An ‘act of war?’

As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

The news that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is willing to give waivers to states struggling to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been greeted with a sigh of relief in lots of places. He calls the law ‘a slow motion train wreck’ while bemoaning the failure of Congress to write a new version of the law, which actually expired in 2007.

Whether the ‘relief’ will be anything more than a Band-Aid remains to be seen, because the Secretary and Domestic Policy Advisor Melody Barnes made it clear that, to get waivers, states will have to meet certain federal expectations regarding charter schools, the evaluation of teachers, and the acceptance of common core standards. The Feds are not backing away from intense federal involvement in public education and may in fact be ratcheting up.

Even so, I don’t see the Secretary or anyone in the Administration examining what strikes me as the root of the problem: NCLB’s demands for more and more testing in reading and math.

Here’s what I have come to believe: we test too much in reading and math, and that narrow focus means schools are not teaching other basic subjects like history. A 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy (PDF), a middle-of-the-road organization, found that “approximately 62% of school districts increased the amount of time spent in elementary schools on English language arts and or math, while 44% of districts cut time on science, social studies, art and music, physical education, lunch or recess.”

What’s more, I believe that an unintended consequence of focusing on reading test scores is that many kids end up detesting reading.

What should we be focusing on to make sure that no child is truly left behind?

Start with reading: When 83 percent of ALL of our low-income third graders, whatever their color or ethnic origin, cannot read competently or confidently, our country has a reading crisis. And because we know that 75 percent of those who are behind grade level at the end of third grade are unlikely to ever catch up, it’s a crisis that demands action now.

But what exactly is the crisis? Do we teach reading incorrectly? Badly? Are educators still fighting the reading wars over whole language versus phonics? While the correct answer to all three questions is probably a qualified yes, it is our emphasis on passing reading tests that is the most significant piece of the problem.

I don’t question the test scores: they are what they are, but what they reveal is how well the kids did on the reading test, and not much else. I say that because I have confidence in my own observations over recent years, and I have seen and heard low-income FIRST graders reading competently and confidently — in schools where the fourth graders score poorly on reading tests.

They can and do read in first grade, but by fourth grade they cannot pass a reading test. And my conversations with a few of them suggest that they basically don’t like to read:

I know that the plural of anecdote is not data, but here’s my hypothesis: Popular curricula — no doubt created in response to NCLB — emphasize (and drill in) the skills of reading in ways that actively teach children to dislike or even detest reading itself, because the goal is high scores on reading tests, not ‘a nation of readers’. The net result is children who can read but basically hate it. They don’t do well on reading tests because they instinctively rebel against being treated as little more than numbers; they aren’t allowed to read for pleasure but instead are drilled in ‘identifying the main idea’ and so on.

As E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has observed on many occasions, if we want children to pass reading tests, they should read, and read, and read.

Perhaps you are rolling your eyes: “Here Merrow goes again, blaming tests,” you may be thinking, but that’s not the point. Tests don’t kill curiosity; it’s the constant testing and the primacy of tests that turns kids off.

NCLB is the villain of the story. Since NCLB became law in 2002, the amount of standardized bubble testing has doubled, according to Marshall ‘Mike’ Smith, former US Undersecretary of Education — and other observers.

Schools do not teach what isn’t going to be tested, and they do a bad job of teaching a subject when all that matters is the test score. Treat a human being as little more than a number, and the results are predictable.

Because state-wide testing is essentially limited to math and reading (with a smattering of science now), those subjects are highlighted, while other important subjects — like history — are sidelined. What is the effect of this policy? We can answer that because we have a reliable national test in other subjects, including history. Witness the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP): Just 17 percent of 8th graders scored at a proficient or higher level (which was an increase over 2006!!). In the 4th and 12th grades, history repeated itself, with no statistically significant changes since the last analysis: Only 12 percent of seniors and 20 percent of 4th graders reached proficiency. How bad is our students’ understanding of history? Over half of all 12th graders scored below the ‘basic’ level.

The apparent outcome of this national policy: citizens who do not know much about history and are unlikely to pick up a book (where they might learn some history).

To echo “A Nation at Risk” (1983), if a foreign power had done this to us, we’d consider it an act of war.

But we are doing it to ourselves.

I am curious to know your thoughts.

51 thoughts on “An ‘act of war?’

  1. You have hit the nail squarely on its ugly head. Testing mania–that is, teaching to the test and test prepping–is the death of loving to read. It turns reading into a utilitarian function where the sole purpose of reading is to pass the test, not to gain knowledge, be challenged, make connections, or the myriad of other real purposes for reading.

