Touching the Elephant

You know the old fable about blind men touching different parts of an elephant to determine its true nature. The guy who feels just the ear draws one conclusion, the fellow who holds the trunk draws another, and so on.  That’s my reaction to the latest article touting the success of the District of Columbia’s teacher controversial evaluation system, IMPACT, appearing in Education Next, the journal published by Harvard and Stanford whose contents tend to skew right.  It’s a clear case of limited examination of the available information. Not to say that the authors are blind, just that they haven’t examined more of the elephant.

The authors, Thomas Dee of Stanford University and James Wyckoff of the University of Virginia, generally praise IMPACT, asserting that it has driven out poor teachers, rewarded successful ones, and helped the DC schools improve.

However, Dee and Wyckoff gloss over and withhold critical information, material that their readers really ought to be made aware of.  Just consider their bold assertion that DCPS is “the fastest-improving large urban school system in the United States as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.”   Maybe so, but why don’t the authors disaggregate the data and dig a little deeper?  Probably because the results contradict their thesis.

Mary Levy and I have disaggregated the data. Here’s one small bite:  “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.”

You got that, right?  The so-called Achievement Gap is wider today than when IMPACT was introduced.

Dee and Wyckoff lavish praise on IMPACT’s approach, noting that it has changed and evolved. What they do not tell their readers is the enormous cost of IMPACT.  Mary Levy and I ran the numbers:

“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 4 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 one 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.”

Those excerpts are from Mary’s and my piece in the forthcoming issue of The Washington Monthly, which just published Thomas Toch’s paean to DCPS, an equally misleading essay.  Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Education Next also printed Toch’s piece. It’s all part of a fairly well-designed campaign to convince the world that the top-down, data-driven, test-and-punish approach to fixing schools is just what the doctor ordered. It’s the reform that Democrats for Education Reform and most Republicans favor, despite strong evidence that it does not work.

All three writers–Toch, Wyckoff, and Dee–whitewash or completely ignore the widespread cheating by adults, even though it occurred in more than half of the DC schools.  I wrote about that in a recent post and hope you will revisit that sordid story about the flood of wrong answers being changed to right.  Threats from the Chancellor to “get the scores up or get out,” erasure parties, and more

I’m sure you know that the fable about the blind men and the elephant is also a joke. In that version, one more blind man is walking behind the elephant, picking up its poop, examining it, and then drawing his own conclusions about the true nature of an elephant.  It seems to me that’s where both of these articles, Toch’s and the Dee/Wyckoff piece, belong.



School Reform’s Hot Air Balloon

The current issue of The Washington Monthly contains an article by former journalist Thomas Toch, “Hot for Teachers,” the latest in continuing string of pieces designed to prove the “truth” of the school reform movement’s four Commandments: top-down management, high stakes testing, more money for teachers and principals whose students do well, and dismissal for those whose students do not.

In his article, Toch distorts or omits at least eight issues.  The distinguished education analyst Mary Levy and I have written a rebuttal, which is scheduled to appear in the next issue of The Washington Monthly.  In this blog post, I want to consider in detail just one of Toch’s distortions: widespread cheating by adults: He glibly dismisses DC’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.

There are 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 60 administrators, 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.

Please share this, and our Washington Monthly rebuttal when it appears, with everyone you know who believes that public education ought to focus on children and youth, not test scores and adult aggrandizement.





Affluenza — The 20th Anniversary


(Originally written for the blog of my Secular Franciscan Order fraternity in Mishawaka, Indiana)
This is the 20th anniversary of the broadcast of a documentary that has lodged itself in my heart and my mind. May I recommend it to you as a powerful reminder of the wisdom that comes to us from St. Francis, as well as Holy Scripture even more directly, and from Pope Francis more recently?
The inspirational one-hour report, called “Affluenza,” was shown on PBS and narrated by an NPR host, so you know this was not a “faith-based initiative” or a TV tract propounding Franciscanism. This was a classic, secular piece of insight from the intersection of faith and reason that passes the test of time. Although there are portions of content to which I might append a modest disagreement or cautionary note, it captures well the insights emerging in some circles in 1997…

