Writing ‘Below C Level’

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?”

Below C LevelTo 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.


4 thoughts on “Writing ‘Below C Level’

  1. As expected by me, your comments about education are right on. We need the arcs! Hopefully, books such as yours will promote the necessary dialogue. As you note, what’s needed is dialogue leading to decisions regarding the change needed – that includes all meaningful suggestions in the considerations, NOT blind obedience to any particular voice. The depressing (sometimes at least) thing to me is the lack of dialogue in the presence of such obvious alarms. I look forward to reading the book.


  2. Thanks, John, for this comment and for your continuing involvement in what I think is the most important issue of our time.


  3. Although you are justly critical of many aspects of public schools today, it seems to me that you are a committed believer in public schooling as an institution – from advocating the value of public pre-school to being concerned over voucher systems. I think public schools play an important role in educating the majority of American children and I applaud your efforts to improve them. However, I don’t think public schools can be expected (nor should be expected) to serve all children. Adults pursue jobs with incredibly varying requirements from ranchers to car mechanics to salesmen to librarians. They choose to interact with lots of people all day long (e.g. public relations) or choose to work more on their own (e.g. truck drivers). Yet we expect all children to be served by the inflexible setting of our public schools (which do not vary much in form). Believing that kids are best served by being in an institutional setting from age 3 and for as long a day as possible for as long a school year as possible is frightening. That doesn’t respect kids as individuals who are as varied as the adults in our communities. The ultimate goal of “public education” should be focused on kids learning in whatever setting best suits them rather than focusing solely on the institution of public schools. I am in favor of vouchers. I am in favor of homeschooling. I am in favor of a dynamic, robust view that education occurs in many ways, at many times, and in engagement with the whole community. I taught high school for 2 years and still think a lot about how I could have done it better. I homeschooled my kids for 4 years and we had wonderful, passionate discussions and wove lessons throughout our every waking moment. They were able to engage with many adults in the community, avoiding the narrowness that can come from having to interact with only age peers for 7 hours a day.


  4. On page 296 you write of the tension between the social value of the public schooling enterprise and the private nature of education. Perhaps this tension is exacerbated by the push for schooling to encompass much more than the three R’s. As some push for schools to become social service agencies and push for schools to act as surrogate child care and push for a longer day and a longer school year, others will push back for retaining the centrality of family.


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