Looking Back (Part 4)

(For the past couple of weeks I have been writing about my own experiences as an education reporter. Here’s another segment.)

I left the warmth and security of NPR in 1982, but in early 1985 I was unemployed and, to put it mildly, nervous about my future.  The 7-part documentary series I had spent 2 ½ years working on, “Your Children, Our Children,” had not resulted in a flood of job offers for me, but it had won an Ohio State Award {{1}}.  I went to Columbus for the ceremony, and, before that event was over, I had an invitation to try my hand at reporting on television.  It happened because of Doug Bodwell, then Director of Education at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the umbrella organization over both PBS and NPR.

Not only was Doug a big deal at CPB, but he was also a big guy, standing about 6’ 8”, which turned out to be just as important.

I was hanging out by the wall in a large room full of journalists when I saw Doug standing in the center of the room, towering over everyone. With one hand he was motioning to me to come over; with the other he was signalling someone else. I made my way through the crowd, and Doug introduced me to the other person he had been beckoning: Linda Winslow, then Deputy Executive Producer of the NewsHour.  “Linda, John should be reporting for you,” Doug said.  Linda asked me if I had some story ideas.  I didn’t, but of course I said that I did. She asked me to send them to her, which–once I came up with some–I did.  She hired me to report on two {{2}} of them, and before long I had a half-time job, which within a few months turned into a full-time job, and a great one at that. A big and influential audience, and lots of time to tell a story.

I have often wondered how my career would have turned out if Doug Bodwell {{3}} had been only 5’ 8”.


Sometime late in 1989 I got a phone call from a person with close connections to the White House. The caller wanted to know if I had any interest in becoming George H.W. Bush’s Education Advisor?

Who, me?

There was a backstory to the offer, which I was familiar with.  The Administration’s first choice, John Chubb, had apparently told one person too many that he would soon be in the White House, riding herd on Lauro Cavazos, the elegant but supposedly ineffectual Secretary of Education. When that bit of gossip showed up in print somewhere, probably in the Washington Post, Secretary Cavazos made it clear to the White House that, if Chubb got the job, he would resign. Well, the Secretary had enough juice to get Chubb booted out before he even got to move in.

The Administration’s second choice was Joe Nathan of Minnesota, who had come to their attention because of his work for the National Governors Association. However, Joe turned down the job because he wanted to stay in his home state with his wife and young children.  I knew this because Joe had asked my advice about the job, life in Washington, schools for his kids, and so on.

So it was clear to me that I wasn’t anyone’s first or second choice. I surmised that I was being considered {{4}} because of my report on school choice in District Four in New York City, a lovely NewsHour piece that celebrated that District’s truly remarkable but under-the-radar accomplishments.   As Producer Tim Smith and I had reported, District Four ranked #32 out of the city’s 32 districts when the leadership (Anthony Alvarado and Sy Fliegel) decided to scrap all their junior high schools.  They invited staff to submit proposals for unique schools organized around themes.  In the end Alvarado and Fliegel approved some interesting ‘themed’ schools; fine arts, back to basics, and maritime junior highs were among those that got to open. Then parents and their children were told, “Take your pick.”

School choice was a huge success, and within a few years, District Four had climbed to all the way to 17th of the 32 districts in academic achievement.  Parents from outside District Four were doing whatever they could to get their children in the schools there.  And if some schools were not chosen by enough parents, they went out of business and were soon replaced by new approaches dreamt up by education entrepreneurs.  Republicans and other conservatives loved the story, and the piece—with me in it—was shown all over the place, including the White House.

I assumed that someone in the Bush Administration connected the dots (erroneously): “Gee, he reported favorably on school choice, so he must be one of us.” {{5}} I was wined and dined by some fancy financial types in penthouse dining rooms and beautiful estates.  Then I got a letter asking me to come to the White House for an interview with the President’s Domestic Policy Advisor, Dr. Roger Porter.

