In my work for PBS NewsHour over the past three years, I am most often asked two very specific questions: “Is Jim Lehrer ever going to retire?” And “What is your personal opinion of Michelle Rhee? Do you like her and what she’s doing in Washington?”
To the first question my answer is always the same. ‘I hope not.” Of course I never answer the second question when I am asked, because it’s our job to report what we see happening, not express opinions or pass judgment. I do, however, have some thoughts on the subject, which you will find in Chapter 9 of Below C Level, pages 81-105. Yes, it takes 24 pages.
I spent five and one-half years writing Below C Level. The first drafts of many of the chapters were written on an airplane—I haven’t watched an in-flight movie for years—because my work takes me to distant places, and I have been living on the West Coast for the past eight years.
But, looking back with the first copy of Below C Level on the desk next to me now, I realize that the first five years were a walk in the park, relatively speaking. The last six months were without question the hardest part of the journey. During that time I rewrote every one of the 37 chapters. Once rewritten, it then had to find a place in the structure of the book, or go into the circular file.
Working closely with a brilliant young editorial assistant, Kristen Garabedian, we pretty much scrutinized every sentence. She religiously checked every fact and assertion. More than once she caught me repeating as fact some oft-repeated observation. That only 20% of households have school-age children is a shibboleth I have stated with confidence many times—but that turns out to be difficult to nail down—and therefore suspect.
I wrote Below C Level because I am genuinely worried about our country’s future. We are not producing enough skilled adults capable of changing gears to work in a changing society. Recent reports about the difficulty that moderately high-tech fields are having finding workers confirms my fears. But our schools are also not supporting our democracy; they are passive to a fault, and one consequence is an increasingly fragmented society in which adults, faced with complexity, retreat to a comfort zone (such as Fox News or MSNBC).
I suppose I am trying to have it both ways: do the work for PBS NewsHour, think about what I’ve seen, and then write about it.
As I sit here, I am aware of my good fortune—to work as a reporter for perhaps the most respected news organization in the world and then to have the opportunity to reflect on what I have seen and experienced over the past 35 years.
Many years ago in a conversation with Howard Gardner, the brilliant scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I gave voice to my admiration and envy for the success of his books, which sell thousands of copies. He looked at me incredulously. “Are you kidding?” he asked. “Every piece you do for PBS NewsHour reaches more than 2 million people. I envy you.” On one level, he’s right, because what we do is seen by millions of educated and involved citizens. But those pieces also disappear into the ether, whereas a book has substance. You can hold it in your hand (and maybe even read it). You can refer to it again and again. It’s there!
Below C Level has substance (or so I’ve been told). I’ve included lots of stories from my time reporting in the field, but the book also covers what I believe are serious issues in education–issues that demand attention. I offer suggestions of my own, of course. Feel free to reject them, but I hope you will weigh in with your own solutions. We’ve had too many years of predicting rain. It’s time to build arks!
Get more info about the book at www.belowclevel.org.