8 Great Ideas (7 of Them Save Schools $$)

My friend Mike Petrilli, the tireless pusher of ‘school reform,’ has just published his recommendations for going forward, calling it ‘Where Education Reform Goes From Here.”  He acknowledges that things haven’t gone swimmingly for the past dozen or more years–a classic understatement if ever there was one–but then asks that we trust him and keep on doing what we’ve been doing: More charter schools, more choice, tougher tenure rules, and so on.

Ever the phrasemaker, Mike writes, “The question is not whether schools can do it all — but whether they are doing all they can.”  It’s actually a false choice designed to help us agree with his premise, that it’s time to double down on the ‘school reforms’ that he, Arne Duncan, the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and others have been pushing.

This blog, unsupported by major foundations and others with vested interested in testing, charter schools, and other corporate reforms, will not reach a fraction of the readers who will see Mike’s piece. Rather than argue with Mike’s recipe, I would like to offer a different path, one that will, I believe, lead us away from the disaster of ‘school reform.’   Below are eight suggestions, only one of which will cost a school district money.  And the other seven will produce real savings—and make schools more interesting and productive places for children and adults.  Here goes:

  1. Pool all the district’s professional development dollars and cancel contracts and plans for spending that money.  Instead invite teachers and other educators to develop plans for their professional growth.  I will bet that your system will end up spending less on what will prove to be better PD, more effective because your teachers will own it.
  2. Declare a 3-year moratorium on all machine-scored bubble tests, during which time invite the entire community to debate what matters in schooling.  The goal is to ‘Measure What You Value,’ instead of continuing the foolishness of merely valuing what you measure.  I suggest one criterion when deciding which tests to keep: Keep only those tests whose results come back in time to be useful.  That will get rid of a lot of tests, the ones whose results come back in late August!  The goal ought to be ‘assess to improve,’ not ‘test to punish.’  You won’t be writing those big checks to the testing companies….
  3. Create as many ‘Early College’ opportunities as possible for your ambitious high school juniors and seniors (and perhaps even some sophomores).  Here’s a look at a successful program in Texas that we reported on for the PBS NewsHour.  This district actually lured high school dropouts back to school with the promise of a more engaging curriculum that included opportunities to take college courses. At the high school graduation we attended, most seniors also had college credits, and quite a few members of the class also received their 2-year college degrees with their diplomas!   Fewer high school dropouts, a clear and strong bridge to higher education, a better reputation, and cost savings…..what’s not to like?
  4. Do not buy ANY canned technology programs. None! Nada! Zippo!  Instead, identify the early adopters among your staff and figure out why the district wants technology in the first place.  Please read the chapter about technology in my book, “Addicted to Reform.”  This field is full of hucksters and aggressive salespeople, eager to take advantage of naive educators.  It’s mostly BS….but too many school districts have wasted millions and millions of dollars on crap.
  5. Create cross-age tutoring opportunities, enlisting older students to help struggling younger ones.  This actually benefits BOTH age groups, and it’s effective.  It teaches other lessons as well, including the importance of community and of sharing what you know with others.  It will keep some kids from being held back and others out of special education.  That’s better for them, and it saves your district money.
  6. Use technology to link with other schools on projects.  Just because kids have to come to a building, there’s no reason on God’s green earth for them not to be working with students around the state or nation (or globe).  Find interesting ways to connect with other schools: About 25 communities are linked by name to Christopher Columbus–what a great way to connect on a project. The dozen or so Brooklyns or the 15 or so towns connected to Lafayette–they could work together.  If you believe that students are the workers in a school, and knowledge is their product, then encourage your teachers to make those connections.  “Addicted to Reform” includes a bunch of projects that your teachers might find appealing.
  7. Trust teachers more than you do right now, because, like you, teachers are management. Remember, the kids are the workers, doing real work.  If you enable teachers to do what they signed up to do–which is help children grow toward their full potential– your best teachers will stay longer, your recruitment costs will go down, and your administrators will spend less time ‘breaking in’ the rookies every year.
  8. Expand early childhood programs!   It’s time to spend the money you’ve saved by following steps 1-7.  And, please, no testing of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. These programs should be enjoyable learning and play time.  Stress-free.  Staffed by professionals who enjoy the same status as your K-12 teachers.

Your improvements to this list are more than welcomed….

9 thoughts on “8 Great Ideas (7 of Them Save Schools $$)

  1. Dear John,

    This is a great blog. I would add one piece, particularly to the PD part. States should take all the PD money and focus it on district workshops to help teachers teach to more challenging, more interesting cuticular. This ties in to some of the other suggestions you make.

