When the Going Got Tough, Why Did Ferguson’s Schools Go South?

Overlooked in the stories about the shooting death of Michael Brown in August and a Grand Jury’s decision not to indict the white police officer who shot Mr. Brown is the role of the public schools. What to make of public schools in Ferguson, Missouri, closing their doors on both occasions, while the local public library kept its doors open–and functioned as a school? Is this evidence of the depth of disenfranchisement of the Black community in one small city{{1}}, or does it suggest that public schools are no longer the vibrant center of community life?

Early on Monday, November 24, hours before the Grand Jury announcement regarding the possible indictment in the shooting death of Michael Brown, Ferguson-Florissant, six other nearby school districts, a charter network, two Christian schools, two pre-schools, at least two private schools, and the local campus of Washington University announced that they would be closed the next day. The seven public school districts enroll more than 55,000 students, including the 11,600 who attend the 24 schools in the Ferguson-Florissant school district.

The Ferguson-Florissant decision–made by an all-White school board–released those 11,600 young people from the obligation to go to school the next day, and it’s a virtual certainty that some of them ended up on the streets of Ferguson, where rioting and looting took place after the Grand Jury’s decision was announced.

By contrast, Ferguson’s public library kept its doors open, announcing in a tweet, “We are open 9-4. Wifi, water, rest, knowledge. We are here for you. If neighbors have kids, let them know teachers are here today, too.” {{2}}

This was a repeat performance. Schools closed for a week in August after Mr. Brown was killed, while the library remained open.

Ferguson’s Head Librarian Scott Bonner had no problem staying open to provide an alternative for parents with school-age children: “We had about 60 volunteer teachers come in here to help,” he told me. They were retirees, Ferguson district teachers and Teach for America corps members. That day only about 40 kids, ranging from preschool to middle school, showed up, but in August, when during the week schools were closed, more than 200 children came to the library every day to ‘do school.’

When news of Mr. Bonner’s decision went viral, donations began pouring in. Within a week, the library {{3}} received over $300,000 in donations, 100 times what it receives in a typical year–and 75% of its annual budget of just $408,000, according to Bonner. (The library is independent of the community and has its own taxing authority, so the local City Council will not be able to reduce its budget for next year.) As of this writing, the $400,000 barrier has been crossed.

Peter Sagal of NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” author John Green, and venture capitalist Marc Andreesen are among those who used their influence to support the library. Andreesen has 223,000 followers on Twitter, Sagal 114,000, and Green an astonishing 3,470,000.

The American Library Association sent this tweet to its 56,800 followers: “So proud of the @fergusonlibrary staff. Truly the heart of the community, serving everyone. #whatlibrariesdo.”

When I reached out to Tony Marx, the President of the New York Public Library, for his thoughts, he was on Staten Island, urging local librarians to remain open in the aftermath of another Grand Jury non-indictment, the Eric Garner case. Mr. Marx sent this email: “What the Ferguson Public Library did was an inspiration to us all and indeed relevant to library leaders across the country. By keeping open in a difficult moment for the community, the library displayed for all that libraries are indeed the centerpieces of civic space.” And, by the way, the Staten Island public libraries remained open.

But what about the schools? Back in Missouri, only one school district in the Ferguson area went against the trend and kept schools open. Rockwood Superintendent Eric Knost explained his decision in a letter to the parents of the district’s 21,500 students:

We believe it is important for us to provide the opportunity for a regular school day for our Rockwood students. In times of unrest and uncertainty, children need the security of routine so we want our families to have the ability to send their children to school. We completely understand that not everyone will agree with this decision, but we remind parents that it is ultimately their decision as to whether their children attend school today.

Regardless, we will be there, very visibly greeting kids and providing the option of a school day.

Why was “shut down” the default position for Ferguson-Florissant and so many other schools in that time of crisis? I reached out to a Ferguson High School Principal and the Board but was only able to talk with a PR person, who promised to get back to me. I’m still waiting.

I want to ask someone out there about the school’s obligation to its community and its students and teachers. Are libraries somehow different? Although no one from Ferguson would talk with me, three experienced superintendents responded to my emailed question.

Paul Vallas, who led the schools in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport: “I don’t believe in closing schools unless it’s absolutely necessary, because kids need a safe place to be.”

Dan Domenech, whose 40 year career in education includes 27 years as a superintendent: “If I was anticipating that riots would break out and kids would be safer in school, I would have kept them open. If my concern was with the anticipation of the no-indictment and how that might lead to confrontations in the school, I would have closed them.”

Jack Dale, formerly of Fairfax County, Virginia, the nation’s 12th largest district, wrote, “I would tend toward not closing schools unless I believed there were safety issues for students — that to me is the only reason to close schools. If we were open, I’d also be prepared to use the decision as a teachable moment. I remember doing so during 9/11 and other major events of our nation.”

When Superstorm Sandy devastated the New Jersey coast, some schools reopened so that teachers and administrators could distribute blankets, food and warm clothing or provide shelter for suddenly homeless students. The generosity of teachers toward homeless kids is well documented.

One can only hope that the Ferguson-Florrissant School District, with its seeming disregard for its civic responsibility, is an outlier and that most public school leaders would not shirk their responsibilities to build community.


[[1]]1. That’s basically a rhetorical question, because of Saint Louis’s and Missouri’s dismal history of race relations, including education.  The grim story is here: http://www.propublica.org/article/ferguson-school-segregation?utm_source=et&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailynewsletter&utm_content=&utm_name= [[1]]

[[2]]2. The library’s twitter feed is fun to read and follow. https://twitter.com/fergusonlibrary [[2]]

[[3]]3. Librarian Scott Bonner posted this virtual tour (long before the Michael Brown shooting): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtrUgdJZMQQ [[3]]

Gifts for Education Wonks and Others

Because I believe that books are a great gift for those interested in public education, I’ve compiled a list of suggestions, with the caveat that I do not have time to read most of the hundred-plus education-related books that come to me during the year.

2014 has been a good year for books about education. Two made the prestigious New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of the Year. Not surprisingly, they are two of my top four.

1. The must-read book of 2014 is Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. She writes well and has a great story to tell. If you are at all like me, you’ll find yourself thinking, “I didn’t know that” quite often. She draws compelling parallels between things that have happened recently or are happening now and events and people from the distant past, reminding us that, if we fail to remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it. The Teacher Wars made the Times’s list. {{1}} (Doubleday)

2. Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), by Elizabeth Green, also made the list of 100 Notable Books. It’s an engaging tour of the worlds of teaching and teacher training, with an exceptionally talented young reporter as the tour guide. (W.W. Norton)

3. Speaking of Fourth Grade: What Listening to Kids Tells Us about School in America, by Inda Schaenen, is an eye-opening read because Ms. Schaenen does what reporters and writers don’t do enough of: she interviews young children. The author is a teacher who took a year off and interviewed 166 fourth graders–(white, black, brown; urban, suburban, rural; wealthy, middle class, poor; and Christian, Jewish, Muslim) across the state of Missouri, where she teaches {{2}}. She has arranged the book according to the questions she asked: What is your school like? What’s the purpose of school? How do kids here treat each other? How do adults here treat kids? How do you feel about standardized tests? Do you ever feel bored? If so, when? And so on…. I think you will find it engaging and illuminating. (The New Press)

4. Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach is the most poignant book that has come across my desk in a long time. The editors, Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner, asked teachers to explain how their favorite poems have affected their teaching. Full disclosure: When I was asked to provide a blurb for the jacket, I did so with pleasure. This is what I submitted: “I am having trouble finding the right words to describe my feelings about this book. I opened it at random and was drawn in. Hours–and a few tears–later I emerged, feeling stronger personally and more optimistic about education’s future. I wish I could afford to buy copies of “Teaching With Heart” for all the teachers I have interviewed in my 40 years of reporting. My budget can’t handle that. Instead, I recommend that all of us non-teachers buy copies of this inspiring book for teachers we know. You will probably want one for yourself too. {{3}}” (Jossey-Bass)

Other education books from 2014 that you might enjoy:

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, by Danah Boyd, comes highly recommended by Greg Toppo of USA Today;

Fear and Learning in America – Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education: John Kuhn, a veteran school superintendent in Texas, criticizes the ‘test and punish’ policies of Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and others;

Lessons of Hope: How to Fix our Schools. The aforementioned Mr. Klein, former Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, defends his record and argues for policies that he believes will transform public education;

Strugglers Into Strivers: What the Military Can Teach Us About How Young People Learn and Grow, by the always thoughtful Hugh Price, former president of the Urban League;

How We Learn, by Benedict Carey, is a book that Greg Toppo and I believe will astound you;

Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz, has made waves in higher education;

The Marshmallow Test, by Walter Mischel, confirms the positive effect of learning to defer gratification;

Hold Fast to Dreams by Beth Zasloff and Joshua Steckel is one of New York Times reporter Motoko Rich’s recommendations.

While these books are available on Amazon, I urge you to patronize your local bookseller this holiday season (and throughout the year). Happy Holidays.


[[1]]1. If there’s a revised edition, I will ask Ms. Goldstein to change an entry about me: Although I wrote about the Teacher Corps in my doctoral dissertation, I did not serve in the Teacher Corps.[[1]]

[[2]]2. Michael Brown, who was killed in Ferguson this summer, graduated from the high school where she taught.[[2]]

[[3]]3. They used the last four sentences on the book jacket.[[3]]

The Adventures of Sampleman

In last week’s episode of “The Adventures of Sampleman,” a network television executive learned that 4,341,716 people watched her prime time program. She was happy about those numbers–until she got a bill for $38,900,000.

Why so much? Instead of monitoring a small representative sample, the ratings company telephoned every television household in America. That adds up pretty quickly.

And now, we bring you this week’s episode of “The Adventures of Sampleman.” (If on a mobile device, click here.)

The Adventures of Sampleman

In next week’s episode, a political pollster spends $17,000,000–his candidate’s entire campaign budget–on just one poll. How did he do it? Instead of polling a representative sample of voters, he and his staff went door to door and personally interviewed every registered voter.

The candidate’s numbers look good–59% say they will vote for her. However, she’s broke and may be forced to drop out of the race.

Be sure to tune in every week for ‘The Adventures of Sampleman’–because we will know if you don’t!

Opting Out

What to make of recent events in Colorado, where thousands of high school seniors refused to take a state-mandated standardized test? Is this a harbinger of things to come, an American version of “Arab Spring,” or was it an isolated incident with slight significance beyond the Rocky Mountain State?

These days most eyes are on Washington because Republicans have won control of both houses of Congress, but perhaps the big story in 2015 will be a louder student ‘voice’ about what goes on in schools.

At least 5,000 Colorado high school seniors opted out of the tests, given Thursday and Friday, November 13th and 14th.

I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with three Fairview high school seniors talking about the protest, Natalie Griffin (17), Jonathan Snedeker (also 17), and Jennifer Jun (18), all college-bound next year, and all remarkably articulate. {{1}} At their high school, 98% of the seniors opted out. Across the state, nearly 40% refused to take the test known as CMAS.

Given over two days, CMAS was designed to measure student knowledge of social studies and science. “It’s a no-stakes test for us,” Jonathan Snedeker explained. “The district and the state want data they can use to judge teachers and schools.” And, they say, Colorado is spending $36 million on the test, money they would like to see used to benefit their education.

Students from twelve Colorado high schools {{2}} wrote and posted an “open letter” to the citizens of Colorado explaining their decision to opt out. The letter, which presents five points of concern, is worth reading in its entirety. These two sentences jumped out at me:

We have been subjected to larger class sizes, cuts to art, music, and extracurricular activities, and fewer opportunities in school. Our reward for putting up with these difficulties is more standardized testing with questionable purposes and monetary costs.

The students have a clear goal: They want Colorado to restrict mandated standardized testing to the number required under federal law (grades 3-8 and 10 in English and math), and no more.

When I spoke with Natalie and Jennifer, they had just come indoors, after standing in zero degree weather in front of their high school. “We have 555 seniors who were supposed to take the test,” Natalie told me. “Well before today, the school had gotten opt-out letters from 435 of us, meaning they expected 120 to take the test.” That didn’t happen, she said happily. “Only 7 kids showed up for the test.” {{3}}

Two short student videos are worth viewing. The first is an overview, the second a report from the protest itself.

It was clear that these young people thought this through carefully and recognize the importance of being for something even as they were standing together against the test. And so, many protesters spent the testing time working in a food bank or organizing a food drive, while others worked on a email campaign directed at the Legislative Task Force that will be recommending a new policy on testing for Colorado. I asked if adults, including teachers, were helping them behind the scenes, and all three vigorously denied adult involvement.

“We used social media to communicate,” one told me, including Twitter, Google Docs and Google Drive. A Facebook page? I asked. “No, because a Facebook page would have been open to anyone, and we did not want that,” Jennifer told me, and so they created a Facebook Event, accessible only by students. The students told me that they kept their principal in the loop, because they did not want their school to be penalized by the state. {{4}}

Opting out is not new {{5}}, but something important seems to be happening here: savvy students with a clear goal using social media to communicate with each other, the citizens of Colorado, and–now–with a national audience.

What’s happening in Colorado emphasizes the importance of seeing students–not teachers– as the primary workers in schools. Students are, borrowing Peter Drucker’s term, “knowledge workers.” They are most certainly not manual workers. {{6}}

Because they are knowledge workers, they must be doing meaningful work that they can respect. Their view of the work matters, and, while they don’t get to decide what to do, their voices must be heard. (So too must teachers’ voices be heard, of course, because top-down decision-making almost always produces poor learning.)

I am occasionally asked what I think we should expect in education now that the Republicans control both Houses of Congress. From Washington, not much. But I expect to hear more ‘voices’ from outside our Nation’s capital, the voices of parents {{7}}, teachers {{8}} and–especially–students.

Savvy students, fed up with being treated as numbers, may take to social media and organize opting out and other protests against what they deem to be excessive testing. They’ll have to push away adults, left and right, who will want to guide (and control) them, or simply take credit for what the kids are doing. If they are savvy (as the Colorado students seem to be), they will be FOR stuff, and not just against this test or that one. They will have to educate the adults in charge, not an easy task. They will be taking on entrenched economic interests like Pearson, the College Board and others who profit from testing.

But if students are the knowledge workers in schools, then they have a right to be doing interesting and valuable work. As protester Jonathan Snedeker told me, “We spend too much time being tested, and not enough time learning.”

