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….

21 thoughts on “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

  1. John, I am surprised at your hit piece. Although the program is unbearably glitzy, precious, and completely lacking in historical perspective, even beyond your examples of a-historicalness (John Dewey anyone? and Rousseau, even longer before Steve and Laurene Jobs banked their first billion), it seems to me it’s trying to encourage a bottom up rethinking of how we do school, high school in particular.

    I would have thought you’d be behind such a project, since you yourself have called for much the same–precisely for the reasons you give in your column: The approach in the showcased schools is so not the way “most of our schools continue” to operate.

    The fact that this is “not the system’s M.O.”, as you say, is precisely the point. Beneath the text-to-get-involved number shown on the screen was this subtext: Don’t expect the “system” to change itself; we the people (pardon the cliche) have got to get in there. It might seem naive, romantic, utopian, etc, but isn’t it a message to support, even celebrate, despite the distracting glitz and other crap? That’s a real question.


    • Claude, I don’t think what I wrote was a ‘hit piece’ because I give them credit for supporting the right approaches to HS. What they fail to do is ask the right questions, essentially the WHY question. And by enlisting viewers, they imply that is what it takes. So if that fails, it’s on the viewers. Why not analyze what kids do all day in HS, how they become, to many adults, nothing but test scores, how the curriculum has been dumbed down, who benefits from the current mediocrity, and so on. Did they lack the courage to call out their friends and allies? Don’t they understand? Did they involve historians or teachers?
      All that money and energy…

      Liked by 1 person

      • John, if you don’t like “hit piece” you can substitute “takedown,” as the first comment termed it. Read his full blog, and you’ll see he characterized your reaction as “rather disgusted.” So don’t take my word for it.

        But wordplay aside, what I can’t understand is why we (and I don’t just mean you, with all respect, truly) can’t actively build on areas of convergence, that is, put them front and center, then say, ok, here’s what else we need to think about or do. In this case, I would have thought a more productive approach would have been to say something like:

        “Here’s a group that is trying to promote a grass roots movement to rethink how we do HS; the models they’re holding up as possible ways forward contain a great deal of value. Watch the show (, but don’t get put off by all the Hollywood glitz.. that’s just the way they assume they can get lots of people’s attention. (Maybe they’re right.) The XQ Super School thing could be a very worthwhile addition to a national movement to transform our education system. But to go beyond a few isolated, even if inspiring, examples and overheated rhetoric, there are a number of things we need to think about and do. With all that money and energy and the interest they are hoping to galvanize, we should/need to.. etc.”

        The “credit for supporting the right approaches to HS” you say you give them is buried and tempered by derision… yes, derision; disgust even. Perhaps that’s not what you intended. But that’s how registers. I just don’t see how it’s productive.


  2. Perhaps we saw different programs. I agree with you John, about changes that you listed. Those have taken place.

    But my sense of research and experience around the country, is that the basic approach to students as people who have important insights and strengths, or to awarding credit learning outside high school has not changed much in the last 40 years.

    Among other things on the program, I saw
    * Repeated emphasis on listening to and learning from students. I’m delighted that was emphasized. Did you hear that theme promoted? Do you disagree with it?

    Some of us have promoted that idea for decades. We’ve taught classes that combined classroom work and community service. We’ve worked hard to design programs where student voice and influence are important. But various studies show a significant % of students are “not engaged”.

    * Strong promotion of the idea that learning can and should take place in places other than “behind a desk.” We have lots of programs now where students work during the day, helping subsidize the fast food and other industries. But are most students permitted, encouraged/helped to participate in internships/apprenticeships, field trips throughout the state, or country? My sense is “no.”
    Did you hear strong promotion of the idea that learning can and should place in places other than “behind a desk”?

    Those were two ideas I saw promoted. Did you hear them?

    And let’s be clear – even 30 years ago, well before the extensive promotion of tests, the two ideas mentioned above were not common in many schools.


    • Joe and Claude,
      My problem is not with the ideas floated–students have more agency over their learning, less desk-centered learning, and so on. If you have read my book, “Addicted to Reform,” you know that I strongly supported these and other ‘progressive’ pedagogy. However, after 41 years of reporting and seeing so many wonderful models spring up, thrive for a while, and then disappear, I know in my heart/gut/brain that such models will NEVER bring about real change until the fundamental design flaws in the system are confronted. That will be a wrenching situation because those who benefit from the current situation will not give up their lives of comfort without a struggle. Expecting people to ‘demand’ the kind of schools shown in the program, and expecting the system to say ‘Oh, OK,’ is naive at best. ‘Sorting’ PAYS for quite a few: the test makers and purveyors of tests, consultants, and so forth. The harsh system that loses 30-50% of new teachers in five or maybe four years actually BENEFITS those who train teachers, some 4000 institutions. Are they going to embrace a system that supports and encourages teachers?