Invitation in hand, I went to see Robin MacNeil and Jim Lehrer.  Could I go over to the other side for a while, I asked, without destroying my future credibility as a reporter?  Sure, both assured me, as long as I didn’t stay too long.

So I trotted off to the White House for a meeting with Dr. Porter.  You may remember that President Bush was our self-styled “Education President.” He had called the first-ever National Education Summit, an event held with great fanfare in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1989.  Out of that meeting of 49 of the 50 Governors {{6}} had emerged a commitment to National Education Goals, which I assumed were being developed at the time of my interviews.

The idea of helping set our public schools on a strong path was heady stuff, and the lure of the inner circle was strong. After all, I had been around in 1983 when ‘A Nation at Risk’ warned about the ‘rising tide of mediocrity,’ and now we had a President who seemed genuinely committed to public education in ways that his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had not been.  I knew public schools pretty well and told Dr. Porter that I felt I could help shape the goals in ways that would make them sensible and achievable.

“That’s not the job,” he told me.  “We’ve already written the goals. They were pretty much in place before Charlottesville. Your job will be to sell them.”

I don’t remember if he laid them out for me then, but what eventually emerged became known as ‘Goals 2000,’ with 2000 representing the year they were to be achieved; today the eight seem almost quaint {{7}} –and still out of reach:

1. All children in America will start school ready to learn {{8}}.

2. The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent {{9}}.

3. All students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, the arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation’s modern economy.

4. United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.

5. Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

6.  Every school in the United States will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.

7. The nation’s teaching force will have access to programs for the continued improvement of their professional skills and the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to instruct and prepare all American students for the next century.

8.  Every school will promote partnerships that will increase parental involvement and participation in promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children.

OK, I gulped.  I remember telling him that the best way for me to do that would be to write opinion pieces and speeches, and I could do some of that from New York, where I was living.

“Not our way,” Dr. Porter said. And he told me that I would be expected to be in the office early and to stay late, making it clear that brownie points went to those who put in the longest days {{10}}.

“Oh, and another thing,” he said.  “Education is just half of the job. Your portfolio will also include transportation.”

Wait a minute, the Education Advisor to our Education President is supposed to spend only half of his or her time on education?  What’s wrong with this picture?

We agreed to disagree, and I turned down the job before it was ever offered to me.

I was beginning to suspect that hypocrisy in the Nation’s Capital was widespread and bipartisan. Could it be that almost everyone in Washington was focused on images, politics and elections, and that kids and schools would get the leftovers, no matter who was in charge?


[[1]]1. I just looked it up; my program received one of 20 ‘Achievement of Merit’ awards given out that day, and not an actual Ohio State Award; basically we got second prize. For some bizarre reason, the judges categorized “Your Children, Our Children” as a program for children (it wasn’t!) but they did say they considered it ‘excellent with regard to significance, authoritativeness and uniqueness’ and praised its ‘quality research, well-crafted script, flawless pacing and high technical standards.’  That I went all the way to Columbus on my own dime suggests I was pretty desperate for a job.[[1]]

[[2]]2. The first was a piece about public school teachers, including Harry Chandler (who became a friend) and their summer jobs in delis, hardware stores and fast-food restaurants. Producer Mike Joseloff and I flew to McMinnville, Oregon, for the story.  I was accustomed to holding the radio equipment, not standing in front of camera, and had to borrow Mike’s blue knit necktie for my first TV standup.[[2]]

[[3]]3. Douglas F. Bodwell was only 55 when he succumbed to cancer in February, 1998.  Doug and I were about the same age and had started in Washington the same year, 1974.  We became friends, and I came to know him as the soul of generosity, a good friend to everyone who cared about learning.  His death was a great loss in so many ways.   As Director of Education for CPB from 1974 until his death, Doug helped start 22 school television series, including “Reading Rainbow,” “3-2-1 Contact,” and “Square One TV,” (Emmy winners all). He also helped create the Adult Learning Service at PBS, the Learning Link computer network, and the 23-state Satellite Educational Resources Consortium, in addition to being instrumental in the development of The Annenberg Channel.[[3]]