[[1]]1. Jennifer describes herself as a political moderate. She hopes to go to Stanford, Georgetown or Penn and study international diplomacy. Jonathan hopes to study molecular biology at Johns Hopkins. Natalie, who works part time in the biology lab at UC Boulder, has applied to Brown, Princeton, Emory, Northwestern, Duke and the University of Virginia.[[1]]
[[2]]2. Mostly seniors, but a few underclassmen and some graduates also signed it.[[2]]
[[3]]3. She later corrected that number. Actually NINE showed up, out of 555. That’s less than 2%. At least one of the nine took the test because one of her parents is a teacher and she feared that opting out would jeopardize her job, Natalie told me. On day 2, ten seniors took the test. [[3]]
[[4]]4. Schools are required to demonstrate that they made an “adequate effort” to test at least 95% of students or risk censure by the state. Student organizers urged students to send in an opt-out notice to the principal’s office so the school would know how many computers and proctors it would need to have on testing days.[[4]]
[[5]]5. It happened before in other places, of course. Some students at an elite high school in New York City opted out of a test in the fall of 2013 because they believed that the goal was to play gotcha with their teachers. FairTest publishes a weekly ‘scorecard’ of protests against excessive testing, which you can find here http://fairtest.org/news The list is growing, although not every item is an example of direct action. While some label FairTest as ‘anti-testing,’ its stated position is in favor of ‘testing resistance and reform.’ [[5]]
[[6]]6. I am indebted to Deborah Kenny for reminding me of Drucker’s insights. Her book, Born to Rise, is well worth your time, if you haven’t already discovered it. (Harper Collins 2012) Dr. Kenny also writes about kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement in all aspects of an organization. [[6]]
[[7]]7. Some 22 states have passed or are seriously considering passing what are called “parent trigger” laws. Much of the activity is in California. Politico’s Morning Education reports “More than 400 families from across the country will gather this weekend at a trade college in Los Angeles for a “Parent Power Convention” hosted by Parent Revolution, the education reform group that lobbied hard for California’s parent trigger law. Expect a lot of talk about the Vergara decision striking down teacher tenure in California – and how that landmark court case can be replicated in other states.” (November 14)
California is the site of the first–so far, only–school converted to a charter school under the trigger law. The school apparently achieved gains in reading and science. But all may not be well, if this left-leading publication is correct.
The ‘parent trigger’ movement is not exactly grass roots, with strong support from the right-leaning organizations. Does that make it a not-quite-genuine ‘voice’ of parents? At the least, it’s highly debatable.
But there are other parents who support or lead opt-out efforts, sometimes with their children in tow, sometimes arm-in-arm. These parents are being heard from in several Florida communities, Pittsburgh, and a host of other cities and towns.[[7]]
[[8]]8. Do teachers have a ‘voice’ beyond that of their unions? I believe they do, and, as evidence, I cite the growing number of teacher-led schools, Barnett Berry’s Teacher Leader Network, school-community organizations like the Coalition of Community Schools, and social media networks like the Coalition of Essential Schools, where teachers share insights and support each other. [[8]]

What Happens in Great Schools

After 40+ years of reporting about education, I am absolutely convinced that, in the very best schools, the students are the workers and the work they are doing is meaningful. What they do–their product–depends upon their ages and stages, but the concept doesn’t change.

In these schools, teachers are conductors, directors, supervisors, guides or docents.

This observation flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that teachers are workers whose job is to produce capable students. That gets further bastardized when ‘capable’ is defined by test scores until we end up thinking, “The work of teachers is to add value, which is measured by higher test scores.”

If you had been traveling with me the past few weeks, you would Turkeyhave seen three examples of outstanding education: My 3-year-old granddaughter’s pre-school, a 12th grade science class in a public high school in Philadelphia, and a journalism class at Palo Alto High School in California.

The 3-year-olds were working on a project designed to help with fine motor control and decision-making (with some American history mixed in, I imagine). My granddaughter and her classmates took the work seriously. {{1}} The product, a Thanksgiving turkey, has value (perhaps priceless to the parents who receive the fruits of the labor).

The Philadelphia 12th graders were also serious workers. Their assignment was to design age appropriate toys for babies and infants, toys that will amuse and stimulate brain development. Stage two of the task: come up with an advertising campaign to sell the toy they designed.

Philadelphia 1That’s a serious project, with a real product. Science teacher Tim Best designed it in broad strokes, with some clear goals, including learning a great deal about brain development. By 12th grade at this school, students are accustomed to working together on projects; they hold each other accountable, although Mr. Best is also monitoring their progress.

Tim Best and other teachers at Science Leadership Academy told me that projects are designed to teach both content and process.Philadelphia 2

Tim explained, “I learned by memorizing science words, but I don’t ask my students to memorize science words. I’d rather them experience the science and learn science by doing science, and, therefore, they’re learning science process in addition to science content. And science process, you could argue, is almost more important for the general person who is not going to be a scientist.”

He added, “‘Reading chapter two and answering the questions at the end of the chapter’ is not teaching either science or process.”

Palo Alto 1I think the journalism students at Palo Alto High School must be the luckiest kids in the world. Their brilliant teacher, Esther Wojcicki {{2}}, and her talented colleagues {{3}}, give them the opportunity to produce meaningful journalism in a number of formats: a newspaper, radio programs, a daily television program and five magazines.

This is real-world work: The print {{4}} publications are advertiser-supported, and none can come out until the students have the signed advertising contracts in hand. “This is not selling Palo Alto 2Girl Scout cookies,” she told me. “This is how the real world works.”

With opportunity comes responsibility. At Paly the journalism students hold each other accountable, the faculty is paying attention and–most powerful of all–their work is public. Among Esther’s former students is James Franco, the actor-painter-writer. Recalling her class, he wrote, “(T)he important pedagogical aspect of working on the paper, that I understood subconsciously then, Palo Alto 3and that I understand explicitly as a teacher now, is that my work was being seen by a public, and that that changed the work. I wasn’t writing for a school grade as much as I was writing for independent readers.” {{5}}

What’s essential in all project-based learning is the absence of a ‘right’ answer or ‘right’ product. It truly is a journey, one which may also teach the instructor a good deal. Tim Best told me that projects that have a predetermined answer are merely recipes, not a journey of discovery. Good journalism is by definition an inquiry: Journalists are supposed to ask questions they don’t know the answers to.

In ‘faux projects,’ the work quickly loses meaning, and most students do not retain what they were supposed to learn. They may absorb material and regurgitate it successfully on tests, but that’s not genuine learning.

Those students in Philadelphia and Palo Alto are engaged in what’s called ‘blended learning,’ a mix of technology and human teaching. The machines and the teachers are interdependent, truly blended. Think of a chocolate milkshake, as opposed to putting oil and water in the same container.

The popular phrase, “Learning by doing,” is an incomplete thought, a phrase lacking an essential object. Doing WHAT is critical. In the three good schools I just visited, kids don’t get free rein to do whatever they feel like doing. Adults design (or help design) the projects, and they monitor progress. Teachers help students formulate questions and give guidance when they go off track or get discouraged.

“Time on task” is another incomplete phrase. What’s the task? Is it meaningful or trivial? Are students memorizing the periodic table and the major rivers of the United States, or are they measuring air or water quality in their neighborhoods and sharing the data with students in other places in order to make sense of it? Many educators make the mistake of focusing on the amount of time students are spending on the assignment (believing that more is better, of course) but fail to think critically about the tasks they are assigning.

The best schools {{6}} are serious about the ‘what’ and the ‘task,’ because the adults in charge of those schools are not obsessed about control.