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Washington Grabs Power=Dog Bites Man

Big surprise: Washington ain’t letting go of its authority to run public education!  That’s the gist of news about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education that she now runs. Here’s the lede from one story, this one by Tom Chorneau of Cabinet Report:

“(District of Columbia) In a muddled if not contrarian response to a state plan for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, the U.S. Department of Education has suggested, among other things, that student performance can only be measured by math and reading scores. (emphasis added)

The surprise pronouncement, included as part of the department’s review of Delaware’s plan for meeting ESSA requirements, stands in stark contrast to what architects of the law said were two key goals—giving states the freedom and the responsibility for designing their own accountability systems; and removing the federal government as arbiter over school performance.”

Now, remember that Donald Trump promised to give control of education back to local communities, and Secretary DeVos often speaks about her commitment to giving families choices and the importance of freeing states and communities from the heavy hand of Washington.  Now, however, we see that her vision closely resembles those of the test-obsessed folks who ran the Department under the two previous administrations.

George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act” convinced me and many others that the federal government cannot run public education.  Unfortunately, the Democrats serving in Barack Obama’s Administration came to a different conclusion. They decided that NCLB proved that Republicans cannot run public education–but they could! And so Democrats adopted an even harsher, more controlling approach of test-based accountability known as “Race to the Top.”   In a classic display of hubris, Arne Duncan’s Department of Education forced states (nearly broke because of The Great Recession) to compete for federal dollars by requiring them to adopt four policies: 1) judge teachers by student test scores, 2) get on board with higher standards (which just happened to resemble the Common Core), 3) improve data gathering, and 4) open more charter schools.  Even states that did not win, Secretary Duncan told me in an interview for the PBS NewHour, were changing their rules.  And because every state had failed to meet NCLB’s impossible standards, they needed waivers to avoid being out of compliance, which Duncan granted–as long as the states said they’d follow his directives, the four points listed above.  Here’s part of the exchange:

JOHN MERROW: Do you anticipate using some of this stimulus money, this incentive money to help these national standards emerge?

ARNE DUNCAN: Absolutely.

JOHN MERROW: So states will get money if they do this thing that Duncan wants?

ARNE DUNCAN: If you play by these rules, absolutely right. (emphasis added)

Inevitably there came a backlash to excessive power in the Department of Education, in the form of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the law that replaced NCLB. ESSA specifically weakens the Department and gives power back to states and communities. And that’s what Betsy DeVos seems to be ignoring.

The lessons: 1) NO ONE gives up power voluntarily.  2) Even though she talks about parents knowing best, this action suggests that Betsy DeVos believes that she knows better.

There seems to be turmoil everywhere in Washington, but education’s confusion is uniquely widespread. While DeVos favors vouchers and charter schools, many in the charter camp don’t trust her.  They are concerned that the Secretary sees charter schools as simply a way-station on the road to vouchers-for-all.  Her proposed budget has dollars for charter schools, but it makes drastic cuts in other funds that go to all public schools, including charter schools.   Moreover, she seems to love for-profit charter schools, which are anathema to a sizable portion of the charter camp.

Confusion favors DeVos and makes it easier for her to destabilize the system. Now, however, we see that she, like her predecessors, is enjoying having power.  Yes, she wants parents to have power…but not, apparently, at the expense of her own.

We’ve heard this song before.  It is, in Yogi Berra’s immortal phrase, deja vu all over again.


Celebrating Fred Rogers

Fifty years ago this week, Fred Rogers began appearing regularly on PBS, the beginning of a remarkable 34-year run that elevated and improved the lives of countless children, including my own.

(His signature program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” first appeared on national PBS in February, 1968. New episodes appeared until August, 2001, and reruns through 2008. Even today some PBS stations run the series.  The forerunner, “Mister Rogers,” debuted on Canadian television in 1963.)

Twitter has been lighting up this week about Fred, particularly in light of the Manchester terrorist attack.  I think the best story came from @Breznican.  I suggest you search Twitter for his tale of meeting Fred.  Here’s one link.

