The A.D.D. Epidemic Returns

A staggering 6,000,000 students are now wearing the label ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder.  That’s about 15% of all children (and 20% of boys). “Shockingly, it’s almost certain that kids misdiagnosed with ADHD outnumber those with the legitimate, clinical problem, leaving the disorder so muddied that no one quite knows what to make of it at all.”  (That sentence is taken from the most important book of the year for anyone who cares about children.)

The book is ADHD Nation: Children, Doctors, Big Pharma, and the Making of an American Epidemic.  Alan Schwarz, a brilliant reporter for The New York Times, has written a highly readable, probing history of the condition and the subsequent epidemic of diagnoses.

He tells the story through three central characters, a doctor who might be called ‘The father of ADD’ and two children, but along the way you will also meet some unsavory characters and a few heroic folks as well.

The naming of the condition is a tale in itself.  “Minimal brain damage,” “minimal brain disfunction,” “hyperkinesis,” and “hyperactivity” were floated and discarded for various reasons until finally (in 1980) “Attention Deficit Disorder” was coined by Dr. Virginia Douglas, one of the few women in the male-dominated club.

 Even the author’s footnotes are revealing.  Here’s one about Dr. Keith Conners, an early and important ADD researcher and the developer of the “Teacher Rating Scale” that enabled teachers to diagnosis students (which contributed greatly to the epidemic):

“Conners needed no questionnaire to assess the effects of Ritalin on himself. Late one afternoon, following an exhausting day in the lab, he had to attend an eight p.m. lecture by Harry Harlow, a behavioral psychologist famous for locking young monkeys away from their mothers and studying their emotional demise. Knowing he’d never stay conscious for the whole thing, Conners found the tub of Ritalin capsules so generously donated by CIBA and took one. Within thirty minutes he snapped awake and thought to himself, “This is fantastic!” He kept working until eight. He skipped dinner. He zoned in on the lecture, chatted with folks afterward, and stayed up until three in the morning. Just one dose felt so great, so beguiling, that he never tried the stuff again for the rest of his life.”

Reading this wonderful book stirred up memories of our own reporting on ADD, more than 20 years ago.  The result was a 1-hour film, “A.D.D: A Dubious Diagnosis?”

Our year-long  investigation was a surreal experience in many ways.  Many interviews with scared parents hidden in shadow or behind a screen, with voice-altering equipment to make sure they couldn’t be identified.  Angry kids whose parents and teachers forced them to take Ritalin.  Kids who boasted openly about selling their Ritalin to other students looking to get high. And money, lots of it, being funneled to a supposedly neutral organization by the drug manufacturer.  

PBS and my producing station in South Carolina were extremely nervous about taking on a powerful drug company.  They delayed the broadcast for months, made us double our insurance coverage, and insisted that we add a question mark to the program’s title.  We knew we had proved beyond a doubt that A.D.D. was in fact ‘A Dubious Diagnosis’ in many, many cases.  We had proved that the current epidemic was man-made, a product of greed and hubris, but the powers-that-be were just plain scared.

The program stepped on a lot of powerful parental toes, including those of some in my industry.  We reported that many parents actively sought a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder as a way of ‘explaining’ why their child wasn’t on track to get into Harvard or Princeton.  In other words, drugging a child was preferable to raising questions about their own parenting or their child’s abilities and interests.

But the investigative process itself is what I remember best.  When we followed the money trail, we discovered that Ritalin’s manufacturer was secretly funding a supposedly neutral parents group, ChADD.  We also learned that ChADD had secretly infiltrated the US Department of Education and was lobbying to loosen the restrictions on Ritalin to make it even easier to get (at a time when the US was already consuming more than 80% of the world’s supply!).

Ceiba-Geigy knew that we knew what was going on, and, when we went to interview the makers of Ritalin, we were escorted by (seemingly armed) guards into a large room where the drug company had already set up its own cameras to record everything.  Despite their advance warning, the Cieba-Geigy spokesman admitted that the company was getting huge benefits by covertly funding the supposedly neutral non-profit, ChADD, which in turn was endorsing Ritalin.  ChADD was a messenger, he said.

ChADD’s founder, seemingly accustomed to accolades from parents and to the high life, told us that he felt no guilt about endorsing Ritalin or keeping Ceiba-Geigy’s funding secret.  Dr. Harvey Parker told me that Ceiba-Geigy owed ChADD because it was helping so many children by introducing them to Ritalin.  And he had no qualms about his non-profit’s efforts to lobby Congress and the government agency that regulated drugs either, even though non-profits are strictly prohibited from lobbying.

No one at ChADD or Ceiba-Geigy expressed any remorse about duping the U.S. Department of Education either.  USDE funds had paid for a series of glossy public service announcements in which ‘ordinary’ parents sang the praises of Ritalin.  The Department withdrew the PSAs when we reported that all the parents were officials of ChADD.

Katie Couric invited me to debate the issue on the Today Show with the unctuous Dr. Parker and a ‘neutral’ university professor. My colleague John Tulenko had done his homework, however, and discovered that the professor’s work was supported by Ceiba-Geigy, something the Today show did not know.  So when Katie asked the professor to weigh on on whether the A.D.D. epidemic was man-made (as we asserted), she attacked me with a vengeance.  When Katie gave me the opportunity to respond, I had the great pleasure of asking the professor whether she had told the Today show that Ceiba-Geigy was paying for her ‘research.’  Stunned silence…..

I also wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, “Reading, Writing and Ritalin,” and appeared on Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, and other cable and NPR shows. We managed to derail the A.D.D. express for a while, but it’s back with a vengeance, as ADHD Nation demonstrates.  

Alan Schwarz’s important book, ADHD Nation, is available at your local bookstore and on line.  Please seek it out.

