Who Will Be Public Education’s Nixon?

For decades, the United States and “Red China” had minimal contact.  Communist China was the third rail of politics and no politician could afford to appear to be ‘soft on Communism.’ After all, in the 1950’s the careers and lives of hundreds of people were destroyed because they were accused of having ‘lost China.’

Then, in February 1972, a politician with impeccable anti-Communist credentials did the unthinkable. President Richard Nixon went to China 44 years ago and ‘normalized’ diplomatic relations with that country.  Only an avowed foe of Communism could have accomplished that feat.

Public education needs its own Richard Nixon if it is ever going to escape the ‘test and punish’ death spiral that is distorting schooling almost beyond recognition.  Education’s Richard Nixon will have to be a strong advocate of testing who has seen the light, someone who has undergone conversion, the educational equivalent of Saul on the road to Damascus.

No testing critic from the left, no matter how eloquent, sensible, or correct, will be able to sway public opinion and move bureaucracies.  When Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten, Deborah Meier, or Peggy Robertson of United Opt Out speak out about the corrosive effects of excessive testing, their supporters say ‘Amen,’ but others shrug it off: “What else is new?” or “That’s what I’d expect them to say.”

Until a few months ago, I had a pretty good idea who could become education’s Richard Nixon.  This educator worships at the altar of testing, and her schools live and die by test scores, but–of critical importance–her schools also focus on science, the arts and physical education.  Whenever I’d visited her schools, they seemed to be places of joyful learning.

At one point I even went so far as to imagine her “conversion” announcement:

My friends, you know me as an advocate of standardized testing. I believe in test results and what they tell us about our students.  But what you might not know about me is that I subscribe to much of what John Dewey taught us about education.  Learning by doing is important.  The arts, science and physical fitness are essential parts of quality education.  These are vital elements in my schools, although they have not gotten much publicity in the past.

For years I have focused on test results, and I’ve boasted about my students’ success, but now I realize that schools are vehicles that must take on passengers–the students–wherever they are and take them as far as possible.  

I say ‘vehicle‘ advisedly. A unicycle, with the one wheel being test scores, can’t be relied upon to carry students long distances.  The proper vehicle is a sturdy, reliable, 4-wheeler.  The ‘wheels’ of my effective schools are academic excellence in English and math; hands-on science; the arts; and physical education.  And all 4 wheels pull with equal power.

From here on out, my schools will be evaluated and rated on a 4-point scale: 1) How do students perform in math and English on standardized tests? 2) How many hours of hands-on science for students per week?  3) How many hours of the arts per week? and 4) How many hours of physical activity, including active recess, per week?  

Henceforth, all four categories count equally, which means that doing well in one category will not offset doing poorly in another.  In other words, having high tests scores but minimal recess, for example, will not give a school a passing grade.  

Some of my colleagues in the pro-testing camp will complain that three of the ‘wheels’ are input measures, which they are contemptuous of.  I would remind them that they consistently support a different input measure, ‘time on task.’   From my new perspective, I now realize that valuing ‘time on task’ above all else has contributed greatly to the de-emphasis and disappearance of recess, science, and the arts from many schools.

Anyway, friends, this will be the new 4-part report card for Success Academies going forward, and it’s my strong hope that other schools, whether chartered or traditional, will consider following our example. Thank you.

In this fantasy, Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Success Academies, would be education’s Richard Nixon.  By insisting on using those four criteria to measure school effectiveness, she would begin the hard work of saving public education from its current disastrous policies and practices.  By insisting that schools ‘measure what matters,’ she would do for education what Richard Nixon did for US-China relations, usher in a new era.

The next pinnacle for her personally, in this fantasy?  She might become United States Secretary of Education!

However, that was before I began a serious investigation of Success Academies and its practices. Yes, the curriculum includes hands-on science and lots of art, music and physical education, but Success Academies have a draconian behavior code and follow a number of questionable practices that eliminate certain students, some of which are certainly unethical and perhaps illegal.

Juan Gonzales of the New York Daily News has been doggedly  following  this  story for years, but Ms. Moskowitz has managed to defuse or deflect most of his criticism.  Our report for the PBS NewsHour last October documented how Success Academies use multiple out-of-school suspensions of 5-, 6- and 7- year-old to ‘persuade’ parents to withdraw their children set off the current firestorm.  Two subsequent (here and here) blockbuster reports by Kate Taylor of The New York Times, the second one accompanied by a dramatic video, may have turned the tide of public opinion against Ms. Moskowitz.