Unfortunately, too many schools focus on regurgitation of information, a process that is encouraged and rewarded by the testing regime and the public focus on scores on standardized tests. It takes courage to swim against the tide, to challenge the conventional wisdom.

We need to celebrate and encourage teachers like Tim Best and Esther Wojcicki and their like-minded colleagues.

And maybe our K-12 schools should emulate what happens in the best pre-schools.


[[1]]1. If it hadn’t been Fathers/Grandfathers Day, she would have had time to add more feathers. I’m sure her Thanksgiving Turkey will be resplendent before she takes it home to her parents.[[1]]

[[2]]2. Full disclosure: Esther is a friend and the Chair of the Board of Learning Matters, my non-profit production company.[[2]]

[[3]]3. Paul Kandell, Paul Hoeprich, Brett Griffith, and Margo Wixom.[[3]]

[[4]]4. They are also on line, of course.[[4]]

[[5]]5. Taken from the foreword to her forthcoming book, “Moonshots in Education.”[[5]]

[[6]]6. Tom Vander Ark has published his list of 100 schools worth visiting. Palo Alto HS makes the list, along with a lot of ‘no excuses’ programs and some ‘blended learning’ and project-based programs.  It’s quite a mix, and ‘worth visiting’ seems to be a carefully-chosen phrase, stopping short of a full-throated endorsement. http://gettingsmart.com/2014/11/100-schools-worth-visiting [[6]]

Jesse James, Meet Baker Mitchell

Suppose Jesse James were to return to earth today. Would he pick up where he left off, robbing banks and trains, or would he find a better way to try to make money? Would he give up crime and go straight?

If I were a gambler, I’d bet that Jesse would abandon his native Missouri and move to North Carolina. There’s money to be made there–legally–and not just in tobacco, textiles and hogs.

Jesse James, meet Baker Mitchell.

Of course you’ve heard of the notorious criminal Jesse James {{1}}, but you may not be familiar with Baker Mitchell. He’s a businessman who has figured out a completely legal way to extract millions of dollars from North Carolina in payment for his public {{2}} charter schools.

I read on the internet that Mr. Mitchell is the salt of the earth, a successful entrepreneur from Texas who decided to devote his retirement years to improving the lives of disadvantaged children, when he might have chosen to go fishing and play golf. He’s a “Liberty Leader” who uses “his energy and charitable dollars to change education for the better — to drive education paradigms back to more traditional, classical methods with their proven records of accomplishment and success.” All that must be true because I read it on the internet. {{3}}

So Mr. Mitchell, now 74, moved from Texas to North Carolina and opened some charter schools to help children. He now has four and has been talking about opening more.

And why wouldn’t he? Even though none of his publicly-funded schools is set up to run ‘for profit,’ about $19,000,000 of the $55,000,000 he has received in public funds has gone to his own for-profit businesses, which manage many aspects of the schools. That information, and more, can be found in Marian Wang’s brilliant reporting for Pro Publica.

Here’s a short excerpt:

Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four nonprofit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.

The schools buy or lease nearly everything from companies owned by Mitchell. Their desks. Their computers. The training they provide to teachers. Most of the land and buildings. Unlike with traditional school districts, at Mitchell’s charter schools there’s no competitive bidding. No evidence of haggling over rent or contracts.

The schools have all hired the same for-profit management company to run their day-to-day operations. The company, Roger Bacon Academy, is owned by Mitchell. It functions as the schools’ administrative arm, taking the lead in hiring and firing school staff. It handles most of the bookkeeping. The treasurer of the nonprofit that controls the four schools is also the chief financial officer of Mitchell’s management company. The two organizations even share a bank account.

Pro Publica reports that Roger Bacon Academy rents land, buildings and equipment from Coastal Habitat Conservancy LLC, which Mr. Mitchell also owns. Until last year, he also sat on the charter school Board of Trustees.

Mr. Mitchell seems to have experienced a learning curve. At first he billed his own charter schools for only two line items: ‘Building and equipment rental’ and ‘Management fees,’ for a total of just $2,600,878 in FY2008 and $2,325,881 in FY2009.

But apparently he was learning how the system works. In FY 2010 he added an innocuous sounding line item, “Allocated costs,” for which he billed $739,893, cracking the $3,000,000 barrier.

In FY2011 he added more line items:

Staff development & supervision: $549,626
Back office & support: $169,357
Building rent-classrooms: $965,740
Building rent-administration offices: $82,740, and
Miscellaneous equipment rent: $317,898.

The grand total for FY2011 was $3,712,946.

Jesse James was shot by a member of his own gang; if he were alive today, he might be dying from envy.

Mr. Mitchell broke the $4,000,000 barrier in FY2012, when the same line items totaled $4,137,382.

According to the audited financial statements for FY2013, Mr. Mitchell’s companies received $6,313,924, as follows:

16% management fee: $2,047,873
Administrative support: $2,796,943
Building and equipment rental: $1,474,108

Dig into the audited statements (here and here) and you get some idea of where the $6,313,924 did not go. For example, the schools spent only $16,319 on staff development {{4}}, which works out to less than three-tenths of one percent. They report spending just $28,060 on computers and technology, which is also about three-tenths of one percent.

Are you curious to know where the money comes from? In FY2013 Mr. Mitchell’s schools collected nearly $9,000,000 from North Carolina and the federal government. Local school districts paid Mr. Mitchell’s schools anywhere from $4095 to $1,712,328, depending upon the number of students from that district.

Don’t forget charitable contributions. Mr. Mitchell’s schools report receiving a whopping $93 in donations.

Of course the entire $15,000,000 that has gone to Mr. Mitchell’s companies has not been profit; surely there were legitimate expenses, such as building maintenance, insurance, utilities and so forth. That’s a logical leap, but we have to infer because he does not have to disclose spending. These are public dollars (all but that whopping $93 donation), but the public has no right to know how its money is being spent because the charter schools aren’t actually spending the money; his for-profit businesses are. Non-disclosure is fine with him, as Pro Publica reported.

Mitchell has also expressed frustration with a state law passed this summer that requires charter schools to comply with public records laws. Still, the new law does not apply to charter management companies such as Mitchell’s. (emphasis added) The board of Mitchell’s charter schools has repeatedly tangled with local news outlets that have made public records requests seeking salaries and other financial details from the schools. Last month the StarNews of Wilmington filed a lawsuit against the schools’ nonprofit board, alleging that it has violated the state public records law. (The board chair for Charter Day School, Inc., John Ferrante, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Mitchell himself has taken a hard line against disclosures of financial information concerning his for-profit companies. For private corporations, he wrote on his blog in July, “the need for transparency is superfluous” and is simply a mechanism for the media to “intrude and spin their agenda.

(At this point please go back and reread footnote #3, perhaps the key takeaway from this piece.)

How the great state of North Carolina, once known for its pro-child education policies under the leadership of former Governor James B. Hunt, Jr, became a playground for canny profit-seekers {{5}} is carefully explained in sharp detail by Ted Fiske, the former education editor for the New York Times, and Duke Professor Helen Ladd. Read their piece, and you will understand that I am telling the truth when I say that, while Jesse James was an out-and-out criminal, Mr. Mitchell is operating within the law.

I’m guessing that Jesse James, wherever he now resides, is wishing he could return to earth, renounce his criminal ways, move to North Carolina, and open some charter schools {{6}}.