Vivian Connell, RIP

Vivian Connell, a teacher turned education lawyer, died this week after a long struggle with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. I met Vivian just once, but it was an encounter I have not forgotten. She was one of 6 teachers on that a panel I moderated in North Carolina in February, 2014, on the subject of teachers leaving the profession.  Before the session, I explained the ground rules: no opening remarks, all Q&A, and no off-topic speeches. Vivian immediately piped up. “I tend to get carried away,” she said, “because I feel passionately about what North Carolina and the Obama Administration are doing to public education.”  If that happens, I said, I will interrupt, but I will be nice about it.  

Well, as she warned me, she did get carried away a couple of times. As promised, I interrupted (nicely, I think). But if you listen to what she has to say about the increasing lack of trust of teachers, the Administration’s embrace of ‘Test and punish’ strategies, and the system’s over-reliance on test scores, you will begin to understand her strength of character, passion and commitment.  She told the audience that she came to believe that her chosen profession was being denigrated by powerful forces bent on destroying public schools, and so she went to UNC Law, graduated with honors, and was admitted to the bar at age 49.  She declined a clerkship opportunity in order to spend her energy advocating for public education.

I thought to myself how lucky public education was that Vivian took the leap. Yes, a school lost a terrific teacher, but the public interest was much better served by Vivian’s being an education lawyer.

(The audience clearly understood. The crowd of about 800-900 people gave Vivian and her five colleagues a standing ovation at the end of the panel.  How often does a panel get a standing O?  Maybe just that one time!)

Life is unfair. A month later, Vivian went to her doctor to find out why one leg was giving her trouble.  She wrote about it on her blog:  On March 12th, 2014, I learned that I have ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and that over the next 2-10 years – most likely 3-5 years – my motor neurons will gradually stop working and I will lose the use of my limbs, then become unable to breathe and swallow, and then cease to be.  (That’s an excerpt; please read the entire post.)

Vivian never asked for sympathy, just that we do the right thing.

As my students have heard me say, regardless of what we each believe about our ability to “Change the World,” we all DO change it: we each make it a little better or a little worse. I have tried to live with a determination to be on the right side of history and, when I could muster the strength, the generous side of kindness. I certainly have won some and lost some – I am not the gentlest or most patient soul – but I hope I have made the world a bit better, and I have a very short bucket list. I wish you all the courage to aspire to your highest ideals and the blessing of facing the end of your days with as few regrets as I have.

And as she said elsewhere, “People have said that I’m inspirational, but it’s not me. It’s inspiring that we live in a democracy that invites our participation.”

Here is Vivian’s final post.

The indefatigable Diane Ravitch has paid tribute to Vivian a number of times and will, I know, continue to see that her good works are not forgotten.

My deepest sympathy to Vivian’s husband and children and to her many friends and colleagues.


“Eat Your Dinner…Or Else”

“Finish your dinner, or no dessert.”

“But I’m not hungry.”

“You’re not leaving the table until that plate is clean. Do you hear me?”

“But I don’t like succotash.”

“That’s what’s for dinner, young man, so stop complaining and eat your meal.”

Does dialogue like that ring a bell?  Maybe it doesn’t happen today when family meals are infrequent, but it did in our house and in the homes of my friends when I was a kid. We tried pushing the unwanted food around the plate and dividing it into small pieces, in hopes that our parents wouldn’t notice.  That never worked, of course.

But, lucky for us, our Mom was savvy enough to ask us what we liked and then to invite us to help with the cooking. Family meals became more interesting when we had an investment in them…and they were probably more nutritious as well.

Why can’t most educators make that leap?  The data are staring them in the face: low attendance rates among students and teachers; higher percentages of students “opting out” of state-mandated standardized tests; more teachers leaving the profession; and more parents saying they’d like the option of sending their children to charter schools.

Instead, educators from Secretary John King on down seem to be doubling down, searching for ways to penalize students who choose not to take standardized tests, their schools, and their school districts.

The ‘meal’ that School Reformers have been serving up for the past nearly 12 years of the Bush and Obama Administrations is neither delicious nor nutritious.

In fact, the only cooking that I can discern has been ‘cooking the books‘ by artificially inflating graduation rates with ‘Credit Recovery’ schemes; countless hours of Test Prep to get more kids over the bar; and widespread cheating by adults.

With a new Administration approaching, some School Reformers are asking for one more chance to get things right because so many promising reforms are either “on the horizon” or are just now “beginning to show results.”

Are we dumb enough to fall for that?


Ch*ckenshit Education

When I was 8 years old, my morning chores including collecting the eggs of the 30-40 chickens on our farm. I’d bring them to the kitchen, wash my hands, and walk to school with my older sister.   It was a simple 4-step process: collect the eggs, deliver them to the kitchen, wash up, and head off to school.

Unfortunately, I sometimes forgot Step 3, washing my hands, meaning that I might have had some ch*ckenshit in my fingernails when I entered my 3rd grade classroom. Unfortunately for me, my 3rd grade teacher was a hygiene fanatic who required each of us line up and approach her desk, breathe into her face (had we brushed?) and show her our hands (had we washed?).  I always brushed my teeth after breakfast, so I never failed the halitosis test, but she got me on the “clean hands” exam quite a few times.

Each time the punishment was a BLACK STAR next to my name on the wall chart that was prominently displayed near the classroom door.  She started the chart on Day One, and I got quite a few of those unforgettable BLACK STARS during the year. It was humiliating, but I still made the mistake of not washing up quite a few times.  I was only 8, or we were running late, or whatever….

What brings this to mind is the practice in some benighted school systems of posting students’ scores on state exams on a so-called “data wall” in each classroom, so that every kid can see how he or she did…and how everyone else did.  That’s supposed to make kids work harder….

Teacher Launa Hall has written a thoughtful essay about this trend, which I urge you to read.  She writes that she resisted the requirement at first but eventually gave in and created her own “data wall,” a decision she regretted as soon as she saw her students looking at the scores.

