When Should Journalists Speak Up?

By now everyone must know that President Trump has been lying about the coronavirus for months, telling us it would magically disappear when he knew all along that it was a killer threat. Trump admitted this in phone conversations with Bob Woodward recorded in February and March, but only now–in September–have some of the tapes been released.

That Trump is unfit to serve as our President has been clear for an awfully long time. That most Republicans don’t care what he does is also painfully clear.

So let’s ask another question: Should Bob Woodward have released those tapes months ago. If he had done so, would that possibly have saved thousands and thousands of lives?

At some time or other, every journalist is presented with this classic hypothetical situation: Suppose you are filming or photographing a raging river and you see a young child being swept downstream. The child is clinging to a piece of wood and is clearly in danger of drowning. Should you keep on filming, or do you jump in and try to save the child?

In other words, where is the line between a reporter’s job and their responsibility as a citizen? Which comes first?

Of course, it’s really a no-brainer: You must try to save the child, because public safety and personal responsibility far outweigh any obligation you may feel to reporting. No, you won’t get that great video or photograph of a drowning child; instead, you will have saved a life.

Bob Woodward decided otherwise.

He explained his decision in a conversation with the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, but his choice was not between releasing the tapes back in March or waiting until now. He could have shared them with the public in May or June, when it was clear that Covid-19 was killing Americans in large numbers and that the Administration was still dithering.

Woodward is not alone in saving “the best stuff” for a book that’s months away from appearing instead of reporting it in a timely basis. Michael Schmidt of The New York Times did something similar just a few weeks ago.

Why do their editors and their bosses go along with this practice of withholding critical information? The Times pays Schmidt’s salary, and, while Woodward is no longer on the Post’s payroll, he has an office there and the honorific title of Associate Editor.

I’m trying to imagine how Jim Lehrer and Robin MacNeil would have responded if I had withheld the tape of DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee firing a principal so that I could use it in a documentary in six or eight months. I know they’d have fired me in a heartbeat….and rightly so. (And, to be clear, withholding it never would have occurred to me in the first place, and nor would it to most of the journalists I have known.)

American journalism is in deep enough trouble without this kind of behavior. Today, two thirds of the public believes that reporters are no more ethical than the politicians they are reporting on. I suspect this practice–Reporters prioritizing book sales (I.E. MONEY) over their responsibilities as citizens–contributes to the low regard the general public has for my former profession.

“The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That’s the wry observation credited to Finley Peter Dunne. However, some reporters are obviously paying more attention to the comfort of their own bank balance.

We need strong reporting more than ever today. We need aggressive reporting and earnest truth-telling, because we are living in an age of lies and ‘alternative facts.’ Our democratic institutions are under attack as never before, and reporters who publish the truth are our first line of defense.

We can support independent journalism by subscribing to local and national newspapers–especially ones that require their reporters to publish what they have confirmed when they confirm it!

Betsy DeVos & the Death of the GOP

If you weren’t already convinced that the Republican Party was Donald Trump’s personal property, the 2020 Republican National Convention demonstrated that–lock, stock & barrel–the party of Dwight Eisenhower, John McCain, the two Bush presidents, Ronald Reagan, and Abraham Lincoln no longer exists.

How did this happen?  Will historians be able to point to a moment in time when Trump, a classic bully, might have been stopped if the GOP had stood up to him, instead of appeasing him? 

Historians generally agree that, when Western powers failed to stand up to Hitler after his annexation of Czechoslovakia, the die was cast.  “Peace for Our Time” was promised by Chamberlain in his and Hitler’s Munich Agreement of September, 1938, but as we know World War II soon followed.   While there were earlier events (such as The Night of the Long Knives in 1934) where strong responses to Hitler’s bullying and posturing might have forced him to back down, most see the Munich appeasement as the point of no return.

The House and Senate are a co-equal branch of government with the Constitutional responsibility for ‘advice and consent‘ on Presidential appointments and foreign treaties.  Under Republican control, they had numerous opportunities to assert their prerogatives after Trump’s election in November, 2016, but I believe the Senate’s own “Munich Moment” was its approval of Betsy DeVos on February 7, 2017 as the 11th Secretary of Education.  Their behavior then told Trump that he could do whatever he wanted….and he has.

At least three Republican Senators on the relevant Senate Committee knew Betsy DeVos was an unqualified, uncurious religious zealot with a long record of undermining public education, but they voted to approve her anyway.

All ten previous Secretaries of Education, Republicans and Democrats alike, were supporters of the institution of public education, with the possible exception of William Bennett, a conservative skeptic.  DeVos, however, was openly opposed to public schools, preferring religious schools. She and her husband (of Amway fame) used their position and their money to “Christianize” education.

“Betsy DeVos … described her efforts, using the biblical term “Shephelah,” an area where battles — including between David and Goliath — were fought in the Old Testament.  “Our desire is to be in that Shephelah, and to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom, but not to stay in our own faith territory,” she said.   ….

School choice, they say, leads to “greater Kingdom gain.” The two also lament that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities, and they cite school choice as a way to reverse that troubling trend.”

The Republican-led Senate was well aware of DeVos’s radical views, when then President-elect Trump nominated her on November 23, 2016.*  The nomination went to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by Lamar Alexander, himself a former US Secretary of Education.

DeVos embarrassed herself in her responses to questioning by Democrats, not just by suggesting that teachers needed guns in case bears attacked their school. Time and again, she demonstrated how little she knew about public schools.

I don’t recall Lamar Alexander’s telegraphing his disapproval, but he must have been appalled at the thought of DeVos running the Department of Education.  Two Republican members of the Committee, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, were convinced that DeVos wasn’t up to the job.  Since the 23-person Committee was made up of 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats (unanimous in their opposition), all it would take was a single Republican vote against the DeVos nomination to keep it from going to the Senate floor, dooming it to defeat. 

Just one vote….and two Republicans (plus Chairman Alexander) knew that she was the wrong person for the job.  So would they do the right thing? Would they assert the Senate’s ‘advice and consent’ responsibility?   Would they tell Trump that he had to send a different name, someone with credentials?

