Moskowitz and Mussolini

Say whatever you want about Eva Moskowitz; At least she makes the trains run on time.

Because the above comment, not directed at me, came from across the dinner table in a large, noisy banquet room, I wasn’t able to hear responses.  However, the speaker was clearly praising Moskowitz for her schools’ academic success, not equating her with the Italian Fascist dictator and Hitler ally.

But it got me thinking about both Mussolini and Moskowitz, one of whom was shot while trying to flee to Switzerland, the corpse then mauled by the public before being hanged upside down from a steel girder in a Milan suburb, while the other is riding high on a wave of adulation stoked by puff pieces in major publications including The Atlantic.  In addition to a commitment to efficiency, could Moskowitz and Mussolini be close in other ways?

Back to Mussolini: How did Il Duce get the trains to run on time?  Could he have ordered them to do whatever was necessary to stay on schedule?  Perhaps he issued a directive: ‘If people are still trying to get on the train, but it’s time to leave–just leave.’  He might have added, ‘If a flock of sheep, or some school children, are on the tracks, don’t slow down but toot your horn and plow on through so you can stay on schedule.’  Perhaps there was a third fiat:  ‘If a train is so crowded that it cannot get up to full speed, just toss some passengers off the moving train and get back up to speed.’

If tactics like that enabled Mussolini’s trains to stick to the schedule, then he and Eva Moskowitz have something in common, because the latter has a long history of discarding students who don’t meet her exacting standards.  As Kate Taylor in the New York Times (also here). Juan Gonzalez in the New York Daily News (here), (here) and (here), and my colleagues and I on the PBS NewsHour have reported, Success Academies use a wide variety of questionable tactics to weed out students who are not performing–or do not seem likely to perform–well on bubble tests.  Those tactics keep her trains running on time, I.E., scoring at the top of the charts on standardized tests.

Elizabeth Green’s endorsement of Success Academies and their approach to education The Atlantic, headlined “How Charter Schools Won,” is particularly disappointing.  Green mentions Taylor’s New York Times reporting but only in the context of Moskowitz’s attacks on her.  Green ignores reporting done by Gonzalez, a two-time recipient of the George Polk Award.  If she had contacted me, I could have introduced her to a Success Academy custodian who told us about regularly emptying student vomit from the wastebaskets.  Although he declined to appear on television, I believe he would have gladly educated Green.

The omissions in Green’s article (and, to be fair to Green, in most coverage of Moskowitz) are almost too numerous to mention: She does not tell her readers that Moskowitz drives away children–some as young as five–by excessive use of out-of-school suspensions.  Banning kids from school for days at a time is an effective device for getting rid of children, particularly when the parents have jobs outside the home. And it’s easy to get suspended from Success Academy.  On my blog I published Success Academies’ draconian list of offenses that can lead to suspension, about 65 of them in all.  “Slouching/failing to be in ‘Ready to Succeed’ position” more than once,  “Getting out of one’s seat without permission at any point during the school day,” and “Making noise in the hallways, in the auditorium, or any general building space without permission” can get a child an out-of-school suspension that can last as long as five days.  The code includes a catch-all, vague offense that all of us are guilty of at times, “Being off-task.”

Let’s play out how this might work: When an out-of-school suspension is handed out the first time, maybe the Mom asks her mother to watch the child; the second time, maybe her sister can pitch in.  But the third one…that’s probably when the Mom decides to seek another school for her first grader.   Was that the administration’s goal?  In our NewsHour piece we reported on the out-of-school suspensions at one Success Academy and a co-located district school, and the numbers were staggering.  Kate Taylor reported on one Success Academy principal’s ‘Get Rid Of’ list.  How many others have similar lists?

Although Success Academies are public (charter) schools funded with taxpayer dollars, she does not fill open spaces (after grade 3) when children leave.  Law-abiding public schools are required to take all comers.  

What is also missing from Green’s puff piece are other steps Moskowitz takes to ‘cull the herd,’ steps that seem designed to eliminate all but the most dedicated parents.  For example, Success Academies does not participate in the free transportation for students. What is the impact of that?  Does it eliminate single parents who work and don’t have time to bring their children to school?  Is it designed to do that? Do any other charter schools pass up this perk? I have not found any.  

Green does not bring up an important question: what happens to the children who do not meet Moskowitz’s standards? Whether they leave of their own accord, are pushed out, or are effectively thrown out, they have to go to school somewhere. If the Moskowitz model were to be widely accepted, which is what Green is endorsing, where would those children go to school?  

Green’s article (and other superficial press coverage) ignore student turnover, a critically important measure of school success.  After all, if students are leaving in droves, something is amiss.  There are two obvious ways to measure retention, one that’s brutally honest, and one that obscures the facts.   Guess which one Moskowitz employs? Here’s the honest way: The charter network known as KIPP counts students from Day One of the school year through the beginning of the next school year, meaning that whoever drops out during the summer is counted as a loss (and, from KIPP’s point of view, a failure on its part). That’s 365 days.  However, strictly speaking, charter schools are allowed to count from the district’s official ‘count day’ in early October and can stop counting on the last day of school. That’s about 260 days, not 365. Doing it that way means a school does not have to report any children who leave before the ‘count day’ (perhaps because administrators have ‘encouraged’ them to leave).  Nor does a school have to report those who drop away during the summer.  That narrow approach is how Success Academies measures its own retention…and they still don’t do all that well.

Teacher turnover is another key measure of the health of a school that is overlooked. Teacher turnover is high at Success Academies.   

Elizabeth Green admits that Eva Moskowitz is scary to cover.  In our reporting, we learned just how frightened people are; close to a dozen parents whose children had been expelled from Success Academies for what seemed to be trivial offenses changed their minds, at the last minute, about appearing on camera.  The source I most regret losing is that custodian who told us how many times a day he had to empty vomit from the wastebaskets in the Success Academy classrooms.

While Green is correct about the academic achievements of Success Academies, she does not explore disturbing patterns and numbers.  Had she done so, she might have been less enthusiastic. How many of Success graduates have done well enough to gain admission to the New York City’s selective high schools like Bronx Science?  Last time I checked, it was zero.  And Green, a veteran reporter, must have heard stories about how Success kids, after years of regimentation, proved unable to handle a relatively unstructured environment.  In Moskowitz’s own Success Academy high school, an attempt at a less-structured environment failed because the graduates of her highly regimented K-8 system were unprepared for even a small taste of freedom

Success Academies and their founder ignore the wisdom of Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  Because Moskowitz worships test scores, students at her schools spend an inordinate amount of time being tested or practicing for tests. Moreover, they are rewarded for obedience and punished for drawing outside the lines and thinking outside the box.  Who on earth thinks these students are being prepared for life in a complex society?

Dr. Moskowitz is very smart, focused and ruthless.  She knows how to work the system, and she has humiliated Mayor de Blasio more than once. On one level, it’s tragic that she has bought into the ‘test scores rule’ approach to education.  She does have some ‘progressive’ instincts that, had she followed them, might have produced schools that children want to attend.

However, at base, Moskowitz’s instincts are dictatorial, not democratic, and in that she resembles Mussolini, both authoritarians at their core.   While it is true that democracy is messy (one of Green’s complaints), there are plenty of examples of effective schools. The best schools approach each child with a paradigm-shifting question, “How is this child intelligent?”  Success Academies ask the opposite question: “How smart is this child?” 

Moskowitz has perfected a ‘sorting machine.’  Not only does she sort children by test scores; she also discards those who don’t measure up.  One could defend sorting if the goal were to create the best ways to help all children, but she does not do that.  Instead, she discards.

I suspect that Green did not think through her endorsement very carefully, even though she wrote on Chalkbeat, the electronic newsletter she co-founded, about her anguish.  I am not alone in being concerned.  One other concerned observer, Andrea Gabor, just published an article worth reading.

There is clearly a powerful Moskowitz bandwagon—the $250,000 Broad Prize for charter networks, strong support from Governor Andrew Cuomo, multiple millions from billionaire supporters Dan Loeb, John Petry, Julian Robertson, and others, uncritical pieces in New York Magazine and The Atlantic, and a cautiously skeptical piece in The New Yorker.   I am a contrarian. I believe that Success Academies represents an approach to schooling that we need to move away from–and as quickly as possible.

News and Fake News about My Book

“Two of these reviews are not like the others.

Two of these reviews just do not belong.

Can you guess which two are real (and not phony)

Before I finish my song?”

                                                                                  (with apologies to ‘Sesame Street’)

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: “There’s no way I will say something nice about a book that makes fun of President Obama and I, not after people made fun of me when I slipped up and asked ‘Is our children learning?’”

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: “This foundational book will be in my Presidential Library. When the foundation is poured, I will personally see that it is shredded and mixed in with the wet cement.”