“My third-graders tumbled into the classroom, and one child I’d especially been watching for — I need to protect her privacy, so I’ll call her Janie — immediately noticed the two poster-size charts I’d hung low on the wall. Still wearing her jacket, she let her backpack drop to the floor and raised one finger to touch her name on the math achievement chart. Slowly, she traced the row of dots representing her scores for each state standard on the latest practice test. Red, red, yellow, red, green, red, red. Janie is a child capable of much drama, but that morning she just lowered her gaze to the floor and shuffled to her chair.    ……

I regretted those data walls immediately. Even an adult faced with a row of red dots after her name for all her peers to see would have to dig deep into her hard-won sense of self to put into context what those red dots meant in her life and what she would do about them. An 8-year-old just feels shame.”

Like her students, I was 8, and I felt ashamed whenever I received BLACK STARS and whenever I looked at the wall chart. I got teased, of course, and my dominant memory of 3rd grade is that morning exam, not projects I may have worked on or books we read.  I survived my literal “ch*ckenshit education,” probably because only one misguided teacher who just wanted to teach hygiene was embarrassing me, not official policy across a school district.

(Some districts use numbers in place of names on their mandatory “Data Walls,” but of course it doesn’t take long for kids to figure out who is who.)

For entire school systems to endorse public shaming of its students is a disgrace. This excess, the offspring of our misguided obsession with test scores, rarely if ever works.  It’s a ch*ckenshit policy that will further turn people against public education, at least the 50% who are below average.  Will pleasant memories of school overshadow their shame at being publicly humiliated?  How supportive are they likely to be as adults, when asked to vote for school funding or to defend teachers against unwarranted attacks?

As Launa Hall writes, “When policymakers mandate tests and buy endlessly looping practice exams to go with them, their image of education is from 30,000 feet. They see populations and sweeping strategies. From up there, it seems reasonable enough to write a list of 32 discrete standards and mandate that every 8-year-old in the state meet them. How else will we know for sure that teaching and learning are happening down there?

Our antiquated school model is used to sort children. Essentially, it asks of each child “How Intelligent Are You?” and then posts standardized test scores for all to see.  We need to demand and help build schools that ask of each child “How Are You Intelligent?” and figure out ways to build on their strengths and interests.

Anything else is pure Ch*ckenshit……





Alison Bernstein (1947-2016)

The worlds of education, the arts and humanities, international relations, gender equity and all things progressive have lost a great friend.  Alison Bernstein passed away on June 30th from endometrial cancer. Her death was reported in the East Hampton Star on July 7th and in the New York Times on the following day.

Alison was as special as they come, forward-thinking, courageous, tireless, positive, and as honest as the days are long. I met her when I was hosting a weekly radio series on NPR, “Options in Education,” and she was at the Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE) in the Department of Education.  Led by Alison, Russ Edgerton, Chuck Bunting and others, FIPSE was a hotbed of innovation, eager to push the inside of the envelope (not an easy task, especially in the federal government).

Earlier she had been a community college teacher and had earned her Master’s and Doctor’s Degrees in History from Columbia University.

Alison went on to become Vice President of the Ford Foundation, in which capacity she awarded millions of dollars in grants to programs for culture, the arts and the media, and for education from kindergarten through graduate school.

By then I had switched to television, and my program received some support from the Ford Foundation, though not directly from Alison’s shop.

A personal story that captures Alison’s qualities: One evening in the mid- or late-1990’s I went to an education reception honoring Early College High Schools, an innovation that Ford was supporting. I saw Alison and went over to say hello.  When she asked how I was doing, I probably gave some bland response.  “OK,” she said, not willing to accept my empty response but zeroing in. “Now tell me what your biggest problem is.”

Not a question, “Do you have any problems?” It was a directive, “Tell me….”  Because she had neither time nor tolerance for bland responses, I told her the truth: I was spending at least half of my time fund-raising when I should be reporting, and, worse yet, I was striking out pretty much everywhere. Things were looking grim for my new non-profit production company, I admitted.

“I can help with that,” she said.  “Here’s what I’m going to do,”she said, after asking me for the names of the half dozen or so foundations that I was trying to get support from.   “I am going to invite all of them to a meeting.  I will tell them that Ford will give Learning Matters (my new non-profit) ONE MILLION DOLLARS (emphasis added!) on the condition that the rest of them, collectively, give Learning Matters the same amount. All I had to do, Alison told me, was to show up prepared to impress everyone with a terrific presentation, including video.

Less than a month or two later I went to the Ford Foundation for a morning meeting, gave my presentation, and answered questions….until Alison dismissed me.

Later that same day Alison called me with the news that the group had agreed to match Ford’s donation.

Those grants put my company in the black and gave us legitimacy.  That turn of events allowed me to do what I did best….and began a string of about 15 years of success in both journalism and fund-raising that lasted until the Great Recession hit us hard.

And it was all because of Alison, who invariably cut to the chase and knew how to make things happen.

I know that her many friends have similar stories to tell, and I hope we can all share them at the memorial service, which I understand will be in September.

Rest in peace, Alison.  Your legacy lives on, in your words and deeds and in the lives of those your courage and generosity changed for the better.

62 Years after the Brown Decision

Harry Briggs was a garage attendant, and they fired him. And they fired another man whose name was Stookes after–he was working at a filling station also. After they fired him, he attempted to try to work in his backyard, and so he was working on a car and, not having the proper things to use for the car, he had jacked the car up on a homemade shift, and the car fell on him and killed him. And James Brown was working for a trucking company. I don’t recall the trucking company. They fired him.
And they fired teachers who they thought had signed it. My husband had two sisters working in the district. They were fired. He was fired. And I was fired. And even the parents who signed the petition, they wouldn’t let them have loans to–for their crops the following year. And of course the (white) people stopped buying groceries, some of them, and they’d even go to Sumpter and Columbia and other places to buy groceries, and they would cut off everything that they thought was helping the petitioners.