    It’s a soulless approach and it’s destroying us.


    • And let us not forget what kind of “tests” we are talking about. Almost exclusivly multiple choice bubble tests the worst form of academic junk food ever devised!!! Close in reading has almost disappeared from schools. Memorization of famous poems and memorable prose has almost disappreared from schools. Writing in classes other than English has almost disappeared. Outside of AP US history students most high school hisory students NEVER write and essay, NEVER read a book (outside of their text) and NEVER do any term papers. And yes in the elementary schools all the focus is on English and Math benchmarks. The losers are art, science, history and foreign languages.

      I have never opposed “testing”. In fact, I am quite sure I give many more tests which include short essays and full definitions than the average teacher. But when I have my druthers I NEVER give a multiple choice bubble test. They do not encourage close reading and looking up terms and vocabulary. What they encourage most is faking, cheating and copying. All this is getting worse when administrations encourage “common assessments” which means giving the same quiz and the same test in every class regardless of level. So far it is not required that these tests count for the entire grade but the pressure is there. Why does teacher X give so many A’s B’s and C’s when so few of his or her students are deemed “proficient” on the college prep bubble test benchmark? Giving college prep benchmarks to immigrant Englsh learners and insisting that they are the only measurement for progress hamstrings the classroom teachre and is idiotic, cruel and ineffective. Why have a learner’s class if the learning is NOT differentiated? Once again I have no problem with students taking tests even taking state tests. But what we have hear is scientism and an obessions with faulty narrow, superficial tests. And each year the amount of time spent on test prepping is more and more.. Already i feel less effective as a teacher than I was five years ago. I am forced to rush through units so that I can stay on schedule. I still give my own quizzes and tests but it is not mandatory. I believe I am one of the few remaining teachers who does. Most meet the minimum requirement and never correct a single paper or test the entire year (all the benchmarks are graded via Scantron Edusoft tests)

      I agree with you that NCLB is the villain of the story because it forces schools to focus on “improving” on bubble tests or else. Schools achieve improvment several ways. Some are completely dishonest; some are honest but not honorable. There is no question there is a great incentive to cook the books by transferring students, holding them back, sending them to special programs or the Adult school etc. We have a core of good students. The easist way to raise average scores is to hid or get rid of the non-producers.


  2. I absolutely agree. Our own lack of engagement and lack of critical thinking around public education is one of the greatest threats to our democracy. It is much more insidious than a foreign power’s attack, because it’s slow and embedded within the fabric of our culture and communities.

    I used to joke with my education reform colleagues that if we treated the skills of walking and talking like the skills of reading and writing, we would have many more non-ambulatory, mute people among our population.

    Once I became a parent, I found myself seriously wondering – why don’t we treat reading and writing more like walking and talking? What if we were to focus all our testing resources instead on surrounding our young children with language-rich environments? Kids today see adults walking and talking all the time, so they naturally pick it up and at their own pace – what if they were surrounded by adults reading and writing in meaningful ways? Wouldn’t they all desire to read and write and in their own time? Could we emerge with a population that achieves reading and writing skill levels much closer to our walking and talking skill levels?

    We need courageous leadership who are willing to break away from the lock-in-step testing culture and focus on investing in language-rich environments with strong role modeling. Perhaps then, we may find ourselves defining measures that matter.


  3. Good essay. Why do you think it took you nearly 10 years to see this?

    Do we tend to give too much credence to powers that be? Would it have seemed partisan to point out the logical flaws in the law in 2003?


    • I ask that you go on our website and look at our coverage of NCLB and perhaps rethink your comment. We pointed out its negative impact on curriculum choices, its impact on teachers and teaching, and its giant loopholes that invited states to game the system. Look in particular at the track meet analogy.


  4. Your comments “Even so, I don’t see the Secretary or anyone in the Administration examining what strikes me as the root of the problem: NCLB’s demands for more and more testing in reading and math” are key issues.

    The Obama Administration in general and Arne Duncan and all of the Assistant Secretaries and DOE employees don’t seem to understand that more testing in ALL or most subjects is just NCLB on steroids. The billions being spent on “new and improved” tests could have eradicated a good portion of the access to resources that those in living poverty desperately need.