FORMER SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN: “When I read what he wrote about my “Race to the Top” program, I created a special race for Merrow’s book: “Race to the Dumpster.”

PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP: “I know that John Merrow is the son of the famous CBS broadcaster Edward R. Merrow, but, even if you put them together, I am more famous than them. If I were going to read a book, it would not be this one, unless maybe Frederick Douglass recommended it to me personally!”

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R, FL):  “I’m not even mentioned in “Addicted to Reform,” so why would I buy this book?”

THE WALTON FAMILY: “We respectfully decline to endorse “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”  Not only does it criticize our effort to improve education, but the author is known to shop at Costco.”

CHESTER E. FINN, JR.   “The problem starts with the author’s tendency toward narcissism. …  he’s a sort of discombobulated radical who seeks many worthy changes in the American K–12 enterprise but whose “plan,” for all its dozen steps, isn’t likely to result in the overhaul he wants. … Merrow’s brain contains a rosy vision of a different future.”

BILL GATES, co-founder of Microsoft and co-president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “Merrow has zero credibility.  He spent his entire life working in public broadcasting and probably never made more than $50,000 a year.  Ergo, zero credibility.”

JOHN THOMPSON, historian and retired teacher:  “In “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education”, John Merrow lets it all out. … Merrow shows how corporate reform began as a fundamentally anti-intellectual movement (by admittedly smart people who knew little of the institution they sought to transform) and ended up defending policies that are sometimes irrational and/or cruel.”

MICHELLE A. RHEE, former Chancellor of the public schools in Washington, DC: “WTF?”

EVA MOSKOWITZ, CEO of Success Academies: “Ditto!”

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: “There’s no way that I would allow myself to be alone in a room with this book. For one thing, John Merrow’s wife is attractive.  Very, very attractive, as a matter of fact.  And, come to think of it, Merrow was a good looking guy when he was young.  Temptation, begone.  If you want to risk damnation and read it, do it in a crowded public library…but please pray first.”

BETSY DEVOS, United States Secretary of Education: “As an American, I have choice about the books I read, and I choose not to read it.”

JOHN FALLON, CEO of Pearson:  “John Merrow was on our Board of Directors for one day back in April, 2015, so it would be a conflict of interest for me to endorse it. And when he wrote about it, he greatly exaggerated the truth, so why should I trust anything he writes?”


“Too Good To Be True” Proves to be False

On June 29th NPR broadcast a remarkable story to the nation, the “feel good” tale of a struggling high school in Washington, DC.  The 4-minute story breathlessly asserted, “While in the previous year only 3% of students could meet the city-wide performance standards in reading, this year every single senior–all 191 of them–has been accepted into college!”  Moreover, the piece reported that 164 of 191 seniors at Ballou Senior High school had earned diplomas, meaning that, in just one year, the school had raised its graduation rate from 57% to better than 85%.   As Kate McGee of member station WAMU reported:

So how did this dream become a reality? It started with a pledge from the class of 2017 when they were just juniors looking ahead to their final year of high school.

But it was a strong support system within D.C. Public Schools that made it a reality. For months and months, staff tracked students’ success, often working side-by-side with them in the school library on college applications, often encouraging them to apply to schools where data show D.C. students perform well.

The reporter tacked on two disturbing facts at the end of the piece, one of which contains a highly misleading internal contradiction, calling all seniors ‘graduates‘ while acknowledging that 26 of these ‘graduates‘ had not done the work necessary to earn diplomas. (The punctuation error in the print version doesn’t help matters).

More than a quarter of the teaching staff quit before the end of the school year — that’s not usually a good sign. And out of the nearly 200 graduates, 26, are still working toward their high school graduation — hoping to earn their diploma in August.  

The reporter did not explain why so many teachers had left, nor did she dig into the school’s boast about 100% admission to college.   An obvious question–How do 26 students who haven’t yet graduated from high school get admitted to college? Which colleges accept non-graduates?–were apparently not asked, and we were not told whether any local colleges automatically accept everyone with a high school diploma.

A quick visit to the website of the University of the District of Columbia reveals that “All students who have earned a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent are eligible for admission to the Community College.”   One wonders how many Ballou seniors had been accepted there.  After all, how much does that 100% mean if a lot of students have been accepted by a college that accepts everyone?  And the reporter might also have followed up by asking how 26 non-graduates got college acceptances.  How does that work?

What’s more, given that Ballou High School is in the District of Columbia, a school district that has been plagued by years of academic corruption, the reporter and her editor(s) ought to have approached this story with heightened skepticism.

(Because context matters, it’s worth noting that The Washington Post had reported two months earlier that all Ballou seniors were applying to college, a first.  So apparently this was a simple “Let’s follow up and find out how many get accepted” kind of story and not a more skeptical “Will colleges accept students from a school where 95% cannot pass the city exam?” approach.)

The cliché, “When something seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t,” applies to this story, big time, and five months later, on November 30th, NPR walked back the story with this editor’s note.

Since this story was originally published, we’ve done additional reporting. We spoke with 11 current and recent Ballou teachers and four recent Ballou graduates, and we reviewed hundreds of attendance documents, class rosters and emails. They show that many students graduated despite chronic absenteeism. Records show half the graduates missed more than three months of school, or 60 days.

NPR could as easily have said, “Whoops, we got just about everything wrong the first time around,” because, sadly, it did.  In the new report (which runs for nearly 8 minutes), listeners were told, ”

We reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a district employee shared the private documents. Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school.  According to district policy, if a student misses a class 30 times, he should fail that course. 

After the piece aired, I was told, quite a few listeners were upset and angry about what they felt was an incomplete story.  At least one person, a school district employee, leaked documents revealing just how badly NPR had missed the mark.  Here’s how NPR explained it:

An internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation or community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.

Because the devil is in the details, this longer excerpt is worthy of attention. It reveals just how low administrators were willing to go.

“It was smoke and mirrors. That is what it was,” says (history teacher Brian) Butcher.

WAMU and NPR talked to nearly a dozen current and recent Ballou teachers — as well as four recent graduates — who tell the same story: Teachers felt pressure from administration to pass chronically absent students, and students knew the school administration would do as much as possible to get them to graduation.

“It’s oppressive to the kids because you’re giving them a false sense of success,” says one current Ballou teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job.

“To not prepare them is not ethical,” says another current Ballou teacher who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

It’s rumored that certain administrators filled out and submitted college applications for students who had no interest in attending. They were then called to the office and told to sign the applications….all in the name of achieving that 100% success rate. NPR’s follow up report, which is a 1000% improvement, still does not include an important fact: The University of the District of Columbia, accepts all DC high school graduates.

“They’re not prepared to succeed,” says Morgan Williams, who taught health and physical education at Ballou last year. Williams says the lack of expectations set up students for future failure: “If I knew I could skip the whole semester and still pass, why would I try?”

Williams taught physical education and health at Ballou for two years. She says her students were often chronically absent, but the gym was always full. Students skipping other classes would congregate there, she says, and her requests for help from administrators and behavioral staff to manage these students were often ignored.

Williams, and other teachers we spoke to for this story, say they often had students on their rosters whom they barely knew because they almost never attended class.

The NPR report provides shocking numbers: One-fifth of seniors missed more than 90 days of classes, and one-half missed 60 days.  District policy calls for automatically failing any student who misses more than 30 days of classes.

Near the end of a term, Williams says, students would appear, asking for makeup work like worksheets or a project. She would refuse: There are policies, and if students did not meet the attendance policy, there was nothing she could do to help them. Then, she says, an administrator would also ask how she could help students pass.

At one point, while she was out on maternity leave, she says, she received a call from a school official asking her to change a grade for a student she had previously failed. “[They said] ‘Just give him a D,’ because they were trying to get him out of there and they knew he wouldn’t do the makeup packet.”

Williams says she tried to push back, but she often had 20 to 30 kids in one class. Repeatedly having the same conversation about dozens of students was exhausting. And the school required extensive improvement plans if teachers did fail students, which was an additional burden for a lot of already strained teachers.

Many teachers we spoke to say they were encouraged to also follow another policy: give absent or struggling students a 50 percent on assignments they missed or didn’t complete, instead of a zero. The argument was, if the student tried to make up the missed work or failed, it would most likely be impossible to pass with a zero on the books. Teachers say that even if students earn less than a 50 percent on an assignment, 50 percent is still the lowest grade a student can receive.

It’s at this point that the highly suspect–and widely popular–scheme known as “Credit Recovery” raised its ugly head at Ballou.  Typically, “Credit Recovery” entails spending about a week in front of a computer, responding to prompts.  The usual outcome for this effort is a full semester’s credit!