[[1]]1. “Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847 – April 3, 1882) was an American outlaw, gang leader,bank robber, train robber, and murderer from the state of Missouri and the most famous member of the James-Younger Gang. Already a celebrity when he was alive, he became a legendary figure of the Wild West after his death.” This is taken from his Wikipedia entry.[[1]]
[[2]]2. Charter watchers often write about the difference between for-profit charter schools and non-profit charter schools. I am wondering whether this may be a distinction without a difference.[[2]]
[[3]]3. You can find more lavish praise for Mr. Mitchell on the same website, the John William Pope Foundation. [[3]]
[[4]]4. He does keep an eye on his teachers, Marian Wang reports: “Mitchell’s company has managed the schools’ staffs with similar rigor. A strong sense of hierarchy took root as the schools expanded. When a new corporate office was built to house the management company, teachers jokingly began calling it the “White House.” From the “White House,” Mitchell and other top administrators could watch teachers in their classrooms via surveillance cameras installed in every classroom, in every school. During a tour of school grounds with this reporter, Mitchell and the school’s IT director discussed surveillance software called iSpy. “We need to call it something else,” Mitchell offered with a chuckle. “Call it iHelp or something.” Mitchell said the cameras give administrators the ability to observe teachers in action and offer them tips and coaching.”[[4]]
[[5]]5. They can be found in other states, of course. Some citizens in Buffalo, New York, are concerned that Carl Paladino, an elected member of the school board there, has a conflict of interest because of his investments in four charter schools. [[5]]
[[6]]6. Remember that scene in ‘The Graduate’ where an older adult male gives young Dustin Hoffman career advice? “Plastics,” he tells Hoffman, that’s where the money is. If that movie were remade today, the adult would be whispering, “Charter schools.”[[6]]

Why We Have Schools

What do schools produce? And who are the workers in schools? The familiar answers to those old questions are 1) “Teachers are the workers,” and 2) “Their job is to turn out capable graduates.”

Both answers are wrong for the 21st Century. In 21st Century schools, students must be the workers, and their work product must be knowledge. Teachers play a vital role, of course, but as docents/conductors/managers/coaches/guides….and learners.

In 21st Century schools, students do work that matters to them and engages them in the moment. They are not assigned tasks that ‘will help them later in life’ or that supposedly ‘will be important when they are in college.’ No hollow assurances or deferred gratification, but genuinely valuable work instead.

In the course of doing work that matters, they also acquire skills they will need to navigate life successfully, such as writing and speaking clearly and persuasively, manipulating numbers, formulating questions, and working with others.{{1}}

Most of our schools haven’t gotten the memo, unfortunately. They practice ‘regurgitation education’ where students memorize the state capitals, the elements, the great rivers of the world and how Congress enacts legislation. {{2}}

Choosing the work in a 21st Century school is a collaborative process led by adults. In other words, kids don’t get to do whatever they feel like doing (or not doing). The work has to be directed toward serious learning goals, and it has to be challenging. {{3}}

One day last week I watched a (public) high school science teacher work with 12th graders setting up a project in their “Science and Society” class: Teams would design toys for an infant or toddler that would facilitate brain growth and stimulation. Each team could choose the age they were designing for, but their work would have to be based on neuroscience. Once they designed the toy, their next job would be to create an advertising campaign for their product.

Smiles all around from the workers, even though this would not be a walk in the park.

Over the next few weeks they will produce designs and plans for new toys….and in the process they will sharpen and grow a valuable skill set that will help make them successful adults.

What’s particularly interesting is that the project does not have a ‘right’ answer. In creating the assignment, the teacher didn’t have a ‘recipe’ in mind or a specific outcome for the project, although the learning goals were clear.{{4}} But he’s on the journey with his students, trusting them to take responsibility for their learning, even as he monitors their progress and helps whenever necessary.

Are we as a nation moving to create schools like that one? Sadly, no. We aren’t ‘rethinking’ schools. Instead we are ‘reforming’ them to improve test scores, close achievement gaps, lower the dropout rate and beat Finland.

I think that’s the wrong direction, but change is in the air.

The backlash against excessive testing, which seems to be growing stronger, now threatens to sweep away the Common Core State Standards and the Smarter Balanced and PAARC tests that have been designed for it.

The establishment is fighting back. This from the President last Wednesday:

I have directed Education Secretary Arne Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools. {{5}}

Two pillars of the establishment, the Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools issued a joint statement of concern that acknowledged that some students are taking too many tests and that something had to be done about it.

That general view was soon echoed by the Center for American Progress, Chiefs for Change, and others.

Secretary Duncan soon issued his own statement:

Educators, parents, and policy makers need to know how much students are learning; that’s why thoughtful assessment of student learning and student growth, including annual assessments, is a vital part of progress in education. Assessments must be of high quality, and must make good use of educators’ and students’ time. Yet in some places, tests – and preparation for them – are dominating the calendar and culture of schools and causing undue stress for students and educators. I welcome the action announced today by state and district leaders, which will bring new energy and focus to improving assessment of student learning. My Department will support that effort.

The gist of these “Yes but” messages seems to be “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Which some translate as “We need testing to determine how our teachers are performing.”

Secretary Duncan followed with his own op-ed in the Washington Post, which begins by suggesting that test scores tell him how his children are doing: “As a parent, I want to know how my children are progressing in school each year. The more I know, the more I can help them build upon their strengths and interests and work on their weaknesses. The more I know, the better I can reinforce at home each night the hard work of their teachers during the school day.”

Just one paragraph later, he writes, “Parents have a right to know how much their children are learning; teachers, schools and districts need to know how students are progressing; and policymakers must know where students are excelling, improving and struggling.” The gist: scores are being used to help students do better.

As I read it, the Secretary’s op-ed skirts the issue on the table: the use of scores to punish {{6}} teachers. That policy, and the consequences for education of excessive amount of testing, are what many people are concerned about.

I think the establishment is either fighting the last war or, worse yet, deliberately refusing to confront the inherent contradiction of trying to build a better education system without including teachers in the design process.

President Obama’s statement focused on ‘the effort to improve assessment,’ which would seem to mean ‘better tests,’ but what protesters want, right now, are fewer tests and backing away from what’s called ‘test-based accountability.’ {{7}}

And the protesters also want a serious conversation about the purposes of schooling.

Not talk about ‘school reform’ but a serious effort at ‘rethinking’ schooling’s purpose.

The Secretary’s and the President’s comments notwithstanding, this is not Washington’s issue. All it can do at this point is back off, because it’s too late in the President’s second term for this Administration to take leadership. However, small states (Delaware or Vermont, for example) or somewhat larger ones (Colorado, Tennessee, Washington or Oregon, perhaps) could decide to own this issue. Wouldn’t that be interesting (and refreshing)?

The first question for any statewide conversation is “What do we want our children to become and be able to do when they are adults?”

Then comes the hard but important work of creating more {{8}} schools that will help them get there.