That’s what Mattie de Laine, the widow of the Reverend Joseph De Laine[1] (who helped bring the lawsuit in Clarendon County, South Carolina), told me when I interviewed her in 1979, 25 years after the historic Brown v Board Supreme Court decision of 1954.

The negative reaction was not confined to the white community. All Sarah Bulah of Wilmington, Delaware wanted was to have the bus that took white children to school pick up her daughter, Shirley, and drop her at the Negro school. She recalled the neighborhood’s reaction:

They thought I was breaking up the community. One morning I went to see a sick lady. She say, ‘Mrs. Bulah, I’m surprised at you.’ Surprised at me, about what? ‘You saying that you wanted wanted Shirley to to go the white school because you didn’t want her going to the Negro school.’ I say, I didn’t say no such thing, just like that. She say, ‘You know, I’ve been living her 30 years, and we ain’t never had no stink until you come.’

Back then Sarah Bulah made her living selling fresh eggs. Before she joined the lawsuit, she told us she was selling about 100 dozen eggs a week at 75 cents per dozen to white families. She lost all her customers except one.

Two years ago, the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision were muted, overshadowed by the harsh reality. Although it’s no longer constitutionally permissible to segregate students by race, our public schools are more segregated today than ever in our history. As Richard Rothstein pointed out in “For Public Schools, Segregation Then, Segregation Since,” school segregation is a consequence of residential segregation, which means that housing policies become education policy.   This report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project has more information about the segregation of public schools:

But in addition to bemoaning our collective failures, let’s remember the brave men and women who had the courage to challenge legal school segregation, a struggle that began with a case involving the Law School at the University of Maryland in 1935 and culminated in the Court’s unanimous decision announced on May 17, 1954.

Many of the early cases attacking ‘Separate but Equal’ focused on proving that the facilities were in fact not equal. Winning these cases forced the power structure to spend more on the Negro schools, but a victory did not directly challenge the concept of segregation. Directly challenging the constitutionality of segregation meant asking the Supreme Court to overrule itself–to admit that it had been wrong in Plessy v. Ferguson. It meant asking the Court to declare that the concepts of ‘separation’ and ‘equality’ were contradictory by definition and contrary to the US Constitution.

The attorneys were undecided on this vital point right up to the last possible moment. James Nabrit, a young attorney working on the Washington, DC, case with lead attorney Thurgood Marshall and others, recalled the day the case was argued before the Court.

You know when they settled that question? The morning when Thurgood got up to argue and stood up and started talking all this stuff, and Justice Frankfurter stopped him and said, ‘Mr. Marshall, I want to ask you a question,’ and Thurgood said, ‘Yes, sir?’, and he said, ‘Are you arguing this case on the separate but equal doctrine, or are you arguing that segregation, per se, is unconstitutional? Now I want to know.’
And Thurgood turned as pale as a ghost, and the courtroom was just as quiet as the moon. And finally he said, ‘Mr. Justice Frankfurter, we are going to argue this case on the basis that segregation per se is unconstitutional.’ (1979 interview)

Richard Kluger’s “Simple Justice” remains a must-read for anyone interested in the long struggle against school segregation. Henry Hampton’s monumental documentary series, “Eyes on the Prize,” will always be the gold standard for television reportage about the Civil Rights Movement.

The U.S. Library of Congress has a permanent exhibit of documents and photographs about the Brown cases online.

Growing up, I associated the Brown decision with Topeka, Kansas, and 7-year-old Linda Brown. From Mr. Kluger’s book I learned that “Brown” included lawsuits from four other communities: Wilmington, Delaware; Washington, DC; Prince Edward County, Virginia; and Clarendon County, South Carolina.

Reading that book inspired us to revisit all five communities in 1979, the 25th Anniversary of the decision, for my NPR radio series, “Options in Education.” We met many of the plaintiffs, the ordinary men and women who were persuaded by Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston, James Nabrit, Jack Greenberg and others to sign their names to the lawsuits.[2]

Here, from the Library of Congress page, are quick descriptions of the cases, along with a few anecdotes from our 1979 NPR series.

CLARENDON COUNTY, SOUTH CAROLINA: “In 1949, the state NAACP in South Carolina sought twenty local residents in Clarendon County to sign a petition for equal education. The petition turned into a lawsuit and first name on the list was Harry Briggs. In preparation for the Briggs case, attorney Robert Carter returned to Columbia University to confer with Psychologist Otto Klineberg, who was known for his research on black students’ IQ scores. He sought Klineberg’s advice on the use of social science testimony in the pending trial to show the psychological damage segregation caused in black children. Klineberg recommended Kenneth Clark. Clark became the Legal Defense Fund’s principal expert witness.”

Dr. Clark, a sociologist, used dolls to measure children’s attitudes. Attorney Harold Boulware told me about it.

He had in his bag two dolls, both dressed just alike. Both with the same kind of clothes on. The only difference in the two dolls was one was white, the other was black. So he would take one or two students into his examining room, and he would ask one of the students, “I will show you two dolls. Which is the good doll, and which is the bad doll?’ The black students would point to the black doll as the bad doll.
He would ask, ‘Which is the dirty doll, and which is the clean doll?’ and the black student would point at the black doll as the dirty one.
He would ask, ‘Which is the smelly doll?’ The black doll.
‘Which is the smart doll, and which is the dumb doll?’ And the black student would point at the black doll as the dumb doll. And all the way down the line. Every time there was something bad, it was black. Everything that was a smart doll, a clean doll, a sweet smelling doll, a brilliant doll, that was white.