Well, you know they did none of these things. Instead, they maneuvered to try to make themselves appear to be courageous.   They were anything but.  In truth, they deserve their own chapters in a “Profiles in Political Cowardice” book.

But it’s interesting to speculate on what might have gone on behind the scenes.  Did Alexander call Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and say something like “DeVos is unqualified. We can’t send this nomination to the Senate floor. I have two Republicans who want to vote against her (and so do I).  We have to tell Trump to send us someone else.”

But even if Lamar Alexander was willing to hold his nose and vote for DeVos, what about Collins and Murkowski?  How could they vote for DeVos?  Did they dare to defy Trump? Would they stand up for the Senate’s Constitutional ‘advice and consent’ responsibility for Presidential nominations?

Mitch McConnell can count and knew that, with a 52-48 margin in the Senate, he could lose two Republicans and still get DeVos approved, because Vice President Mike Pence was empowered to break ties.  Apparently promising Collins and Murkowski that they could look strong on the Senate floor was enough to get them to approve DeVos in committee.  So they caved.

And on February 7, 2017, DeVos was confirmed by the Senate, 51-50, with Pence breaking the tie.  It was the first time in U.S. history that a Cabinet nomination was decided by the Vice President’s vote.

The faux defiance by Collins and Murkowski may have fooled their constituents (most likely all they cared about), but Trump and his minions saw right through it. They recognized it for what it was, an act of surrender.  They knew, going forward, that Collins and Murkowski could be bullied, although perhaps with a little bit of special handling.

Of course, McConnell was in their pocket anyway, because his wife had been appointed to Trump’s cabinet.

DeVos has done substantial damage to public education, including a brazen effort to divert Covid-19 relief funds to private and religious schools, so perhaps it’s worth at status report on the Republican members of that Senate Committee.  Here’s the list:

Lamar Alexander, Mike Enzi, and Pat Roberts are about to retire from the Senate, and Orrin Hatch and Johnny Isakson have already departed.  Lisa Murkowski is not up for re-election this fall.  Only Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Susan Collins of Maine are standing for re-election in November.  Cassidy is a lock, but Collins is fighting for her political life and is facing a worthy opponent, Sara Gideon, the Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.

Those of you who believe that a strong public education system is essential to our society might consider helping send Susan Collins into retirement.  Call it your way of ‘thanking’ Senator Collins for not having the courage of her convictions–and for giving us the worst US Secretary of Education imaginable.  Here’s how to contribute to Sarah Gideon.

Suppose the Senate–meaning Collins, Murkowski, and Alexander–had done the right thing? That act would have sent Trump a clear message that the United States Senate wouldn’t rubber stamp whoever Trump sent up, that it would take seriously the responsibility for quality control.

Would the bullying have stopped? Of course not, but it’s also possible that, when other Senators noticed that Collins and Murkowski had defied Trump and were still walking around, unscarred, they might have resolved to do what they had sworn to do.

It’s even possible to imagine some Senators voting to hear the evidence for an impeachment trial (particularly the Senators who served on the Intelligence Committee that had already seen convincing evidence that Trump and his team were actively involved with the Russians prior to the 2016 election).

That would have changed our history.  So for me anyway, the vote to approve Betsy DeVos is the moment when the U.S. Senate became Trump’s lackey.

 

  • Fun fact: Trump’s first choice for Secretary of Education was the now-infamous Jerry Falwell, Jr, who told CBS he turned down the job because Trump wanted at least a 4-year commitment that Falwell said he couldn’t make because Liberty University needed him.

MAGA: “My Awesome Gettysburg Address”

My fellow American patriots, Welcome to this historical monument and this even more historical occasion, because today your favorite President is accepting his party’s unanimous nomination to continue to lead our beloved country to even greater heights, now that we have the China virus under control.

You know, many people said that I should come to Gettysburg or Mt. Rushmore to accept the nomination. But I’ve already been to Mt. Rushmore, and I hear that someday I will be there forever, along with Abe and the other greats.

No president in history had to face what I have faced: The Russia hoax, the China virus, Fake News, Nasty Nancy and a lot of other nasty women, and now Sleepy Joe and that woman he just picked, the nasty one with the strange name that sounds a lot like ‘Camel.’

People, Man, Woman, Camera, Television.”  I’ll bet Sleepy Joe couldn’t pass that test! I dare you, Sleepy Joe!

Honest Abe made a famous speech here at Gettysburg, which my loyal aide Steven Miller read to me the other day,  the one where he said “Four score and seven…”   That’s how I learned that ‘score’ has another meaning than the one I’m used to.

Some people in the Democrat party or the ‘Fake News’ have criticized me for coming to what they call “Hallowed Ground” to accept your unanimous nomination, but I remind them that I am the President, and the Constitution says I can do whatever I need to do.  In other words, I decide what’s hallowed and what’s not, and not some left-leaning Democrat.  Get used to it, Democrats, the Commander in Chief is in charge of hallowing!

Besides, do you think that those two great Generals, Robert E. Lee and George Washington, gave a fig about fighting on “Hallowed Ground,” when they were deciding the Civil War?  No, they ignored those “Please Do Not Fight on Hallowed Ground” signs and went right at it.

By the way, there were good people on both sides.

Abe spoke for just a few minutes, and I think he said the world wouldn’t remember what he said, but he was wrong because people are still talking about his Gettysburg Address.  Well, this is my Gettysburg Address, your reminder that no President in history has accomplished as much as yours truly.  And I promise you, that in the next four years I will remake America, so much so that you won’t even recognize it.

Onward to victory.  Let’s Make America Great Again for the second time…..

 

Pressing Questions about The Press

Donald Trump has resumed his so-called Covid-19 briefings, this time without any medical experts. After watching one in its entirety, I am concerned about the White House Press Corps, which seems to me to be a huge part of the problem. 

 The July 23rd session was billed as focusing on public schools but began with Trump’s announcement that he was cancelling the Jacksonville part of the GOP Convention, because, he said, of his concern for the safety of his fellow Republicans.