I met Fred Rogers around 1980 under circumstances that still amaze me.  I had a weekly program on NPR, “Options in Education,” and we had just aired a two-part program about children with mental illness, contrasting what was provided privileged kids with what was offered to the less fortunate.

I described what happened in my forthcoming book, Addicted to Reform.

I interviewed Mary, who had been recommitted to a Texas state institution for older children for the third time.

Sometimes I feel so down at heart

I feel like I might fall apart

But then these words come back to me,

‘Just take your time, and you’ll be free.’

Mary wrote that song, which she sang for my tape recorder.  She talked about wanting to escape and hitchhike home to Houston, even though her previous hitchhiking trips had ended badly, one in a multiple rape.

She told me that she had not told her doctor about being raped, but he was aware of her sexual activity. “I know that she has had some–she’s quite flirtatious with some of the guys back on the ward. I don’t have any personal knowledge of her having had sexual activity with anybody around here, while she’s here. But it might have happened,” the doctor said.

At one point in our interview Mary said someone–meaning me–needed to massage her ‘sore’ shoulder. Later she asked me to come closer to tell her if she had ‘sleep in her eyes.’  I declined both invitations.

Music mattered very much to Mary, who broke into song during our conversation, including this song she made up on the spot to end the interview.

This is the last song I’ll ever sing for you.

It’s the last time I’ll tell you

Just how much I really care.

This is the last song–

But I’ll sing more later on.

Right now it’s time for lunch

And I think I’m gonna be gone.

Mary, who was smart and aware, didn’t hold back when talking about the dark side of her life, the drug use and sexual abuse.  She told me what had happened when her allotted few weeks of treatment ran out the last time. “They gave me a few dollars and opened the gate and told me to go,” she said. She had no family members who would take her home, she said.  “I had to hitchhike home. It was a hot day, and a convertible of boys came by and stopped to give me a ride. I got in, but they wouldn’t take me home until I gave them all blow jobs, so I did.”

The program got me thrown off the air in Texas, but Fred, an NPR listener, heard it and wrote me a letter thanking me for bringing the stories of Mary and other children to the public.  Think about that: The famous Fred Rogers wrote ME!   In his letter, he extended an invitation, to get together on his next trip to Washington.  That was quintessential Fred, reaching out with sincerity and generosity.  We took our kids to meet him, of course, and he and I bonded over children’s issues.  Over the years he wrote me five or six little notes, all of which I have kept.

In 1982, when I wanted to try my hand at making television, I asked Fred for advice.  He invited me to visit him on Nantucket, where I also spent part of every summer.  On the appointed day in July, I asked my 5-year-old daughter to accompany me, promising that we would ask Fred to sing his signature song, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”

Fred and Mr. McFeeley, Speedy Delivery and music director Bob Costas (if memory serves) lived in the same neighborhood (!!) on the western end of Nantucket, an area known as Madaket.  We lived in Quidnet, at the opposite end of the small island.

Fred greeted us warmly, and we talked about my hopes for making a documentary series for PBS.  I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, and so, after about 20 minutes, I thanked him and got ready to leave.  Then I remembered what I had promised Kelsey, and so I asked Fred if he would sing his song to her.  We were on a couch, and Fred was sitting opposite us, maybe four feet away.  He leaned forward, smiled and looked at her directly, and began singing in his warm and gentle way: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood….”

And Kelsey?  She jumped up and hid behind me!

She was terrified, I was mortified, but Fred took it in stride.  “That happens a lot, ” he said. “Children are used to seeing me inside a box. It’s too much of a shock when I’m outside the box.”  And he told me about parents who would drag their kids over to him when he was shopping in the supermarket…and the ensuing panic.

