Reclaiming the Field

I know that I interviewed hundreds of future Trump supporters during my 41 years of reporting on public education for PBS and NPR. I’m also pretty sure that I taught some of them in high school 55 years ago.  Joey L. is a case in point.  Joey was a junior back in 1966 when he was in my English class, so he would be about 70 years old today.  Back then most public schools (including his, Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, NY) tracked students into groups.  Joey had been placed in the third level in its 1-5 system of tracking, and Level 3 was certainly not a winner’s track.

I was a rookie teacher, assigned to teach only 3’s and 4’s, and Joey was in my class. I knew nothing about tracking–and therefore nothing about how the Administration viewed my students. I didn’t see them as ‘losers’ or even as ‘others.’ They were my students, and I wanted and expected them to work hard, think, and write and rewrite.

“MacBeth” was part of the curriculum, and because I suspected that Shakespeare might be tough sledding, I got the Caedmon recording of the tragedy and played it in class. My students (including Joey) understood it and began arguing in class about MacBeth’s and Lady MacBeth’s guilt. Out of that came the notion of putting the two of them on trial for first degree murder.

Which we did.

Some students were lawyers, others were the defendants or witnesses for the defense and prosecution. In order to testify, they had to know the play backwards and forwards, of course. We had a jury of students and persuaded the Principal to be the presiding judge. I also required everyone to write up each day’s proceedings as if they were reporters. It was a whirlwind couple of weeks.

But what I remember most clearly was a letter from Joey’s mother that arrived a week or two later. Written on lined paper in simple language and penmanship that reminded me of a child’s, the letter thanked me for keeping Joey in school. Joey’s Mom said that her son had gotten so frustrated with being talked down to and looked down on that he had given up on school. She wrote that she had to fight with him every day just to get him out of bed in the morning, but that now he couldn’t wait to get to school.

I had no idea what she was talking about, because Joey wasn’t indifferent or detached in my English class. He was an eager student, fun to teach. Why was she thanking me?

Of course, I cherished the letter because it made me feel great. Only much much later did I begin to think about the system that Joey and I were part of: Here was a bright kid from a working class family who had been relegated to Level 3. He was being forced into the drudgery of a high school curriculum in which he had no interest and which promised him nothing in the way of a promising future.  A teacher came along who expected more and who respected his intelligence, and Joey responded.

Actually, almost all kids respond to how adults treat them. They live up or down to their teachers’ expectations, which is why sorting young children is a bad idea.

However, this process of sorting is by design.  Some students are placed in a course of study leading to elite colleges, prominence, and financial success.  These kids get the most experienced teachers, varied and challenging curricula, and interesting field trips.

Today overt tracking is morally repugnant and even illegal, but still schools manage to group students, treating some as ‘winners,’ the rest as, well, ‘not winners.’   While test scores–themselves subject to class bias–are taken into account, grouping seems to be based not on innate ability but on parental education, family income, race, and class. By third or fourth grade most kids know, deep down, whether the system sees them as ‘winners’ bound for college or ‘losers’ headed somewhere else.  

And while young people like Joey aren’t labeled ‘losers’ per se, they are told that college is the only path to adult success but are largely left to struggle on their own. That experience leaves many angry, frustrated and resentful, not to mention largely unprepared for life in a complex, rapidly changing society.   Why would they become active participants in a political process that is directed and dominated by the now grown up ‘winners’ from their school days? 

Most of them stayed away–non-voters–until one day a candidate who seemed to understand their resentment came along.

Because I left Schreiber High School after two years, I don’t know what happened to Joey. However, because the system rarely bumped students out of their designated track, it’s likely that Joey stayed in Track 3, along with the rest of ‘the others.’  While I hope the young man caught a break, it’s easy to imagine him growing frustrated, putting in the seat time necessary to get his diploma. Hanging out with his buddies, getting into trouble from time to time. Maybe community college, maybe the armed services, and maybe pulling the lever for Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Recent ‘education reforms’ actually made matters worse for kids like Joey. Test-based accountability punished schools if most of their students failed to achieve a minimum test score. George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” led to a narrow curriculum without art, music, and even science; lots of time spent practicing how to take tests; no more recess; and what I call ‘regurgitation education’–especially for the 75-80% of students who hadn’t been sorted into the top tier. ‘Regurgitation education’ rewards parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education, and citizenship. 

This fundamentally anti-intellectual approach also failed to produce results.  Scores on our National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have largely remained flat and in some instances have gone down. What’s more, students aren’t even retaining what we are demanding they regurgitate.  For example, a survey in 2016 revealed that one-third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of our government, and half do not know the number of US Senators.

(Apparently our elected officials aren’t much better:  Senator-elect Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, a public school graduate and a Republican, recently incorrectly identified the three branches of our government as the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.)

Reducing kids to test scores has produced generations of graduates whose teachers and curriculum did not help them develop the habit of asking questions, digging deep, or discovering and following their passion. Because of how they were treated in school, many Americans have not grown into curious, socially conscious adults.