    Warm regards,



    • While I teach and administer at a 9-12 private school, Taft, so we don’t have early childhood programs, the “enjoyable learning” and “stress free” parts of your 8th point – and the relationship between them – resonate. Those of us who have focussed time and energy on hitting the stress “sweet spot” (some stress is good; too much, damaging) by increasing the frequency of low- and even no-stakes assessments we give students have found that they enjoy learning the material much more. And those more numerous, short assessments allow students to regularly retrieve and therefore move into their longer term memory the knowledge they’ll need to continue to build understanding. I’m quick to add that we are largely freed from the standardized “machine-scored bubble tests” (your 2nd suggestion) so we can alter our curriculum to better match students’ interests in the first place – which, of course, helps with motivation.
      More broadly, much of what you suggest here and what you wrote in Addicted (such a compelling book!) dovetail with my three teaching mantras, none original but all evidence-based:
      1. Challenge, engage, empower.
      2. Teach students, not a course.
      3. S/he who works, learns.
      Jon Willson


  2. Great list, John. Progressive and sensible. All better than the status quo. All feasible with organization.

    You asked for improvements. I’ll pass on that. What is more useful, and perhaps novel, is to comment on the making of lists.

    List making, by orders of magnitude, is much less important to the improvement of public education than legislative advocacy and political battles.

    Take the lists of just the last six decades. During that time, we’ve have had many enlightened educator authors (and now bloggers). My bookshelves hold ~200 of their titles, collected since 1969. In the 60’s and 70’s, John Holt knew a lot about How Children Learn and about Growing Without Schooling. In the 80s and 90’s, Jon Goodlad knew all about A Place Called School and a process called Educational Renewal. These days Ted Dintersmith knows a lot about What Schools Could Be, and you, John, know a lot about Addicted to Reform. There are hundreds of others who know a lot — individuals as well as institutions (e.g. the Network for Public Education).

    They all make lists. That’s what the books and blogs are. Lists of good and bad stuff. And it is good to have lists that are well thought out in opposition to lists that are not working. Like the test prep lists. Or the privatization lists. All terrible ideas that have not worked or that present existential threats to our public schools — the mortar of our communities and the cornerstone of our democracy.

    But lists, even new and improved, as the record proves, are utterly insufficient to strengthen and to preserve public schools. By and large, the opposing efforts to weaken and to “dead end” public schools are being waged by powerful, ideologically driven interest groups on the floors of state legislatures. They continue to make legislative progress on testing and privatization, on fragmenting schools and communities, on eroding the common good for the sake of “to each his own.” Their lists are intended as policies and laws, not as books and blogs. We should pay attention to this strategy.

    These groups – including (but not limited to) ALEC, the Alliance for School Choice, the American Federation for Children, Democrats for Education Reform, the efforts of philanthropies headed by Gates, Broad, the Walton family, Koch brothers, and many more – are all meticulously organized, deeply funded, and intensively coordinated. They are in it for the long haul on state legislative floors. Who is fighting them? Sporadic, isolated, poorly organized, virtually unfunded defenders of the Alamo.

    There is only one way to defeat highly organized powers, and that way does not involve compiling or refining lists.

    The only way to defeat these powers, and to strengthen and preserve public education, is to engage in politics on high leverage issues. Refuse to engage? Expect to lose. Don’t organize for legislative advocacy – with all the efforts that that required – and expect that the lists you make will do what almost all lists in the last 60 years have accomplished. Nothing… with regard to educational policy and power. These lists did not stop the transitional or enduring effects of Nation at Risk, Goals 2000, NCLB, Race to the Top, the Common Core, or ESSA.

    Please stop making lists, ed bloggers. Your ideas are already plentiful, good, redundant. You have noted past precedents and current models. But the key is not to get more of the same out into the public. The key is to get them organized as movements and implemented as policy, as law, in state legislatures.

    Spitting in the wind is readily done. Any individual can set up a blog and do it, and no politician or philanthropist or other privatizer cares or feels threatened. But winning votes is another matter altogether. It takes organization and sustained, strategic, and collective effort. It takes resiliency in the face of defeats.

    Please, John and others, use your blogging pulpits to organize legislative advocacy, state by state, toward bills and ballot initiatives that sweep aside tests and charters and vouchers… and sweep in the items on your lists. The words on the lists are otherwise wasted.