The irony is inescapable, because Fred spent so much time on air talking about the difference between reality and make believe.  This is from Wikipedia:

Mister Rogers always made a clear distinction between the realistic world of his television neighborhood and the fantasy world of Make-Believe. He often discussed what was going to happen in Make-Believe before the next fantasy segment was shown (“Let’s pretend that Prince Tuesday has been having scary dreams…”), and sometimes acted out bits of Make-Believe with models on a table before the camera transitioned to the live-action puppet rendition. The miniature motorized trolley which was known in character form as “Trolley”, with its accompanying fast-paced piano theme music, was the only element that appeared regularly in both the realistic world and Make-Believe: it was used to transport viewers from one realm to the other.

From then on, all of Fred’s letters included a message to Kelsey!

We all owe a lot to Fred Rogers.  You may know that Fred pretty much saved public television in 1969, when he testified before a Senate committee.

His wisdom is collected on a number of sites, including Mental Floss.   Here’s one of my favorites, on the subject of heroes:  “When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.”

You and your children can watch a lot of his programs now, on Twitch, which began streaming more than 800 episodes earlier this month.

Fred Rogers died of cancer in 2003.  He was only 74.  We need him today, more than ever.

Famous People Don’t Like My Book

Asking famous people to say something nice about one’s new book is embarrassing and difficult, and so I was happy to leave the responsibility for collecting blurbs in the hands of my editors.  What happened next blindsided me: An ambitious young intern took on the task, looked at the index of “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” and wrote to the people who were mentioned most often.  Someone there slipped me a copy of the responses, which are, quite frankly, pretty disappointing.  I once had high hopes that my book would sell thousands and thousands of copies, but now I’m feeling pretty depressed.  Here’s how they responded:

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: “People made fun of me when I slipped up and asked ‘Is our children learning?’ but I care a lot about education and there’s no way I will say something nice about a book that makes fun of President Obama and I.”

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

FORMER SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN: “When I read what he wrote about my “Race to the Top” program, I created one just for Merrow’s book.  I’m calling it “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 looked in the index. I’m not even mentioned, so why would I buy this book?”

THE WALTON FAMILY: “We respectfully decline to endorse this book. Not only does it criticize our effort to improve education, but the author is known to shop at Costco.”

BILL GATES, co-founder of Microsoft and co-president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “I find it remarkable that Mr. Merrow has the temerity to challenge our reform approach.  The author spent his entire life working in public broadcasting and probably never made more than $50,000 a year.  Ergo, he has minimum credibility.”

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: “Because this is America, I have choice about the books I read, and I choose not to read it. Now we need all children to have school choice.”

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?”

WILLIAM J. BENNETT, former United States Secretary of Education: “I’m pleased that he left out that story about me peeing in the bushes, but, other than that, I can see no reason for recommending this book.”

The New Press will publish “Addicted to Reform” on August 1, 2017, without any of these blurbs. It will be available in hardcover and as an e-book (which includes links to dozens and dozens of videos from my 41-year career.)

The Canary in the Mine

If you are looking for convincing evidence that “test-based accountability” and test-score obsessions are counter-productive, the ‘Canary in the Mine’ is the Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education.  Without much publicity, the Broad Foundation did not award the $1,000,000 Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education in 2015 or 2016 and has no plans to begin awarding it again in the future.

Here’s why: It turns out that the NAEP scores of most of the Broad Prize winners (public school districts) have been flat for years. These districts have been living and dying by test scores, and it’s not working well enough to impress the Foundation’s judges.

Ben Weider of the blog 538 deconstructed the issue in a well-reasoned piece, “The Most Important Award in Public Education Struggles to Find Winners.”  Not long after, the Foundation decided to ‘pause’ the $1 million award, citing ‘sluggish’ changes in urban schools.   As Howard Blume of the Los Angeles Times has reported, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad has shifted his focus to charter schools.

But that’s not really new news, as the Foundation’s own pie chart reveals. Since 1999, the Foundation has made $589,500,000 in education-related grants, and 24 percent of the money, $144,000,000, has gone directly to public charter schools.  No doubt some of the ‘leadership’ and ‘governance’ dollars have gone to public charter schools, which make up 5 percent of all schools.  Over that same time period, 3 percent of the money, $16,000,000, went to winners of the Urban Education Broad Prize ( mostly for college scholarships).