[[1]]1. 21st-century skills include “interpersonal” skills (complex communication, social skills, teamwork, cultural sensitivity, dealing with diversity); “personal” skills (self-management, time management, self-development, self-regulation, adaptability, executive functioning); and the “cognitive” skills of non-routine problem solving, critical thinking, systems thinking.[[1]]

[[2]]2. For an eye-opening look at what high school is really like, please read Grant Wiggins’ blog post, written by a veteran teacher who shadowed a student for one day:  Then read this to discover the identity of the author. As of this writing, about 650,000 people have read the article, so read and share please.[[2]]

[[3]]3. But not ‘rigorous’ please, because that word ought to be anathema to anyone who’s serious about learning.[[3]]

[[4]]4. Specific scientific knowledge, testing hypotheses, using the internet to search for information, collaboration, et cetera.[[4]]

[[5]]5. Notice that the word ‘test’ does not appear anywhere in his statement.  That’s becoming a toxic word because of its association with bubble-testing. Apparently ‘assessment’ remains safe to use because it connotes sophisticated, even individualized ways of measuring learning.  Chiefs for Change also avoid ‘test’ and ‘tests’ in their statement, opting for ‘assessment.’ [[5]]

[[6]]6. You may find that word judgemental, but I would argue that it is accurate. Scores aren’t being used to reward teachers, just to ‘evaluate’ them.  Keep in mind that most everywhere else tests are used to diagnose student progress, not teacher performance.  That is what they were designed for. [[6]]

[[7]]7. That’s not all they want. Here’s a report from a publication on the left: http://truth-out.org/news/item/26851-the-movement-for-public-education-at-a-crossroads [[7]]

[[8]]8. ‘More’ is the operative word, because these schools exist.[[8]]

How Much Do We Test?

Day of the Dead
San Francisco's Day of the Dead procession - photo sent by Ellen Schneider, her comment on what is happening in public education

The results of our survey are beginning to come in. In hopes of encouraging more superintendents and school boards to provide data, I offer this early report, with the caveat that it is based on information from a handful of the nation’s 14,000 school districts.

The average number of mandated, machine-scored standardized tests administered in a district in a year: 22.

Of those, all but one are reported to be mandated by the state, not the district. (While there are no federally mandated tests in public education, the federal No Child Left Behind Act does require that students in grades 3-8 be tested in reading and math. {{1}})

Eleanor Chute of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cautions that some mandated standardized tests, such as DIBELS, are not machine-scored, which means the reported number may be higher. In September Ms. Chute reported on the steps that the Pittsburgh School Board was taking to reduce ‘excessive’ testing. Those eye-opening numbers deserve your attention:

The biggest reductions are planned in grades 3, 4 and 5 where the number of periods spent in testing are to decline from 85.5 periods to 41.5 periods. After school board member Sherry Hazuda was told one period equals 45 minutes, she said, “No wonder people are complaining when you see it like that.”
“This has a great impact on the amount of time our children have to learn,” said board member Carolyn Krug, who said it will reduce stress as well.
In kindergarten, the number of periods spent testing is to be cut from 13 to 11. In grade 2, the reduction is from 45 periods to 26. {{2}}

Districts report that the average lag time between when students take a test and when the results become available is nearly two months.

This confirms the conventional wisdom. However, the situation may be worse than it appears because so-called “end of year” tests are often given well before the school year actually ends. If those tests are administered in mid-May {{3}} and school ends in late June, then the results–which arrive during the summer when teachers are off–don’t come into play for four months, and only after the kids have moved to new classrooms and new teachers. Here’s where the journalist’s question, “Who benefits?”, is worth asking.

We asked how many mandated tests a student would take if he or she went through the system from kindergarten to graduation. The average: just over 37 tests in 13 years…

Is that a lot? Kids generally aren’t subject to mandated, machine-scored standardized tests in kindergarten, first or second grade. The pattern I am most familiar with is testing in grades 3-8, grade 10 and grade 12, and only in English Language Arts and Math.

Districts report that, on average, testing occurs in about 40 of the 180-day school calendar.

If you’re a percentage person, that means that on 22% of the school days, some children somewhere in the district are taking one of these tests {{4}}. It does not mean that schools come to a standstill on those 40 days.

How about ‘test prep’ time? Here I fear that the numbers reported so far may not be reliable. One district said its teachers spend ZERO hours preparing kids for tests, while another reported its teachers spend 100 hours.

So far no school district has reported disciplining, firing or giving bonuses to teachers based on student test scores.

Many states now require using student performance as a piece of teacher evaluation. How much scores should count is what is being debated. Judging teachers by test scores is only going to increase down the road, because the Administration’s “Race to the Top” program requires it.

No district reports that cheating by students or adults has been a problem.

We need more hard data.




Number of Students in District _______
Name of District ______ (this will be masked in survey results)

Students in our district will take ____ standardized, machine-scored tests during the course of the year. (We are seeking the number of different tests given. So, if a particular test is administered to three grade levels, that counts as three tests, not one.)
Of these tests, ___ were selected by the district, and ____ are required by the state.
A student who attends our district from Kindergarten through graduation will take ____ standardized tests during his or her time in school.
There are ____ days on our 180-day calendar when a standardized test is NOT being administered.
Some test results determine a child’s promotion, while others are used to evaluate schools and teachers. Is this the right approach? How useful is this information? Should we test only a carefully drawn sample of students when we want to evaluate schools, instead of testing every student?
Right now we test all students in only ____ subjects. However, if we are going to evaluate all teachers according to their students’ scores, we will need to test in more subjects, including art, science, social studies and music.
There is a ____ month lag time between the administration of a test and the delivery of the results.
Our school district spends $_____ per year to buy and score standardized tests. (These out-of-pocket costs do not include the labor costs.) This amounts to less than _____ % of our annual school budget.
We devote _____ hours per year to testing, out of approximately 900-1000 hours of actual class time during the 180-day school year.
In addition, many teachers devote an estimated ____ hours to what is known as ‘test prep.’ The numbers vary from teacher to teacher and school to school and are difficult to pinpoint.
Last year we removed ___ teachers because their students’ scores did not go up sufficiently.
Last year we distributed $$ _____ in cash awards to teachers whose students’ scores went up well beyond the expected level.
Last year we investigated ___ incidents of alleged cheating on standardized tests, ___ by students and ___ by teachers and other administrators.


[[1]]1. Thanks to Diane Ravitch for calling my attention to my initial inelegant phrasing.  The Feds don’t say which tests to use, but they do require testing.[[1]]

[[2]]2. Her story on the extent of testing in Pittsburgh received (well-deserved) national attention.  http://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2014/09/09/Pittsburgh-schools-to-make-big-cuts-in-testing/stories/201409090234 [[2]]

[[3]]3. For example, Pennsylvania’s “Keystone” exam, the PSSA (for Pennsylvania State System of Assessment) is given in mid-May.  Pittsburgh is moving up the opening of school to try to get more of the curriculum covered before the kids are tested on it—what a concept–which means that the lives of children and families are being reordered to accommodate the machine.  Why not move the test date to later in the school year?  Because then there wouldn’t be enough time for the machines to process the answer sheets!  [[3]]

[[4]]4. Please bear in mind that the data presented here does not include teacher-made tests (which are generally recognized to be the most effective way of measuring student knowledge). [[4]]

Angry About Drag Racing, Town Bans Jaywalking

Bizarro, Nevada, October 1–In a powerful response to hordes of young adults using Main Street for drag races “day and night,” an angry City Council voted to impose $250 fines and 30-day jail terms for jaywalking. “These damn hot rodders are endangering our citizens, and the only way to stop them is to keep our citizens out of the streets.”

Well, OK, that didn’t happen. There is no town of Bizarro, Nevada, and I hope no one would pass laws to punish the victims…but that’s what came to mind when I read a Wall Street Journal report about schools’ beefing up test security, headlined Schools’ Test: Beat the Cheat.