During the last term of senior year, some seniors who weren’t on track to graduate were placed in an accelerated version of the classes they were failing. Those classes, known as credit recovery, were held after school for a few weeks. School district policy says students should only take credit recovery once they receive a final failing grade for a course. At Ballou, though, students who were on track to fail were placed in these classes before they should have been allowed. On paper, these students were taking the same class twice. Sometimes, with two different teachers. Teachers say this was done to graduate kids.

Whistle-blowing was apparently not an option.  If teachers pushed back against these practices, they told NPR, the administration retaliated against them by giving them poor teacher evaluations.

“Going along” was the best way to get ahead in a system that hires, fires and promotes teachers based largely on student performance. Playing the game has financial benefits. If an evaluation score reaches the “highly effective” mark, teachers and administrators can receive $15,000 to $30,000 in bonuses.  While the NPR report did not include information about bonuses at Ballou, the local NBC station did, in its follow-up story: “Last school year, 15 teachers at Ballou received bonuses of $20,000 to $25,000, a school district spokeswoman said. Additionally, six administrators received bonuses of as much as $2,000, sources said.”  NPR did report that three teachers it interviewed lost their jobs at Ballou, perhaps because they protested against changing grades.

In their detailed report, NPR also explored the lessons that students may have learned from this broken approach.

Many students have figured out they don’t have to show up every day.  “These students are smart enough to see enough of what goes on,” (music teacher Monica)  Brokenborough says. “They go, ‘Oh, I ain’t gotta do no work in your class; I can just go over here, do a little PowerPoint, pass and graduate.’ Again, this isn’t about the teachers. What is that doing to that child? That’s setting that kid up for failure just so you can showboat you got this graduation rate.”


Could that be true?  NPR spoke to several graduates, one of whom related this tale.

“I came to school when I wanted to,” she says. “I didn’t have to be there; I didn’t want to be there.”  …   While she says she got calls and letters from the school about her absences, she wouldn’t show up until they threatened to send her to court for truancy. “That’s when I was like, ‘Oh, let me go to school.'”

Further evidence that the 100% college acceptance story is bogus comes from academic results.  Only 9% of seniors were able to pass the city’s English test, and not a single student passed the math test.  The average SAT score for Ballou test-takers was 782 out of a possible 1600.

This disgraceful approach to schooling does widespread damage beyond what is obviously done to kids who receive phony diplomas but no real education, and to teachers who are pressured to pass students who haven’t done the work.  One teacher told NPR,  “This is [the] biggest way to keep a community down. To graduate students who aren’t qualified, send them off to college unprepared, so they return to the community to continue the cycle.”

What happened to the 26 students who had been accepted into college but didn’t have enough credits to graduate from Ballou, as the original story reported?  Did they graduate?  NPR doesn’t tell us, but apparently they did not make it.  According to the school district’s website, Ballou’s graduation rate in 2017 was 64%, an increase of just 7% from 2016.   Here something is definitely fishy, because NPR’s follow-up report maintains that 164 Ballou seniors received diplomas in June, while 26 did not.  That’s 190 students.  Mathematically, however, a graduation rate of 64% entails a senior class of 256 students, far more than reported.

Ballou Principal Yetunde Reeves refused to speak to the reporter, but she did interview new Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson and Jane Spence, chief of D.C. secondary schools.  When the reporter asked how so many students could miss all these days of school and still graduate, “Wilson and Spence abruptly ended our interview.”  Later the administrators told NPR that “they stand behind the school’s decision to graduate these students despite missing so much school.”

The NPR report prompted DC’s Mayor to call for an investigation. A few days later, on December 4th, the school system removed Ballou’s principal and reassigned her to “another function in the District.”  The District City Council has scheduled a hearing for December 15th.

I am not writing this to criticize NPR for missing the story** the first time around. I did that myself more than once in my 41-year career, and I was late in recognizing the flaws in Michelle Rhee’s ‘test scores are everything’ approach in Washington.  Her wrong-headed strategy is, arguably, responsible for the mind-set that exists at Ballou today.

Here’s what really matters: the Ballou fiasco is the bitter fruit of the ‘School Reform’ movement that continues to dominate educational practice in most school districts today.  These (faux) reformers continue to support policies and practices that basically reduce children to a single number, their scores on standardized, machine-scored tests.  This approach has led to a diminished curriculum, drill-and-kill schooling, buckets of money leaving the schools and going instead to testing companies and outside consultants, the growth of charter schools (many run by profiteers), and a drumbeat of criticism from ideologues who seem determined to break apart and ruin public education, rather than attempt to reinvent it.

(This approach also once again proves the truth of Campbell’s Law, the more importance  given to a single measure, the greater the probability that it will be corrupted.  When test scores rule education, some people cheat.  And when high school graduation rates rule, people also find ways to cheat.

The dominance of these (faux) reformers throughout both the Bush and Obama Administrations is the reason I wrote “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education” (reviewed here).  It needs rescuing from these folks, and soon……


** Readers of the original post will notice that I have expanded the piece internally and made a correction in the opening graf. All 190 seniors had not actually graduated, as I stated, but all have been accepted into college.  I apologize for the error.  The blatant discrepancy–some haven’t graduated but have been accepted into college–should have been the hook for the piece, as I see it.  That screams for an explanation, and I am baffled that the reporters and editors involved did not go down that road.

I should add that I get no pleasure out of criticizing NPR, which is a national treasure and also where I began my own reporting career. I was there from 1974-1982, the very early days when we often had to explain to people that we were “just like public television, PBS, but without pictures.” In those days, car radios did not receive FM stations, where most NPR stations could be found, and it was a huge victory when President Frank Mankiewicz and his team persuaded Congress that FM ought to be in car radios. I was also there when NPR’s subsequent hubris led to a revolt by local stations led by Minnesota Public Radio that culminated in the creation of a rival, American Public Radio.  Many of my fondest memories are of those days, and some former colleagues are still at it, bless them.  Today we wake up to “Morning Edition,” never miss “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” and catch “Radio Lab,” “This American Life,” and “All Things Considered” as often as time allows.


To remain aloft, a hot air balloon must be fed regular bursts of hot air. Without hot air, the balloon falls to earth. That seems to be the appropriate analogy for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) during the ten-year regime (2007–2016) of Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson. Their top-down approach to school reform might not have lasted but for the unstinting praise provided by influential supporters from the center left and right—their hot air. The list includes the editorial page of the Washington Post, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and philanthropist Katherine Bradley. The most recent dose is “Hot for Teachers,” (in The Washington Monthly) in which Thomas Toch argues that Rhee and Henderson revolutionized the teaching profession in D.C. schools, to the benefit of students. But this cheerleading obscures a harsh truth: on most relevant measures, Washington’s public schools have either regressed or made minimal progress under their leadership. Schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods seem to be thriving, but outcomes for low-income minority students—the great majority of enrollment—are pitifully low.Toch is an engaging storyteller, but he exaggerates the importance of positive developments and misrepresents or ignores SEVEN key negative ones:  1) dismal academic performance; 2) a swollen central office bureaucracy devoted to monitoring teachers; 3) an exodus of teachers, including midyear resignations; 4) a revolving door for school principals; 5) sluggish enrollment growth; 6) misleading graduation statistics; and 7) widespread cheating by adults.


When they arrived in 2007, Rhee and her then deputy Henderson promised that test scores would go up and that the huge achievement gaps between minority and white students would go down. Here’s how Toch reported what has happened on their watch: “While Washington’s test scores have traditionally been among the lowest in the nation, the percentage of fourth graders achieving math proficiency has more than doubled on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) over the past decade, as have the percentages of eighth graders proficient in math and fourth graders proficient in reading.”

Those results, however, stop looking so good once we disaggregate data about different groups of students. Despite small overall increases, minority and low-income scores lag far behind the NAEP’s big-city average, and the already huge achievement gaps have actually widened. From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP reading scores of low-income eighth graders increased just 1 point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low-income students (called “others” in NAEP-speak) climbed 31 points, from 250 to 281. Over that same time period, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the “proficient” level remained at an embarrassingly low 8 percent, while proficiency among “others” climbed from 22 percent to 53 percent. An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: black proficiency increased 3 points, from 8 percent to 11 percent, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined, from 18 percent to 17 percent. In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be reported, but in 2015 white proficiency was at 75 percent.

The results in fourth grade are also depressing. Low-income students made small gains, while “others” jumped to respectable levels. As a consequence, the fourth-grade proficiency gap between low-income and “other” students has actually increased, from 26 to 62 percentage points, under the Rhee/Henderson reforms.

Results of the Common Core tests known as PARCC, first administered in 2015, are similarly unimpressive. The black/white achievement gap is 59 percentage points. Although DCPS students achieved 25 percent proficiency system-wide, the average proficiency in the forty lowest-performing schools was 7 percent. In ten of the District’s twelve nonselective, open-enrollment high schools, somewhere between zero and four students—individuals, not percentages—performed at the “college and career ready” level in math; only a few more achieved that level in English. This is a catastrophic failure, strong evidence that something is seriously wrong in Washington’s schools.