Then he read, without enthusiasm and in a monotone, a multi-page document about the necessity for reopening schools on time, without any remote learning or part-time attendance.  With his occasional side trips, he ran on for 2100 words.

Finally he threw in this stunning tidbit: This morning, I spoke with President Putin of Russia, and they’re going through a very hard time with this — in Moscow, in particular.” 

Got that? He told the assembled reporters that he had just spoken with Putin, the man who has put a bounty on the heads of US soldiers in Afghanistan, according to reliable US intelligence.  That news came out a month before this briefing, and Trump had not yet addressed the issue.

And then the President took questions.    

And so the glaringly obvious FIRST question should have been something like this: “Mr. President, did you ask Mr. Putin about the American intelligence community’s finding that Russia was paying Taliban fighters cash bounties for every American soldier they killed?  And, if so, what did he say?  And if you didn’t bring it up with President Putin, why not?

Instead, the first FIVE questions were about the GOP convention, followed by THREE questions about public schools and federal legislation.

Question #9 was a  ‘gotcha’ question about opening up too fast.  ‘Why are you pushing schools to open while cancelling your own meeting,’ basically trying to goad Trump, which didn’t work because he segued to a strange and nearly incomprehensible discussion of baseball relief pitcher Mariano Rivera.

Finally, a wildly inappropriate question about funding for a new FBI headquarters, which Trump responded to with a 300-word monologue, after which he thanked the Press Corps and took his leave.

NOT ONE QUESTION about the bounties!!!

The White House Press Corps includes tough and talented reporters like CNN’s Kaitlin Collins and the PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor, and Trump did not call on either of them that afternoon. That said, it seems to me that the reporters who failed to ask Trump about the bounties ought to turn in their press passes.

In addition to questions about bounties, the White House Press Corps ought to be asking Trump the following:

“Mr. President, back in early March you said that you did not take any responsibility at all for the rising number of infections and the delays in testing.  Now that the US has more than 4 million cases and 150,000 deaths, are you willing to accept any responsibility for the situation?”

“Mr. President, back in September 2016 you promised to release your tax returns.  It was during a Presidential debate, and you said I don’t mind releasing — I’m under a routine audit. And it’ll be released. And — as soon as the audit’s finished, it will be released.”  Sir, the audits are over, and you have been fighting with every means at your disposal to prevent Congress, legal authorities, and the American public from seeing your tax returns. Why? What’s in those tax returns that you do not want anyone to see?”

“Mr. President, Are you willing to talk about what keeps you up at night?  Do you ever lie awake thinking about the 150,000 Americans who have died of Covid-19?  Or about the surges of infections, the hot spots that are popping up everywhere and the pain that it’s causing?  Do you now wish you had treated the emerging pandemic with greater urgency, perhaps by issuing a nation-wide order to wear masks or by nationalizing some industries to produce PPE?”  

This is not all on the White House Press Corps, of course.  For example, Fox’s Chris Wallace had an hour or more one-on-one with the President recently, and the above questions didn’t appear on air, so it’s reasonable to assume Wallace did not pose them.

In fact, Trump has pretty much played the press like a drum since he declared his candidacy in 2015.  Remember those so-called press conferences he held after giving speeches?  With the stage decorated with Trump products (steaks, vodka, etc) and Trump at the podium, reporters–without microphones–would shout their questions from the back of the room.  Because TV viewers could not hear the questions, Trump could respond as he wished.  He was free to dissemble, to ignore the questions, and say whatever he felt like saying.  The very first time that happened the press should have spoken as one and said, “No more coverage until the reporters are miked!”  But that didn’t happen because Trump was “Ratings Gold” (and perhaps because the press didn’t expect him to win).   It amounted to a free pass for Trump, while many in the press obsessed about Hillary’s e-mails.

It’s past time for reporters with access to Trump to stop being part of the problem.  Reporters should be asking him tough questions, and they should keep on asking them!  So what if he stomps out of his press conference and bans Kaitlin Collins (as he did Tuesday) from future events.  Other WHPC reporters ought to act in solidarity and ask those same questions….and keep on asking them so that the American people can get an honest picture of the man and his leadership.

It Will Take a Village to Open Schools Safely 

When public schools closed in March because of the pandemic, a different U.S. President would have said to the education community, “Children, their parents, teachers, and the economy will need schools to open in the fall, so please tell me how the Federal Government can help.”  Unfortunately, conflict is Donald Trump’s modus operandi, and so, after ignoring the issue for months, he has recently politicized the issue.  Basically, it’s “Open or else!”   

Back in March, a competent U.S. Secretary of Education would have focused on the challenges ahead. Instead, Betsy DeVos concentrated on vouchers and private religious schools, intent on funneling Covid-19 relief funds in their direction.

Trump, his Education Secretary, Vice President Mike Pence, and others in the Administration are now trying to strong arm public schools into opening their doors completely. No ‘hybrid’ staggered schedules, and no remote learning!  Their bluster, their attacks on teachers and their unions, and their threats to cut federal funding are complicating the difficult problem of providing education for nearly 51 million children.  

Supporters of public education would be wise to avoid a war of words with President Trump.  Instead, educators must focus on providing safe and challenging learning opportunities–in schools or in other physical spaces.  This desirable and essential goal can be achieved by forming alliances with other public agencies, businesses, non-profits, and politicians. In other words, it will take a village to open schools.  

Two priorities cannot be compromised or negotiated: 1) Keep everyone safe, with frequent testing, social distancing, and adequate PPE;  and 2) Create genuine learning opportunities, rather than simply replicating semesters, work sheets, 50-minute periods, and everything else that schools routinely do.  Quite literally, everything else should be on the table, subject to change.

Serious ‘out of the box’ thinking begins with re-examining how schools traditionally use both time and space.

