What’s the FIRST Step?

“Mr. Merrow, you want us to take 12 steps, but which one comes first? Which one is the most important?”

I have been asked those questions a few times after talking about my new book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education“. In some respects it’s like being asked which of your children you love the most–i.e., unanswerable.  And so I usually respond by answering a different question: “Which step will be the simplest to take?”

And the answer to my own question is “Measure What Matters.”  It is simple because all we have to do is decide what we care about, what we want our children to be able to do–and want to to–as adults.

But I have to add that, while it may be a simple step to take, it will not be easy.  It requires a community dialogue involving not just parents and educators but also community members who do not have kids in schools (and that will be about 75% of households!). And many communities are deeply polarized about Trump, guns, abortion, and other aspects of the culture wars.

Let me suggest starting with an obvious straw man: “We don’t need to change a thing IF everyone is OK with teaching children to fill in bubbles on machine-scored tests and regurgitate the material they’ve been spoon-fed.  However, if we want our kids to be able to read with understanding, speak persuasively, understand numbers and science, appreciate the arts, work well with others, and respect their own bodies, then we need to have a conversation.”

Now you have everyone agreeing that schools can be improved.  Next ask whether we want our kids to die from Diabetes and its complications.  The question is, of course, rhetorical: Nobody wants that. However, the facts are downright scary. Obesity often leads to Diabetes, and an astonishing 18.5% of American youth ages 2-19 are obese (5.6% are severely obese).

Why? Too much fast food and too little exercise.

Not enough exercise?  Schools could address the latter by providing recess, but most do not. Students in Texas, for example, get on average 20 minutes of recess per week, a decline of over an hour since 2001. (2001 was the year No Child Left Behind became law, by the way.)  “According to the World Health Organization, children need 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity, and a daily recess can play an integral part in meeting that goal. Unfortunately, for students who are not given daily recess, achieving this goal can be much more difficult.”

And so one out of five kids is obese, obesity often leads to Type 2 Diabetes, and Diabetes often means other serious health issues like loss of vision, and early death (Diabetes and its complications kill about 200,000 of us every year).  Ergo, preventing obesity will in nearly all cases prevent Type 2 Diabetes.  As the experts put it, “Studies have found that lifestyle changes and small amounts of weight loss in the range of 5-10% can prevent or delay the development of type 2 diabetes among high-risk adults. Lifestyle interventions including diet and moderate to intense physical activity (such as walking for 150 minutes per week) were used in these studies to produce small amounts of weight loss. The development of diabetes was reduced by 40% to 60% during these studies, which lasted three to six years. Preventing weight gain, increasing activity levels and working toward small amounts of weight loss if you are overweight can have a big impact on the likelihood that you will develop diabetes in the future. Thus far, weight management is the best thing you can do to prevent the development of diabetes.”

And so, because we don’t want our kids to become diabetic, schools must have recess. (And you might point out here that many schools eliminated recess in order to devote more time to test-prep.) But recess won’t come back unless we measure it!  So, instead of only asking for test scores, let’s also ask, “How many hours of recess do students have each week, and in how many separate segments?”  Principals are smart; they’ll figure out that ZERO is a bad answer, and that higher numbers are better.

But if we don’t ask, if we don’t demand measurement, it will not happen!

Look to other countries for a better way: As the USPlay Coalition explains, “Japanese children get 10-20 minute breaks between 45-minute lessons or five-minute breaks and a long lunch. Finnish and Turkish children have 15 minutes to play after each 45 minutes of work. Ugandan students have an eight-hour school day, but they have a half hour of play in the morning, one hour for lunch and play, and 1.5 hours of activity time (sports, music, art, free-choice playtime) in the afternoon.”

Congratulations.  You have your first point of agreement, of what must be measured.  Now what else do you value, and how can those be measured?

Are art, music, and drama important?  Then measure the hours of opportunity students have to pursue them.

What about academics?  Are test scores important? Fine, but please remember that the academic health of a school can be determined by testing a well-drawn sample of students. Not all students need to be tested every year, as long as teachers are deeply involved in assessing student progress. (That’s another step in my book, by the way.)

Suppose we decide that schools are better when kids don’t have lots of substitute teachers.  Let’s measure teacher attendance.  Now suppose a particular school scores badly on that metric. I believe the reaction ought to be “Why?” and not “Gotcha!” because the absences could be a symptom of larger problems.