If the authorizing body that has consistently approved her petitions, the Charter School Institute at SUNY, follows through on its proposed investigation, or if she loses the support of powerful and wealthy hedge fund billionaires like Dan Loeb, her goal of creating hundreds of Success Academies will be out of reach, and her control over her current schools could be in jeopardy, along with her sizable annual salary of roughly $500,000.

So Eva Moskowitz will not be education’s Richard Nixon.  Are there any other candidates?  Is it possible that John King, another test score worshipper, will see matters differently when and if he is confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education?

Toward the end of his tenure, his predecessor warned that too much testing was taking “the joy out of the classroom,” but Arne Duncan failed to take the next step, pondering what brings joy to classrooms.  I fear that Secretary King will try to appear reasonable and, like Arne Duncan, talk about ‘limiting’ testing, while failing to question the premise that now rules public education in America: test scores are the most reliable means of evaluating teachers and sorting students.

The premise is wrong.

Who will be education’s Richard Nixon?




16 thoughts on “Who Will Be Public Education’s Nixon?

  1. Well, John, Eva is very much like Richard Nixon, but not in any useful respect. She has an enemies list, and I’m proud to be a charter member! I suspect you are on the list too.


  2. Doc
    I’m describing HER school curriculum as I have observed it. My ideal school would be different. I’m about half way though my next book, “Addicted to Reforms: a 12-Step Program for American Education,” and part of the fun is envisioning schools which look at each child and ask ‘How is she/he intelligent?” and then figure out how best to help that child go as far as possible.


  3. John, you know I have followed you for years. I’ll speak plainly. The premise is based on having a hero. I don’t believe we need to focus on a hero–one person. There are thousands of heroes that make it happen in classrooms every day. Also, I don’t think testing is a bad thing as long as the test is teacher made. What we need to focus on is treating teachers as professionals. They are given a group of students and they have the responsibility for taking care of them. Pearson is not interested in taking care of students, they are interested in profiting from them. Many schools and school systems are more interested in controlling students than they are in educating them. There are teachers, however, that cocoon themselves within the madness and try to take care of their kids. The real story to be told is how some students are lucky to get a good teacher, and others just get lost in one mediocre classroom after another. The story parents need to read is about the “Underground Railroad” that exists in education. There are many excellent teachers out there, the trick is getting your child into the right classroom.


    • Ken
      Not a hero but a leader. My point about Nixon (not a hero) is valid, I think. Only an avowed anti-Communist could have done what he did. Similarly, I think it will take a leader from ‘the other side’ to wake up most of America. I was stretching to argue for Eva, although it is certainly true about science, recess and the arts at her schools–until the test-prep regimen takes over.
      Right now our ‘leaders’ think they are doing their jobs when they talk about limiting testing, and that’s a shame and a tragedy.


      • John,

        i think you are too generous about the science, recess and arts at Success. I’ve visited Success too. Science, recess and the arts suffer from the same regimentation and “no excuses” disciplinary disease that intimidate students, driving them to conformity and compliance. That’s just bad education, with or without tests.



  4. Part of the problem is that Moskowitz is not an educator. Despite her protestations and because of her simplistic ideas about classroom management and “discipline,” she has institutionalized a school business chain that is rooted in submission and compliance, rather than schools rooted in the acquisition of knowledge, skills and democratic values that were once the agreed upon goals of public education.


  5. John,

    Those of us who know that only the transformation of education will get our children where they need to be in the 21st century have found such a “hero.” He is Todd Rose, the author of the recently published book “The End of Average” which argues for the ELIMINATION of testing as we know it. Here is his interview with NPR: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/02/16/465753501/standards-grades-and-tests-are-wildly-outdated-argues-end-of-average

    I urge all your followers to read it.


  6. John,
    This is horrible! In the words of James Comer, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship of mutual respect”‘ Clearly, that is not happening in those schools! I question how anyone who has gone through a university teacher education program, student teaching, etc. could possibly act as this woman did. How could she look herself in the mirror? How sad for these innocent children and their parents who have expectations of truly “GOOD” schools. As for the lack of history and civics…..if these students learned about our history of the persecuted rebelling against those who were persecuting them, they might get ideas……The students might learn about due process, democracy, virtue, and the common good History and civics taught well will create critical thinkers which is not what Ms. Moskowitz wants at all. Compliance at all costs??? Shame on her! What kind of kindergarten did she attend?? Also, how can children feel free and confident to create art under such conditions? Does it get destroyed if the teacher doesn’t think it pretty enough? (I am an art teacher…..).
    I hope enough wise citizens, parents, and yes, the students themselves speak up and stop this madness!