Start with space.  No public school was designed for social distancing, and very few public schools have enough extra room–like the gym–to create safe spaces, even with the reduced ‘3 foot spacing’ recommended by the nation’s pediatricians.  That’s why many school districts (including New York City) have announced plans for a ‘hybrid’ approach in which all students are at home at least part of the time, while other districts (including Los Angeles and San Diego) have announced that all instruction will be remote for the first half of the school year.  

But there’s an important alternative: find new spaces and convert them for instruction.  Spaces that are empty at least part of the day are everywhere: Houses of worship, meeting rooms at the local Y or Boys & Girls Club, theaters, and–because of the recession–vacant storefronts and offices.  It will take some political leadership, but the 3rd Grade could meet at the Y, the 5th Grade at the Methodist Church, the 9th Grade at what used to be a shoe store, and so on. 

Jamaal Bowman, a New York City Democrat who is virtually certain to be elected to Congress in the fall, likes this idea.  He told Politico that he “would use alternative learning spaces to maximize the amount of face-to-face learning children have with a teacher and would demand substantial investments from our federal government so our school district can hire more teachers. I would also encourage cities to repurpose unused spaces like theaters, office spaces, and design spaces to classrooms.” 

Superintendents I have communicated with raised the issue of liability in any new spaces, clearly a problem but not an insoluble one; it should be addressed in federal legislation now being discussed in Congress.

By dramatically expanding the spaces available for instruction, social distancing becomes possible and schools are now safe places to be.  What’s more, everyone goes to school at the same time: no split days with noon starts, and so forth.

Now consider time

Right now schools divide the year into semesters and (except in the early grades) the day into subject periods.  Because these traditional (and convenient) concepts are not based on how children learn, educators should be prepared to abandon them.

For example, those 9th Graders who are meeting daily at the old shoe store can spend a month doing a deep dive into American history, one of their required courses.  Because no one could tolerate an entire day–let alone a month–of reading chapters, lectures, discussion, and regurgitation, teachers and students must imagine new ways to study our nation’s past.  

Project-based learning should become the pedagogy of choice. Teams of students might explore their city’s history or dig into the back stories of the men who signed The Declaration of Independence, for example.  They could interview (via Zoom) local veterans of recent wars and use those memories to help write the story of the conflict.  What monuments can be found in the city or town, and what is their history?  Or pick a prominent building in the town or city and dig into its history: who built it, and why?  Hundreds of interesting questions and projects, none of them cookie-cutter.

Other sections of the ninth grade might convene at a different store front or a house of worship for their own deep dive. Ideally at some point all the ninth graders will go back to their high school, where they would dig deeply into another subject but also have the chance to see each other.

Monthly deep dives into history, biology, English literature, and other subjects are a pathway to genuine expertise and understanding; what’s more, this approach has the strong support of the American Academy of Pediatrics.   Immersion will also be the death knell of skimming the surface of subjects, surely an educational outcome we can get behind.

This Spring’s 3-month shutdown shone a harsh light on glaring inequities. Nationwide, about 14% of homes with school-age children do not have internet access, and in some school systems as many as 40 percent of students reportedly did not have computers or internet access.  But rather than hand-wringing, this is another opportunity for thinking differently.  Why not do as Third World countries do? Forget computers and rely instead on low-cost cell phones, which will provide internet access and can be set up without long distance calling privileges.  What’s more, the money school districts are not spending on standardized ‘bubble’ tests (which have been cancelled) could help pay for the phones, and many long-distance providers have already expressed their willingness to be part of the solution.  

Communities also have valuable resources they can tap into: Well-educated retirees, younger adults who have lost their jobs, and college students whose campuses have closed. After thorough vetting, some can be hired as teacher aides, and perhaps arrangements can be made so the college students receive credit toward their degree.

These are bold moves, but school districts that have already experienced the inadequacies of ‘remote learning’ might now be receptive to new ideas and approaches.  

And what about teachers?  Are they willing and able to retool themselves as professionals?  After all, month-long blocks and project-based learning will be as new to most teachers as they are to students?  That’s a fair question, and perhaps some will not be able to meet the test, at least initially.  But many teachers will prosper in situations that demand the very best of them. Moreover, most students will learn to enjoy having more control over their own learning.

When public schools closed during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the Federal Government responded with funding to hire school nurses.  Because only 60% of today’s schools have full-time nurses and 25% have no nurse at all, Congress should do that.  But it should also provide emergency funding to rent supplemental space, pay for Covid-19 testing and PPE, buy liability insurance, and pay teacher aides. 

Democrats like Senator Tim Kaine (D, VA) are pushing for passage of the Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act. “This legislation provides $430 billion to assist child care facilities, K-12 school districts and institutions of higher education with reopening costs,”  Senator Kaine told Politico.  However, because Secretary DeVos diverted millions of dollars in CARES funds that were intended for public schools to private institutions, Congress must be very specific in its language to prevent her from raiding these funds.  

Mark Cuban, the billionaire tech entrepreneur who owns an NBA team, says the money must also go into communities. He told Politico, “The greatest issue is for working parents: How do they keep their jobs and care for their kids at home? One way to attempt to address this is by having trusted groups of families that can support multiple kids at one home. A better solution would be to offer Caretaker Basic Income that pays a parent $2,000 to $2,500 per month, depending on their cost of living, to stay at home during the period kids are required to take at-home and online classes.

As to whether schools should open in late August or early September, some political leaders are speaking up.  Beto O’Rourke, the former presidential contender who has three school-age children, sets three conditions for opening:  “I’d set in-person education to start as soon as community transmission is under control, we have highly accessible universal Covid testing and the most vigorous contact tracing program possible.

While reopening most public schools is both possible and desirable, it won’t happen unless we think outside the box.  The state reopening plans I am familiar with focus on three options: full open, partial open, and remote learning, with no discussion of looking for new spaces or how schools use time.  I don’t think that’s sufficient.  Reopening schools–once it’s safe– will require imaginative, courageous state and local leadership. 

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it will take the support of the village to open its public schools.  

 

REOPENING SCHOOLS

Here’s a letter I just received from an experienced K-4 school principal.

Dear John,

You asked how I would go about reopening schools this fall. My answer focuses on the schools I know best, K-grade 4, but I believe these ideas are applicable at all levels of public education.  

