that his experience in central New Jersey would have given him some perspective on public education. Perhaps he will learn a thing or two it he reads Valerie's column.

And if you heard the same audio clips of Sanchez that I did, I don't understand how you could say, "Not the anti-Semitic stuff that he never said or implied." Sanchez was chin deep in an anti-semitic swamp that he seemed all to comfortable wading into.

Posted by: AGAAIA | October 8, 2010 7:18 AM | Report abuse

Agree with the above comment re: Stewart's background -- and would add that Lewis Black is also the son of a schoolteacher, which he writes about at length in "Nothing Sacred". Also, the material is written by a team of writers, not Stewart and Black individually, so they are the ones who would need to do the research etc.

I agree that the DS should cover education more, but I suspect that reactions like the ones above are an argument against doing so. Speaking form personal experience, I've observed that education experts are often too earnest to take a joke, even when it is desperately needed in such dire straits. So why bother?

Posted by: akrauss | October 8, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse

@brickerd: LOL. *I* get it. Too funny!! People these guys are COMEDIANS. They make fun of things.
Now brickerd move over. It's my turn to play in the sandbox. :D

Posted by: HokieBabe1 | October 8, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure, will you help me?

Is Arne Duncan's name "Arne Duncan" or "Arne Bumpkin" or Blarney Duncan or Blarney Bumpkin. I have also heard him called "Arne Flunk em Duncan."

So which is it?

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 8, 2010 8:46 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure, will you help me?

Is Arne Duncan's name "Arne Duncan" or "Arne Bumpkin" or Blarney Duncan or Blarney Bumpkin. I have also heard him called "Arne Flunk em Duncan."

So which is it?

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 8, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

I finally got a chance to see Black's piece. This column really has nothing to do with Black, Stewart or Colbert, it's just a stealth plug for Ravitch's book.

Your pseudo-critique of Black's piece is quite unfair, also. Of course he knows that charter schools are technically "public" schools, but as he clearly demonstrated, they are not "public" in the sense that anyone can go to them.

Posted by: darkglobe5 | October 9, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

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