[[4]]4. Years later Joe Nathan told me that he had brought up my name.[[4]]

[[5]]5. At least one Democrat, the great Ted Sizer of the Coalition of Essential Schools, liked the school choice piece (produced by Tim Smith for the NewsHour). A few months after it aired, Ted wrote, in part, “It is absolutely first rate. Sy Fliegel was a wonderful spokesman, and I have been struck at how often I have heard reference to the show. This one really has made–and continues to make–a difference.”[[5]]

[[6]]6. Trivia question: which Governor did not attend?  Post your answer on the blog to qualify for the prize. (This is how we find out who reads footnotes.)[[6]]

[[7]]7. Notice there’s not one word in any of the 8 goals about test scores!  And Goal #8 encourages social and emotional growth. I say ‘Bravo,’ but wonder what happened to that noble idea.[[7]]

[[8]]8. That phrasing, ‘ready to learn,’ should have told me that these people had no clue about children or learning.  All children are ready to learn, because learning is what we humans do. Many may not be ready for school, but that’s an entirely different thing. It’s the height of arrogance or ignorance (or both) to equate learning and schooling, and people who do not grasp the distinction should not be setting national goals.[[8]]

[[9]]9. It’s nearly 80% now, 14 years after it was supposed to reach 90%.[[9]]

[[10]]10. His Wikipedia entry reports that Roger Porter is now the IBM Professor of Business and Government at Harvard and Master of Dunster House, one of Harvard’s residential colleges.[[10]]

15 thoughts on “Looking Back (Part 4)

  1. I believe the governor who did not attend the Charlottesville summit was George Deukmejian of California.

    And by the way, it was Education Week that broke the story of John Chubb’s appointment. Julie Miller was the reporter who got it.


  2. Yes, I read footnotes, and pretty much everything you write, but I simply did not know the governor in question.
    Just how were those lofty 8 goals to be achieved?
    Who did take that impossible job?
    How do you maintain your relatively calm perspective?


  3. Calm? You should see what my portrait, which is hidden away “in a remote upper room” of my mansion in London, looks like after 40 years of reporting about education!!


  4. I read the footnotes, and am wondering if the governor who didn’t attend was from Mississippi?

    Perhaps if had you taken the job, given the transportation portolio on top of the education portfolio, you might have come up with “bridge to the 21st century” instead of the Clintons…


      • Actually, Governor Clinton played a major role in the event and was easily the most prominent Governor there, as I recall


      • I’m guessing but I’d say Branstead from Iowa because in my encounters with him he was convinced that Iowa was doing just fine and didn’t need Washington or anybody else telling them how to run their schools.


  5. We are trying to link to the piece about School Choice. Meanwhile, here’s the transcript:
    MARCH 23, 1987: Shopping for Schools

    MacNEIL: Education is next — specifically, efforts to let students choose which public school they will attend. Last week, parents in Prince Georges County, Maryland, spent up to four days waiting on line. They were there to register their children in county schools with enhanced curriculums. The idea of the first come, first serve wait was to let some students go outside their neighborhoods to schools that have rigorous courses in math or science or fine arts taught by some of the school system’s best teachers. Last Saturday, it wasn’t hard to pick out the winners.

    PARENT: We did it!
    MacNEIL: The idea of letting parents choose which public school their children will attend has won increasing favor from officialdom. Both Secretary of Education William Bennett and the National Governors Conference have endorsed the concept. Correspondent John Merrow reports on what choice means to one school district.