Others proposals, including those from teacher unions, Education Week, and think tanks, concentrate on the practical, physical arrangements necessary to open school safely, with such strategies as ‘Staggered opening,’ ‘One week on, two weeks off,’ and ‘Bubble classrooms.’  

In addition to testing for the virus, social distancing, and basic hygiene, I would insist on the following SEVEN steps: 

1) Internet access for all students

2) Clearly defined benchmarks that students are expected to achieve during their five years at the school but NOT by grade level. Along the way, ‘accomplishment levels’ that are clearly defined;

3) Students randomly assigned to a team (the number of teams being dependent upon the size of the school). Create a point system that rewards a student’s team for his or her individual accomplishments, such as reaching an ‘accomplishment level’; 

4) Absolutely no talk of “learning loss” or “pandemic deficits” when discussing what students may or may not have achieved during the school year that was interrupted by Covid-19;  

5) A “Tutoring Corps” of older students, retired adults, and others who want to help students reach “accomplishment levels;” 

6) As much free play and recess as possible; and 

7) absolutely NO standardized, machine-scored bubble tests.

1.   ACCESS TO THE INTERNET: This is a non-negotiable condition for reopening, which means School Boards and the town’s leadership better get cracking.  Figure out which families don’t have it and come up with a plan for meeting that need.  Raise the money from corporations, foundations, wealthy families, and your State government.  Do whatever you have to do, but make it clear that nobody goes to school until everyone has access. (One source of funds: The savings from Step #7.)

This matters because it’s possible–and even probable–that all students will be learning at home some part of the year, perhaps even one or two days a week, in order to comply with social distancing rules. 

2. BENCHMARKS: It’s essential for educators, parents, other community members, and older students to reach agreement on what students are expected to be able to do after attending four years of school, seven years of school, ten years of school, and twelve years of school.   

For example, in my school, I believe the following skills should be the floor for children after four years of school (plus Kindergarten). They should be able to:

  1. Read with understanding.
  2. Paraphrase and summarize–orally and in writing–what they have read (and not merely recite what happened in the story).
  3. Write coherent short essays in standard English.
  4. Add, subtract, multiply, and divide large numbers.
  5. Multiply and divide fractions.
  6. Speak confidently to a group.
  7. Ask and answer questions in a second language.

The idea is to establish a reasonable floor, not a ceiling.  

An obvious challenge to this idea is its unfamiliarity:  All of us went to graded schools, and so did our parents.  But perhaps not our grandparents and great grandparents, who may have attended one-room schools.  However, grouping children into First Grade, Second Grade, Third Grade and so on is an administrative convenience to make schools run smoothly, rather than a strategy based on how children actually learn.  Because individual 9-year-olds learn at different rates and in spurts, there’s as much variation among 9-year-olds as there is between 9-year-olds and children who are 8 or 10.  And because children learn at different rates and grow in unpredictable spurts, schools should establish larger groups of students, not grades per se but ages 5-9, 10-13, and so forth.  

We’re not abolishing grades, merely minimizing their importance.  Students will still meet by grade at the beginning and end of every day, in their ‘homeroom’ and have opportunities to talk about whatever is on their minds.

However, the current practice of automatically segregating children by age creates a pecking order, with the older kids picking on the younger ones. I know I’m not the only adult with dark memories of 7th grade and the cruel bullying by some 9th graders.

A challenge to my benchmark strategy is the fact that a few 6-year-olds will reach some of the goals before some 9-year-olds.  That means dividing children into ‘accomplishment levels’ (not ‘ability groups,’ please).  And some 6-year-olds may be in a higher group in mathematics and language but lower down in English or the second language they are studying. 

Here’s what matters most: No one should be permitted to languish, and everyone should get whatever help is needed.

As students reach interim benchmarks in these areas, their accomplishments will be heralded, because hard work and achievement must be rewarded.  These accomplishments also earn valuable points for the student’s team–as explained below.  

Again, these agreed-upon benchmarks are floors, not ceilings, and teachers and parents need to work with students to see that they continue to learn and grow

3. TEAMS: To minimize the possibility of high-achievers making fun of those who are lagging, every school must strive to become a community of supportive learners.  Here, rewards for teamwork will help. First, randomly assign students to teams (Epsilon, Gamma, Theta, for example). Then develop a point system for positive accomplishments.  When an Epsilon asks and answers questions in a second language, she earns points for her team.  An older Gamma who tutors a younger student and helps him read with understanding earns points for Gamma.  Individual and group accomplishments are encouraged, celebrated, and rewarded, with a community-wide celebration at year’s end for the team with the most points.  This gives students a vested interest in the success of everyone on their team, regardless of age.

This is not some glorified system of ‘external rewards’ that take precedence over learning. Rather, think of a track team.  In that sport, the athlete who does well in an individual event like the broad jump, the 200-meter dash, or the shot put earns personal recognition AND points for his or her team.  Every athlete on the track team has a rooting interest in their teammates doing well.

This is not a new idea. Plenty of independent schools have been doing this for years and years because it builds unity across grades and creates barriers to bullying.

4. NO TALK OF ‘PANDEMIC DEFICITS’: Make it clear that talking about ‘educational deficits’ and ‘pandemic learning loss’ won’t be tolerated.  Too many educators are wringing their hands about how much some kids have fallen behind during the months that schools were closed.  This kind of talk stigmatizes students and sets them up for failure (while potentially providing excuses for their teachers).  With new groupings and reasonable floors for accomplishments, everyone should be considered as making a fresh start. 

Whoever needs help, gets it, in a new era of ‘no fault’ education.  

In my view, this pandemic has exposed a serious design flaw in public education: it’s a sorting system that identifies ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ sending the former off to elite colleges and universities, and the latter to work or community colleges. What’s more, the sorting is deeply flawed, largely ratifying a student’s socio-economic status, family background, race, and ethnicity.  Not only is this fundamentally immoral; it’s also bad national policy because we’re losing the brain power of millions of young people by not asking the right question about each and every one of them.