    HOwever, your question “what if they were surrounded by adults reading and writing in meaningful ways?” misses the point. We all read in meaningful ways when we are able to comprehend what we read. There isn’t one way to learn or teach someone to read so it isn’t just seeing others read in meaningful ways. Reading all texts about something we’re interested in and in a form that we like to use. For those of us older than 25 this is probably books, magazines, comic books, etc. For those between 35 and 45 it is a combination of the internet and books, comic books, etc. For those 25 and younger they read primarily via the internet plus they discuss what they read in the blogs they write, the other communication systems they use, and the computers they know how to program.

    I applaud you for statements about what we need for our government leaders: courageous leadership who know the difference between power wars and doing what is right for the country. Both the Democrats and Republicans in office will probably not be elected/re-elected in 2012 because of their treatment of children through this horrific education policies and through blatant disregard for our democracy (i.e. the power wars that the Tea Party causes). We must be very elective and purposeful in our decisions about candidates because to do the opposite will doom our democracy. Maybe not this decade but in the very near future.



  5. My 7th grade son hates to read. He is a very good student, and even won the Reading Award in 5th grade. We joke about it as a family, because he hates to read so much, but he tells us that that award was for his responses to reading, not really reading. He says he’s good at knowing what the teachers want him to write about when they read a book in class. So yes, he’s great at picking out the main theme or finding the conflict or describing the story arc–all highly and frequently tested skills–but he has never, ever picked up a book to read for pleasure. The rest of us love to read, and read all the time, so I hope for him that he picks up the habit when he grows up…and gets out of school.


    • A friend told me that her son’s teacher (3rd or 4th grade, can’t remember) said to him a few days before the test that she ‘needed’ him to get a 4 (top score) because her job was on the line. The poor kid was traumatized and couldn’t sleep for days, the Mom told me. How sick is that!


      • Holy cow. As far as I am concerned, the educational policies in place is “child abuse.”


  6. Today we spend much more time on testing. Anecdotal surveys of local schools indicate standardized testing of one sort or another disrupts up to 100 days of the 180-day school year. Cutting instructional time to test more (simultaneously cutting instruction to buy more tests) is NOT teaching. We could cut expenses and add instructional time without lengthening the school year by limiting standardized tests to no more than 1 week of school.
    Then all the time to enter and map data, analyze and report results could be spent on lesson plans, interaction with students and their parents, tutoring and remediation for those needing extra help and professoinal development to sharpen teachers’ instructional skills in reading. Testing is a collosal rip off of taxpayers, students, and school staff. NCLB and test makers should get out of way and let us do our jobs.



  7. It may be war. But we are not doing it to ourselves. At least that is not the way it played out here in New York.
    Today our newspapers carried reading and math results for third through eighth graders for 2011. There was a 25% drop in both from 2009. (That is not a typo). In the interim state officials determined tests were deliberately designed and marked in order to inflate grades.
    What we should be reading about in our newspapers here in New York is what the people in Atlanta have read about in their newspapers : Who perpetrated this fraud and what steps are being taken to bring the perpetrators to justice ?


    • The dismal drop in NY State Test Scores in ELA and Math should not be taken as a sign that suddenly grades were no longer inflated. What happened in NY State was that early Primary Grade teachers, like myself, who could look at past 3rd grade and up tests and design “parallel tasks” as early as first grade, were actually doing a great job of exposing kids to the kinds of reading and writing that was on the State Test. This year, the test was “secret” and teachers who gave the test were basically threatened to NOT TALK TO ANYONE about the questions, content or format. Was this an attempt by the state to not have an “eraser-gate” or some other ‘fraud’? I’m not convinced that it was. I AM convinced, though, that there is a bigger agenda in NY – closing more public schools and bringing in the Corporate Reformers and their “solution” of charter schools.

      I would argue that, in fact, what NY State has been doing is literally ‘lowering the bar’ in order to meet AYP as demanded by NCLB. Suddenly, this year, the State has decided to give its students more “gotcha'” type tests, which of course, as you state reflects a 25% drop over 2 years. That drop is based on two completely different types of tests and is the same as comparing apples and oranges. NY State has done a good job of further demonizing teachers and increasing the number of “failing” schools, so that they can grab them up, take the Billionaires Boys’ Club money and claim they are fixing education.

      None of this addresses the real problem of inequitable funding, childhood poverty, lack of quality preschool programs for ALL children, and addressing the English Language Learners.


  8. I realized when I read your blog that the word anecdotal has almost disappeared from education vocabulary. Data has replaced anecdote – or life as we know it and appreciate it. A good “story” is lost in the morass of testing, evidence and accountability.