    • Bartley, we agree that it’s vital to be actively involved in working with state and federal policy-makers, getting some of the great ideas moved from lists to implementation. Of course this also means working with legislators who in some cases have ignored great ideas that they could be carrying out.

      Part of the leadership John is recommending is coming from a new group that he helped create. John spoke at a meeting last October that attracted hundreds of people from more than 20 states. These folks now have created the Coalition of Independent Public Charter Schools, adopted a statement of principles that strongly endorses using multiple measures to assess student and school progress, district/charter collaboration, use of progressive education principles, accountability for meeting needs of the whole child, active recruitment of the highest need students, etc.

      In just a few months this summer, the group has attracted more than 100 members representing tens of thousands of students. It has publicly challenged the Trump administration’s separation of children and families. It’s discussed ways with a variety of community activists that it and others can build greater support among political leaders for the principles it’s endorsed.

      Incidentally, some students with whom traditional schools have not succeeded have blossomed in these schools. As John has written often, just calling a school “charter” means nothing. But these schools have endorsed, stand for and carry out principles that include many of the things John suggests.


      • Joseph:

        Two points, one on charters (a priority of yours) and one on legislative advocacy (a priority of mine)….

        First: We once made a documentary about a charter school in Cleveland. It was then, and remains, one of the best schools I know. Still, I have come to oppose charter schools, and so I have concerns about the Merrow-inspired Coalition for Independent Public Charter Schools. (Did your organization sponsor that gathering?) Here’s why.

        David Brooks has written that social fragmentation and isolation are the “fundamental problems afflicting America today.” I agree. I also believe if we don’t address fundamental problems first and foremost, the lesser problems we choose to address become no better than distractions. Paraphrasing Goethe: No matter of great importance should ever be influenced by matters of lesser importance. Raising children takes more than developing a new (charter) school alternative. This is of lesser importance, relatively speaking. Raising children does indeed take a whole village – a place that is socially cohesive (vs. fragmented) and socially connected (vs. isolated). This is of greater impact on the whole growth of children, and so of greater importance, than a charter option.

        No doubt that is why your organization, the Center for School Change (CSC), has as the fourth item of your mission to “strengthen communities.”

        However, I have not yet seen a charter school that did not create a two-tiered system in a district, a community. The two tiers happen as a matter of fact and by definition. The charter takes financial and human resources from the district, fragmenting budgets and separating out families. How can this strengthen what is left behind?

        There are very limited examples of charters working in cooperation with district schools. I have seen a few. But the big picture is that, much more often that not, district and charter schools are in competition. (It would not surprise me, as well, if more charter schools are bound to test prep than to the sound pedagogical approaches that John Merrow advocates). I saw this competition firsthand in Massachusetts, where I was a founding board member of an urban charter school. I have seen the same across the country in my work as a retired-teacher-turned-filmmaker. One reads about it all the time in the educational literature.

        My conclusion is this: Most of our students remain in district schools, many are undercut by charters, and charters are more an example of “to each his own” than the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Therefore, over and over, the evidence I see is that charter schools do not strengthen community. They create a “separate peace” entity.

        I am hard pressed (but open-minded) to see how CSC and the Coalition of Independent Public Charter Schools, can strengthen a whole community the way district schools can. And while there are district schools in trouble, as there are charter schools in trouble, there are tens of thousands of district schools that succeed… in large part, because they are accepted as the “mortar” of their communities. Year in and out, for almost half a century now, PDK International/Gallup survey consistently reports that two-thirds of parents nationwide are satisfied with their local schools and trust their local teachers.

        Second: So organizing more charter schools is not what I had in mind when raising the issue of politics, policy-making, and legislative advocacy. (Indeed, two Novembers ago, 62% of us Bay State voters rejected raising the cap on charters in MA.) Here is what I had in mind:

        The biggest question in policy-making is Who decides? I believe that politicians – those closest to politicized, ideological, special (often philanthropic) interests – should not decide ed policy. It makes much more sense for those closest to the learning lives of children to decide same. That would be educators and parents.

        TRUE professions (medicine, law, accounting, architecture) have gained, through both customary and statutory law, self-regulating powers. Teaching does not have that. This is why we have what is called top-down reform – because politicians have that power. Though we like to CALL teaching a profession, it is not one, lacking the power of self-regulation (as well as a code of ethics and enabling legislation recognizing that the public is better served by educational expertise than by ideological interests).