This is not hypothetical, because teacher attendance is a serious problem in many places, particularly in urban schools. As the Chicago Tribune reported in November 2016, “Across Illinois, 23.5 percent of public school teachers are absent more than 10 days in the school year. That’s almost 1 in 4 teachers statewide who aren’t in the classroom, according to data made public by the state for the first time in the annual Illinois Report Card, a compilation of data that paints a broad picture of schools.”  The schools with the best attendance rates had the fewest low-income students and the most white students.

Again, bear in mind that outcomes like this are symptoms, revealing deeper problems that must be addressed. Punishing teachers for their absenteeism won’t solve the problem, but we should be measuring, not waiting for reporters to break the story after the fact.

Does student attendance matter?  Teacher turnover?  Measure them!

We probably can agree that mental agility is as important as physical, and so the curriculum must be challenging. Note that I am not arguing for ‘rigor.’ In fact, I eschew the noun and the adjective ‘rigorous’ when talking about schools, and I don’t trust educators who use those words. If you want to know why, look them up in the dictionary.

Or just do this word association test. “When I say ‘rigor,’ you think of _____?”  Mortis, right?  Rigor Mortis!  That’s not what we want for children.

But students must be challenged, because, citing Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  Unfortunately, for most students the higher up one goes in school, the duller it gets.  Don’t believe me?  Read on.

This sample problem was created by the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh to help high school math teachers “close the math achievement gap.”

Jack shot a deer that weighed 321 pounds. Tom shot a deer that weighed 289 pounds. How much more did Jack’s deer weigh than Tom’s deer?

Basic subtraction for high school students?

A second example comes from TeacherVision, part of Pearson, the giant testing company:

Linda is paddling upstream in a canoe. She can travel 2 miles upstream in 45 minutes. After this strenuous exercise she must rest for 15 minutes. While she is resting, the canoe floats downstream ½ mile. How long will it take Linda to travel 8 miles upstream in this manner?

It’s an awful question.  Some students will be distracted by Linda’s cluelessness and will wonder how long it will take her to figure out that she should grab hold of a branch while she’s resting in order to keep from floating back down the river. What’s the not-so-subtle subtext? That girls don’t belong in canoes? That girls are dumb?

I found my third question–this one multiple choice–on a high school math test in Oregon:

There are 6 snakes in a certain valley. The population doubles every year. In how many years will there be 96 snakes?

  1. 3
  2. 4
  3. 8

These three high school math problems require simple numeracy at most. With enough practice—note I did not say critical thinking—just about anyone can solve undemanding problems like these–and consequently feel confident of their ability.

School is supposed to be preparation for life, but spending time on problems like these is like trying to become an excellent basketball player by shooting free throws all day long. To be good at basketball, players must work on all aspects of the game: jump shots, dribbling, throwing chest and bounce passes, positioning for rebounds, running the pick-and-roll, and, occasionally, practicing free throws.

Both basketball and life are about rhythm and motion, teamwork and individual play, offense and defense. Like life, the pace of the game can slow down or become frenetic. Basketball requires thinking fast, shifting roles, and having your teammates’ backs. Successful players know when to shoot and when to pass. As in life, failure is part of the game. Even the greatest players miss more than half of their shots, and some (even Michael Jordan!) are cut from their high school teams. And life doesn’t give us many free throw opportunities. If school is supposed to be preparation for life, why are American high school students being asked to count on their fingers? This sort of trivial work is the educational equivalent of shooting free throws.

My fourth example, a Common Core National Standards question for eighth graders in New York State, must have been written by an advocate of ‘rigor.’

Triangle ABC was rotated 90° clockwise. Then it underwent a dilation centered at the origin with a scale factor of 4. Triangle A′B′C′ is the resulting image. What parts of A′B′C′ are congruent to the corresponding parts of the original triangle? Explain your reasoning.

This problem represents the “brave new world” of education’s Common Core, national standards adopted at one point by nearly every state and the District of Columbia.  The hope is that the curriculum will challenge and engage students. Reading that prose, are you feeling engaged? Imagine how eighth graders might feel. If the first three problems are the educational equivalent of practicing free throws, then solving problems like this one is akin to spending basketball practice taking trick shots, like hook shots from the half court line—another way not to become good at the sport.