Remember that these students have spent virtually their entire school lives in a system controlled by Rhee and Henderson. In short, despite promises to the contrary, the achievement gap between well-to-do kids and poor kids as measured by the NAEP has widened under their watch and is now over twice as high in fourth grade and two and a half times as high in eighth as it was a decade ago. White proficiency rates now run 55 to 66 percentage points above black proficiency rates and 42 to 66 percentage points above Hispanic rates.

Toch asserts, “Scores have risen even after accounting for an influx of wealthier students.” However, evidence suggests that the test score increases in some grades are most likely a by-product of gentrification. The percentage of white test takers has increased steadily over the last decade (5 percent to 16 percent in fourth grade and 5 percent to 9 or 10 percent in eighth grade), as has the percentage of Hispanic students (9 percent to 16 percent in fourth grade and 7 percent to 15 percent in eighth grade). In the nation’s capital, almost all white kids are from well-to-do families, while Hispanic and black kids in public schools are mostly from low-income households. A 2015 report by the National Research Council pointed out that most of the recent academic gain was likely the result of more affluent families moving into Washington and enrolling their children in public schools.

Central Office Bloat 

Under Rhee and Henderson, spending on non-teaching personnel has swollen dramatically. According to the latest statistics from Census Bureau fiscal reports, DCPS central office spending in 2015 was 9.5 percent of total current expenditures, compared to 1 percent or less in surrounding districts. Today DCPS central offices have one employee for every sixty-four students, a striking change over the pre-Rhee/Henderson-era ratio of 1 to 113 students. Those central office dollars could have been used to provide wraparound social services for children, services that would have allowed teachers to be more effective.

Many of these highly paid non-teachers spend their days watching over teachers in scheduled and unscheduled classroom observations, generally lasting about thirty minutes—not even an entire class meeting. Why so many of these teacher watchers? Because those who subscribe to top-down management do not trust teachers—which leads to the next part of the DCPS story that its admirers misrepresent, downplay, or ignore.

Teacher Turnover and Resignation

Toch writes about Washington’s success in recruiting teachers, even poaching them from surrounding districts. He attributes this to higher salaries and increased professional respect and support. And he adds, in a carefully qualified sentence, that “the school system’s strongest teachers are no longer leaving in droves for charter schools.” Well, perhaps they’re not leaving for charter schools, but they sure as heck are leaving—in droves. Toch fails to mention the embarrassingly high annual turnover of 20 percent system-wide and a staggering 33 percent every year over the last five years in the forty lowest-performing schools. This means that in the neediest schools, one out of every three teachers is brand new every year. And all newly hired teachers, whether novices or poached from elsewhere, leave DCPS at the rate of 25 percent annually. In a recent study of sixteen comparable urban districts, the average turnover rate was just 13 percent.

Defenders of the D.C. approach would have you believe that these teachers have failed to increase test scores. While that is true in some cases, other evidence should be considered. Student journalists at Woodrow Wilson High School interviewed this year’s departing teachers, who expressed frustration with “DCPS’s focus on data-driven education reforms” and “lack of respect and appreciation.” Teachers, including those rated “highly effective,” cited the stress of frequent changes in the demands of the IMPACT teacher evaluation system as well as the absence of useful feedback.

Nor does Toch discuss the large number of resignations during the school year, always a sign that something is amiss. The Washington Post reported recently that nearly 200 teachers quit their jobs after the school year began. “It is an emergency when a quarter or more of the teachers in some schools have resigned during the school year,” D.C. council member Robert C. White wrote in a letter to the chairman of the council’s education committee. According to the Post’s analysis, half the schools in the system had three or more midyear resignations.

The Revolving Door of the Principal’s Office

Every year about 25 percent of DCPS schools open with a new principal. Research finds that principal turnover generally results in lower teacher retention and lower student achievement, particularly at high-poverty and low-achieving schools. Research also suggests that principals must be in place for at least five years to accomplish large-scale change, but only twenty-five of the 115 DCPS schools in the 2016–17 school year had principals who had served five years or more, and most DCPS schools have had two or three principals in the past five years. Unfortunately, the greatest upheavals are in schools serving large numbers of low-income children, kids who need stability wherever they can find it.


Toch makes much of the recent enrollment increase, calling it evidence of the success of the Rhee/Henderson approach. It’s true that PS enrollment, after bottoming out at 44,718 in 2009, had risen to 48,555 in fall 2016. But over the same span, charter enrollment grew by more than 11,000 students. If parents are voting with their feet, then DCPS acolytes ought to be concerned.

Deceptive Graduation Numbers

Toch cites DCPS graduation rates as having climbed to 69 percent, “the highest in the city’s history.” But even education reform enthusiasts dispute the validity of claims about graduation rates. Analyst Robert Pondiscio calls graduation percentage “the phoniest statistic in education,” and veteran Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews suggests that reported improvements are “a mirage.” They argue that increased pressure on teachers and principals to pass students, and highly suspect “credit recovery” practices that allow students to complete a semester’s course work online in a week, combine to inflate the graduation numbers. By some estimates, at least 25 percent—and perhaps as many as 50 percent—of DCPS’s graduating seniors are helped across the line by at least one credit recovery class.

Even if the graduation rate increase is real, given the minuscule percentages of students in most high schools who are proficient by the Common Core PARCC standards, what significance could it possibly have? If undereducated students are being graduated, how is that anything but a hollow triumph?

Cheating by Adults

Toch dismisses D.C.’s cheating scandals in just two sentences: “In March 2011, USA Today ran a front-page story headlined ‘When Standardized Test Scores Soared in D.C., Were the Gains Real?,’ an examination of suspected Rhee-era cheating. The problem turned out to be concentrated in a few schools, and investigations found no evidence of widespread cheating.”

Contrary to Toch’s assertions, cheating—in the form of suspiciously high rates of erasures of wrong answers and filling in the right ones—occurred in more than half of DCPS schools. The changes were never thoroughly investigated beyond an initial analysis by the agency that had corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill. Deep erasure analysis was never ordered by Rhee, her then deputy Henderson, or the mayor. The “investigations” Toch refers to were either controlled by Rhee and, later, Henderson or conducted by inept investigators—and sometimes both. The first two were conducted by a company that had failed to detect cheating in Atlanta, the epicenter of cheating. Rhee, and subsequently Henderson, tightly controlled the inquiries, limiting the number of schools that could be visited, the number of interviews that could be conducted, and even the questions that could be asked.

Why would so many schools be driven to cheat? In her one-on-one meetings with all her principals, Rhee insisted that they guarantee test score increases and made it clear that failing to “make the numbers” would have consequences. The adults who subsequently changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were intent on keeping their jobs, which depended on higher test scores.

As noted, Toch makes two factual errors in his second sentence.  Cheating–erasing wrong answers and replacing them with correct ones–occurred in more than half of DCPS schools, and every ‘investigation’ was either controlled by Rhee and later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators–and sometimes both.  All five investigations were whitewashes, because no one in power wanted to unmask the wrongdoing that had produced the remarkable test score gains.

Four essential background points: The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in those meetings, made them guarantee test score increases.  We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.

Point number two: The test in question, the DC-CAS, had no consequences for students, none whatsoever. Therefore, many kids were inclined to blow it off, which in turn forced teachers and principals to go to weird extremes to try to get students to take the test seriously. One principal told his students that he would get a tattoo of their choice if they did well on the DC-CAS (They could choose the design; he would choose the location!).

Point number three: For reasons of bureaucratic efficiency, the DC-CAS exams were delivered to schools at least a week before the exam date and put in the hands of the principals whose jobs depended on raising scores on a test the kids didn’t care about. This was a temptation that some school leaders and some teachers found irresistible. Test books were opened, sample questions were distributed, and, after the exams, answers were changed. Some schools had ‘erasure parties,’ we were reliably told.

Point number four: Predictably, test scores went up, and the victory parties began.

Contrary to Toch’s assertions, the ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures in half of DCPS schools were never thoroughly investigated beyond the initial analysis done by the agency that corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis would have revealed any patterns of erasures, but it was never ordered by Chancellor Rhee, Deputy Chancellor Henderson, or the Mayor, presuming he was aware of the issue.

When the erasures continued in Ms. Rhee’s second year on the job, she came under pressure to investigate, and so in December 2009 she hired Caveon, a security firm that is based in Utah. Why Caveon?  Ms. Henderson explained to a City Council subcommittee, “The reason that we hired Caveon was because we thought that we needed an objective third party to actually do the investigation and to make recommendations to us.”