    BOARD MEMBER: As soon as one question is asked by a member of the committee, three additional questions come into my own mind. I’m not prepared to vote on this proposal tonight.
    BOARD MEMBER: I heard a variety of opinions tonight. And I think I understand the proposal a lot more now. I don’t at this particular time think that I’m ready to support it.
    JOHN MERROW voice over : School board meetings like this one in Fall River, Massachusetts, are an American ritual. But what they’re discussing tonight is far from routine. It’s a proposal to let parents choose the public elementary school their children will attend. Currently, at Fall River and just about everywhere else, public schools don’t offer choices. Children go where they’re told. [on camera] By and large, only those who can afford private school have a choice. Under those conditions, there’s really a monopoly. Public schools have become standardized. They’re pretty much the same, no matter where you live. But in other areas of our lives, we pick and choose: the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the cars we drive. Yet, when it comes to one of the most important decisions of all — how our children will be educated — most of us are left with no choice at all.
    [voice over] East Harlem, New York City. Not your typical school district. Over half of the people who live here fall below the poverty line. Economically, it’s a depressed area, but educationally it’s rich. Because of a system of choice, East Harlem’s 12,000 students now have a wealth of opportunities. That wasn’t always the case.
    SY FLIEGEL, school district administrator: Of the 32 school districts in New York City, it ranked 32nd in reading and mathematics.
    MERROW: The worst.
    Mr. FLIEGEL: The worst. Attendance was poor, suspensions were high. All the things that you associate with a failing school system, we were number one in.
    MERROW [voice over]: At that point, 13 years ago, when things just couldn’t get any worse, District Four’s school board and Superintendent Anthony Alberato took a gamble. They encouraged each junior high school to develop a different educational program and then let parents choose. The gamble has paid off.
    Mr. FLIEGEL: We moved somewhere — we’re now maybe between 16th, 17th, 18th in the city. Now, that’s an impressive kind of move. Fifteen percent of the kids in this district read at or above grade level in 1972 and ’73.
    MERROW: Fifteen percent?
    Mr. FLIEGEL: Fifteen percent. We now are up to 64%. Now, that’s significant strides.
    MERROW [voice over]: But there’s been no single road to progress. Today, District Four has only two traditional junior highs left, and 21 junior highs organized around themes: environmental sciences, communications, sports, maritime studies. And this one for science and humanities. It looks more like a parochial school: uniforms, a strict code of conduct, no talking in the halls, no crossing the white line, and high expectations.
    HOWARD GRAYBOW, teacher: My first day here, I kind of expected half of the kids to come in without a notebook, to come in without a pencil the very first day. That was last year. And I found that all the children walked in the first day with pens, with their notebook, all prepared to do work. And that was exciting. And this kind of spirit kind of carries over to the teacher. The motivation of the kids carries through to me as a teacher. And I was really enthusiastic. It was like a rebirth, in a way.
    [to class:] So let’s think about that for a minute. Let’s really give it some thought now. This is what happened?
    MERROW [voice over]: The disciplined atmosphere of the School of Science and Humanities appeals to Graybow, a veteran of nearly 20 years of classroom teaching. He found that his students like it too.
    Mr. GRAYBOW: I’ve asked them also. I’ve said, ”Why do you want to be here? How come you didn’t choose one of the other schools in the district?” And the answer I got is that ”We like it here. It’s nice here. It’s quiet here. There are no problems here. I’m not afraid to walk to the bathroom. I’m not afraid to walk through the halls. ” And I think the parents pick that up also.
    ANNA TANCO, parent: The discipline is good. It’s very good. They’re not so strict, but it’s strict in a way, because they want them to behave, you know, and really do good work.
    MERROW: It’s kind of like a private school, like a parochial school.
    Ms. TANCO: That’s what’s good about it, because it gives them that feeling that they’re special, you know? And it makes them really feel proud that they’re wearing a uniform.
    Mr. FLIEGEL: Everybody knows where they’re going in that school. You want to know something? A very good school is a successful school because everyone knows what the vision is, where they’re going, how to get there, how to be when they get there. And it works. That’s the nice thing about it. It’s a good school.
    MERROW: School for everybody?
    Mr. FLIEGEL: No. Listen, there’s no school for everybody. That’s what’s beautiful about the district.