    I leave it to teachers to make their place in history by resurrecting the power and truth of anecdotal evidence. Nothing explains better than an anecdote. There should be such a thing as “anecdotal research” that would certainly be as valid as some of the hogwash that research gurus are putting out now. The more we bury our students in the bubble testing culture, the fewer stories they will tell or comprehend. We should be asking “what happened?” not “give me results in the form of data.”

    Ultimately it will be up to teachers to simply turn their backs and lend a deaf ear to the policymakers who have never experienced the joys and pain of teaching our young human beings and therefore wouldn’t know an anecdote if they ran over one in their race to nowhere.


      • You seem to have one side of the story John. In a philosophy class I had to watch your movie Declining by Degrees which I think is politically motivated. To me you forget that the start of the education system which you credit to the GI bill was a social contract, you never once point out the service the men did to the country. Today I am on a GI bill because of 2 wars I served in.


  9. Yes, NCLB is the villain and students and teachers in urban schools are awaiting that moment when good sense prevails… we’ve lost an entire generation to testing and scripted programs.

    We’ve been waiting 10 years now and so far, all we got was some stinking waivers.


  10. I would feel happier if anyone offered a constructive alternative to this wave of anti testing.rhetoric. As far as I can see this is just another teacher union inspired roadblock to changing the status quo.

    Maybe testing when carried to an extreme and directed by excuse makers is full of problems.But I see nothing constructive to take its place or to improve the process.


    • Don (of the same surname), I mean not to confront your pobviously partisan perspective outright, and in fact agree that we can learn quite a bit from the data discovered through test scores. However, in education, as in any business, if we do not acknowledge what the data is communicating, then we are only gathering and not improving. What has been illustrated in the data – endlessly – is that we have a tale of two cities; a historical fiction that most contemporary students hate to read because they fail to see the relevance to their own lives. In the first city, we have families that can afford to make connections between the lives they’re living and the lives of characters (both fictional and non-fictional). These families perceive upward mobility – dare I say, “the American Dream” – as a natural consequence to their educational efforts. In the other city (approximately 62% of our society), we have families who are desperately concerned with managing another year, keeping or attaining a job, feeding their families, receiving healthcare, or generally getting enough sleep to dream that American dream. These families are not interested, perhaps are unable, to make connections to the struggles of the characters in books…they are trying to maintain the connections they have with the characters in their own lives.

      To dissuade you from discarding me as a “bleeding heart”, know this…my favorite book is Atlas Shrugged, I know that the Tea Party is a reference to a revolutionary group, and not a consitiutionally aligned philosophy, I make well over $100,000 a year, and live in an affluent suburban community…Nonetheless, I recognize dogmatic pandering when I see it, and it is all that I see when I turn on cable news channels (regardless of whether they are Murdock or Turner). I also know when data is being used for improvement or for influence. If all the data tells us that poverty effects performance, why are we pushing so hard to eliminate the one institution that requires an equal opportunity in its charter? Why are we attacking a public entity – education, with a threat of privatization? Why do we insist on spending a fortune gathering data, without spending a dime in interpreting it? Perhaps Dickens can help us to understand this paradox a bit more…but remember, what follows these lines in his novel is war.

      “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”


  11. If the medicine is killing the patient the first thing you do is stop giving it.

    John is right — the approach to testing reading is (along with other factors such as non-reading adults) killing kid’s interest in reading.

    A reasonably well educated teacher knows whether a child is making progress with reading without beating the child with ill conceived and too frequently repeated tests. A teacher can use this knowledge to explain to parents how well the child is progressing and to determine what instructional strategies to use. A sampling such as NAEP provides can give policy makers the data they need (if they really want evidence).


  12. It’s great to start with newspapers because they remind me of one of my favorite stories. Many, many years ago I had some lovely correspondence with Jerry Agel, who, with McLuhan, created The Medium is the Massage, which foreshadowed the net and all we live today. At the time I was consulting with the NY Times, creating more reasons for newspapers-in-the-classroom, the now lost art of integrating today with other days. Jerry had a kid in New York schools (now probably a grandfather!) who regularly brought the paper home to dad after using it in school. One day, no paper! “Where’s my Times,” quoth dad. “Teacher says, current events take too much time,” said the kid.

