Schools Matter

Maybe it takes a crisis to remind us of what should be obvious — and certainly that was my own take-away from the PBS NewsHour report about the elementary school in Belmar, New Jersey, that my colleagues John Tulenko and David Wald produced. In that short and powerful segment, you saw (and felt) just how important schools are to their communities. You can watch the segment here:

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 was deeply moving. And if you were not touched when assistant principal Lisa 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” — I think you need a heart transplant.

The kids got books too because, as assistant principal Hannah told John and David, she’s always looking for ways to “sneak in a little bit of education.”

Here's a shot from inside the Belmar school cafeteria. You can watch the entire PBS piece on this page.

We live in a time of widespread criticism of teachers and administrators. Of course, all educators fall short some of the time — but so do doctors, nurses, lawyers, cops, and storekeepers (and even journalists!). Some teachers fail more often than that, and a few simply can’t cut it and don’t belong in classrooms, but the vast majority of the teachers I have observed in 38 years as a reporter are hardworking and dedicated. They want to succeed.

Teachers play multiple roles, and, as we saw in John and David’s piece, sometimes they volunteer for additional duty that goes beyond the call. We know that the typical teacher spends a lot of her (or his) own money on school stuff. And as John once reported from Green Bay, Wisconsin, schools and teachers also step up to care for homeless kids:

The trend now is use scores on standardized tests as the measure of a teacher’s value, and it’s popular to say that teachers are the key to student learning. “Outstanding teachers give kids the skills and knowledge they need to escape poverty,” and so on. To my ears, some of the people who say this are blowing their own brand of smoke, trying to put one over on us. As I see it, they are setting up most teachers (and public schools) to fail, because, while that recipe works for a few kids, poverty is a separate problem that those ‘supporters’ are happy to ignore. We have a growing income gap that ought to embarrass all Americans, and the people who put it on teachers to solve poverty ought to be ashamed of themselves. They are, at the end of the day, no friends of the teaching profession.

And you know who you are….

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11 thoughts on “Schools Matter

  1. All too painfully obvious. You may remember I was on the President’s Council at TC for ten years and finally resigned when I felt that the big problems of education are not how to teach a student something but how to teach many randomly selected students many things. The end arguments are almost all political focused around the budget and whose philosophy of education is being featured. The labor/management issue is a terrible distraction and seemingly won’t go away. I am not at all optomistic although the Feds under Duncan aren’t going to do any worse than previoius attempts at that level. Home environment is huge and the teacher’s own education is huge. What more?


  2. Especially when left unexplored, poverty will always be the elephant in the room. AND unexplored, it reverts to an easy excuse (probably too harsh maybe). Every local community has motivated and engaged teachers, parents and family members, students, and citizens – EVERY one! The secret is the bringing together of these individuals into what I’ve been calling local Education Communities. Working together, they can identify, understand, develop better alternatives for, implement them to address, and assess / refine subsequent efforts for the LOCAL ISSUES OF IMPORTANCE TO THE COMMUNITY. Starting small, the effort will grow similar to the train starting down the track; with each small success (and there will be successes), more individuals will join and more resources will become available. Not that poverty will magically disappear but it will fade as individuals gain from their efforts and the boosts that will happen as a result. As noted, there are many examples of these individuals in every neighborhood; THEIR organizing and working together will have significant impact – as they should expect would be the case.


    • Please understand that this is NOT suggesting “that’s their problem; don’t expect ME to do anything.” I’m simply saying I believe involvement of the local community will amplify significantly the level of success and sustainability.


  3. A touching piece affirming that for every aspect of concern that we have with education across the nation that there are in fact areas of avid accomplishment. While some of these accomplishments include aspects of academic performance it is imperative [as Mr. Merrow points out] to consider as an additional realm of accomplishment something as basic as citizenship.

    The theme of academic accomplishment and citizenship seemed to emerge as dichotomous at the completion of Mr. Merrow’s post today. One of the final prepositions regarding the asserted dichotomy manifest as an argument against the use of academic achievement [or lack of] as an aspect of accountability. A point that I wish to investigate further.