The gist of the article: Because no school district wants to be “the next Atlanta,” where intense pressures from leadership led to massive cheating by some principals and teachers, they are investing heavily in security measures to keep students and teachers from cheating. But the Journal article says nothing about addressing the cause of widespread cheating, the pressure from leadership to produce high test scores. It might have at least raised the question of whether districts were treating symptoms, not causes.

Here’s an analogy: Imagine you are sitting on a bed of nails and screaming in pain–and, to cure the problem, someone gives you strong pain pills and then stuffs a gag in your mouth to stop you from screaming. Problem solved, right?

The reporting is flawed in another important way. The Journal cites as the leading authority on cheating prevention the founder of Caveon Security, John Fremer. Clearly no one did a simple background check. If they had, they would have learned that Caveon’s track record includes some significant failures, starting with Atlanta. That’s right: Caveon was hired by the Atlanta School Board to investigate allegations of cheating…and its investigators found nothing wrong!

“Caveon couldn’t find its ass with either hand,” said one of the two lawyers who led the subsequent investigation demanded by Georgia’s governor; that’s the one that found the cheating, identified the alleged cheaters, and produced the indictments. (The trial began on September 29th.)

Caveon had been hired by the (so-called) “Blue Ribbon Committee” established to look into allegations of cheating in Atlanta. Caveon looked–and reported finding nothing wrong in what turned out to be the epicenter of cheating by adults on standardized tests. Dr. Fremer told me that while he ‘knew’ there was widespread cheating going on, that was not mentioned in his final report. “We did not try to find out who was cheating,” he said. “Our purpose was to rank order the schools beginning with those with the most obvious problems (of unbelievably dramatic score increases), in order to make the task of investigating more manageable.” In other words, Caveon produced a list!

Dr. Fremer admitted that he knew some Atlanta teachers were lying to him, but he said his hands were tied because he didn’t have subpoena power.

Georgia’s investigators are contemptuous of Caveon’s efforts, labelling it a ‘so-called investigation.’ Richard Hyde, one of the three leaders of the investigation, told me that “either by coincidence or design, it was certain to fail.” Mr. Hyde denied that Caveon needed subpoena power because its investigators were representing a governmental agency, and under Georgia law it is a felony to lie to someone representing the government. What’s more, Mr. Hyde said, Caveon had a fundamental conflict of interest–it was investigating its employer, at least indirectly, because the “Blue Ribbon Commission” (which Mr. Hyde dismisses as “The Whitewash Commission”) included a deputy superintendent of schools.

Robert Wilson, another leader of the Georgia investigation, is even blunter. Of course Caveon didn’t find cheating because “Caveon couldn’t find its own ass with either hand,” he scoffed. Why anyone would hire Caveon was, he said, beyond him–unless they didn’t want to find out anything.

Dr. Fremer seemed hurt and offended by the criticism. “We try to be non-emotional,” he said, acknowledging that “People who listen only to the law enforcement side do not respect us.”

Caveon also conducted two deeply flawed ‘investigations’ into allegations of cheating in Washington, DC, again finding nothing of consequence.

For the full story:

Penetrating the Smokescreen
Michelle Rhee and the Washington Post
Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error

Having failed to tells its readers of Caveon’s track record of failure in Atlanta and Washington, DC, the Journal then reports–without irony–that security providers like Caveon are enjoying a huge upsurge in business. Mr. Fremer says that Caveon’s revenue has grown by 40% every year for the past three years.

Failure pays! There’s a lesson for Wall Street Journal readers.

In another interesting omission, the Journal reporters do not cite Washington as a place where cheaters prospered. Houston and Philadelphia get mentioned but not our nation’s capital, where then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee handed out large bonuses to principals whose schools had made ‘unbelievable’ gains on the city’s standardized test….and where student answer sheets were discovered to have an inordinately high rate of ‘wrong to right’ erasures.

Buried deep in the WSJ article is one person’s expression of concern that schools are overcompensating, spending money on testing security that ought to be spent on art, music, teaching and learning. But that person is Randi Weingarten, familiar to WSJ readers as the strident president of a teachers union.

For a newspaper that focuses on financial matters, the article is notably short of numbers. We don’t learn how much money any district is spending on enhanced security. That dollar figure would be useful to have, because it could then be translated into terms we can understand: number of assistant teacher positions, number of counselor slots, and so forth.

Even deeper in the article is one parent’s complaint that her child’s school now resembles a prison.

There’s stuff going on in the testing arena that might also have been part of the Journal’s coverage. (Perhaps it will come up in future pieces.) I’m referring to growing evidence of a ‘great awakening’ about the impact of test-based school reform.

Consider Massachusetts, for example:

The new chair of the state Board of Education raised concerns about the focus on standardized test preparation in Massachusetts schools, as board members on Tuesday discussed whether some districts give too many practice tests to prepare students for the MCAS.

Board chairwoman Margaret McKenna said some schools test students 20 to 25 days per school year, including practice and pre-tests. Board members said some school officials are blaming the state for the test prep focus.

“What I keep hearing is the districts keep saying it’s the state; the state keeps saying it’s the districts,” said McKenna, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Deval Patrick in August.
McKenna said the intention of the test seems to have gotten lost.

“I think it’s time for the state to say, ‘Wait a minute here, that is not the intention.’ We’ve got to figure out a way to make sure people are not teaching to the test,” said McKenna, who spent 22 years as president of Lesley University in Cambridge.

And in Florida:

The Lee School Board struck down the district’s proposed testing calendar at its Tuesday night meeting, effectively eliminating 68 tests from grades kindergarten through fifth grade and putting assessment decisions back in teachers’ hands.

The motion passed 3-1 with Cathleen Morgan in opposition and Chairman Tom Scott absent due to illness after school board members deliberated the necessity of district-mandated tests.  ….

(Board member Mary) Fischer said the amount of testing in recent years have been a form of “child abuse.”

“We’re supposed to have a learning environment for kids that is safe, and makes them ready to learn,” Fischer said. “So when they’re coming in afraid of the testing, and you tell them they’re failing and parents are stressed out, it negatively impacts children in a psychological way.”

Two well-placed political types recently told me that legislators in their states (one eastern, one western) were hearing one message from constituents: ‘Too much testing.’

The left is salivating about what it sees as–and hopes is–a growing revolt against ‘excessive’ testing. FairTest publishes a weekly scorecard, an example of which you can find here. Regular updates are at fairtest.org.

The proper adjective for the right might be “concerned.” Some stalwarts have published a Guiding Principles statement headlined “An Open Letter On School Accountability To State Superintendents of Education and Governors.” While you may be interested to see who has signed it, and who has not, please don’t let that keep you from reading what they have to say about the dangers of overreacting to the pressure to dial back on accountability.

But the canary in the mine–real evidence that test-based accountability may be counter-productive–is this year’s Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education. Every year I can remember there have been four or five finalists, but this year only two of the 75 eligible districts were deemed to be doing well enough to be considered for the Prize. The judges use a ‘green, yellow, red’ grading system in a bunch of categories; one judge told me that, of the 20 semi-finalists, most scored ‘yellow’ or ‘red’ in most categories. It was, he said, a cause for concern.

Ben Weider of the blog 538 does a wonderful job of deconstructing the issue here, in a piece entitled “The Most Important Award in Public Education Struggles to Find Winners.” The headline may suffer from hyperbole, but the article is well-reasoned and sourced.