TOPEKA, KANSAS:Brown v. Board of Education was filed in the U.S. District Court in Topeka, Kansas, in February 1951 and litigated concurrently with Briggs v. Elliot in South Carolina. Oliver Brown, one of thirteen plaintiffs, had agreed to participate on behalf of his seven-year-old daughter Linda, who had to walk six blocks to board a school bus that drove her to the all-black Monroe School a mile away.”

Pre-Brown, public schools were supposed to be ‘Separate but Equal.’ A parent from Topeka, Kansas, remembered what ‘Equality’ was like. “I remember they had what they called a black bell, for assemblies. The bell would ring for the children to assemble in the auditorium. So they’d ring a bell, and the white children would go to assembly. Then they’d ring the second bell, which was called the nigger bell, and our children went upstairs to a separate room.”

She said the superintendent had an assistant, a Black man, whose job it was to keep the races separate. “At the high school at lunchtime, he’d go to the cafeteria, and if the Negro children were not sitting at this table, a certain table for the colored children, then he’d yank them up. “Get on down there where you belong!’”(Lucinda Todd, from a 1979 interview)

WASHINGTON, DC:Spottswood Thomas Bolling v. C. Melvin Sharpe, was one of the five school desegregation cases that comprised Brown. Because the District of Columbia was not a state but federal territory, the Fourteenth Amendment arguments used in the other cases did not apply. Therefore, the lawyers argued for “Due Process Clause” of the Fifth Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection of the law. The Consolidated Parents Group initiated a boycott of the all-black Browne Junior High School in Washington. D.C., which was overcrowded and dilapidated. In 1948, Charles H. Houston was hired [4] to represent them in a lawsuit to make black schools more equal to white schools when Houston’s health began to fail. He recommended James Nabrit as his replacement.”

PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, VIRGINIA: “Spurred by a student strike, blacks in Prince Edward County, Virginia, called a lower federal court’s attention to the demonstrably unequal facilities in the county’s segregated high schools. … They convinced the U.S. District Court that facilities for blacks were “not substantially equal” to those for whites. The Court ordered the two systems to be made equal. However, it did not abolish segregation. Therefore, the plaintiffs appealed, and the Supreme Court heard their case along with Brown v. Board.

In response to the Brown Decision and a court order to enforce it, Virginia passed a law in 1956 outlawing school integration. Governor Lindsay Almond, who as the state’s Attorney General had argued Virginia’s case before the Supreme Court, ordered public schools across the state to close rather than integrate, in a policy known as “Massive Resistance.”

When he closed the schools, Governor Almond made a stirring speech warning of ‘false prophets,’ ‘token integration,’ and ‘the livid stench of sadism, sex, immorality and juvenile delinquency.’ He closed with these lines: ‘We have just begun to fight. No price is too high to pay, no burden to heavy to bear.’

In 1979 I asked him about that speech. “I made a terrible mistake in making that speech, and if I’d listened to my wife I wouldn’t have made that speech. I made a mistake in making that speech.” But he added, “That’s the way I felt then.”

Defending segregation before the US Supreme Court had catapulted Mr. Almond to the State House, where, as Governor, he closed the schools across the state, but in 1959—after losing in several courts–he concluded that the state’s policy of ‘Massive Resistance” was futile and ordered schools reopened.  His defiance of the state’s political machine led by US Senator Harry Byrd effectively ended Almond’s political career.[5] Most schools reopened, but Prince Edward County kept its schools closed for five more years, until 1964!

WILMINGTON, DELAWARE: “In 1950 Louis Redding filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sarah Bulah to admit her daughter, Shirley, to a nearby white elementary school, after the Delaware Board of Education refused to allow her to board an all-white school bus that drove past their home.

In 1979, Harold Boulware, then a family court judge in Clarendon County, SC, looked back optimistically on what the Brown decision had achieved.

The Brown decision is just a drop in the bucket with regard to touching the principles of education. It touched every facet of segregation. You can get better jobs. You’ve got more money. You’ve got better facilities in every respect, not only in school facilities, but facilities we’ve got for housing, jobs. So that effort that was made back there beginning in 1938, ‘39, ‘40, was the thing that started to change the whole transition of a better day for Blacks in South Carolina and in the nation.

The last word belongs to Mattie De Laine, widow of one of the plaintiffs in South Carolina and a teacher who was fired after the lawsuit was filed:

At first I felt a little bitter when they ran us away, but when I was going on the train to New York City one morning, everybody was asleep but me. I looked out the window and it was in October and the leaves were falling and all, and it just seemed like the leaves or something were saying to me, ‘Don’t be angry with anybody, because they don’t know any better’… And believe it or not, from that time on I have had no bitterness toward anybody, not even toward those people who were shooting and who burned the house and whatnot. I don’t have any bitterness toward those people now.

  1. This photograph of Reverend and Mrs. De Laine is in the collection of his papers:
  2. It turned out that we had bitten off more than our 4-person operation could chew when we decided to visit the five original communities AND the nation’s most segregated school system (Chicago) AND a community that had successfully integrated its schools (Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina) AND the burgeoning (largely white-only) private school industry. Our 8-part series, which we called “Race against Time,” ended up airing on NPR in 1980, 26 years after Brown, not 25 as we had planned.It remains an indelible memory, however. You can listen to the series here:
  3.  Education Week has some memories here:
  4. Gardner Bishop, a Washington barber who was one of the plaintiffs, said in 1979 that Mr. Houston did not bill for his legal work.  He donated his services, Mr. Bishop said. Mr. Bishop’s reverence for Charles Houston remains one of my strongest memories of the series, and spending time with him was a genuine privilege.
  5. A grateful President John Kennedy later appointed him to the Federal Bench, where he served until his death in 1986.