The operative question about each child is not “How Smart Is She?” but “How Is She
Smart?”  Every child has strengths and interests. The challenge for educators is to work with parents to identify those strengths and interests.  And it may not be all that tough, because children and adolescents who have spent months in social isolation will be hungry for contact. Teachers should respond by emphasizing project-based learning, which brings students together to explore challenging subjects that are of interest to them.

5. A CORPS OF VOLUNTEER TUTORS: Every community has a pool of individuals who would like to make their world a better place, and the coronavirus pandemic means that many of them may have time on their hands.  Consider college students, their campuses shuttered.  Recruit them.  Work with local education institutions to create courses in which their students would get academic credit for helping your students reach desired accomplishment levels. 

Since fluency in a second language is one benchmark, reach out to those in your community whose first language in something other than English and ask them to help. 

This is already happening, of course. Here’s one impressive example worth learning from.

6. PLAY, AND MORE PLAY: Stop denying the age-old truth uttered by the poet Juvenal, “Mens sana in corpore sano,” which translates as “A healthy mind in a healthy body.’ 

During our decades of test-obsession, too many schools eliminated both recess and physical education in order to concentrate on higher test scores.  It didn’t work, of course, although it probably produced a generation of adults who have bad memories of public school.  

Recess shouldn’t be 50 minutes a few times a week. It can be a series of 10-minute breaks AND one 50-minute period of unstructured free play every day.  Children need this.  

This won’t be easy because some districts are deep into plans to subdivide gyms into classrooms, in order to achieve social distancing.  While that may be necessary, those leaders must also have a clear plan for regular and frequent exercise.

If you aren’t convinced, please read Let The Children Play, by Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle.

7. NO BUBBLE TESTS: There’s little point in administering so-called ‘end of year’ standardized bubble tests in 2021. They will reveal that most students in wealthy towns like Darien, CT, perform better than their counterparts up I-95 in Bridgeport.  Use those dollars to close the technology gap and to create more learning opportunities in your Bridgeports. 

Use the time that would ordinarily be spent (that is, wasted) on test-prep to continue exploring what students are interested in.

This is not tantamount to abandoning assessment. In fact, that process should be frequent and in the hands of those who know students best, their teachers.  But to make assessment as non-threatening as possible, the operating principle must be ‘Assess to Improve’ (replacing the common–and dangerous–’Test to Punish’ that has been the hallmark of so-called ‘school reform’ for the past 20 years or more).

  • An eighth goal is aspirational: Create a school environment that is physically, emotionally, and intellectually safe for every child.  Physical safety is the easiest of those three.  Emotional safety means more than adults keeping their antenna alert for bullying.  A more effective strategy is to enlist student leaders in this effort, to persuade them to set the bar high and to communicate to other students about bullying and other harassment:  “We don’t do that here!”   In an intellectually safe environment, it’s cool to ask questions and be curious, and it’s admirable to acknowledge when a student isn’t grasping a concept or understanding what the teacher just said.  Displaying ignorance in pursuit of knowledge is to be expected and encouraged, not mocked.  

Fall 2020 will test the proposition that every crisis is also an opportunity.  It’s unfortunate that we do not have strong national leadership that believes in public education, but at least there’s no ambiguity.  We know that it is up to those who care about America’s future to step up.

I hope this is useful.  Thanks for asking me.

Sincerely,

(NAME REDACTED)

NO Television for My Birthday Ride, but I Rode Anyway

3PM, Monday, June 8:  This morning was a perfect day for my birthday ride, so I called ESPN to discuss plans for live-streaming on ESPN-27, the channel devoted to amateur athletes.  I recorded the conversation.

ESPN:  Good morning, ESPN. How may I help you?

ME: May I speak to the Executive Producer at your ESPN-27 Channel please? I’m calling about the live-streaming of my attempt to bike my age.

ESPN: There is no ESPN-27 channel. We have ESPN, ESPN-2, and ESPN-3. That’s it.l

ME: But I was told……

ESPN: Sir, there’s no such channel.  You’ve been tricked.

ME: Then perhaps ESPN would be interested in live-streaming my effort on ESPN-3.  I know you are desperate for live sporting events.

ESPN: I don’t think we’re that desperate, sir.

ME: It might draw an audience. After all, my effort is sanctioned by ABBA.

ESPN: What? A musical group is sanctioning athletic events?

ME: No, ABBA is the Association of Birthday Bikers Athletes. It’s in Sweden. Nothing to do with music.

ESPN: Would you mind holding for a minute, sir?

(A minute or more passes)

ESPN: Sir, I’m afraid someone is pulling your leg. There is no ‘Annual Birthday Bikers Association.’  There is ABBA, the Swedish pop supergroup that’s world famous for songs like ‘Dancing Queen.’  Sir, you need to get out more often.  Thank you for calling ESPN.

(She concludes the call)

Well, it turns out that she was correct. Apparently ABBA is/are some singers in Sweden, kind of like The Weavers, The Kingston Trio, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Peter, Paul & Mary, or the Yale Glee Club.  Who knew?

Someone tricked me about ABBA and ESPN-27.  I owe you an apology, because what I told you last week about riding with a Target logo on my back, wearing Depends for Men bike pants, and being pumped up by Vacurect (my tires) was false.  

Lucky for me, Vin Scully, Al Michaels, Tony Kornheiser, and the other famous sports announcers hadn’t yet responded to my invitation to get involved in the live-streaming. It would have been embarrassing to have to let them down.  I guess they were waiting until my actual birthday, June 14th, got closer to accept my invitation.

But yesterday was a perfect day for biking, and so I rode anyway…

IMG_2057

As you can see, I added an extra mile for good measure.  So, friends, please write your checks for $80, $800, $8,000 or some other multiple of 80 in support of organizations in minority communities affected by the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.

Once again, I apologize for misleading you about ABBA.  I’m thinking it’s a good idea to have an organization of birthday riders, but it needs a different name.  Maybe Birthday Athletes Biking Annually?

Stay safe….