If schools stick with undemanding curricula and boring questions, our kids will be stuck at the free throw line, practicing something they will rarely be called upon to do in real life. If (under the flag of greater rigor) we ditch those boring questions in favor of triangles and other lifeless questions, schools will turn off the very kids they are trying to reach: the 99 percent who are not destined to become mathematicians.

We’re debating what we value, and it’s clear the people in charge value what is easy for them to test.  We have to keep our focus on children, on challenging them because they will become what they repeatedly do.

Here’s a question that challenges students by respecting their intelligence. This was given to fifteen-year-olds around the world on a test known as PISA (Programme in International Student Assessment):

 Mount Fuji is a famous dormant volcano in Japan. The Gotemba walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometers (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 p.m.

Toshi estimates that he can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometers per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times.

Using Toshi’s estimated speeds, what is the latest time he can begin his walk so that he can return by 8 p.m.?

Note that this is not a multiple-choice question. To get the correct answer, students have to perform a number of calculations. The correct answer (11 a.m.) was provided by 55 percent of the Shanghai fifteen-year-olds but just 9 percent of the U.S. students.

Ironically, the PISA results revealed that American kids score high in confidence in mathematical ability, despite underperforming their peers in most other countries. I wonder if their misplaced confidence is the result of too many problems like the one about the snakes.

If we are determined to measure what matters, we have to make school challenging and interesting.  As I argue in “Addicted to Reform,” it’s time for us to create schools in which students are the workers and knowledge the product.  That means abandoning the factory model in which teachers are the workers and students their products.

“Measure What Matters” fits easily on a bumper sticker. Get yours now–and get the conversation going in your community.

If you would like to know about the other 11 steps or what American Public Education needs to be rescued from, please pick up a copy of Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education (The New Press, 2017).




6 thoughts on “What’s the FIRST Step?

  1. Shared this great blog with a number of Minnesota state legislators. Sadly, a number of people from communities of color who are frustrated with Minnesoa public schools are pushing in exactly the opposite direction. They are urging state legislators to create a 1-5 star rating system based only on standardized test scores and (at the high school level), standardized tests and 4 year grad rates). A number of us are urging that we not move to a star system and use multiple measures, as you suggest.


  2. Can I help? Bill Brock, the former Secretary of Labor, has shared the post with the Governors of Maryland and Tennessee, both Republicans (as is he). Bill is very enthusiastic about my approach. What is it with these damn (usually Democratic) “reformers”?


  3. John – the Republicans in Minnesota are in charge of the Mn House and Senate. They have been promoting this, along with the Mn Business Partnership and Ed Allies, a group that is promoting a variety of reforms. I agree with MBP and the Ed Allies sometimes and disagree sometimes. I strongly disagree on this (and have, as you know been promoting use of multiple measures for more than 40 years)

    There also, as mentioned in the previous post are some people of color who see this rating system as a way to challenge the education status quo, which they believe has not been responsive enough to their concerns. So it’s complicated.

    Some of us have been urging the Democratic governor to make clear he will veto the bill of which this is a part (the final bill will be 100 or more pages, of which this is a small part). If you or others have connections with Mn. Governor Mark Dayton, this would be a great time to contact him and urge him to tell the Mn House and Senate that he will veto the bill if it contains these provisions.


  4. Joe
    why not ask them if they want Minnesota’s children to grow up to be obese and at risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes? That’s really a rhetorical question, of course, but the hard truth is that schools have eliminated recess to devote the time to test prep.
    If we don’t MEASURE recess, it won’t happen!!! And nearly one in five American kids (2-19) is OBESE.

    CDC recommends 60 minutes of exercise per day for children. What do Minnesota kids get at school? In Texas it’s 20 minutes PER WEEK!


  5. Thanks, John,

    What measure would suggest the state use to measure the health of students in a school, or the progress students in a school are making to improve their health?

    In my testimony at the Minnesota Senate K-12 policy committee late last week, I raised some of the questions that you suggested and there was some positive response to them.

    However, several people of color who are frustrated with the current system (as I am) testified that families are seeking greater clarity and accountability for results, and want a 1-5 rating system based on results with students.

    But I’m writing a newspaper column this week about what are the key questions the state should ask. What measure would you use to measure the physical health of students?

    Frankly recess can be an active, positive time, or (at least in some cases I experienced, a time for free play and bullying). So I’m interested in a specific measure or measures you and or others would suggest be used to help families understand physical fitness progress/results.



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