    I like the story now in many ways more than when I first heard it. It says much about media literacy, as we think of it today. It also says much of schools-parent relationships, curriculum, and lots of other pedagogical nostrums. But it also says what’s wrong with Duncan’s premise and our anger at its imposition of autocratic controls like tests on the idiosyncrasies of learning. There could never be a test, test question, nor formal assessment situation which could provoke that parent-child dialog or capture its nuance. Few people in the world know – or knew – as much as Agel and McLuhan about media and communication, yet a teacher’s frustration at “covering” more than the master/parent could bear broke both that parent trust, that student’s expectations, and that teacher’s precious curricular balance between events both current and other.

    Battling testing is tilting at windmills – in many of the same ways. Tests come and go, and will probably change – to adaptive, online or cell phone repartee in some not distant future. Yet tests are really the wrong way to create information about what kids know, since they really measure what they don’t know. And pretending that there is a finite of “stuff” – that knowledge has boundaries set by “common core standards,” or some future shibboleth – is as quixotic as those windmills. So let us not dwell too long on that bottom level dialog: test what you want but measure knowledge in and with richer media and metrics. We won’t win an argument against tests until we can present a better … mouse trap!

    Ironically, the medium with which I write this is precisely such a trap. The average kid – using the technology of google sites or wiki or any of several others – can show teachers what they think is most important that they learn, and can frame that demonstration using the same metrics Kellogg funded through this very site – the eight “soft skills” of Dr. Arnold Packer’s Verified Resume. A few dozen have done it in Somerville – hardly the idyllic suburban high achieving school system, but one with 50 languages, 60% low income, and 70% going to college. Measuring the values kids learn in school goes way beyond those common core standards, but (a) is a lot closer to Jerry Agel’s intelligent and mutually affectionate and ironic dialog with his kid and (b) is remarkably transparent when those kids do portfolios that show their community service, their responsibility, teamwork, and curiosity, their ability to negotiate across cultures and ages and their passion for applying new ideas in new places. Those are the measures of student achievement that count, and, while tests are helpful in diagnosing some learning gaps or teaching patterns, portfolios – particularly when structured by some well accepted national standards – give life to those tests and get kids jobs, college, and careers.

    And measuring a school ought to be measuring its output, not just its “marginal gains.” The way Somerville is talking about “measuring” the whole school system is how much money how many kids get from the colleges they choose. The rich get better, but the poor get more. With 300 or so graduates a year, facing college bills from $100,000 to $250,000, that can be a bunch of change a school can return to its parents and community. And that kind of measure sure as hell trumps how many accurately answer how long the 7 Years War lasted!

    In other words, stop fighting Duncan: offer some real and realistic alternatives that cost less and produce more. Electronic portfolios using open source software costs nothing at all. We who consult in this business could pad a bill and produce proposals and fluff to make them cost a bundle, but I’ve seen poor kids, with very little outside help, help each other produce astounding demonstrations of online documents. When one of my shyest students, wandering through a bookstore, observes that he’d like – really, really like – to read Machiavelli, it occurred to me that no high school teacher would ever think to assign The Prince to this kid who, after all, is a pauper! And that, if he does read Machiavelli, he could manipulate English and History teachers for the rest of his life by scaring them to death that he’d learned how to beat a very bad system indeed. Learn from the kid: don’t fight the system, beat it!


    • Some good thoughts here, and I very much appreciate the reference to Arnold Packer and the all important ‘soft skills.’ It was our Listen Up project that developed the Verified Resume, an innovation whose time has not yet arrived but will. We must have credible alternatives to the current approach, and we DO!


  13. Well there is one difference between NCLB and Race to the Top, on one hand, and “Nation at Risk” (which I helped write) on the other.

    When “A Nation at Risk” described what was happening, it said (in the second paragraph) “we have allowed this to happen to ourselves” — the “we” being a collective “we” of parents, citizens, educators, and public officials.

    When one looks at who produced NCLB and Race to the Top, the “we” is made up almost exclusively of public officials and foundation leaders. Parents, citizens, and educators have been essentially excluded from the discussion. And educators have been silenced completely, told they make too much money, blamed when they spoke up, ridiculed when they objected, and asked to believe they knew less about learning than foundation officials paying themselves in the high six figures who have never spent a day in a classroom.


  14. testing too much? yes. To the exclusion of other subjects? yes. And the root of the problem is making so much of the test, teaching to the test, holding the test up as more than it is. The problem is deeper than too much focus on testing reading and mathematics, it is acting as if all this has much to do with education at all. If we focus on a child, then each child, then every child, then the test shrink to insignificance. Our job isn’t to make testing go away, because that is hopeless. Our job is to resist the tendency for the test to deter us from our mission to develop the whole of each human organism in our care.