    I am confident that much can be said [and has been said] regarding the narrow view of measuring teacher value merely on standardized tests results. In fact, until this year [for example] the Commonwealth of Virginia had not included an aspect of student achievement data in teacher evaluation [similar I would imagine to many States]. Hence, the very idea of a narrow view of measuring teacher value existed before the introduction of academic measures, as teacher effectiveness was based merely on an administrators perception of a teachers skill set to teach and student affect. Some may find this odd since the Mission of the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) states,

    “The mission of Virginia’s public education system is to educate students in the fundamental knowledge and academic subjects that they need to become capable, responsible, and self-reliant citizens. Therefore, the mission of the Virginia Board of Education and the superintendent of public instruction, in cooperation with local school boards, is to increase student learning and academic achievement” (VDOE, 2011).

    If the primary mission of the VDOE [similar to many States’] is to increase student learning and academic achievement one would think that measuring the effectiveness of teachers and schools to do so would have value.

    To measure an increase in student achievement implies the need for a tool from which to do the measuring. Standardized tests are a tool [not to be confused with an absolute ~ the tool] designed to enable a comparison of performance of students in an efficient way. As a tool standardized tests provide critical information regarding students’ academic standing relative to their academic experience (Koretz, 2008). For example, if upon completion of four years of academic experience focused on reading students should be able to read a specific level of text and answer specific types of questions regarding that text, then a standardized test containing that type of content could be created and used to measure to what extent students were capable of accomplishing that task. If part of the mission of a Sate’s Department of Education were to increase academic achievement it would be reasonable to use such an assessment approach to assist in measuring the effectiveness of the State’s mission. If a State wanted to measure the level of effectiveness of its schools to accomplish the mission of increasing student academic achievement then it would be reasonable to collect such assessment data from its schools. Furthermore, if a State wanted to measure the level of effectiveness of its employed teachers to accomplish the mission of increasing student achievement then it would be reasonable to collect such assessment data from its employed teacher.

    As a tool that assists in measuring the effectiveness of a Sate’s mission to increase student academic achievement the inclusion of academic achievement data as an aspect of a school’s and teacher’s evaluation [40% as specified by the VDOE] would be reasonable ~ and I dare suggest prudent.

    The inclusion of standardized tests as an evaluation tool has not resulted in a narrowing of view of measuring teacher value, rather it has broadened the view of measuring teacher value to include an aspect identified as valuable that is representative of every States’ educational mission. Teacher evaluations include aspects of citizenship and academic achievement. In what instance would an institution set objectives for accomplishment – from which to measure success – and then choose not to measure to what extent it was achieving them?


    VDOE (2011). About VDOE. Retrieved from

    Koretz (2008), Measuring up: What educational testing really tells us (Harvard University Press)


  4. John, I often feel that some people are talking right past each other. Some teachers are terrific. Others are mostly putting in time. To suggest that all teachers are not great sometimes produces the charge of “teacher-bashing.”

    Some schools have closed achievement gaps. This does not totally eliminate poverty or all societal problems, but it does expand opportunity for students at those schools. Some people deny that schools can close achievement gaps, while others (including me) point out that there are district and charter schools that do it.

    Some insist that teachers are ignored by policy-makers. Others point out that in some states, teachers unions are the single most powerful voice at state legislatures on education policy.

    Yes, we have a growing income gap and we should be working on that. (I believe Obama has done things to try to help with that and expect him to do more). I also think he is right to promote expansion of outstanding charters (and I hope he also will help expand outstanding district public schools that are open to all kinds of students.)


    • Joe,
      I think some of the people who are ‘talking right past each other’ know what they are doing, and it’s borderline mean-spirited, as I tried to make clear. That is, this is not just a failure to communicate.


  5. I was just browsing the web and found a unique tool which could be very helpful in online teaching and learning. Teachers can deliver classes online and the students need not to be present in the classroom. Rather students can attend the classes from anywhere. The basic things required for this are a computer and internet connection. The tool is called virtual classroom and you can have a look at the tool at They also offer 30-day free trial. More than 150,000 teachers and 2 million learners are already using WizIQ for this purpose.


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