 

MY BIRTHDAY RIDE WILL BE ON ESPN THIS YEAR

Sometime between today and June 14th, my 79th birthday, I will once again attempt to bike my age.  This will mark the 14th year in a row of this challenge, which, so far, I have been able to meet. 

But this time things are more exciting and more challenging for these five reasons:

1 & 2: The ride is a mile longer, and I am a year older.

3:  I cannot use my familiar (and very flat) route outside New York City because we are now living in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, a hilly and windy island.  

4: For the first time, my attempt is authorized by the Association of Birthday Bicycle Athletes (ABBA), which will be monitoring my effort from its international headquarters in Sweden. If I make it, it will be certified and officially recognized. ABBA has some pretty serious rules and regulations, including these four:  

A.  The cyclist may not get off the bike more than 7 times during the ride;

B.  Nap or rest breaks cannot exceed 15 minutes, and no more than two naps are allowed during the competitive effort;

C.  No performance-enhancing drugs;

D. No sex during the ride. (This provision is the subject of much debate within ABBA. All of the French and Italian ABBA members, men and women, want the rule revised to prohibit unprotected sex, but not all sex. That debate continues, which means I will be abiding by the current rule.)

Although I went well beyond the required 78 miles last year, 83 ABBA’s strict rules do not allow me to count the surplus of 5 miles toward this year’s goal.

5: My effort will be live-streamed on ESPN-27, the sports channel for amateur athletic events.  This is a big deal for me, as you might imagine. If you’re not familiar with ESPN-27, it scored a ratings hit when it live-streamed 62-year-old George Hood’s 8:15.15 plank back in late February.  At times during that broadcast the audience reached into the high double figures.

I’m wearing a Go-Pro camera for the live-streaming. Commentary will be provided by prominent sportscasters, who will weigh in during the 8-hour broadcast.   I’ve invited the eloquent Greg Gumbel, the articulate Jim Nantz, the trail-blazing Robin Roberts, the unflappable Al Michaels, the perceptive Hannah Storm, the quick-witted  Tony Kornheiser, the hebetudinous Brent Musburger, the cerebral Erin Andrews, the incomparable Vin Scully, and Herman Mullakang. Only Herm, the backup engineer at Martha’s Vineyard Community Service Television, has accepted the invitation as of this moment.

Three companies purchased spots on my biking attire to advertise their products.  My main sponsor is Target, which has bought the rights to  my shirt. I will be riding with its logo on my back and over my heart.  Other sponsors are Vacurect, which is underwriting the inflation of my tires, and Depends for Men, which is sponsoring my biking pants.   The proceeds are, of course, being donated to charity.

Even in the best of times, this venture of mine is akin to Trivial Pursuit.  To make it meaningful, I am asking people to contribute 79 cents, $7.90, $79, $790, $7,900, or any other multiple of 79 to non-profit organizations in communities of color affected by the coronavirus and the protests over the murder of George Floyd.  As always, pledges are contingent upon my riding 79 miles.  If I don’t make it, you don’t have to make the donation.

If you wish to make your commitment public, that’s great.  There are two ways: 1) Make your promise in the ‘reply’ section below, or 2) Go to my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/johnmerrow and make your public commitment there.

Thanks, and stay safe…..

Betsy DeVos Needs to Work Harder

Betsy DeVos has been working to undermine public education ever since she became Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education in February 2017, about 1200 days ago.  Will a recent exposé on the front page of the New York Times derail–or even slow down–her determined effort?

That’s doubtful.  But you should know that she’s now using pandemic dollars to weaken public schools.  

Frankly, she’s not as efficient as she could be, so at the end of this piece I have a couple of tips that will help DeVos finish her apparently divinely-inspired mission to completely destroy public schools, forever.  Please read on…  

In a story headlined “DeVos Funnels Coronavirus Relief Funds to Favored Private and Religious Schools,” the Times’s Erica Green lays out in excruciating detail how the Secretary, herself a graduate of a Christian high school and a Christian college, has taken the $30 billion appropriated by Congress to help education institutions upended by the pandemic and diverted it to institutions and policies that support her vision of privatized, God-centric education.  In doing so, she’s taking dollars away from low-income children–not because she’s against disadvantaged children. They happen to attend public schools, her target.

And we are not talking chump-change here, either.  For example, Bergin University of Canine Studies in California, whose purpose is to ‘advance the human-canine partnership through research and education,’ received $472,850 in pandemic relief funds.  That’s $11,532 per student, because its website reports an enrollment of just 41 students. Yes, you read that right: 41 students and $472,850.

The invaluable Inside Higher Ed has been pursuing the story as well.  Here’s one snippet from its coverage:  ‘Denver’s Montessori Casa International, which had received $3,492 in stimulus funds, is now in line to get another $496,508. That means the school, which trained 12 students in the Montessori method in the 2017-18 academic year, could get a whopping $41,375 per student.”  

There’s method to this madness, of course: starving public education: “Private schools are set to receive more support than they expected from the federal coronavirus relief package, while high-poverty school districts are set to receive less, thanks to guidance put out by Betsy DeVos’s federal education department,” according to Chalkbeat, the on-line education newspaper.  Basically, DeVos has told states that they must give more of the pandemic funds to private schools, whether they enroll low-income students or not.

Here are more details from The Times: “In Louisiana, private schools would receive at least 267 percent more funding, and at least 77 percent of the relief allocation for Orleans Parish would be redirected, according to a letter state that education chiefs sent to Ms. DeVos. The Newark Public Schools in New Jersey would lose $800,000 in federal relief funds to private schools, David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, said in a letter to the governor of New Jersey asking him to reject the guidance.”

Some state education leaders have said they will not follow her directive. (Congratulations, Indiana).  Others, like Tennessee, have fallen in line.

Secretary DeVos has even been sending money to schools that didn’t apply for it, Green writes.  “The Wright Graduate University for the Realization of Human Potential, a private college in Wisconsin that has a website debunking claims that it is a cult, was allocated about $495,000. All of the colleges could apply for the funds or reject them, and Wright officials said the school did not claim the funds.”