  15. James Harvey describes the circumstances accurately- major stakeholders have been marginalized. The solution is to bring those back into the fold- to embrace the mess of the democratic process rather than try to avoid it: Madison wrote of balancing interest against interest. That quintessential New Yorker, Al Smith, is credited with saying the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.


  16. The destruction of the joy of reading in schools can not be highlighted enough – that is why Kelly Gallager’s book “Readicide” sold pretty well for a book on pedagogy. Another wonderful book on reading “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction” by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs simply states that we read, and should encourage others to read, because “Reading is one of the great human delights.” It is one of the wonders of reading, that while one is delighted, they are also learning and developing habits of mind while they are doing something completely enjoyable!

    Six years ago I became a third grade teacher out of a desire to share my great love of reading and math with young students, as it is made clearer and clearer that such a goal will most likely conflict with the goals of my state education administration I certainly am left wondering if I made the right decision.


  17. I have written about this experience several times, but I think it bears retelling because it’s such a good example (I think) of how frenzied testing has hurt the education of the very children it seeks to help:

    After my sons grew up and graduated from college, I found that I had lots of time and money to devote to my first-grade students so, like many other teachers, I began to devote most of my life to my job. Basically I tried to provide these low-income Hispanic students with many of the advantages I provided for my own children. For the major part of my career, my efforts were greatly appreciated by parents, students, administration and other teachers. All this changed with NCLB when principals started becoming preoccupied with test scores. Suddenly all that mattered were tests and test preparation.

    My last year of teaching, I decided to celebrate by taking my whole class to the Performing Arts Center. I had always wanted to do this, but I knew it would cost a lot of time and money. Still, it was now or never, so I applied for a partial scholarship for my class, attended mandatory seminars after school and paid for the tickets for every child in my class. I even purchased a PTA membership for every child because the PTA wouldn’t provide buses unless each child had a membership. Not a single parent in my class had signed up.

    As the day of the concert approached I purchased a DVD of the Nutcracker Ballet so my students would be familiar with the theme of the concert. On the Friday afternoon before our visit, I was showing the children the video when the assistant principal walked in with a clipboard.

    After school I found her “evaluation” of my “lesson.” She had given me the lowest possible score because I was showing a video. There were no questions about why and certainly no thank you for what I was doing on behalf of my students. Did she even know about the coming concert? I don’t think so but she did know that I was not drilling the children on the upcoming test.

    In my box was a note that said, “See me after school.” But I was months away from retirement so I just threw the note out and ignored it. When she came into my room to talk about my lesson, I was not kind.

    This is what No Child Left Behind has brought to classrooms across America. As always the affluent children are not greatly affected because they are getting their education at home and at suburban schools that have high test scores even when the teacher is out sick for the entire year.

    I have no doubt that this craziness will stop soon but in the meantime so many children and teachers are being hurt. People like John Merrow can do much to bring an end to what will be seen as “the stupid period in American education.”


    • Linda – Your story made me wince. It is so typical of how misguided and misinformed “evaluation” of teachers dampens any desire to take the extra effort (and yours was quite an effort) to do the more creative lesson, or use a constructivist approach, or problem based learning, or a life enriching field trip.

      So many of us are left wondering – “Why bother? I will get a better evaluation from simply reading from a canned, corporate developed, teacher-proof lesson book.” But of course for many of us, the canned lesson is simply not an option, but will those of us who cannot stomach canned lessons be able to remain in the profession?

      But, besides the wincing, I have to say that what you did is truly inspiring, and while I am sure colleagues and parents praised you for giving these children such a wonderful experience, I just want to add that one other teacher, and mother, in MA thinks you’re amazing, and I wish you a wonderful retirement.


  18. Thank you, Liz ! By the way, I believe Kelly Gallagher was in my UCLA Literature Project class about twenty years ago.

    The good news, Liz, is that I had a wonderful time being a teacher. Each morning I woke up with a bit of joyful anticipation and felt greatly rewarded on a daily basis. I LOVED bringing my little students to literacy. Fortunately for me, most of my career was spent before NCLB so I was free to do the very best I could for my first-graders. Did they do as well as my own sons, who were educated at Harvard and Stanford? Most did not, but many did as well as I did, the granddaughter of Italian immigrants. Like me, many were among the first in their families to get a college education. For them and for so many of us, public school enabled them to experience the American Dream. And now those schools are under attack.