Caveon was the perfect choice–if one wanted to turn a blind eye to any wrongdoing. Prior to its work for DCPS, Caveon had been hired by the (so-called) “Blue Ribbon Committee” established to look into allegations of cheating in Atlanta.  Caveon looked–and reported finding nothing wrong in what turned out to be the epicenter of cheating by adults on standardized tests.  Dr. John Fremer, the head of Caveon, told me that while he ‘knew’ there was widespread cheating going on, that was not mentioned in his final report. “We did not try to find out who was cheating,” he said.  “Our purpose was to rank order the schools beginning with those with the most obvious problems (of unbelievably dramatic score increases), in order to make the task of investigating more manageable.” In other words, Caveon produced a list!

Dr. Fremer admitted that he knew some Atlanta teachers were lying to him, but he said his hands were tied because he didn’t have subpoena power.

Georgia’s investigators were contemptuous of Caveon’s efforts, labelling it a ‘so-called investigation.’  Richard Hyde, one of the three leaders of the investigation, told me that “either by coincidence or design, it was certain to fail.”  Mr. Hyde denied that Caveon needed subpoena power because its investigators were representing a governmental agency, and under Georgia law it is a felony to lie to someone representing the government.  What’s more, Mr. Hyde said, Caveon had a fundamental conflict of interest–it was investigating its employer, at least indirectly, because the “Blue Ribbon Commission” (which Mr. Hyde dismisses as “The Whitewash Commission”) included a deputy superintendent of schools.

Robert Wilson, another leader of the Georgia investigation, was even blunter. Of course Caveon didn’t find cheating because “Caveon couldn’t find its own ass with either hand,” he scoffed.  Why anyone would hire Caveon was, he said, beyond him–unless they didn’t want to find out anything.

Dr. Fremer seemed hurt and offended by the criticism. “We try to be non-emotional,” he said, acknowledging that “People who listen only to the law enforcement side do not respect us.”

And so DCPS hired Caveon, which found nothing wrong in DC.  And, almost predictably, that first Caveon investigation became the linchpin for all that followed, from DC City Council Chairman David Catania’s giving it a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to Rhee’s and Henderson’s claims that the investigations vindicate them.

But let’s dig deeper into the surreal world that Caveon inhabits.  Caveon President Fremer maintains that his firm did not conduct an investigation in the normal sense of the word because his firm does not conduct investigations.  “We use the word ‘investigation’ in our materials because everyone else does,” he said, “but we do analysis, with the goal of process improvement and quality assurance.”  Then he added, “We were not brought in to help DCPS with an analysis of what had happened.”

The contract was for a two-part project: a security audit and questioning of certain people at just eight DCPS schools (even though many more schools had been implicated). But, he emphasized again in our conversation, it was not an investigation because Caveon was hired to “review and collect information.”  He told me,  “I give advice as to where to focus attention. I am not trying to position a client to put people in jail. Instead, we give them enough information about problems to allow them to fix them in the future.”

The security audit, he said, consisted of examining DCPS’ policies and procedures around the testing.  Caveon did not seek to find out if principals and teachers actually followed the rules, and so Caveon apparently did not inform Chancellor Rhee just how easy it would be to cheat on the DC-CAS before, during and after its administration.  Caveon did make some recommendations to improve security–recommendations, he said, that DCPS did not follow.

Part Two of Caveon’s work–the questioning–is even more interesting.  Dr. Fremer told me that DCPS gave him a list of the eight schools it was authorized to go into. DCPS also gave Caveon about 50 questions to ask of teachers, proctors, principals and assistant principals.  He said DCPS indicated that Caveon was not to stray from the list.  Follow-up questions, the essence of a good investigation, were actively discouraged, according to Dr. Fremer.

He told me that DCPS’ list of questions did not include “Did you see anyone erasing answers?” or “Did you participate…” or “Are you aware of organized erasures?” or “Are you aware of cheating?”

Dr. Fremer told me that his employees never use words like ‘cheating’ or ‘illegal behavior’ because they are ‘too emotional.’  Instead, he said, they asked individuals if they could explain huge discrepancies in wrong-to-right erasures between classrooms.

Caveon was contractually obligated to show DCPS drafts of the report before it was made final, which Dr. Fremer said was completely appropriate.  “There was no pressure to ‘sweeten the sound’ of our report,” Dr. Fremer said. “We wanted DCPS to check for mistakes and make certain that we did not reveal the identities of individuals.”

Caveon sent DCPS its final report in February 2010, saying that it had not found evidence of cheating–which it had not been looking for, as Dr. Fremer explained.

Caveon I and II were Chancellor Rhee’s first foray into ‘investigation,’ and she and Henderson regularly cite the Caveon reports as evidence that all was well–because Caveon did not find cheating–which it was not looking for.

Next in this row of dominos is DC’s Inspector General Charles Willoughby, who leaned heavily upon Caveon’s report as he exonerated DCPS. If Caveon’s work was superficial, Inspector General Willoughby’s investigation was downright inept. Just how weak was Mr. Willoughby’s effort?  As we reported on Frontline, the Inspector General’s investigation is remarkable for what it did not investigate. He chose not to investigate 2008, the year with the most erasures. He chose not to investigate Aiton, a school notable for its high rate of wrong to right erasures. He did not examine the test answer sheets or perform an electronic analysis. And he did not investigate J.O Wilson – a school with excessive WTR erasures in 100 percent of its classrooms – simply because Chancellor Henderson had assured him that it was a good school.

Although more than half of DC’s schools had been implicated, he focused only on Noyes Education Campus, the school that USA Today had made the centerpiece of its investigation. Over the course of 17 months, his team interviewed just 60administrators, teachers, parents and teachers, all from Noyes Education Campus. By contrast, Atlanta investigators interviewed over 2,000 people and reviewed 800,000 documents. Rather than seek outside experts as Atlanta investigators had, he relied heavily on information from Caveon, which had been, of course, in the employ of DCPS. He did not ask to perform erasure analysis but relied on interviews–sometimes conducted over the phone. And he produced a 17-page report, in sharp contrast to Atlanta’s (post-Caveon) 813-page report.

Without the power to put people under oath, he told City Councilman Kenyan McDuffie in February that he just asked them if they had cheated. If they said they hadn’t, that was the end of it, because, he explained, he “wasn’t conducting a fishing expedition.” Test monitors sent by the central office to patrol Noyes for the 2010 test told Mr. Willoughby that they had been barred from entering classrooms. School officials denied that charge–and Mr. Willoughby believed them, not the monitors.

At a DC City Council subcommittee hearing, Mr. McDuffie asked Mr. Willoughby why he had examined just one school, Noyes, and had not scrutinized other high-erasure schools. “Because we didn’t find evidence of a conspiracy to cheat at Noyes,” he replied, and because that was what was recommended to him. Was it prudent to take the word of firms that were paid by DCPS instead of seeking an outside, independent opinion and to rely on media reports, Mr. McDuffie asked. “Yes,” Mr. Willoughby replied.

Asked if he had tried to find an explanation for the pronounced test score drops when security was tightened, Mr. Willoughby replied, “We were told that it was caused by an influx of new students.” Mr. Willoughby found no evidence of widespread cheating at Noyes but cited some security concerns and noted that one teacher had been dismissed for coaching students on a test. The IG’s essential message: except for that one teacher, all was well.

Finally, there was the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General’s investigation, which leaned heavily upon Mr. Willoughby’s work when it reported in January, 2013, that “No information was obtained or developed during the course of the investigation that substantiated the allegation of false claims made to the federal government or confirmed widespread cheating on standardized tests.”

Rhee and Henderson defend their approach. The investigations “found that there was some cheating, but that it was isolated to only a few schools,” Rhee said in February, 2013. Henderson is proud of how she conducted the inquiries.  “We have had six investigations that have cleared DCPS of widespread cheating,” she said in April, 2013. “I am frustrated because people are saying I haven’t done enough,” she told ABC News. “I have used every tool in my tool kit to get to the bottom of cheating.”

The exact opposite is true. Rhee’s and Henderson’s insistence on higher test scores created a climate that encouraged people to game the system. The adults who changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were not thinking about their students, just themselves, their jobs, and the appearance of success. Kids were numbers, nothing more, nothing less.  That is what Toch, once an aggressive reporter, should have told his readers, because Rhee and Henderson were stealing children’s opportunities to get a decent education.

The fantasy that top-down, data-driven, test-centric ‘reform’ works is perpetuated by articles like Tom Toch’s. Sadly, his piece has been widely distributed by the editorial pages of the Washington Post, influential blogger and co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform Whitney Tilson, and others.

What Has Gone Well

The D.C. public school system has improved in a number of ways since Rhee became chancellor in 2007, and both Rhee and Henderson deserve recognition. Full-day preschool for three- and four-year-olds has been greatly expanded. Facilities have had extensive, badly needed repairs, and a majority of schools have undergone complete modernizations. Pupil/staff ratios are smaller, more schools have extended-day or extended-year programs, and schools offer more electives, activities, and sports. More students participate in AP courses and dual-language programs than did ten years ago. Teacher salaries remain significantly higher than in almost everywhere else in the country.