      And it turns out that many of those model schools have admission requirements. Is that scalable? Here’s more about the schools that the XQ program highlighted:

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m afraid we’re talking past each other, but I’ll give it another try.

        Here is my question, an honest, not rhetorical, one: Why not start off by acknowledging, even celebrating, “the ideas floated–students have more agency over their learning…etc” and the desirability of trying to galvanize a national movement in that direction (I’m assuming you don’t object to this?), THEN pointing out the serious, unaddressed challenges that must be faced if this is not to be yet another case where “wonderful models spring up, thrive for a while, and then disappear”? Why appear to trash the whole thing from the outset calling the program “intellectually bankrupt” and waiting until the second to last paragraph to say anything remotely positive (a tepid “looked interesting”), when you yourself acknowledge you’ve been championing the educational ideas in the film for decades? Can you see the contradiction there? Sorry that was three questions, and I’ll acknowledge the third one was rhetorical.

        One last thing and I’ll shut up (but I still hope you’ll answer at least my first 2 questions): The education governor Bill Clinton was said to wonder aloud why, when he saw or heard of great schools, we couldn’t make the exceptions the rule. I’m not sure what he considered “great,” but I don’t recall his trashing people supporting those schools b/c they hadn’t figure out, or were even aware of, all the systemic issues. He said we need to figure out the systemic issues. We’ve of course fallen far short, but I don’t see how it helps to denigrate the efforts of those trying to move in a more positive direction this whole unwieldy, unresponsive, fragmented, confused, chaotic system. Honestly, I just don’t get it.


      • Great question, Claude Goldenberg – why not start out by acknowledging agreements and then pointing to disagreements?

        John responded that he says model programs won’t/don’t spread. I think that’s an over-generalization.

        Some ideas/programs DO spread. Perhaps they should, perhaps not.

        But AP and IB have spread. Other forms of dual credit have spread. Bringing lots of computers has spread. Requiring use of an IEP has spread Why have these practices spread?

        I’m not endorsing everything that has spread but would it be fair to say that some ideas have spread? What might a very wealthy person do to help spread good ideas? What might people in the entertainment industry do to help promote the spread of good ideas?

        On a related issue, what might we learn from musicals like Rent, and movies like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and plays/movies like Raising in the Sun? Did these wonderful products of the entertainment industry help promote greater acceptance of tolerance and acceptance? I think the answer is yes.


  3. Thanks, John,
    I couldn’t watch…I tried, but couldn’t keep myself from shouting at the screen.

    50 years ago, my high school teachers came skipping back from weekend workshops on geometry, biology and algebra bubbling with enthusiasm to try out ideas they’d learned in new curriculum approaches (inspired by the hysteria created by Russia’s launch of Sputnik). The creativity and enthusiasm for today’s improvement of teaching and learning will also come (if ever it does) from within. Governmental and philanthropic funding and suggestions from people who really know stuff are necessary, but educators constantly seeking to do better will bring about actual growth.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hype and glitz tend to inspire skepticism in some people and awe in others. That’s the division we can see here. Are hype and glitz likely to be associated with positive social change? Discuss among yourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Too early to know what will happen next. But there are groups around the country that have formed in response to the program. Some of the ideas the program promoted (noted above) would have great benefit for young people.


  5. This is for both Joe and Claude and anyone else who has been following this thread. I address the large issue–the danger of addressing symptoms and not the real problems–at length in my new book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education” and don’t want to go over the same ground here.
    Joe and Claude are endorsing the notion that “A rising tide lifts all boats,” as I understand them, in the belief that celebrating some small successes can/might lead to copycat behavior.
    And Claude raises a fair question: why don’t I join in the celebration? Here are some reasons: the schools they celebrated as models for the future 1) have admission standards and 2) had millions in subsidies. 3) The TV special was premised on 4) false history, 5) bashing of teachers, and 6) a bizarre (or non-existent) theory of change. 7) It attacked the current HS in broad strokes without examining WHY.

    Because I once spent most of my time producing television, I have been thinking a fair amount about what they could have done. Aside from the obvious (Do NOT devote the first few minutes a the program to listing all the stars unless you want the audience to devote their attention to looking for the stars!), the producers could have led with what I thought was their cleverest bit: Samuel L. Jackson celebrating the real work being done by students (producing, directing, camerawork). If you remember, after saying that about the kids, Jackson began to tell an anecdote from his childhood, at which point the music swelled in order to drown him out. He reacted in (mock) surprise,”Wait, you’re telling me I’m talking too much?”, the director nodded YES and ordered the music to be louder, and Jackson slunk off the stage. Point made: in real learning situations, students make real decisions.
    That could raise one of the program’s central questions: How do kids learn that kind of behavior? And then take us to some of those schools?
    Question two: Does that happen in most high schools? (and so on….)