    MERROW: Did you plan for this?
    Mr. FLIEGEL: You know, I could be smart and say, yes, it was a long range plan. It was very organic. We started with two or three schools.
    MERROW [voice over]: The East Harlem School of Performing Arts was one of the first schools of choice to be developed.
    [on camera] You tell these kids if they really work hard, they’ll be big stars?
    JON DRESCHER, school director: No. We tell them, if they work hard, then maybe they’ll succeed in life. And maybe they’ll have a shot at going out there and really, you know, dealing with the issues that they’re going to face. Can’t promise that anybody’s going to be a big star.
    MERROW [voice over]: They’re not trying to turn out big stars here. The theme, whether it’s performing arts or environmental sciences, is a motivational tool to get kids to master the basics.
    Mr. DRESCHER: Hopefully, if you get someone who’s interested in the arts and they come in here, and they’ve just had a scintillating dance class, then hopefully you think that’s going to carry over, and they’ll have a scintillating science class. It works sometimes. Sometimes they don’t have a scintillating dance class, and they still have a scintillating science class. But the basic premise of motivating the kids by using the arts really does work. You know, if you’re where you want to be, you know, there’s that inner motivation right from the start.
    MERROW: When you were in sixth grade, you had to choose — or somebody had to choose — which junior high school you were going to go to. What was it like for you? What happened in your case?
    STUDENT: Okay, when I was in the sixth grade, I was in Catholic school. And my cousin told me about this school. And my mother didn’t want me to come to this school, because she thought, you know, she was afraid that something might happen to me or, you know. And I spoke to my cousin. And he told me about this school. And I told my mother, ”Mom, I want to try this school, you know. ”
    STUDENT: It was really my mother’s choice. I didn’t want to come here. Really, in a sense, I was like forced to come here. But you see, I said, ”Okay, let me try it out. ” And I’d been doing shows in sixth grade, so I was already into the performing arts. So I think I was meant for this school.
    MERROW: Were your mother or your father involved in your choice, or was it just up to you? How did that work?
    STUDENT: It was just up to me.
    MERROW: Really?
    Mr. FLIEGEL: Well, if you have kids who’ve selected your school and their parents selected your school and the teachers selected that school, there’s a sense of ownership. That school’s going to do better than a school where you had to go or had no choice. Now, I’ll grant you this. If you don’t have quality, it doesn’t make any sense to have choices. I mean, if I ask you to travel a half hour to go from one lousy school to another, I’ve done nothing for you. So there has to be a degree of quality to develop before the choices can really begin to have any meaning.
    MERROW: What you’re doing sounds as if you’re making public schools like private schools.
    Mr. FLIEGEL: Well, I have a standing rule. I’ve always felt what’s good for the children of the wealthy I will almost automatically accept for the children of East Harlem. Without question, if it’s good enough for rich kids, I think we can impose it upon our poor kids. It just makes sense.
    MERROW [voice over]: Choice is working so well that some parents who can afford private schools are sending their children to East Harlem public schools — particularly to this one: Manhattan East Junior High School. It’s the most academically oriented of all the schools, but there’s nothing fancy about it. Manhattan East is on the fifth floor — there’s no elevator — in a public school building that’s seen better days.
    [on camera] This place is a dump. It is. It’s falling apart. Why would anybody want to go to school here? Seriously.
    STUDENT: It’s our school. And it’s not like the building that matters. I mean, we know you had to lug up five flights of stairs, but then you don’t get fat.
    STUDENT: I don’t really notice it at all. You know, I can look and I can see plaster over there falling down and over here. But, you know, you don’t notice it, you know, after you blend in with the school and you understand what it’s about. When you’re focusing on what you’re here for, you don’t really — I don’t really notice it as much as I did when I first came here.
    STUDENT: I think the condition of the school adds a human element to the school. It makes it more of a comfortable environment to be in. You know, if everything’s perfect, you feel kind of alienated. But this has more of a relaxed tone to it.
    STUDENT: Well, before we came to school, both me and this girl over here, we went to another junior high school called IS 44. And I mean, it was incredible. There was — people didn’t know if you were in class or not. You could not go to class for a month and get the highest grades in the school. I mean, it was so big, also, that no one knew who you were. The teachers, they were like, ”Oh, who are you? Yeah, yeah. I’ve only had you for four months. ” I mean, here everyone knows everybody.