But, ultimately, Rhee and Henderson lived and died by test scores, and their approach—more money for winners, dismissal for losers, and intense policing of teachers—is wrongheaded and outdated. Their conception of schooling is little changed from an industrial age factory model in which teachers are the workers and capable students (as determined by standardized test scores) are the products. The schools of the twenty-first century must operate on different principles: students are the workers, and their work product is knowledge. This approach seeks to know about each child not “How smart are you?” but, rather, “How are you smart?”

Rhee and Henderson had the kind of control other school superintendents can only dream of: no school board, a supportive mayor, generous funding from government and foundations, a weakened union, and strong public support. Yet, despite carte blanche to do as they pleased, they failed. Without the hot air of public praise, the Rhee-Henderson balloon would have plummeted to earth.

Toch’s article indicates that the stream of hot air will continue to keep the DCPS balloon aloft. The stakes are high, because other like-minded reformers around the country hold up DCPS as “proof” that a top-down, test-centric approach is the key to improving public education. It appears that under Henderson’s successor, Antwan Wilson, the failing Rhee-Henderson approach will continue. That’s sad, because Washington’s students and teachers deserve better.

(For even more about the failure of policies championed by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and Republican policy types, please read my book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”)

(You will find Tom Toch’s reply here.)


In a carefully reported article on the front page of The New York Times on Saturday, November 4th, reporters Natasha Singer and Danielle Ivory dissected the clever (and effective) strategies that big tech companies like Apple, Dell and HP are using to capture a huge chuck of public school dollars.  As the Times put it, “Silicon Valley is going all out to own America’s school computer-and-software market, projected to reach $21 billion in sales by 2020.”  As Singer and Ivory make clear, these tech companies are not doing it the old fashioned way (quality products, proof of effectiveness and those other passé concepts); no, they’re using good old greenback dollar bills to gain influence and, at the end of the day, win lucrative contracts.  Sometimes the money is paid directly to educators and school board members, and at other times it comes in the form of fancy trips, speaking engagements, and consulting gigs.

It’s a breathtaking story of greed, but what’s only hinted at around the edges in the Times story is the harsh truth that this would never happen if educators, politicians and policy makers were not worshipping at the altar of standardized test scores. Tech is selling–and educators are willing buyers–a fantasy: “Buy our fancy software and hardware packages, and your test scores will soar.”  

The reporters use Baltimore County (MD) public schools as their poster child, and surely (now former) Superintendent Dallas Dance has a lot of ‘splaining to do, given the coziness of his relationship with HP and other providers.   Under Dance’s leadership, his system signed a $200 MILLION contract with HP in 2014 and was also on the hook for many millions more in related contracts.   In the district’s own evaluations, the HP device scored third out of the four devices tested, with only 27 points out of a possible 46, but the County signed with HP anyway.

(The device, the Elitebook Revolve, has been plagued with problems and has been discontinued by HP, and Superintendent Dance abruptly resigned in April, no reason cited.)

While the reporters for The Times do not come right out and call the public school people in Baltimore County and elsewhere ‘crooks’ or ‘prostitutes,’ they come pretty close, as in these paragraphs:

In some significant ways, the industry’s efforts to push laptops and apps in schools resemble influence techniques pioneered by drug makers. The pharmaceutical industry has long cultivated physicians as experts and financed organizations, like patient advocacy groups, to promote its products.

Studies have found that strategies like these work, and even a free $20 meal from a drug maker can influence a doctor’s prescribing practices. That is one reason the government today maintains a database of drug maker payments, including meals, to many physicians.

“If benefits are flowing in both directions, with payments from schools to vendors,” said Rob Reich, a political-science professor at Stanford University, “and dinner and travel going to the school leaders, it’s a pay-for-play arrangement.”

Sadly, this isn’t a new story. Apple sold an expensive bill of goods to Los Angeles County Public Schools years ago, and Joel Klein’s Amplify signed some lucrative contracts, deals that went south when some of the machines burst into flames.  I write about those deals and other stupidities in my new book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.” (The New Press, 2017)

I devote an entire chapter to what is the 8th step of my 12-step program, “Embrace Technology (Carefully).”  Here’s an excerpt:

Because most educators have failed to recognize how technology has transformed learning, I believe that much of that money is being wasted. Unfortunately for students (and creative teachers), many districts are buying prepackaged, computer-based curricula that lead students to predetermined answers. Designed to control learning and often advertised as being “Common Core ready,” they are catnip to beleaguered school boards under pressure to raise test scores.

Education’s decision-makers also have to be wary of supposedly free stuff. The big boys—Google and Amazon—are making offers that schools and teachers will find it difficult to refuse: free tools for writing, editing, and more from Google, and free curriculum materials from Amazon.  But nothing is free, so schools must realize that using these materials gives the provider all sorts of information about its users. Google knows me inside and out, and I guess that’s okay because I’m on the exit ramp. Should Google, Amazon, Facebook, et alia know everything about your third grader? I’m not so sure about that.

Values come first, technology second, and that’s where citizens must hold the feet of educators to the fire. Children swimming in a sea of information need to learn how to sift through the flood so they can distinguish truths from half-truths and fiction. Learning how to formulate tough questions and search for answers should be central to their curriculum, not absorbing and regurgitating facts.

Unfortunately, unsophisticated school districts have tended to buy first and plan later. The poster child for this approach is the Los Angeles public schools, which signed a $1.3 billion contract with Apple and Pearson in 2012, seemingly guaranteeing that 650,000 students would get iPads. However, when the rollout began at forty-seven schools that fall, problems arose immediately.  …..

Before it cancelled the contract, the Los Angeles school district had spent more than $100 million on 120,000 iPads and 18,000 laptops, teacher training, and technical labor. (In late 2015 the district received a refund of $4.2 million from Apple and $2.2 million in credit from the computer company Lenovo.) The debacle cost Superintendent John Deasy his job and led to an ongoing FBI investigation into whether Deasy and others colluded to make it virtually impossible for vendors other than Apple and Pearson to qualify for the contract. Deasy has denied the allegations.

Los Angeles is not alone, not by a long shot. Unfortunately for students and taxpayers, “buy first, plan later” is a common modus operandi. For example, twenty-six school districts in Texas bought 81,000 iPads and 10,000 other tablets for students in just one year.  …..

Disasters abound. Guilford County, North Carolina, first shut down and later canceled its 1-to-1 program when 1,500 of the 15,000 Amplify tablets it had purchased developed problems, including broken screens and overheating battery chargers, within a few weeks. Some Amplify tablets even caught fire.  …..

Even with a full load of technology, many schools continue to conduct business as usual, with teachers doing most of the talking. According to Stanford’s Larry Cuban, “Even in computer-based classes, teacher-centered instruction with a mix of student-centered practice was the norm.”  In short, the problem goes beyond naiveté. The deeper problem is that those running public education have, for the most part, failed to recognize how technology, and particularly the Internet, have already transformed learning outside of school—just not school-based learning.

It bears repeating: Technology is fundamentally value-free. Just as an old-fashioned pencil and the coolest smartphone can be used to stay in touch with loved ones or to plan terrorist attacks, schools can use computers for “drill and kill” or for exploring new ideas. How our schools are using—and failing to use—technology reveals a great deal about what we value.

Despite having access to all the world’s knowledge on their smartphones, most students in most classrooms are expected to learn and then spit back conventional knowledge: state capitals, the periodic table, how a bill becomes law, and the like.

For me, the bottom line is clear: NO school district should EVER buy ANY pre-packaged software!  Districts need to plan first, and that process must include the early adopters among the teaching staff.  If those teachers are not on board and involved, the money is going to be wasted.  Further, the goals of any technology adoption plan CANNOT be ‘improved student achievement,’ because that’s more test score idolatry.

21st Century schools must look at each child and ask ‘How is she intelligent?’ and act accordingly.  Regurgitation education is doing more damage to public education than Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has ever contemplated, even in her wildest fantasies.

The rumor mill has DeVos resigning soon, but that won’t rescue public education.  Only a progressive reinvention will save our schools, our children, their teachers, and our future.

The Silicon Vally assault must be turned away, not because they’re bad people but because they are peddling snake oil.  If this argument resonates, please take a look at “Addicted to Reform.”  Thanks…


You Shoulda Been There

“The great state of Minnesota, home of 10,000 lakes and birthplace of the charter school movement, proudly casts its vote in favor of the resolution.” 