While Donald Trump embraced those he called ‘the poorly educated,’ that’s the incorrect term. These men and women are not ‘poorly educated,’ ‘undereducated,’ or ‘uneducated.’ They have been miseducated, an important distinction. For the most part, their schools have treated them as objects, as empty vessels to pour information into so it can be regurgitated back on tests.

The sorting process also produces elitists who feel superior to the largely invisible ‘losers’ from their school days.  Arguably, those chickens came home to roost in the 2016 Presidential election.  Candidate Clinton calling Trump supporters ‘A Bucket of Deplorables‘ probably cost her the Presidency in 2016.  But in all likelihood she was speaking her personal truth, because, after all, her public school had identified her as a ‘winner,‘ one of the elite. It’s perfectly understandable that she had trouble identifying with people who had been energized by Donald Trump.

Sorting is inevitable, because students try out for teams and plays, apply to colleges, and eventually seek employment, but let’s postpone sorting for as long as possible. A new approach to schooling must ask a different question about each young child. Let’s stop asking, “How intelligent are you?”  Let’s ask instead, “How are you intelligent?”   Every child has interests, and those can be tapped and nurtured in schools designed to provide opportunities for children to succeed as they pursue paths of their own choosing. Giving children agency over their education—with appropriate guidance and supervision—will produce graduates better equipped to cope with today’s changing world, and a larger supply of informed voters.

Reimagining public education is a long-term challenge.  The new Biden administration must also chart a course that will win over a significant number of voters who pulled the lever for Donald J. Trump in 2016 and 2020.

To change the minds of some of the 73 million adults who voted for Trump, the Biden Administration has to persuade them that their government works for them. Because actions speak louder than words, a call for ‘healing’ won’t cut it. Instead, we need drastic action, a modern-day GI Bill that includes action on at least these four fronts:

1) A National Service program that employs people to help distribute COVID vaccines and perform contact tracing, in addition to rebuilding parks and national forests and working in difficult jobs in remote places. These jobs must pay a living wage and provide for college/vocational training thereafter. Too many of these activities have been relying on volunteer workers, who have all but disappeared because of the pandemic, as the New York Times reported recently. (The full report is here.)

2) A serious federal program to rebuild our aging infrastructure of roads and bridges and build out broadband across the nation. This would create millions of well-paying jobs. One plan can be found here.

3) Grants to states to support free or low-cost vocational training in community colleges and vocational schools for those seeking career change or promotion. This is vital because the Democratic Party is becoming (or has become) the Party of the college-educated, which is not a compliment.  

Even those who can drive a nail and rewire a lamp with some degree of confidence ought to be in awe of the highly competent mechanics who repair, install, and calibrate HVAC systems, which requires skilled carpentry, electrical wiring, and placement, installation, and soldering of ducts and plumbing.  Or the well-trained people who keep your car in tune. These men and women have something to show for their work at the end of the day.

Unfortunately, too many Democrats behave as if workers aren’t worthy. The words of the great John W. Gardner ought to be prominently displayed in every political office, and taken to heart by every political leader:

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

4) A concerted effort to relieve student loan debt that is crippling so many young adults. The Biden Administration can act on its own in small ways (and candidate Biden pledged to forgive $10,000 of federal debt per student), but Congressional action is needed for anything major. Certainly those who successfully perform National Service for an agreed-upon time should have some portion of their student loan debt forgiven.

John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” but this is not a Kennedy-like appeal to idealism. Nor is it a disguised form of charity, “make-work” programs for those who can’t find jobs. Rather, this is purely transactional: The United States needs you, and you need the United States.

Call it “US Needs US.” Done right, this will be a better deal for everyone…..And, since Joe Biden’s favorite expression is ‘Here’s the deal,” maybe he will decide to call it “A Better Deal!

To end where I began, we must begin now to fundamentally change our schools so they don’t keep on producing adults who are disconnected, disaffected, resentful, xenophobic, and sometimes scared of the future. Many are an easy mark for a candidate who promises easy solutions and a return to what they like to believe was a far better world. IE, Trump voters in 2016 and 2020.

While a clear majority of voters preferred Joe Biden over Trump, we aren’t out of the woods. The COVID crisis is also an opportunity to reimagine public education. Let’s not spend valuable energy trying to “get back to normal” in education, because, unless we create schools that respect and nurture our children, we run the risk of once again electing a quasi-fascist demagogue. That, I fear, would be the end of the American experiment.

5 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Field

  1. John, your essay certainly resonated with me. I taught math and science to 6th graders for 2.5 years in Quincy, Mass… what an education for me. Then went on to (and still) teach piano lessons for 40+ years. Anyone who has had the privilege of teaching has a huge obligation. You said of Joey after receiving his mom’s letter: “now he couldn’t wait to get to school.” What a triumph. When I was teaching in Quincy, I was there at a time when the school system was experimenting with elementary school grading. Gone were the grades. “In” were the comments about effort. And also “in” was a system of individualized “track” learning that I developed for a grant. Kids could go as fast as they could go, and others could get very specific tutoring to nudge them along. So glad to have read your piece. Outstanding!! and appreciated!