    Liz, I wish for someone like you to continue teaching, but I know I could not have done it after the humiliations I suffered those last couple of years before I retired. So my advice to you is: Find a school where you will be free to teach the way you want to and get your applications out. Such a school might be the university lab school, a private school, or a school in the suburbs. It will probably NOT be an urban school at this time. If you know of teachers with strong organizational skills, you might consider teaming with them and starting a teacher-run charter school. Only when teachers are fully in charge of schools the way doctors are in a clinic or lawyers are in a law firm, will they enjoy full professional status. At that time they will make the decisions about how best to educate the students in their care. One thing is for certain: Now that women can choose from among many occupations we are no longer going to see talented people choosing a profession that promises so little autonomy. Intelligent people want to be decision-makers.

    I have faith in the American people and our judicial system so I think it’s just a matter of time before all this testing nonsense is put to rest. Thankfully the press is finally catching on. In the meantime, enjoy your students and do whatever you can to keep your enthusiasm for your work. It is the sine qua non of teaching. Best wishes for your continued success and thank you again for your kind words.


    • Reactions like these give me hope. I disagree, however, that “people like John Merrow can do much to bring an end to what will be seen as “the stupid period in American education.”” It’s people like you, teachers and parents, who must sound the wakeup call. I’m a reporter, although I obviously take off that hat when I write this blog. But I can’t be a crusader, and you all can. And I hope you will. This is “the stupid period” in our educational history, not the first and probably not the last, but it’s doing untold harm to our children, our nation and our economy. I shudder to think of the attitudes toward school that today’s students will have when they are parents and have school-age children.

      We don’t have a lot of time to get this right..


      • Thankyou so much for your enjoyment. I have been teaching for seven years now. I feel so much pressure that I almost have panic attacks, but I am too stubborn to walk away from a career I feel called too. I love my students and I fear for them. Please don’t give up on us and continue to speak for us.


      • thank you so much 4 your encouragement .I have been teaching now for 7 years .I love my career .I love my students .I love my school .however I’m having panic attacks . please continue to speak for us .we feel as if no 1 cares and no 1 understands …


    • One of the benefits of age is a little cushion – not just on your behind. And that cushion allows me, at least, the pleasure of substitute teaching. In fact, that is the lowest level, since most standard teachers view “subs” as caregivers who keep kids in their seats until the “real” teacher comes back.

      Some of us do more. Years ago, Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity wedded the rebellion of the ’60’s to innovative practice, and, now more than ever, that wedding is critical. As a sub, I merely have to keep order – and the kids do that on their own 95% of the time anyway. So I can inspire. And we can explore the ideas they’ve discovered in the previous few weeks through discussion, review of online stuff, and applications. Their classroom can recover its lost life as a real learning laboratory, and they can find out what others think of their ideas in a safe and collegial setting.

      And, as a result of that process, not only students but also their teachers catch me in the hall and ask for “how we doin?”

      This is NOT a suburban, affluent, and insulated community. It’s 60% low income, 65% foreign speaking (overhearing kids gossip in Nepalese I asked what language, and they chortled that they spoke their fathers’ language so nobody else would know what they’re saying!), 60% to 80% college going, with an integrated vocational department that does everything from cooking to welding. My role is to foster dialog. What joy.

      I strongly recommend urban – not dangerous (because there really are some of those), but urban – schools as laboratories for late career exploration. The diversity of the kids is an untapped resource that most school systems, teachers, and “activists” ignore. They are their own best teachers, and the best teaching by the mainstream is practically Montessorian in its focus on observation, listening, and directing rather than didactic crap.


    • Linda – I am printing, laminating and posting your response to post above my classroom desk – I’ll read it on those hard days for inspiration and encouragement! Thank you – Liz


  19. Please don’t underestimate yourself, Mr. Merrow. Part of the reason we are in this mess is the fact that journalists were slow to catch on to what was happening. All this nonsense started with R__ P___, who professed false miracles in Texas and was richly rewarded for doing so. Because he more or less got away with it, other ambitious but unscrupulous “educators” bragged about their own miracles and reporters happily reported it: “Oh, did you hear that this teacher’s test scores went from the thirteenth percentile to the ninetieth! How wonderful!” And this pretty much continued until last year when a few brave reporters began to ask questions about the validity of test scores.

    You and other journalists who are now looking beneath the surface are doing invaluable work in shining a light on the miseducation of American children. Thank you and best wishes for continued success.


  20. Dear LInda: There are no royal roads to Geometry and of course R__P__ and the Texas miracles were suspect from the very beginning. They had huge increases in scores with the TAS by offering the tests in the Spanish language as well as English. Now, there is nothing wrong with testing children in Spanish to see how well they read in Spanish but it is very wrong to aggregate those scores with the scores of other children who took the test in English.