The cheers echoed across the meeting room of the Ravel Hotel in Long Island City, New York.  It resembled a political convention with lots of sign-waving and cheering, but in fact it was a gathering of close to 300 men and women who are deeply involved in running independent charter public schools in about half of our country’s 50 states.  They were participating in the 3-day gathering‘s final event, a town hall meeting (that I was moderating).  At that moment, they were voting on the following resolution:

Students, families, educators (and indeed the entire country) need a national, independent, democratically organized group to advocate for independently managed, financially transparent, community oriented public charter schools as articulated in our Statement of Principles.

(And, in case you’re wondering, it passed unanimously.)


The ambitious goal of the 3-day meeting was to begin the process of rescuing the charter school movement from a deepening identity crisis.  Can they succeed?  That we won’t know for some time, but they got off to a good start.

You may be surprised to learn that about 60 percent of the country’s 6,000 or so public charter schools are independent, meaning they are not part of either a non-profit Charter Management Organization (CMO) or a for-profit Education Management Organization (EMO).  These independent charter schools are often disparaged as ‘Mom and Pop’ schools, but in my experience most are centers of innovation, openness, and collegiality.  However, CMO’s like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Success Academies and EMO’s like K-12 get most of grant money and the public attention, sometimes for their test scores but just as often for their exclusionary policies or profiteering.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has brought new attention to the charter school movement–and new controversy.  She’s declared her support for charter schools, vouchers, and ‘choice’ for all students, a mixed bag that many charter school people would prefer not to be in.  DeVos has also made things harder for charter people because, while her budget sets aside dollars specifically for charter schools, it calls for big cuts in overall spending for public schools—which charters are, of course.

As I see it, the term ‘charter school’ is so overused and misused that it now borders on being meaningless.  Just as the word ‘restaurant’ tells you only that it serves food, the term ‘charter school’ means little more today than ‘a place with children and teachers that’s somehow different from most district schools.’  Is it innovative, warm and welcoming, or is it a drill-and-kill factory? Does it have certified teachers, or is it staffed by untrained but energetic young people who will leave within a year or two? Does it welcome children with special needs, or do its leaders find ways to discourage them from enrolling?  You cannot tell by the name ‘charter school;’  As with a restaurant, you have to go inside.  Given that, it’s no wonder that public support for charter schools is falling, according to the most recent Phi Delta Kappan poll.  Why would the public support what it cannot understand?

That’s one reason The Coalition of Community Charter Schools convened what it proudly declared to be ‘the first ever Independent Charter School Symposium.’  Its goals were ambitious: 1) Explore the tough issues that national charter groups would rather not discuss, especially the treatment of special needs kids and the issues of racism and segregation; 2) Develop and agree upon a set of guiding principles; and 3) Adopt a binding resolution that would start the group down the road to recovery.

When Steve Zimmerman, the educator/energizer bunny behind the meeting, asked me for ideas, I suggested inviting the surviving participants from the historic 1988 meeting at Itasca, near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It was there that the notion of chartering, which had been floated by union leader Albert Shanker, educator Ray Budde and others, was developed in some detail. That 1988 meeting led to Minnesota’s first-ever charter law in 1990 and the first charter school, in Saint Paul in 1992.

Steve invited five men and women to gather for a conversation, which I would moderate (I had been the moderator of that 1988 meeting): Sy Fliegel, Joe Nathan, Elaine Salinas, Ted Kolderie and Ember Reichgott Junge.  It was Ember, then a State Senator, who became fascinated by the idea of chartering and subsequently took it upon herself to craft a law.  She tells the fascinating story in her book, “Zero Chance of Passage.”

(In the end, Sy could not participate because of a family conflict, but I interviewed him before he had to leave and did my best to incorporate his answers into the discussion.)

The conversation is a glimpse into history, the story of chartering told by those who were (and are) in the arena.  They have some valuable insights into the current situation too, of course.  You will soon be able to watch the conversation on the website, where you can also see other sessions (such as racism in chartering and special needs and chartering) and read the Statement of Principles.

Before long, the organizers and participants will announce the creation of a new group, an Association of Independent, Community-Based Chartered Public Schools. It will stand for TRANSPARENCY in admission, retention, discipline and spending.  (As a journalist, I know how important it is to ‘follow the money.’  Many charter schools are secretive about spending, often because they are playing fast and loose with public dollars.  This group insists that has to stop.)

The original charter school law (1990) called for creating ‘different and innovative forms of measuring outcomes,’ and this new organization is enthusiastically behind that concept. Independent chartered schools want multiple measures of achievement as well as an end to the tyranny of testing.

(If you’re wondering about ‘chartered’ versus ‘charter,’ many of the original documents used the longer word, and this new group wants to signal that it is intent on going back to first principles.)

What will happen next? I’m betting on this determined group and hope you will join me in paying attention.

FAIRTEST is not a footnote

I am a fan of footnotes, including my own, and probably my favorite footnote in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education is #1 for the chapter entitled “Measure What Matters.”  The footnote reads, in its entirety: The single best source of information about testing and resistance to over-testing is the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, better known as FairTest. FairTest regularly publishes a free scorecard of developments that you can subscribe to. It’s a small non-profit, however, so I hope readers will consider contributing.  Over the years, I’ve found FairTest to be an honest and honorable advocate, and, trust me, not all advocates can be trusted.”

FAIRTEST itself is not a footnote, of course. It’s an incredibly vibrant and important organization that provides an essential service. It’s small and non-bureaucratic—and, because its cause is decidedly out of favor with the mega-foundations, wealthy hedge fund guys, and others who dabble in education, it’s always struggling.

You can help.  Every fall FAIRTEST honors those it identifies as ‘Heroes in Education’ at its annual dinner.  This year’s event will be in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 26th.    FAIRTEST will present the Deborah Meier Award to John H. Jackson and Barbara Madeloni. More about them follows:

Dr. John H. Jackson is President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Dr. Jackson leads the Foundation’s efforts to ensure a high quality public education for all students regardless of race or gender. He joined Schott after seven years at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Dr. Jackson also served on the Obama-Biden Education Policy transition team and was Senior Policy Advisor in the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education in the Clinton Administration. He holds a J.D. from the University of Illinois and a Doctorate in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Barbara Madeloni is President of the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association and a staunch advocate for students and educators in public schools and higher education. She is committed to racial and economic justice and to building effective unions in alliance with parents, students and communities. She was a key leader in the successful 2016 Massachusetts campaign to block the expansion of charter schools. Madeloni is senior lecturer (on leave) in the Labor Studies Department at UMass-Amherst, where she previously worked at the School of Education. She also has taught high school and worked as a psychotherapist.

Please consider going. Ticket prices vary by status, but a ‘Champion’ ticket ($150) gets you into both the reception and the presentation, where you might get to swap stories and take selfies with the likes of  Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Michelle Fine, Lani Guinier, Jonathan Kozol, Karen Lewis, Deborah Meier, and Diane Ravitch.

If you cannot attend, please consider making a tax-deductible gift to FAIRTEST, which  you can do on-line or by sending a check to PO Box 300204, Boston MA 02130.

One more request: Please circulate this PDF widely.

Thank you……

John Thompson Reviews John Merrow’s “Addicted to Reform,” and Loves It!

Diane Ravitch's blog

John Thompson, historian and teacher in Oklahoma, Reviews John Merrow’s ADDICTED TO REFORM:

In “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education”, John Merrow lets it all out. Merrow, the winner of the George Polk Award and two George Foster Peabody Awards, leads us down “Memory Lane,” republishing his astonishing journalism that predates “A Nation at Risk,” and its warning against “a rising tide of mediocrity.” He also recalls successful innovators such as James Comer, E.D. Hirsch, Deborah Meier, and Henry Levin.
ADDICTED TO REFORM by John Merrow | Kirkus Reviews
But Merrow shows how high stakes testing dramatically increased our output of mediocre and even worse lessons for our kids. He tells us how the bubble-in reform “mania” got to a point where a principal told his teachers to “motor down,” to stop teaching 11th grade material to high-performing freshmen in order to prepare for the 9th…

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Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

Friday night’s “EIF Presents: XQ Super School Live” television special was intellectually bankrupt or deliberately ahistorical–and perhaps both. The premise of the 1-hour program was that the American high school is hopelessly and dangerously behind the times.  This was demonstrated in a clever graphic using cars, phones and high schools: An early model-T, an early operator-assisted phone, and a high school classroom; then a car from the 1950’s, a dial-phone, and essentially the same high school classroom. Finally, a high tech car, a whiz-bang smart phone, and–yes–that same high school classroom.