A Sad Celebration

In a few days, a  charter school organization will receive the $250,000 Prize for excellence from the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation.  Three finalists– IDEA Public Schools, Success Academy Charter Schools and YES Prep Public Schools–were announced weeks ago. The winner will be made public at the annual meeting of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in Nashville on June 27.  The four previous winners of the prize are KIPP, Noble Network, Uncommon Schools and Yes Prep.  

But there’s another, more important piece of the story.  Without much publicity and for the second year in a row, the Broad Foundation is not awarding the $1,000,000 Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education, which has been given to a public school district. It turns out that the NAEP scores of most of the Broad Prize winners have been flat for years. These districts have been living and dying by test scores, and it’s not working, or not working well enough for the Foundation’s judges.

Ben Weider of the blog 538 deconstructed the issue in a well-reasoned piece, “The Most Important Award in Public Education Struggles to Find Winners.” Not long after, the Foundation decided to ‘pause’ the $1 million award, citing ‘sluggish’ changes in urban schools.  No prize was awarded in 2015, nor will one be this year, the Foundation’s Director of Communications told me.  As Howard Blume of the Los Angeles Times has reported, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad has shifted his focus to charter schools.

But that’s not really new news, as the Foundation’s own pie chart reveals. Since 1999, the Foundation has made $589,500,000 in education-related grants, and 24% of the money, $144,000,000, has gone directly to public charter schools.  No doubt some of the ‘leadership’ and ‘governance’ dollars have gone to public charter schools, which at best make up 5% of all schools.  Over that same time period, 3% of the money, $16,000,000, went to winners of the Urban Education Broad Prize (for college scholarships).

In other words, the Foundation’s pro-charter tilt has been evident for a long time.  Now it’s getting steeper and more pronounced.

Mr. Broad hoped that urban districts could improve “if given the right models or if political roadblocks” (such as those he believes are presented by teachers unions) “could be overcome,” said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The suspension of the prize for urban education could signal a “highly public step” toward the view that traditional districts “are incapable of reform,” Henig said.  Mr. Broad seems to have already taken that step in his home city of Los Angeles, where he is backing an effort to greatly expand the charter sector.

Apparently it’s pretty simple for the folks administering the Broad Prize in Urban Education: Successful School Reform boils down to higher test scores.  I see no public sign that anyone at the Foundation is questioning whether living and dying by test scores is sensible pedagogy that benefits students.  And no public evidence that they’ve considered what might happen if poor urban students were exposed to a rich curriculum and veteran teachers.  If poor kids got what is the birthright of students in wealthy districts!

Just the dismal conclusion that traditional districts are incapable of reform, and doubling down on charter management organizations, despite the truly offensive record of some of them, including current nominees, of excluding special needs children and driving away students who seem likely to do poorly on standardized tests.

How sad…..

What Are Teachers Complaining About?

Can somebody explain to me why teachers are always complaining? Yes, it’s true that most states and the federal government want to use student test scores to fire teachers. Yes, many districts have embraced “Value Added Measurement” even though no respectable statistician supports that. And, yes, we expect teachers to overcome the effects of poverty, poor nutrition, substandard housing and medical conditions on their students. And, yes, tenure and other job protections are under attack. But, leaving those points aside, teachers in nearly every country have their own “Teachers Day.”  

Do plumbers and electricians have a special day set aside to honor them?  Do construction workers, politicians, lobbyists, testing company executives and security guards?  Of course they don’t. Don’t you think it’s time teachers stopped whining and enjoyed all the honors coming their way on “Teachers Day”?

For example, the 193 member nations of the United Nations celebrate “World Teachers Day” every October. About 50 countries also set aside a different day every year to celebrate their teachers.

Teachers around the globe have entire months locked up!  Ten countries–Australia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Brazil, Poland, Chile, Sri Lanka, the Ukraine and New Zealand– have chosen an October day to celebrate their teachers, and in the Ukraine, students give their teachers chocolate!

February is a good month for teachers in the Middle East. That’s when Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Oman set aside a day to pay their respects.

September is also a good month for teachers, with India celebrating “Teachers Day” on September 5; China and Hong Kong on the 10th; and Brunei and Taiwan on the 23rd, and Singapore on the first Friday of that month.

Six countries honor teachers on a day in May: Iran, Bhutan, Jamaica, Malaysia, Mexico, and Colombia.  June has four Teacher Days for Bolivia, El Salvador, Hungary, and Guatemala, and March has five (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Albania, Lebanon, and Iraq).  As far as I can tell, only August does not have a “Teachers Day.”

While students assume responsibility for instruction on “Teachers Day” in India, teachers really have it easy in Vietnam on November 20th. That day is set aside to allow students “to express their respect” for their teachers. Students begin preparing a week in advance, and many classes prepare literature and art to welcome “Teachers Day,” while other students prepare foods and flowers for the parties held at their schools. Students usually visit their teachers at their homes to offer flowers and small gifts, or organize trips with their teachers and classmates. Even former students pay respect to their teachers on this day.

But I’m proud to say that the United States is number one when it comes to honoring teachers.  We have at least two “Teachers Days” and an entire “Teachers Week.” The first full week of May is “Teacher Appreciation Week,” with that particular Tuesday being designated as “Teacher Appreciation Day.” This official celebration is the result of hard work by the National Education Association and the National PTA, but the credit for the first U.S. “Teachers Day” goes to teachers Mattye Whyte Woodridge in Arkansas and Ryan Krug in Wisconsin. Both began writing to political leaders as early as 1944 about the need for a national day honoring teachers. Eleanor Roosevelt responded; she persuaded the 81st Congress to proclaim a “National Teacher Day” in 1953.  One state, Massachusetts, has gotten into the act, with its own “Teachers Day” on the first Sunday in June.

Maybe US teachers are upset because teachers in Canada have their own postage stamp? I mean, what else could teachers be complaining about?

