Three Wishes for 2016

As 2015 comes to an end, I have three education-related wishes for the year ahead.

  1. In 2016 I hope education reporters will do a better job than I did of “following the money.”  When charter schools became an option in most states, profit-seekers emerged in droves.  Some are running for-profit charter schools, but others are operating what are legally non-profit institutions.  I think a lot of these folks are pulling a fast one and are ripping off the public, but I was never able to report that story.   In a better world, the legitimate charter school industry would recognize the threat to their ‘brand’ and would fight for transparency in financial and other dealings.  With few exceptions, unfortunately, that’s not happening.
  2. I wish and hope that many school superintendents and school boards will take advantage of the murky atmosphere surrounding the new education law that has replaced No Child Left Behind. It’s about 1000 pages, and the regulations have yet to emerge.  Now is the time to do the right thing for students.  Most educators know schools test too much, and they know that so-called ‘rigorous’ education is boring kids to tears.  Now is the right time for courageous progressives to embrace  project-based learning, blended learning, and challenging curricula that replaces what I call ‘regurgitation education.’  NOW is the time, and the window won’t remain open long.
  3. I hope that the opt-out movement will soon decide what it is FOR, because it’s never enough to be against something.  My sense is that many who are angry about what they perceive as ‘over-testing’ want schools that ask “How is each child intelligent?” to replace the system that gives tests in order to label, classify and sort children.  Individualized attention is possible today, thanks to technology–but only if we harness the machines to allow children to dig.  I recommend our film, School Sleuth: The Case of the Wired Classroom,” for a strong view of what can go wrong and what is possible.  The link to watch the 55-minute film is The password is schoolsleuth123.  You will also get a kick out of the celebrities who help the (clueless) Sleuth ‘solve’ the case. (And the beautiful and talented jazz singer who opens and closes the film is my younger daughter.)

May 2016 bring peace and justice.  Happy New Year!

13 thoughts on “Three Wishes for 2016

  1. Why were you not able to report the fraud going on in the charter sector? Why were reporters so reluctant to investigate and challenge education “reform?” Why were brave reporters (e.g. Michael Winerip) quickly transferred away from the education beat? There is a real story there and I’m hoping someone with nothing to lose will pursue it.


    • We couldn’t cover the story for the NewsHour because we were financially strapped–and in fact came very close to closing our doors a couple of times during what was called ‘The Great Recession.’ In the early days of Learning Matters (which I started in 1995), our grants were open-ended, allowing us to cover whatever stories seemed most important to us and to the NewsHour. Walter and Lenore Annenberg said to us, in effect, “Here’s a check. Go cover K-12 education to the best of your ability.” In recent years, some foundations would only make grants to organizations that hewed their line, which meant we couldn’t accept their money even if they wanted to give to us. Others were generous with dollars but had their own target issues. If we felt we could live under their ‘umbrella,’ we accepted grants, but that meant we could not simply cover whatever stories we felt were most pressing. That, by the way, is how things work these days, with NPR, PBS and just about every organization I can think of.
      Regarding Mike’s changing beats, I don’t know the facts of the case. I absolutely agree that he is a wonderful and courageous reporter. The Washington Post did something similar with another terrific reporter on its education beat, Bill Turque, a few years before Mike was moved into another area.
      The editorial pages of both newspapers have consistently supported “reform” and have not been willing to challenge the assumptions (or highlight the failures) of that test-driven and corporate-funded approach. That’s personally disappointing, of course, particularly in Washington, where cheating by adults was ignored by the Post’s editorial pages (in stark contrast with Atlanta, where the Journal-Constitution led the way in exposing that school system’s criminal behavior.
      I call your attention to today’s editorial in The New York Times, which again misses the point.


  2. Happy New Year to you, John. May your wishes spread far beyond this blog and may they come true! With regards to wish #1: the “legitimate” charter school advocacy organizations cannot address the problem because they are, for the most part, funded by money that loves “scale” and scale is best achieved by organizations whose structures and means resemble for-profit companies. That money comes with a political agenda, too, and is driving the charter sector, and what was a wealth of great ideas, off the tracks. Our organization, The NYC Coalition of Community Charter Schools, is trying to do something about it. Would love to speak with you more about this. Thanks, as always, for your excellent commentary.


  3. John, glad to see you urging “project-based learning, blended learning, and challenging curricula that replaces what I call ‘regurgitation education.’

    For 25 years, the Center for School Change, where I work, has promoted the ideals and “outstanding practices” in chartering and other forms of public school choice, and challenged abuses and rip-offs. That includes project based learning, youth community service classes, multiple measures for assessing student achievement, including school/family community partnerships.

    We’ve worked with more than 30 states – including state governors and state legislators – on these issues. We’ve helped refine state laws and spoken at statewide conferences on these issues. Our Center testified more than 22 years ago at the Mn State Board of Education, urging that a poorly operating charter be closed. The State Board wisely did that. That was the first charter in the country to be closed.

    Here’s a link to a report out today from NPR, in which Claudio Sanchez quotes me:

    “As Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the Center for School Change, who helped write charter school legislation in 32 states, puts it: “We have not done enough to deal with the crooks and charlatans, of which we have our share.”

    There have been others who have both advocated for chartering, and pointed out that improvements are needed in some individual schools and in some laws.

    You were one of the first national journalists to point out both the opportunities for youngsters, and the potential for ripoffs. I thought you did a good job then, and a good job covering the complex New Orleans situation.

    But in the last couple of years it appears – as with your summary above – you seem to focus on the negatives.

    How about urging, as a priority, greater collaboration between district & charter? There are wonderful examples of both.
    How about challenging states to offer more options for dual high school/college credit courses? (You did a great story about a Texas program that did this – I think it’s one of the top priorities for the country).

    How about challenging the ironically named Higher Learning Commission, which is making it more difficult for schools in 19 states to offer dual credit courses in high schools.

    How about encouraging and promoting the “teacher led” school idea – which has brought together district, charter and union leaders and members?

    Sorry to go on at such length. Your national perspective and credibility gives you great opportunities to shine lights on great efforts, and challenge crooks.

    Hope you have a healthy, happy 2016, and are able to do both.
    Best wishes,


    • Joe,
      These are good suggestions, and my new New Year’s Resolution is to be more positive. There are good things happening in public education, and I should do my part to support the activities and the individuals.


      • Thanks, John,

        Glad to read that you are open to these possibilities.

        Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that you ignore criticism and just “praise” things. There are plenty of things that deserved to be challenged (Like for example the “Higher” Learning Commission).

        I also certainly understand the challenges of funding.

        Happy 2016.


  4. I especially relate to #3. For years I have said that without a viable alternative to the testing fiasco public schools will perish.

    When I matched in Madison Wisconsin it was a phenomenal event. Tens of thousands came from all over the country. Pizzas were paid for from all over the world. We won that battle but what did we accomplish? Nothing. Nothing changed and we only elevated Scott Walker to the national scene.

    Why did we lose the war? Because we didn’t give any positive solutions to the problems at hand.

    The same happens with the opt out movement or the efforts by Save Our Schools SOS, and Bats as well as Diane Ravitch blog. These efforts have set the table for change but without the main course, the viable alternative to the testing fiasco, the efforts are neutered.

    The time for action is now. The Sanders, Collins amendment to the ESSA opens the window of opportunity a crack. We must now dive through it headfirst. Winning doesn’t get it done, action does.

    To read the amendment go to and tell your state leaders to apply.


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