The message couldn’t have been more obvious: high school has been standing still for too long.  However, that is demonstrably false. The American high school has been a battleground for intellectual and social issues for at least 65 years… let me begin to count the ways high schools have changed, and changed, and sometimes reverted to form…

1. Since James B. Conant published “The American High School Today” in 1959, we have gone from small high schools to huge consolidated high schools and, thanks largely to the Gates Foundation, back to small high schools. That seesaw continues

2. Since the Supreme Court Brown Decision in 1954 outlawing school segregation, we have gone (or tried to go) from segregated high schools to integrated/desegregated high schools and now, sadly, back to segregated high schools. Those chaotic times included all-white separatist ‘academies’ and ‘freedom schools’ for black children when school districts and the entire state of Virginia invoked ‘massive resistance’ and simply closed their public schools.

3. Since the passage of PL94-142, The Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, we have gone from high schools that excluded handicapped kids to high schools that included them but kept them in separate classes to today’s high schools with ‘least restrictive environments.’

4. Since 1960 we have gone from rigidly tracked high schools (the one I taught at in the mid-60’s had FIVE tracks) to high schools that are—supposedly—almost track-free, except for ‘honors’ divisions.

5. Since the publication of ‘A Nation at Risk’ in 1983, we have gone from high schools with minimal requirements for graduation to high schools with much more demanding standards, followed now by high schools with ‘two-tier’ diplomas.

6. Since 2000 we have gone from high schools with no exit exams to high schools requiring students to pass an exit exam to graduate, and back to high schools without exit exams.

7. Since 2008, high schools with graduation rates in the low teens have raised their rates considerably. Overall, the nation’s high school gradation rate has climbed from 70 percent to 83 percent.  Some of that increase was due to close personal attention to students in danger of failing and dropping out, a caring approach that no doubt brightened many futures. Unfortunately, most of the increase can be traced to three reprehensible strategies: 1) persuading students to leave voluntarily to–supposedly–enroll in GED programs; 2) dubious on-line ‘credit recovery’ computer-based programs that allow students to ‘earn’ a semester’s worth of credit in less than a week’s time in front of a screen; and 3) widespread cheating by adults that boosted failing scores over the passing bar.

8) Since 2013, we have gone from high schools in which virtually every student fell in line and took whatever exams the school district required to high schools in which as many as 80 PERCENT of students have refused to take certain standardized tests.  And this is ongoing….

The latter may be the most important change of all because it is coming from the ground up, from the students themselves…and because it’s ongoing.  

Last night’s star-studded (Tom Hanks, Viola Davis and many dozens more) program was a production of the XQ Institute, which was founded by billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Hollywood’s Entertainment Industry Foundation, which regularly gets behind ‘safe’ social issues.  It was an odd marriage that could have used some counseling, ideally from a few education historians.

As I see it, the program wanted to look bold without criticizing the ‘school reform’ crowd that still controls most of what happens in schools.  It could have been bold. It could–and should–have said “Most high schools treat kids like numbers, their scores on standardized tests.  That has to change…and here’s how it can happen, how it is happening.”  But in order to do that, the narrative would have had to renounce and reject not just Republican education policies of “No Child Left Behind” but also those of the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top,” widely supported by Democrats for Education Reform and other traditional ‘school reformers.’  Given that Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan now works for Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, that wasn’t going to happen.

Last night’s program was high energy and cute without being daring.  For example, it had a clever ‘red carpet’ segment but with teachers as the stars.  Lots of cheering, but that was it.  That’s sadly timid.  Imagine if Melissa Rivers, the host on the red carpet, had asked teachers the question she always asks the Hollywood stars: “You look marvelous. What are you wearing tonight?’  

And picture a male teacher responding:  “These old things?  I bought these khakis 12 or 13 years ago. I was going to buy a new pair for tonight, but I just spent $380 on basic supplies for my classroom.  Oh, and would it be rude of me to ask how much your outfit cost?”

Imagine a female teacher responding, “What am I wearing?  Actually, I’d rather talk about tomorrow’s field trip….I’m taking my kids to the Getty Museum, where they will….. see provocative art and meet contemporary artists.  And the next day my students will be on Skype, talking with students in a high school in Paris about climate change. We’ve been measuring the air quality here and sharing the data with them for purposes of comparison and analysis.  But I have to charge the kids for the bus to the Museum and I had to ask some wealthy parents to pay for the scientific equipment because the school district has been cutting our instructional budget.”

And another teacher could have said, “To be honest, I’m happy for this attention, but I can’t help but thinking about the fact that you make 17 or 18 times more money per year than I do.”

“EIF Presents: XQ Super School Live” was difficult for old-fashioned television watchers to avoid because Hollywood and Powell Jobs had bought or otherwise arranged for one hour–8-9PM–on all four networks CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox.  Maybe they were harking back to television’s monopoly days, thinking this would guarantee a captive audience.  That’s old-fashioned thinking, because most TV viewers today have hundreds of channels to chose from and are quick to use the remote.  My bet is that millions of people watched “Washington Week” on PBS, the US Open tennis tournament on ESPN, or a movie on Netflix.  I hope that many more millions read books, had family conversations, or took walks around the neighborhood to enjoy the full moon.

The program asked viewers to text a certain number to get involved, and perhaps XQ will be taking bolder steps.  (I signed up).  That’s a long shot, based on the program’s timid content.

In the end, the program tried to have it both ways.  The high schools they showed, funded by grants from XQ and the Emerson Collective, looked interesting. They seemed to give students much more control over their own learning, which is highly desirable. If that is what XQ wants for all kids, they need to face the fact that this approach is not the system’s M.O. because our system was designed to sort kids.  The schools in the XQ film do not do that.  Those schools seem to ask of each child ‘How are you intelligent?’ and then build on those interests to see that every student receives a well-rounded education.

Unfortunately, most of our schools continue to ask the question they have always asked:  “How intelligent are you?”  They determine the answer by testing….or by parental income and race. After that comes the sorting into what crudely could be called ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’   That is the elephant in the room that has to be addressed and changed. Unfortunately, “EIF Presents: XQ Super School Live” wasn’t up to meeting that challenge.  

Woulda, shoulda, coulda….

Learning to Hate

Hi John,

The elephant in the room….. and NO ONE WILL ADMIT IT… that the lower orders, including blacks, hispanics, etc. do not learn at the same rate as their white counterparts. It may be societal, or genetic…..but who cares? Deal with it as a reality. YOU CAN NOT MAKE DOGS CLIMB TREES!!

When I read this email from a high school classmate, my mind flashed back to an incident on a soccer field 62 years ago, when we were awkward or pudgy (or in my case, both) 14-year-olds.   Loud and clear as a bell, this classmate, who was on the other intramural soccer team, yelled “Happy Hanukkah” at someone on my team. I didn’t know what “Happy Hanukkah” meant, but, when the boy yelled it again, one of my teammates confronted him. They faced off and then began pushing, shoving and wrestling before others intervened to break it up.  I had no clue as to what had just happened. I didn’t know my teammate was Jewish; in fact, I knew almost nothing about Judaism.  It wasn’t until much later that I learned why the phrase, spoken by a non-Jew and delivered in a certain way, might be offensive to a Jew.  And I never figured out whether the boy who shouted “Happy Hanukkah” was being anti-Semitic or just trying to upset an opponent.

Now I think I know.  

My classmate, who must be–like me–76 years old, wrote the above email after reading a recent blog post about the schools in Washington, DC.  My central point was that two prominent researchers were jeopardizing their reputations by publishing misleading data. Despite their claims, the achievement gaps in Washington have persisted and even widened.  My point is that the ‘test-and-punish,’ test-centric, data-driven approach simply doesn’t work…and that poor and minority kids deserve to be treated with the same respect shown to children born to privilege.  My classmate, however, found confirmation of some basic belief of his….and his confirmation caused me to relive his earlier behavior.

And then the oddest thing happened: Believe it or not, the second response to my blog came from the boy he yelled at, my former teammate on that intramural soccer team. He’s someone I have stayed in touch with over the years. In high school he was hard-working and earnest.  He’s done well in life and has made a point of giving back in his small midwestern community and elsewhere.  We share a genuine wonkiness about education and a belief in trying to level the playing field.

He wrote:


Amazing that academics from two serious institutions would risk such extreme distortion. Why would they make fools of themselves??

By the way, here in Smallville our K-12wide PBL installation, now in year 5, is very very successful. Parents, kids, teachers and community are convinced it works. Even silly State-mandated test scores are good, despite not teaching to them.

Seeing those two responses back-to-back, and remembering that soccer field incident from 62 years ago, has me wondering.  How do children learn racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hatred?  How do we learn tolerance and understanding?  Who teaches us, and can we unlearn hatred? Were my classmates already fully formed at age 14?   Was I? And, if we are, do we then view everything thereafter through that prism unless a dramatic ‘Saul on the road to Damascus’ experience changes our lives?  

The questions strike me as particularly relevant today because our 71-year-old President regularly expresses attitudes that are, at best, questionable and often objectionable.  I’m wondering whether he–or any of us–can change our basic beliefs once we reach maturity.  If so, what does it take?

And if not, what is in store for our country?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.