Some people worry that the professions of honor and respect for teachers begin and end on that particular day. We could prove them wrong by adopting my modest proposal. In addition to the celebrations, how about a concerted effort to end the dishonoring of teachers and teaching that goes on for most of the year? I’m thinking of the Fox News commentators who rattle on about overpaid teachers; school principals who treat teachers as interchangeable parts; union reps who bargain for rigid work rules that hamstring dedicated teachers; curriculum designers who labor to create ‘teacher-proof’ curricula; education school leaders with low standards and undemanding programs; cheap-shot politicians who demand more testing, and so on.

If those critics had to spend just one day doing what most teachers do every day, year in and year out, that might shut them up. 

So thank you, teachers, for today and every day.  


David Wald, 1955-2016

David Wald died of throat and neck cancer on May 27th, after a 9-year battle with the disease.  He was only 61 years old.

One of the bravest people I’ve ever known, David was a wonderful colleague and friend. Gentle and smart, David mentored everyone in the Learning Matters office, leading by example and encouragement. Television is a team sport, and David always put the team first.  While he often came up with the best ideas for how to tell a particular story or figured out a solution to problems we were wrestling with, he never, ever took credit, preferring to see the team keep its eye on the ball.

Although David was 13 years younger than I am, he taught me so much about television, life, and human relationships.  For this, I will always be grateful.

When cancer struck, David expressed his determination to keep on contributing to Learning Matters and our work for the NewsHour.  And he did, often editing video and scripts from home.  He endured a number of regimens and trials, some of which worked for a while, but inevitably the cancer returned, usually in a new place in his body.  He never complained.

At one point about 18 months ago, David came into my office, smiling broadly.  His last three CAT scans had been completely clear, and his doctors were saying that his cancer was gone.  As his wife, Betsy, said, it was the first time in years that they had gone to sleep without the heavy rock of cancer on their chests, and awakened without that rock still pressing on them.  They had a blessed six months of stress-free life, and then the damn cancer returned, as he said “with a vengeance.”  

I hired David to help us produce a major film about higher education. Although he’d never dug deeply into education, what mattered was that he knew how to find stories. We had decided to spend a year on four college campuses: Amherst, the University of Arizona, the Community College of Denver, and Western Kentucky University.  David was in his element.  He found students and faculty eager to reveal their innermost thoughts, which they did on camera. Most remarkably, a senior at Arizona chose to tell–and show–a national audience how he was cheating and drinking his way through college.  A (tenured) faculty member admitted–on camera–that she and her students had an unspoken contract: if they didn’t expect too much from her (so she could do research), she would not expect much from them–and they’d get good grades.  

The film, Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk, caused a stir, to put it mildly.

David was full of energy, a Renaissance man who jumped from airplanes, ran marathons, went to Burning Man, and quoted Plato.  He also had a sly sense of humor.  Here’s David’s wit at work. He orchestrated this entire piece, under my nose no less. It was a complete surprise at our holiday party in December 2004.

His home town newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ran this obituary about the Emmy-winning producer who was in many ways the heart and soul of Learning Matters. 

One more point about David.  This letter from Lisa Hannah, the assistant principal of a school in Belmar, NJ, arrived after David and our colleague John Tulenko produced a memorable piece about how the school and its staff responded after Hurricane Sandy hit the town of Belmar hard. The segment ran on the NewsHour.  In the piece, Ms. Hannah related her conversation with one child — “A little girl, when we opened up the school for lunch today, she’s walking in the dark because the lights were not on. She said, ‘oh, I’m so happy to be back at school. I feel so safe.”

The kids got books too because, as Ms. Hannah told David and John, she was always looking for ways to “sneak in a little bit of education.”  Watching those teachers and the assistant principal delivering food and blankets to stricken families, and later welcoming them into the school (still without power) and feeding them is deeply moving.


I reprint the letter  because it demonstrates David’s commitment to reporting that makes a difference.  David wasn’t content to simply tell the story. He wanted to move our audience, and he often did.

In the wake of one of the most devastating natural disasters the small shore town of Belmar, New Jersey had suffered in decades, school administrators knew that the school community of 577 students would suffer tremendous challenges in recovering and restoring a sense of normalcy and order in school. The population of students included more than 50% from economically disadvantaged homes, many of whom hailed from non-native English speaking backgrounds. These families were financially fragile even prior to the storm, and the wrath wrought by Superstorm Sandy shifted the imbalance into even more dire circumstances for many families.

When approached by Learning Matters producers David Wald and John Tulenko about following school administrators during the early days after the storm in coordinating relief efforts for our families, we had no idea what to expect. The resulting piece, which featured the plight of our district in identifying and meeting the needs of our families without the the aid of electricity or phone communication, produced a powerful response from around the country.

Immediately following the airing of the segment on November 12th, we were inundated with phone calls, emails, and donations of school supplies, clothing, and financial gifts from other school districts, community members, businesses, and private citizens. These donations were immediately channeled to students, families, and staff members most in need, including 43 displaced students and several staff members unable to return to their destroyed homes.

Some of the most poignant outreach efforts included a school district from Olney, Maryland who traveled in caravan up to Belmar one cold Saturday afternoon with hundreds of new toys for the holidays, school supplies for students and teachers, and gift bags for school leaders who were working continually to meet the needs of the students. As the NewsHour piece gained momentum in social networking circles and the Internet, thousands of dollars in gift cards and donations arrived each day offering continual relief and support to families as they tried to provide a semblance of the holiday season for their families. Young students from other schools around the country traveled to the school to personally present checks resulting from the hard work of lemonade stands and other industrious efforts designed to raise funds for the students of our school.

The stories go on and on and on…..folks stopping by saying they had seen the segment and wished to anonymously drop off hundreds of warm blankets, book bags, or other helpful donations, warm words of encouragement received via email, phone messages and in the mail.