        We would advocate, via both bills and ballot initiatives, the legal transformation of the “occupation” of teaching into the “profession” of teaching. As with medical boards, this would give boards or “colleges” of teacher leaders (and administrators and community leaders) the legal authority to make expert-informed policies. There are legal precedents in other professions. There are certain states now where the true and legal professionalization of teaching is a more attainable political objective than in other states. (Of course, all this is much more involved than can be detailed in this space.)

        However, shy of this objective, just working with the status quo of who decides will give us what we have gotten for two decades plus. The powers behind testing, and now behind privatization, are highly organized, deeply funded, and intensively coordinated. They will (continue to) win the policy-making battles on the floors of state legislatures, thereby threatening the very existence of public schools. That is, until and unless a bottom-up, groundswell movement of local parents and community leaders, in support of local educators, play political hardball.

        Public opinion is already on the side of such a movement. But the hard question of organizing remains. That is why I believe it would be much more productive for John Merrow and other ed bloggers to concentrate their efforts on mobilizing toward legal actions instead of editorializing about pedagogical lists.


      • Bart, thanks for your thoughtful notes. I think we share a deep interest in healthier communities. A key question for me is “what learning, teaching and school strategies can contribute to this goal?”

        Over a 48 year in public education as an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, advocate and newspaper column, I’ve concluded that several strategies can help accomplish this goal. As mentioned in previous comments, this includes service learning, schools sharing space with other organizations, significant collaborations among families, schools and other community groups, multiple measures to assess student and school progress, dual credit and a few others.

        Another strategy to help more students succeed is to offer options. Here is a link to and copy of a newspaper column I wrote several years ago. It explains why families whose youngsters in many cases, had not been successful in traditional district schools, did far better in a charter. I’ve also helped create district schools within schools, alternative schools and other district options. many of them have helped youngsters who had not succeeded in traditional schools.

        Colleges and universities in many communities and states simultaneously compete and cooperative. The same can happen (and in some cases is) among district & chartered public schools.

        Here’s the column I mentioned above. It was published in September, 2017 by a group of suburban and rural Minnesota newspapers.


        Minnesota parents explain why they selected a charter public school

        Passionate responses from parents help explain why the number of Minnesota students attending charter public schools has grown from less than 100 in 1992 to more than 50,000 this year, the 25th anniversary of the first charter opening. Their views, plus constructive responses from some districts, help demonstrate why this growing movement has bipartisan state and national support.

        Referring to the PiM Arts Charter in Eden Prairie, Ed Wilms pointed out that, “The transformation we saw in him from a kid who ate his lunch in the bathroom stall so he didn’t have to talk with anyone to having the lead role in the school musical his senior year was incredible.” Though his three sons are “dramatically different,” Wilms said the school served each of them well.

        Kelley Zender, a parent of three children at DaVinci Charter in Ham Lake wrote, “From the moment my children and I walked into DaVinci, we felt the warm and welcoming environment. The staff gets to know each child for who they are and finds amazing ways to reach each child at their academic level. All three of my children have grown leaps and bounds in all areas of their life; academic, social, problem solvers, and emotionally.”

        As Elizabeth Ryan explained, “Where our student was lost and bored in a traditional setting, at Northwest Passage Charter High School (Coon Rapids) he is challenged and able to meet these challenges with confidence, maturity, responsibility, and grace.”

        Khadija Abdi wrote: “I like Ubah Medical Academy (in Hopkins) for its uniqueness to connect with families and students. I’ve had four children go through this HS and I feel their learning needs were individualized and personalized to their learning needs.”

        Tom Sagstetter explained: “We chose Spectrum (in Elk River) because it was a smaller school that would challenge our kids. We really like the smaller class sizes, the focus on post-secondary options, and community involvement from the students and Spectrum.”

        Charters are free, public, non-sectarian schools with no admissions tests. Their focus and curriculum varies widely, while they are required to take statewide tests. As someone told me, “When you’ve seen one charter school, you’ve seen one charter.”

        A few examples:

        •Swan River, an elementary Montessori in Monticello

        •Lionsgate in Minnetonka, which focuses on students on the autism spectrum

        •Two very different K-12 schools in Stillwater — New Heights and St. Croix Prep

        •Project-based schools making extensive use of the community such as Northwest Passage in Coon Rapids and River Grove in Wilder Forest, near Marine on St. Croix

        •Arts Focused Schools like Arts and Science Charter in Isanti, DaVinci in Ham Lake or PiM Arts Charter in Eden Prairie

        •College prep schools including Spectrum in Elk River, Ubah Medical Academy in Hopkins or Eagle Ridge in Eden Prairie

        While there’s still plenty of work to do, charters have helped produce progress. Minnesota’s graduation rates have increased over the last decade, and the number of graduates who have to take remedial courses at colleges has declined from about 29 percent to about 21 percent.