Mr. Broad hoped that urban districts could improve “if given the right models or if political roadblocks” (such as those he believes are presented by teachers unions) “could be overcome,” said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. The suspension of the prize for urban education could signal a “highly public step” toward the view that traditional districts “are incapable of reform,” Henig said.  Mr. Broad seems to have already taken that step in his home city of Los Angeles, where he has been backing a concerted and expensive effort to greatly expand the charter sector.

Apparently it’s pretty simple for the folks administering the Broad Prize in Urban Education: Successful School Reform boils down to higher test scores.  There is no public sign that anyone at the Foundation is questioning whether living and dying by test scores is a sensible pedagogy that benefits students.  There is no public evidence that anyone at the Foundation has considered what might happen if poor urban students were exposed to a rich curriculum and veteran teachers, which is essentially the birthright of students in wealthy districts.  Just the dismal conclusion that traditional districts are incapable of reform, followed by its decision to double down on charter management organizations, despite the truly offensive record of some of them of excluding special needs children and driving away students who seem likely to do poorly on standardized tests.

How sad…..

(This is excerpted from my forthcoming book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” which will be published by The New Press on August 1. It will be available in hardcover and as an e-book (the latter includes many videos from my long career).

(During my time at the PBS NewsHour, my non-profit production company, Learning Matters, received several grants from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to enable us to cover Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC, and Paul Vallas in New Orleans. At no point did anyone from the Foundation ever attempt to influence our reporting, and I have the highest respect for our program officers there.)

Defeating the DeVos Agenda

Progressives everywhere are in agreement that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is no friend of public education. Her agenda is straightforward: 1) educational vouchers that can be ‘cashed in’ at any school, including religious ones; 2) for-profit charter schools, including on-line ones; and 3) minimal oversight by government.  She is pushing this agenda despite overwhelming evidence that vouchers have failed, that the public does not want vouchers, and that the for-profit education world is full of crooks and charlatans.

However, it’s not enough for progressives to simply be against DeVos’s radical agenda. They must stand strongly and clearly FOR an agenda that makes sense…and not just to parents but also–most importantly–to the general public.

Because, while most parents, year after year, give their children’s schools a grade of either A or B, according to the Phi Delta Kappan poll, parents are a small fraction of the voting population.   Progressives need to connect positively with those without a direct connection to public education, the group I call ‘the outsiders.’

You see, the problem with the truism “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child” is that most villagers have no direct connection to children or to the schools they go to. Only about 25 percent of homes have school age children, and in some communities that number drops into the teens. Even if you include households with grandparents, the percentage probably won’t reach 40.

And it is the people in those households with no strong connection to public education who hold the future of public schools in their hands.  They vote on school budgets, and so their opinions of schools, teachers and students matter.  Not only do older folks vote in greater numbers than young voters, but the gap is increasing. According to the Census Bureau, “the turnout rate among 18-to 24-year olds fell to 41.2 percent in 2012 from 48.5 percent in 2008.  The turnout rates of adults ages 65 and older rose—to 71.9 percent in 2012 from 70.3 percent in 2008.”

For these reasons, educators and those connected to schools must develop and adopt strategies to win the support of those without a direct connection to schools.  It’s not enough for good things to be happening in schools; ‘the outsiders’ need to be supportive, and the best way to make that happen is to get them involved in the good things that are happening.

I am afraid that many educators will have trouble taking this step because they have grown accustomed to a system that says, in effect, “Leave the children and the money at the schoolhouse door, and leave the rest to us.”  That approach won’t work any more, if it ever did.  The ‘outside world,’ meaning ordinary taxpayers and the business community, may also have trouble adjusting, because they’ve grown accustomed to being kept at arm’s length. 

But that’s what has to change…and determined educators can do this by meeting ‘the outsiders’ where they are and involving them in the ‘curriculum’ of a modern world. Here are a few ways, taken from my forthcoming book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.

*Students can create a photo gallery of the residents of their apartment building or their street and then post portraits on the web for all to see and talk about.