As a result of the response from the News Hour, we were invited to share our story with the local and national media, as well as to testify before the State Assembly Education Committee to describe the impact of the storm upon our district and in our community. And each time, the same thing would be heard…”We saw that incredible piece on PBS NewsHour and we were so moved….”

As we look toward the upcoming months of this challenging school year, we look forward to a very special day that will be a direct result of the generous donations to our school, much of which was in response to viewers seeing the segment…. a day of healing called “Belmar Strong” beach celebration. On this special day in May 2013, our students will walk in numbers the few blocks to the beach wearing Belmar Strong t-shirts to participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony with food and music that will mark the official opening of one of the most treasured and memorable landmarks in our town, the beach! The Mayor and Council will join us in welcoming not only the students of Belmar, but the many students and staff members of other schools who stood by us during this difficult time and provided hope, inspiration, and a bit of comfort and fellowship.

Thank you again for the beautiful piece you produced for our district and the dignified manner in which you portrayed our families and their plight. We have all benefited from the outpouring of generosity, compassion, and unity so many others have shown as a result of watching.

Lisa Hannah
Assistant Principal/Director of Curriculum
Belmar School District

Thank you, David, for sharing your gifts with us.  Rest in peace, my friend.


Five Test Questions for YOU

These test questions will help you understand why American students score lower in mathematics than their counterparts in most advanced nations.  I found these examples a few years ago while surfing the web.   The first sample problem was offered by the University of Wisconsin/Oshkosh to high school math teachers and was designed to help ‘Close the Math Achievement Gap.’

Jack shot a deer that weighed 321 pounds. Tom shot a deer that weighed 289 pounds.   How much more did Jack’s deer weigh than Tom’s deer?

Basic subtraction for high school students?   

My second example came from TeacherVision, part of Pearson, the giant testing company:

Linda is paddling upstream in a canoe. She can travel 2 miles upstream in 45 minutes. After this strenuous exercise she must rest for 15 minutes. While she is resting, the canoe floats downstream ½ mile. How long will it take Linda to travel 8 miles upstream in this manner?

This question’s premise is questionable.  Will some students be distracted by Linda’s cluelessness?  Won’t they ask themselves how long it will take her to figure out that she should grab hold of a branch while she’s resting in order to keep from floating back down the river?  What’s the not-so-subtle subtext? That girls don’t belong in canoes?  That girls are dumb?

I found my third sample question (I’m calling it “Snakes”) on a high school math test in Oregon:

There are 6 snakes in a certain valley.  The population doubles every year. In how many years will there be 96 snakes?

  1. 2
  2. 3
  3. 4
  4. 8

These three high school math problems require simple numeracy at most.  With enough practice, just about anyone can solve undemanding problems like that–and consequently feel confident of their ability.

School is supposed to be preparation for life, but spending time on problems like those three is like trying to become an excellent basketball player by shooting free throws all day long.  To be good at basketball, players must work on all aspects of the game: jump shots, dribbling, throwing chest and bounce passes, positioning for rebounds, running the pick-and-roll and—occasionally–practicing free throws.

Come to think of it, basketball and life are similar. Both are about rhythm and motion, teamwork and individual play, offense and defense.  Like life, it can slow down or become frenetic. Basketball requires thinking fast, shifting roles and having your teammates’ backs.  Successful players know when to shoot and when to pass. As in life, failure is part of the game.  Even the greatest players miss over half of their shots, and some (Michael Jordan!) are cut from their high school teams.  And life doesn’t give us many free throw opportunities.

But if school is supposed to be preparation for life, why are American high school students being asked to count on their fingers?  That mind-numbing and trivial work is the educational equivalent of shooting free throws.

My fourth example is a Common Core National Standards question for 8th graders in New York State. (Keep in mind that the Common Core is supposed to introduce much needed ‘rigor’ to the curriculum.)  

Triangle ABC was rotated 90° clockwise. Then it underwent a dilation centered at the origin with a scale factor of 4. Triangle A’B’C’ is the resulting image.  What parts of A’B’C’ are congruent to the corresponding parts of the original triangle?  Explain your reasoning.

This problem represents the brave new world of education’s Common Core, national standards adopted at one point by 45 states and the District of Columbia. This new approach exposes students to higher and more ‘rigorous’ standards. The hope is that the curriculum will challenge and engage students.   Reading that prose, are you feeling ‘engaged’?  Now imagine how 8th graders might feel.

If the first three problems are the educational equivalent of practicing free throws, then solving problems like this one is akin to spending basketball practice taking trick shots like hook shots from midcourt—another way not to become good at the sport.  

If schools stick with undemanding curricula and boring questions, our kids will be stuck at the free throw line, practicing something they will rarely be called upon to do in real life.  If (under the flag of ‘greater rigor’) we ditch those boring questions in favor of ‘Triangles’ and other lifeless questions, schools will turn off the very kids they are trying to reach, the 99% who are not destined to become mathematicians.

My fifth example is a question was given to 15-year-olds around the world on a test known as PISA (for Programme in International Student Assessment):

Mount Fuji is a famous dormant volcano in Japan.  The Gotemba walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometres (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 pm.  Toshi estimates that he can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometres per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times.  Using Toshi’s estimated speeds, what is the latest time he can begin his walk so that he can return by 8 pm?

Note that ‘Fuji’ is not a multiple-choice question.  To get the correct answer, students had to perform a number of calculations.  The correct answer was provided by 55% of the Shanghai 15-year-olds but just 9% of the US students.

Ironically, the PISA results revealed that American kids score high in ‘confidence in mathematical ability,’ despite underperforming their peers in most other countries.  Is their misplaced confidence the result of too many problems like ‘Snakes’?

(PS: A prize to the first reader who posts the correct answer!)