        It’s also been encouraging to see some districts, such as Forest Lake, Mankato, Rochester and St. Paul, create new options in response to charters. Moreover, several local teacher union presidents and charter advocates joined together to convince the 2016 Legislature to allocate $500,000 to help district educators create new “teacher led” district options, similar to some Minnesota charters. And some districts such as Farmington and Spring Lake Park have asked for and received greater flexibility, similar to charters, so they can make revisions they think are important, in response to what some call “the charter challenge.” District schools are good options for many students.

        Noting the progress in Minnesota, more than 40 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted charter laws. Chartering offers rural, suburban and urban families more good options. And all this started, 25 years ago, here in Minnesota.

        Joe Nathan, was a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator who directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.


  3. One of the key strategies that many of us have found valuable to help “turn around” youngsters who behave badly is to get them involved in what’s sometimes called “service learning.” This combines classroom work and community service. It helps young people use their creativity (such as that described in your stories) to help solve local, community problems.

    There are many examples I could cite. Here are only 2
    * A young woman with whom I worked at an urban district school who was great at getting other youngsters to fight each other by going back and forth getting them angry by telling lies about what one person allegedly said about another. We helped her lead a new peer mediation program at the school. She was fabulous at this. She stopped instigating fights in part because she was getting a lot of praise and appreciation for other students for her work as a peer mediation – praise she had not been able to earn in the classroom, sports or other activities. The level of fighting at this urban middle school dropped to almost 0 in part because of her leadership.
    * A young man who was transferred to an urban district school after assaulting a teacher. He became involved in a class I taught where students learned to use their skills and creativity to help solve consumer problems that community members encountered. He was great at this. He used his anger and creativity in positive ways. He had been very violent and gradually this stopped.
    He later said that without a change in direction, he might have been dead before graduating from high school. He went on to work for/with Prince, the recording artist. Then he founded “Hip Hip High School” – a charter for students with whom traditional schools have not succeeded. These young people produce you-tube videos that are so good various companies like State Farm Insurance and Verizon Wireless have hired them to create videos for them.
    * Finally, I could tell similar stories about dual credit programs, something John recommends. This is another strategy our Center has strongly promoted for more than 30 years.

    The right kind of learning, teaching and schools can have a huge positive impact on youngsters. It can help lead to more more constructive use of creativity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • These are examples are all sound and needed strategies. They focus on the need for EACH student. The success of each student will ensure successful schools. Mr. Nathan has a long history in helping make this happen. It works!


  4. John Merrow’s Blog, The Merrow Report, is a needed breath of fresh air for K12 school reform issues.

    For far too long we’ve been wedded to a national standardized testing program that has blown ill winds to virtually all of American education. It just doesn’t make positive changes happen for all learners.

    Those millions of bubble-sheets have brought billions of dollars to testing companies and virtually nothing of betterment to kids and their learning. Why? Standardized testing consists of microbits of information that fail to provide helpful clues for improving the performance of EACH student.

    Of all the reform-minded people, Arne Duncan should know that his “Race to the Top” has failed miserably. It funded a few winners and left behind a host of losers. Those who sat on the top, whatever that means, no likely sit there.

    Will Durant once wrote that before the French Revolution, the rich rode in carriages and the poor walked in the mud. After the revolution, they all walked in the mud. After the so-called Race to the Top, our schools are still stuck in the mud.

    Even if Duncan’s funded Plan A works at a school, there is no guaranty it will work in another school, no matter how similar it is or convincing the statistics are. Schools keep pushing the boulder of standardized reform up the hill, only to have it roll back on them.

    If we want schools to perform better, we first need to help students perform better. If their performance improves, so will the school. The key point here is that to succeed we must focus first on each and every learner.

    I would add this 9th commandment to Mr. Merrow’s list: “Each student will create their own Personal Learning Plan with a set of needed learning goals. On a regular basis they will present their progress to their teacher and their parents, and indicate where they still need help. In short, “they will show what they know and continue to grow.”

    This focus on each learner worked well at our Saturn School of Tomorrow in St. Paul some years ago, and has worked elsewhere too. Here’s a video our students made back then to describe their school:

    If we can save our millions of students by helping them work toward mastery, our schools will be saved too. The only test needed is to show what we know.


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