    Re social change and educational innovation: Remember Accelerated Schools, Hank Levin’s wonderful program that essentially assumed that every child was gifted in some ways? Have you been following what’s been happening with James Comer’s incredibly influential and valuable approach? Lisbeth Schorr wrote ‘Within Our Reach’ some years ago, describing some wonderfully innovative programs that she felt could bring about real change. A few years later she wrote another book describing how nearly all of those programs had disappeared.

    For more about my book:

    Liked by 1 person

    • John: I feel, share, and understand your frustration, but you are misinterpreting what I am saying. I’ll just leave it at this: Bill Clinton’s question is, I believe, a constructive approach that few if any have pursued adequately: How can we make the exceptions the rule? You seem to feel we can’t. Maybe you’re right, in which case this is all just a lot of sound and fury.


      • We can’t make the exceptions the rule when they use selective admissions processes, which is the case with all (yes, all) “miracle” charters too, one way or another.


      • I don’t want to say that, but we don’t have any way of knowing, since all the “miracle” charter schools are free to admit selectively, one way or another, so of course they do. I can’t really say what is possible, but I can say that what’s happening now is based on schools that are free to admit selectively, so we just don’t know.


      • We each can cite examples of innovations that have failed to spread, and innovations that have spread.

        Part of my work has been and remains, after 45 years, trying to help spread the use of good ideas. This requires among other things encouraging and honoring people who have skillfully used good ideas (such as youth/community service) and shared facilities.

        Such ideas encountered many opponents well before the “testing mania” that Merrow describes. But there has been an over-reliance on what can be learned by standardized tests.

        Another idea that has been a huge barrier for progress has been the idea, relentlessly promoted by some, that we should not expect schools to accomplish much with students from low income families and students of color until there there is a dramatic reduction of poverty, racism, medical care, job opportunities, etc.

        This insistence that we lower expectations for schools has been pervasively promoted for more than 50 years. I remember some insisting that the alternative schools of the 1960’s and 1970’s would accomplish little because of the problems outside schools.

        For some of us, it’s been and remains vital to work simultaneously on improving schools and improving the society in which students life. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.

        I strongly disagree that a rising tide lifts all boats. It’s disappointing that John chooses such an oversimplification to describe the questions Claude and I are making and the suggestions we are offering.


  6. John… Joe is right: It is very disappointing that you misrepresent what we’re saying. We’ve not said anything remotely like “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The question I asked was NOT why don’t you join in the celebration. My question was why not acknowledge and even celebrate the educational ideas you yourself have championed forever — but then pose and analyze the challenges to spreading them throughout our fragmented and often chaotic system, challenges about which the XQ people and most others have not a clue.

    How does distorting what other people say help advance the discussion? With all respect, once again, maybe you can answer this question.


  7. If I misunderstood your point, I apologize. I think you are suggesting that I am allowing “the best to be the enemy of the good,” which is not my point. I cannot say this more strongly: too many of these supposed reforms are window-dressing and are not designed or intended to spread widely. They are a kind of safety valve that allows a few to escape, which probably prevents uprising but also allows the sorting machine to continue…and thus perpetuate inequality. They are bandaids, not an effort to address the deep issues.

    These innovations do give kids more agency, but they also are judged by the same foolish standard: do they improve scores on standardized tests? These innovations do not force us to examine our assumptions, or move us closer to a paradigm shift. And in that respect, they can be seen as slowing down change, even as they improve the life chances of a few students.

    Are there exceptions? Of course. I think that the spread of early college and other opportunities to get a jump start on college deserve to spread, and seem to be, though not fast enough in my judgment.

    But at the end of the day, what’s happening is not quite but close to moving around the proverbial deck chairs. Education should be about changing outcomes by providing opportunities. Too often, however, the 12 years of school simply ratify the existing social structure: The children of the privileged, the wealthy, and the well-educated do well; those born into disadvantage are likely to remain there. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it will not be easy to change.

    That’s why I wrote “Addicted to Reform,” which I hope you will read. Thanks


  8. John, I suspect you’re weary of this thread, and would just as soon let it peter out. But I have to say you again misrepresent what I’m saying. I am NOT suggesting you are allowing “the best to be the enemy of the good.” In fact, I’m trying to avoid cliches and platitudes such as this and a “rising tide lifts all boats.” I’m obviously a poor communicator, since I’ve not gotten the message across.

    Final, even if probably futile, attempt to say what I’m saying: I believe you err in communicating, from your opening line about the program being “intellectually bankrupt,” that the whole XQ thing is a crock. (Yes, that is what you communicate, despite the bone you throw about “interesting ideas”.)

    I believe a more productive approach would be this: There are worthwhile educational ideas (and ideals) depicted in the program. Many more students in many more schools would probably benefit from them. But left completely unaddressed in the program is any serious consideration of what we need to do, not just in schools but in the larger society, for this to happen. Here’s what needs to happen: … etc.

    We’re probably at the end of line on this one.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s