*Art students can sketch portraits of business storefronts, or workers and bosses, also to be posted on the web.

*The school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county — simultaneously on Skype — which is no problem as long as the schools are within 750 or so miles of each other, roughly the speed of sound (any farther can create a sound lag).

*A video team can interview adults in a senior citizen center or an apartment building around a chosen theme (best job, favorite trip, et cetera), to be edited into a short video for the web. Producing short biographies of ordinary citizens will teach all sorts of valuable skills like clear writing, teamwork and meeting deadlines.  

*Music and drama students can rehearse and then present their productions at retirement homes and senior centers — but with a twist: involve some of the adults in the process (a small part in the play, a role in selecting the music, and so on).

Here’s a real world example from Milpitas, California, courtesy of the San Jose Mercury News:

“Students at John Sinnott Elementary School have been putting what they’ve learned in the classroom to good use over the last few months as they worked to design and build a tiny home on campus with the help of parents and local businesses.

Wearing hard hats and with staple guns in hand, Sinnott students were joined by parents, teachers and San Jose-based Blach Construction’s contractors, carpenters and engineers during a barn raising on April 1.

The tiny home, a 200-square-foot residence located at 2025 Yellowstone Ave., is deemed to be Project Based Learning, or PBL, in action, in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a question, problem or challenge.”

Let’s hope that once the kids have finished installing the solar panels and other finishing touches, they invite lots of ‘outsiders’ to the ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 19th!

Careful readers will have noticed some commonalities among these activities:  Many are (so-called) extra-curricular, and all of them are group projects.   All of them involve work outside the school building and direct connections to the group I have called ‘the outsiders.’

After all, the best messengers for strong public education are students engaged in the productive activity of project-based learning.   ‘Outsiders’ will be drawn into the tent and will, over time, become supporters of public education.

However, if public school boards and administrators stick with the ‘test and punish’ agenda of the Bush and Obama administrations, then public education doesn’t stand much of a chance, and Secretary DeVos’s radical agenda is likely to prevail.

Sticking with the status quo plays into DeVos’s hands, and protest marches, editorials, walkouts and other forms of ‘cursing the darkness’ will not slow her down.

Put it this way: Only when ‘outsiders’ become convinced that what’s happening in our public schools is not just test-prep and rote learning pushed on sullen teenagers by demoralized instructors, only then will Betsy DeVos and her militant Christian army of ideologues and profiteers lose this war.


(PS: My book will be published by The New Press in August. Please consider asking your independent book seller to order copies.  The electronic version, which includes videos from my 41-year career, will be available on Amazon.)

Secretary DeVos Contacts the Department of Justice about Diane Ravitch

Although I have now been retired from journalism for 18 months, I haven’t lost touch completely. Happily, some of my former contacts continue to reach out.  Yesterday I received this alarming memo in the mail in a plain white envelope.  While I have not been able to get a second source to confirm its authenticity, one source swears that it’s genuine.  Its contents are disturbing, to say the least.

Here’s the memo in its entirety



950 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20530-0001

“Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur”


Memo Re Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Diane Ravitch

To Anthony B. Susan, Acting Assistant Attorney General for Community Understanding (AAAGCU)

From James B Kelly II, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Fundamental Understanding and Communication (ADAAGFUC)

As per your directive, I met privately with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a meeting held at her request.  Her stated goal was to find ways to muffle, counteract and otherwise minimize what she referred to as “the constant drumbeat of negativity” about her agenda to improve educational opportunities for all children.  The meeting lasted 2 hours and 35 minutes.

The Secretary is particularly upset with Diane Ravitch, the historian turned activist blogger who apparently has an audience of 30,000,000.  The Secretary insisted on exploring several strategies for curtailing Ravitch, which I will summarize below.