    MERROW [voice over]: That’s possible, because the schools here are small — typically, about 200 students. For instance, the building that Manhattan East Junior High School is in was once one school. Not it’s five. In most school districts, a building equals a school. Not here.
    Mr. FLIEGEL: We have 49 schools in 20 buildings. It’s not hard. You create identities. Each of those schools are autonomous. You go to an office building, there isn’t one business in that office building. You can have 20 businesses in that building. The concept of building is school doesn’t make sense. School is school.
    MERROW [voice over]: But just keeping schools small isn’t enough, according to Fliegel.
    Mr. FLIEGEL: I think having a philosophical base or vision or dream is even more important. But the size allows it to happen. If you just had — so let’s say we had a small school, and the principal didn’t know where he was going. So fewer people would not know where they’re going in more places. So that’s an important aspect of that. You know what the trouble is? We’re always looking for the one thing. It’s not one thing. It’s a combination of things. When the combinations are right, you’ve got a fighting chance.
    MERROW [voice over]: People — the teachers and the school directors — are an important part of the combination. Manhattan East Director Lynne Kearney has been working in the New York City schools for 16 years.
    LYNNE KEARNEY, school director: People are here because they want to be. And, you know, that’s shown by the kind of attendance we have, by the kind of, you know, my teachers are. The last time they referred to the contract was a long time ago. You know, the contract spells out certain things that my teachers don’t really have to do. And neither do I. I haven’t had a duty free lunch period since I’ve been here. I don’t think I ever will.
    Mr. FLIEGEL: You see these directors you see out there? They don’t get paid more money. They put in more time. Why do they do it? Because they have a dream. And it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. We exploit our directors.
    Ms. KEARNEY: My idea of education is that people who work in it would have the power to do what they felt was good and that they would feel happy about themselves when they left at the end of the day.
    Ladies and gentlemen, tonight you are receiving a note to take home to your parents. Let me see the number of children who will forget to give it to their parents.
    This place doesn’t have to exist. It can go out of business tomorrow. It can easily go out of business. If it didn’t meet needs, it would fold. It’s a business, you see, in some ways. Think about it. Because we don’t have children who have to come here. Then if one day everyone said no, we’d close our doors.
    MERROW [voice over]: In 13 years, three schools have closed their doors. They failed, shut down, later reopened as successful theme schools — further evidence that choice and competition work.
    [on camera] If it doesn’t cost more, it attracts people, and you do well on the standard measurements of school performance, why aren’t people rushing to copy you?
    Mr. FLIEGEL: Well, it’s not easy to do, by the way. I don’t want you to think it’s easy to do. There’s got to be a grassroots movement.
    MERROW [voice over]: Is there a grassroots movement for choice beyond the boundaries of East Harlem? A few school districts are experimenting. But for the most part, they’re reluctant to take a chance. After all, East Harlem only went to choice when it was clear it had nothing to lose. What about Fall River? Well, after studying choice for 18 months and debating for three hours tonight, the board finally endorsed choice, but only by the slimmest of margins — four to three. The yes vote here in Fall River repsresents a cautious, first step and nothing more. [on camera] Next year, only the parents of kindergarteners, as well as newcomers to the system, will get to choose their children’s elementary school. If choice goes well, the system will expand. But already, some teachers and principals are excited. They’re gearing up to compete, to create new approaches to education. That’s exactly what happened in East Harlem.
    Mr. FLIEGEL: What did we learn? I learned one thing. You don’t change the world; you change a little part of the world. In kind of a selfish way, you change a little part of the world where you’re at. If do that, it’s okay.


  6. Poor Gov. Rudy Perpich was often bedeviled by repeatedly being mixed up with a fellow Minnesota politician of the same vintage. Yes, he and U. S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz served simultaneously.

    And I recall your 1987 piece above. Indeed, it was well done and important.


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