  7. I have no ideas who will become educations Richard Nixon, however, I will spend every ounce of my energy to find that person. More and more educators are on the brink, they just need to take the leap of faith.


  8. Mr. Merrow, thank you for covering this issue. I appreciate your shout out to Juan Gonzalez as well. I read some of his reporting years ago that used hard data to show the shockingly high suspension rates and attrition rates at Success Academy schools. I was astonished — I know I should not have been – by the fact that the SUNY Charter Institute brushed that off along with every other bit of hard data offered to them (including parents documenting the empty seats in Success Academy schools that were claiming huge wait lists). So I have no doubt that SUNY’s investigation will consist of their usual “Ms. Moskowitz did you do anything wrong? “No I didn’t, one teacher made a mistake once and that’s all. Great, here are 10 more schools for you to run in your own special way.” I hope you will stay on their case to make sure this investigation is better than all their previous non-oversight.

    As a long-time public school parent, I find it odd that there even has to be this kind of reaching out by a believer in standardized test scores. What you described — standardized testing having a place in public education – has ALWAYS been the case and most parents who have come to support the opt out are not having their children opt out of Regents’ exams, SATs, APs, etc. Most public school teachers just a few years ago were not opposed to standardized tests. It was only when they become political tools — designed to show the parents in Great Neck that even though their kids might be getting the highest SATs, they should believe that their public school teachers were terrible because non-educators were telling them this poorly designed state test with ambiguous questions designed to insure that students will fail meant far more than anything they had witnessed with their own eyes. It was a purely political power grab by the privatizers backed by billionaires and the people desperate to convince affluent parents to support charter schools because they wanted to hide the fact that charter schools were failing in their job to educate at-risk kids. Little did they know how far their attempt to undermine not the worst public schools — who had always had poor test scores — but the BEST ones — by making sure their scores were declining — would fail.

    Eva Moskowitz – and other charter school operators with high attrition rates and high test scores — would probably have no problem claiming that the test scores are only one part of the measurement of a good school. It’s fascinating to see the affluent parents who go there explaining that their children’s experience isn’t like that. If you are lucky enough to be a student who learns easily, or your parents have enough resources or time to tutor you outside of school, your school can offer all these extras and the students will still get high test scores. The question is whether students without that kind of good fortune get to experience it too, or if that must be sacrificed because of some misguided belief that if an 8 year old isn’t reading, writing, and doing math at some mythical “grade level”, she must sacrifice those extras to constant test prep.


  9. Juan is a first-rate reporter…..no question about that.
    I think the charter authorizers have a lot to answer for, frankly, and it will be interesting to see what happens now, because the ‘must go’ list and the video are pretty difficult to explain away.
    There are other shoes to drop, but only if some of my sources can overcome their fears and go public with what they know to be true.
    I remain surprised and disappointed by the silence of the other major charter school providers in New York City. They do not like Eva’s being ‘the face of charter schools’ here, and they know where some of the bodies are buried, and yet they stand on the sidelines.


  10. John, haven’t blogged before but enjoy your thoughtful perspective. The burden on reformers is that you can’t replace something with nothing. Hence, merely complaining about some aspect of the status quo doesn’t gain hearing in the court of public opinion.

    So what might replace the current regimen of testing in the schools? I think there might be two avenues to pursue. One seeks technical fixes. Look to prospects that new technologies tied to findings from the cognitive and neurosciences might provide. Place strong emphasis on information that helps teachers and students learn. Build a new assessment infrastructure rationalized via the best available research, afforded by cutting edge whizbang technology.

    The other avenue is more political. Here, the assessment function needs to be decentralized. Rather than having remote agencies (states, feds) develop omnibus tests, create conditions under which localities (read: schools or districts, or consortia), primed with both public and private support, begin crafting a rich set of assessments modeled on exemplar practices such as Deborah Meier pioneered or that exist in New Zealand or wherever. Maybe localities apply to states for waivers so they can begin innovating. Maybe private money supports such local innovations.

    Maybe combine these in some fashion? Don’t know but my bet is that not much will change until promising alternatives emerge. Some enterprising entrepreneur might convene groups to start envisioning the prospects…


  11. You raise some interesting points. I think we need to wrestle with the distinction between testing and assessment. The latter process is to determine where a student is and what he/she needs to keep moving forward. I believe the US is the only advanced country that sees the primary purpose of tests as a way of evaluating (and firing) teachers.
    In my experience, the most reliable assessments are those created by teachers, so we need to get back to a place of trust of teachers. That’s a challenge in this atmosphere.
    I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: we need schools that ask of each child: “How is she/he intelligent?” and then builds on that, instead of asking “How intelligent is he/she?”


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