    It would be like giving the AP Spanish test in a Spanish version and then a translated version. It would defeat the entire purpose of the test. Tests should be a dipstick which measures something valid. They should should not be the chief goal in education. And as I have said many, many times, bubble tests are the most superficial of all tests. Yes, Linda, there are times when seeing a video of cultural importance and discussing it is more important than test prep. I am more impressed by an oral book report than 30 of 30 on a Scantron bubble test. Let’s be blunt. It is lot easier to fake a bubble test than an oral report. Both for the student, and the teacher and sometimes without the teacher’s knowledge a administrator. Academic progress should be determined by a number of measurements not merely a few multiple guess tests. As a language teacher I am deeply opposed to over using bubble tests. Bubble tests do not train students to read closely and to learn in depth. They encourage students to be superficial, to guess, not to look up definitions and to breeze through tests. When the tests have no value to the students -and most state tests do no have any effect on graduation or ever appear on their transcripts- students just do not care. I have seen students answer 80 questions in less than two minutes and then go to sleep. What a monumental waster of time and money. How can you expect kids to do their best when THEY THEMSELVES have NO ACCOUNTIBLITY???


  21. Thanks for saying this, John. I am sure your voice carries weight on this matter. Here’s the tragedy of the thing, though. Ten years have gone by since all this started. Back then many of us who were in primary classrooms raised concerns about what was happening as so much emphasis was placed on tests that time to build the love of reading and stories was bound to suffer. We were handed scripts we knew made no sense. We were told to have kids read nonsense words even when we knew that was really nonsense. Some of us continued to read aloud to children and to nurture their natural love of stories. We did it covertly and some of us even had to devise an alert system to ensure we would not be caught reading. All the while, we knew that tests would be designed to measure mastery of the mechanics of reading. That’s exactly what happened.

    Did anyone listen to those voices from the classroom then? No. Is anyone listening now? No. If you need evidence, just attend to all the questions being raised about why angry teachers would resort to demonstrating in Washington. Until control of professional decision making is returned to teachers and until they are trusted to do what makes sense for children, we will continue to witness the harmful effects of policies and decisions made far from the classroom. And the wondrous joy that comes from getting lost in a book will be enjoyed only by the children of privilege who aren’t being told that the number of words read per minute and the proper bubbles filled in is what reading is about.


  22. Am I correct? Congress through the Dept of Education is enforcing a law that has expired, has shown no real results according to NAEP scores for the last few years, and did not authorize adequate funding for implementation. Moreover, the President is advocating STEM curriculum and and science instruction has been cut. In NYC,for example, secondary schools are teaching one less laboratory period per week and cutting out a true experience of inquiry learning by advocating laboratory through a keyboard and virtual laboratories

    As a mother said in the NewHour report on th Atlanta cheating investigation: they don’t care about my child….and they do not…


  23. John,

    it is refreshing and inspiring to see your considerable weight thrown behind a problem central to U.S. education policy. We have in our corner another heavyweight to counter the reform mania that is dominating much of the debate, and we need all we can get. Please continue to be a vocal proponent of holistic education, and to talk about ALL of the in-school and out-of-school factors that need to be addressed, but are currently neglected.


  24. Nice to see you are beginning to nail the essential issue in this post. I taught elementary school grades 4-6 for almost 2 decades and even with an MA in reading instruction still found the major tactic in trying to break the reading logjam was trying to get kids to just read – anything. We had a new drill and kill principal in my 2nd decade who could have been the mother of NCLB. She had taught only 6 months but took away the teachers’ right to choose the materials for their class and pushed test prep. Scores went up, the curriculum got squeezed, while interest and real reading ability went down. That was in 1979 and by the mid-80’s I had had enough teaching self-contained classes in that environmemt and switched to teaching computer skills which of course the principal didn’t care about, though by the 90’s she was pressuring me to use test prep software instead of teaching word processing and other computer skills – hey, these skills were not being tested.


  25. When I was a kid we didn’t have no child left behind and I’m sure it would have made things worse. School made me loathe learning. I didn’t read a book for pleasure until I was in my 20s and I was considered a gifted student. Learning needs to be a lifelong process. School doesn’t need to be fun every minute but even at a time when schools were considered more successful at teaching they still weren’t doing what they needed to do and that’s teach kids to the best of their abilities rather than meeting some mediocre standard.


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