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  2. I lost quite a bit of respect for you Mr. Merrow, with this comment:

    “Candidate Clinton calling Trump supporters ‘A Bucket of Deplorables‘ probably cost her the Presidency in 2016. But in all likelihood she was speaking her personal truth, because, after all, her public school had identified her as a ‘winner,‘ one of the elite. It’s perfectly understandable that she had trouble identifying with people who had been energized by Donald Trump.”

    Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” were Trump supporters who were racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic who liked Trump’s “offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric”.

    It reveals a lot about your own prejudices that you equate those people with being in the lower academic tracks in school. Do you have some reason to believe that Joey L. would grow up to be racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic or Islamaphobic? Having those “deplorable” beliefs has nothing to do with what academic track a student is in. You are the only one identifying racist, xenophobic Trump supporters (“deplorables”) as being in lower tracks.

    Hillary Clinton distinguished “deplorables” from OTHER Trump supporters:
    “the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

    John Merrow, why don’t you believe that Joey L. would be one of those other Trump supporters that Hillary Clinton mentioned — the ones who are not “deplorable”?

    If you are the man I believed you are, you will issue a correction. Otherwise, you seem to be part of the problem – the right wing pushes false narratives that lazy writers who believe they are not right wingers help amplify by repeating those false narratives as if they are the truth!

    Let’s look at Hillary Clinton’s full comment, which is something you don’t seem to have done when you claimed she was speaking about public school “winners” and attacking public school “losers” as deplorables.

    Full Text of Hillary Clinton speech:

    “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?

    The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now how 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America. But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroine, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

    John Merrow, if you are the man I believe you are, you will issue a correction. The reason the right wing wins despite offering most people nothing is that so-called “liberal” journalists dutifully amplify this right wing propaganda and give it the weight of truth so that people believe it. Your job should be to discredit the propaganda, not legitimize it. Be better.

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    • Dear NY Public School Parent,
      You are correct that I had not read Secretary Clinton’s entire speech, and I thank you for citing the full passage. I was using her as an example of what our sorting system of education produces, an elite which does not empathize with those who are sorted into lower tracks (whether overtly or not), and her complete speech suggests that I chose a poor example.
      I probably could have used Barack Obama’s comment about small town “voters who cling to their guns and religion.” However, as with Clinton’s remarks, the full context of what President Obama said changes everything: “But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
      It was unfair of me to use Clinton as an example, and it would have been unfair to use Obama. While my argument clearly would have been better served without a personal example, my point remains valid, in my view: Our public education system has produced and continues to produce an elite that does not empathize with those grouped below it. Moreover, the system designed and run by elites presumes that everyone should be ‘college-bound’ and that vocational education or any course of study that leads to immediate employment or blue collar work is less valuable.
      This is, unfortunately, not new. See the 1988 report, “The Forgotten Half” (https://www.aypf.org/resource/the-forgotten-half-pathways-to-success-for-americas-youth-and-young-families-1988/) and the 2014 follow up report, The New Forgotten Half (https://wtgrantfoundation.org/library/uploads/2015/09/The-New-Forgotten-Half-and-Research-Directions-to-Support-Them.pdf)
      That attitude and those policies have bred anger and resentment, which Trump tapped into. However, I am NOT saying that those voters are racist, et cetera. Far from it, unless perhaps the anger that some of them feel morphed into one ugly ‘ism’ or another. Until we change our way of educating some children and mis-educating, we will continue to create a fragmented, polarized society, until it collapses under the strain.
      Again, thank you for correcting my error.

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      • Mr. Merrow,

        Thank you for this gracious (and very informative) reply. And I owe you an apology — after re-reading my reply above I realize I should have been more gracious myself and my tone was much too harsh.

        I enjoy reading your blog and I admire you for fighting for truth and public education and standing up for what is right.

        When I replied to you, I was fed up with all the post-election misinformation and untruths I had been reading elsewhere, and I wrongly let my emotions take over when I read what I thought was yet another example of misinformation. And it bothered me even more because it was on a blog I respect. But that’s no excuse and I’m very sorry.

        All of us are wrong sometimes, but I have the greatest admiration for people who listen to criticism and thoughtfully consider and address it, and that is exactly what you did. Thank you for your integrity. I wish more journalists were like you, instead of refusing to consider or address any criticism unless it comes from someone powerful or those in favor with the billionaires whose money helps underwrite their salaries, in which case they accommodate it. (I thought the PBS ombudsman’s response to criticism of your last piece for them was a textbook example of cowardice in service to pleasing the powerful, not a thoughtful and considered response in service to the truth.)

        Thank you again for this response, and I am grateful for your important contribution to a truthful and honest discussion of ideas – something that is sorely needed and I wish more education journalists with their insipid reporting would understand. Thank you for being open-minded toward parents like me who don’t have influence or importance. And thank you for writing this blog and fighting for truth.

        Liked by 1 person

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