Here’s more: God’s Bible School and College in Cincinnati, which enrolls 378 students, has already received $155,000 in higher education coronavirus relief money and has been offered an additional $337,447.  The institution, which enrolls 239 students, told The Times that it wouldn’t accept the additional funds.

From the beginning, Congress has rejected the Secretary’s efforts to create and fund a massive program that would give parents valuable ‘vouchers’ that they could spend for their children’s education wherever they chose, including religious and for-profit institutions. (DeVos and her family apparently have invested in some on-line education efforts.)  The pandemic funds have provided DeVos a backdoor to achieving this goal.

It must make DeVos furious that some institutions have given back the pandemic money, out of conscience or principle.   Since her goal is to shovel our tax dollars out the door and into the hands of the undeserving, she needs to make sure she doesn’t send money to people with principles, or to those with a conscience.  She needs to focus her campaign on people without scruples.

Just as Willie Sutton robbed banks because ‘that’s where the money was,” DeVos should send checks only to those who are demonstrably unworthy of receiving it.

Actually, she doesn’t need to do any original research to find the scammers, the crooks, and the zealots.  Their names are readily available.  For example, The Network for Public Education has published detailed information about thousands of publicly funded charter schools that are guilty of wrong-doing.  All DeVos has to do is get copies of “Asleep at the Wheel” and “Still Asleep at the Wheel,” pick out some scamming schools, and send them checks.  There’s even a map, so she can direct the money to states that her boss needs to win in November. What could be easier!!

Funneling money to undeserving colleges and universities doesn’t require any work either. Just use Google for a full list and take your pick among dozens of unrecognized ‘religious’ colleges and universities.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for DeVos to help Golden State School of Theology.   “It is with a sad heart that we announce that as of March 31st, 2020, Golden State School of Theology has ceased opperation (sic).”  (Clearly, Golden State didn’t emphasize spelling.) 

But the Secretary has plenty of options if she wants to support religious institutions that cannot earn accreditation. Why not send pandemic dollars to Louisiana Baptist University, which is not accredited by any organization recognized by her own United States Department of Education?  “The current president of LBU is Dr. Neal Weaver.[10] Mr. Weaver holds no doctorate from an accredited university. LBU’s faculty page list a Ph.D.[11] from Holy Trinity Seminary.[12] Holy Trinity Seminary does not issue degrees, and is a non degree granting institute.”  I’m not picking on LBU, because there are literally dozens and dozens and dozens more…..

If I may close by addressing the Secretary directly.  Madam Secretary, no doubt your fellow religious zealots in the Trump Administration–Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and others–support what you are doing.     

I’m wondering whether you find it ironic that your boss, who has only a passing knowledge of Christianity and other religions, lets you try to undermine an institution of immense social value, our public schools, in the name of your notion of God?  Or don’t you care, because for you the end justifies the means (as Christ never taught)? 

Hard as you are trying to destroy public education, you will not be successful.  Most Americans believe in and value public education, which will be here long after you are gone.

That said, however, November cannot come soon enough!!

 

One More Question…..

“Dr. Merrow, I have just one more question for you.  We’re pretty conservative here, pretty slow to change.  If we hire you to be our School Superintendent, what’s the biggest change you would want to make in our schools?”

“That’s a great question, sir,” I replied, my brain whirling and spinning and searching for a suitable answer.

His question feels as fresh today as it did in 1973 when  I was living on Nantucket, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. I had just received my doctorate from Harvard, I was unemployed, the schools were looking for a superintendent, and the minister at our church happened to be on the school board.  Thus I was asked to apply, which culminated in that great question….which proved to be my downfall.

I settled on an answer, which went something like this.  “I strongly believe that reading competently with understanding is the foundation of almost all learning. Therefore, I would institute a clear policy: no one advances to fourth grade until everyone can read.”

To my surprise my questioner, an elderly white gentleman, expressed his support.  “That’s not radical, Dr. Merrow.  That’s just common sense.”  He paused.  “After all, nobody should be promoted to fourth grade until he can read. 

“With all respect, sir, that’s not what I said. Under this policy, NOBODY goes to fourth grade until EVERYONE can read.  Your neighbor’s son isn’t promoted until YOUR daughter is reading, or vice-versa.”

I still remember the stunned looks on the faces of the School Board members.  As I recall, I qualified my position with some loopholes for children with disabling conditions, but that didn’t matter.  The interview was essentially over, and I wasn’t asked back for the second round of interviews.

So, 47 years later and in the midst of a pandemic, how would I answer that question?  

Actually, I would ask for even bigger changes, starting with these eight: 

1) Suspension of all high stakes machine-scored bubble tests for at least two years. Use the savings for teaching materials and teacher salaries.

2) Frequent measurement of academic progress, led by teachers, guided by an “assess to improve” philosophy.  That is, lots of low-stakes assessments.

3) End-of-year testing of a randomized sample of students, which would produce a reliable analysis of how the entire student body is doing.  Sampling is done in every other aspect of society (including when your doctor withdraws a sample of your blood!).  It’s far less expensive and highly reliable.

4) A rich and varied curriculum that includes at least five short breaks for recess every day in all elementary schools.  Play is essential!

5) A strong commitment to project-based learning, preferably involving students from other schools (perhaps in other states and countries).

6) A school environment that celebrates accomplishments of all sorts–and not just athletics!

7) A school environment that promotes inquiry, one in which it is safe to say “I don’t know” and praiseworthy to be curious.  It’s not enough for schools to be physically safe for students. They must also be emotionally and intellectually safe.

8) A public rejection of the philosophy of ‘sorting’ because our economy and our democracy need everyone to be educated to their fullest capacity.  Ideally, schools will seek to ask these questions about every student: How Is This Student Smart? What Are His/Her Strengths and Interests, and How Can We Respond Appropriately?   

I might not make it to the second round of interviews again, but there would be an interesting discussion at the Board meeting.

And you?  What big changes would you ask for if you were being interviewed for a school superintendency?