  1. Could Ravitch be turned?  As is well known, she was for many years a traditional Republican but is now a very left-leaning Democrat.  She once was straight but is now gay. She used to hate dogs but now is reputed to be an extreme dog lover who has invested thousands of dollars in psychiatric counseling for her dog. Given that “pillar to post” pattern, the Secretary wondered aloud what it would take to bring Ravitch back into the Republican camp.  She implied that money might do the trick because, she said, in her experience “everyone has a price.”  However, subsequent research reveals that Ravitch often donates her speaking fees, suggesting that she does not need money and therefore might not be able to be bought.
  2. I suggested a media campaign to paint Ravitch as a wacko who shouldn’t be listened to, based on her taking her dog for intensive counseling. I mean, who does that? Bad idea, I learned, because apparently the Secretary’s four cats and two parakeets have been in psychiatric counseling for years.  Who knew!
  3. The Secretary suggested invoking the Alien and Sedition Acts against Ravitch.  She feels strongly that the Sedition Act of 1798, which criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government, applies to Ravitch.  The Secretary expressed pride in her knowledge of history, pointing out that the Sedition Act resulted in the prosecution and conviction of many Jeffersonian newspaper owners who disagreed with the government.  She expressed the view that Attorney General Sessions ought to invoke the Sedition Act against Ravitch, and perhaps other leftist bloggers as well.  It fell to me to tell her that the Sedition Act was allowed to expire in 1800 and has not been law of the land for 117 years.   At that point, she muttered something (which I probably wasn’t supposed to hear) about “going back to the good old days,”
  4. I will say this, the Secretary doesn’t give up easily.  She brought up another old law, The Alien Enemies Act of 1798, which was designed to protect our young country from alien enemies in a time of severe danger. That particular act was never repealed and was codified into US law at the outset of the first World War.  It was used to lock up German-Americans during both World Wars and to justify incarcerating Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.  Why not use that to shut down Ravitch, the Secretary demanded?  Unfortunately for the Secretary, Ravitch is an American citizen, born in Texas in 1938.  Her parents, or perhaps it was her grandparents, were immigrants, but Ravitch herself cannot be touched under the Alien Enemies Act or its successors.
  5. What about her audience, the Secretary asked? Surely some of them are aliens and, now that the Trump Administration has relaxed the rules about internet privacy, can’t the Justice Department monitor her readers and threaten them about possible dire consequences?  That’s uncharted territory that might raise First Amendment issues, I told the Secretary. However, I was left with the distinct impression that she hopes to discuss this with POTUS or Steve Bannon at some point in the near future.
  6. At that point Secretary DeVos changed gears, asking if Ravitch’s platform for distributing her material could be shut down.  I said that the First Amendment protected Ravitch. The Secretary muttered something (and this I am rock-solid certain I was not supposed to hear) about contacting her brother. Erik Prince is a former Navy Seal and the founder of Blackwater, is a notorious black-ops guy.

While I don’t think this meeting’s outcomes warrant the attention of the AG at this point, I strongly suggest that we step up our monitoring of Secretary DeVos and Diane Ravitch, but particularly of the former.


April 1, 2017


To Bubble, or Not to Bubble….

That is the question this week and next, as schools administer rafts of mandated bubble tests and parents ponder whether to opt-out their children.  As we know, American students are the most tested in the world…because our system uses tests primarily to punish and reward teachers, not to assess and improve student learning.  My views, with apologies to Robert Frost, are below


Something there is that doesn’t love more bubble tests

And students bubbling and learning how to bubble

When they might be making robots or reading Frost.

They take test upon test in dead classrooms,

Mixing memory and guesswork, stirring

Dull anger and gnawing fears of failure.

The work of test-makers is another thing:

Teachers come after them and make repair

Where they have ground down creativity.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill,

And on a day we meet to walk and talk

Of learning, testing and hopes for children.

But we keep a wall between us as we go.

To him, this is just another kind of mental game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

Now is when we do not need more tests, I tell him.

He only says, ‘More testing makes good education.’

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

‘Why do they make good education? Isn’t it

Where they are timely and used to help?

But here the tests punish takers and givers alike.

Before I gave more bubble tests, I’d ask to know

What I was I testing for, and why,

And to whom I was like to do harm.

Something there is that doesn’t love bubble tests,

That wants them stopped.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,

But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself.  I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, ‘More testing makes good education.’