The key point: the NAEP scores of most of the Broad Prize winners have been flat for years. These are the districts that have been living and dying by test scores, and it’s not working.

Mixing clichés, the canary in the mine {{1}} is also the elephant in the room. It is an issue we cannot afford to ignore, because, if things are so bad that only two of 75 urban districts are making significant progress, then we shouldn’t be doubling down on that approach to schooling. Rather, those who are concerned about urban education should examine general practices in urban districts. I’d suggest starting by questioning the frequency of bubble testing, their purposes and the use of their results {{2}}.

Public school districts shouldn’t be spending time, energy and money on strategies to prevent cheating. Those resources ought to be devoted to creating a more challenging curriculum that gives students more control over their own learning and engages them in the deeper learning of project-based classes. Technology, when ‘blended’ with (and by) skilled teachers, allows students to dig deeper and soar higher, and that’s what our young people need to experience when they go to school. More ‘rigorous’ training in regurgitating information (and passing tests) is a flawed strategy, and all the expensive security measures in the world will not obscure that truth.


[[1]]1. Speaking of a canary in the mine, I was struck by Geoff Canada’s comments at the Broad Foundation Award event on Monday.  Mr. Canada, the creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, is well-known for his anti-union stance, his role in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” and his alliance with Michelle Rhee, but on Monday he went way ‘off message’ to criticize excessive testing. We often test without purpose, he said, giving tests in March or April but not getting results until late August.  If I heard him correctly, he was saying that we test too much and trust teachers too little.  Mr. Canada was responding to my tweeted question, but I wasn’t the moderator and so could not push him on what he was saying. But if an educator with the following and stature of Geoff Canada is questioning testing, something is happening.[[1]]

[[2]]2. The US uses test scores to evaluate, rate, punish and (sometimes) reward teachers. Most advanced countries use testing and assessment to assess students![[2]]

Looking Back (Part 6)

The news that ‘only’ 14,700,000 American children are now living in poverty {{1}} prompted this look back at my reporting for NPR about the emotional development of children, an important but often unrecognized aspect of life for some children growing up in poverty.  Food, healthcare, shelter and education matter, but love and affection are vital if a child is to have a decent chance of becoming a functioning adult {{2}}.

Here, briefly, are the stories of Lisa, Roy and Mary, three young people who, for a host of reasons, were growing up without the emotional supports they needed.

Merrow: “OK, let me give you a spelling test. How do you spell ‘cereal’?
Lisa: S-E-I-A-L-A.

She told me that she had lived in ‘13 or 16’ foster homes.  Lisa was 9 years old when, at the end of a long conversation, I gave her an impromptu spelling test..

Merrow: How do you spell ‘sugar’?
Lisa: Sugar. S-H-U-G-E-R.

At the time, Lisa was living in a Texas mental institution for children.

Merrow: How do you spell ‘couch’?
Lisa: Ooo! Couch. C-  No.  K-A-O-W-C-H.
Merrow: How do you spell ‘soda’?
Lisa: S-O-A-D.

Lisa was a charmer.  At one point she asked me what I was going to do with the recording.  When I told her it was for a radio program, she exclaimed, “Oh, yuk.” She  paused and then added, “Don’t put it on AM. Put it on FM.”

I took the bait. “Why,” I asked?

You can hear the laughter in her voice. “Because we usually don’t even listen to FM. We only listen to AM {{3}}.”

Her doctor said that Lisa had been abandoned at age two by her natural parents. They left her with some relatives, who in turn gave her to other friends, who then left her on someone’s doorstep; those people eventually brought her to the Department of Human Resources.

At the end of the conversation, Lisa asked me if I liked her. I said yes, of course.  Then she asked me if I really liked her…and pulled her dress up over her head, an incident I wrote about recently.

Sexual behavior like that was also part of her sad history, a ‘survival’ tactic she had apparently learned early.  Her doctor told me that she would go to school without any underwear and would do cartwheels in the playground.  She was, he said, looking for affection–albeit in the most inappropriate way.


Roy: I smoke, and I’m 18. Can’t read. Can’t read or write
Merrow: Not at all?
Roy: No, I can’t read or write at all.

At the time of this conversation, Roy was an involuntary patient at a Texas mental hospital for adolescents {{4}}.

Merrow: How about those words up there on the board? Can you read any of those?
Roy: No, Just too hard for me. Really, I can’t read those.
Merrow: There’s a word up there. Can you read that one?
Roy: B-E?
Merrow: Yeah, what does that say?
Roy: BE?
Merrow: That’s right. How about the word that comes before it, T-O?
Roy: T-O? To?  I think it’s ‘TO.’  Yeah. (laughs)

A few years earlier Roy had been arrested and jailed in Austin for a minor offense. In jail he attempted suicide.  Later, when the police found him living in a park (‘like an animal,’ his doctor said), he was confined to the mental hospital, where he had not caused any problems..

Merrow: How about the word that comes before that, H-O-W?
Roy: ‘TAH’?
Merrow: No, it’s an H
Roy: ‘WHO’?  I don’t know. I can’t really do it right. I ain’t much in reading.
Merrow: How about O-W? O-W is what you say when somebody punches you.
Roy: “OW” (laughs)
Merrow: So, now put the H in front of it. What have you got?
Roy: Um, ‘HOW’?  HOW!

Psychotropic drugs like Thorazine, Mellaril, Prolixin, Haldol and Moban (and sometimes electroshock {{5}}) were the normal treatments in Roy’s institution and in most public mental health facilities.  He was taking a daily dose 800 mg of Thorazine when I met him.

Merrow: Yes. You could read those three words in a row. Go ahead.
Roy: Uh, ‘How to be.’

Early in our conversation Roy yawned and asked me, ‘How long will you keep talking?’

Merrow: Ready to stop?
Roy: Yeah, I think I am.
Merrow: Okay, thanks a lot.
Roy: Okay.

He paused, and I waited. After a short time, he began again; the words spilled out.

Roy: I mean, I didn’t tell you the whole story. Um, when I was nine years old, my step-dad and my mom met each other and, well, they used to knock me around all the time, my step-dad did.

When Roy was 14, he finally felt big and strong enough to turn on his abusive stepfather. He defended himself with a baseball bat…and he ended up in a juvenile institution, based, he said, on the testimony of his stepfather.


Sometimes I feel so down at heart
I feel like I might fall apart
But then these words come back to me,
‘Just take your time, and you’ll be free.’

19-year-old Mary wrote that song, which she sang for my tape recorder.  Like Roy, she was confined to a Texas state mental hospital, but this was her third confinement.  She talked about wanting to escape and hitchhike home to Houston, even though her previous hitchhiking trips had ended badly, one in a multiple rape.  (It was that story that got my program banished from the airwaves in Texas.)

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

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

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

This is the last song I’ll ever sing for you.
It’s the last time I’ll tell you
Just how much I really care.
This is the last song–
But I’ll sing more later on.
Right now it’s time for lunch
And I think I’m gonna be gone.

One was nine, one 18 and the other 19, but the conversations–not just the spelling tests–are eerily and sadly similar.  If you listen to them in their entirety, you will discover even more connections: their strong need to be heard, to feel a connection, to matter–and their shocking histories of mistreatment by those closest to them.  Sexual and physical abuse is another tie that binds them.

Roy and Mary told me stories they said they had not told their doctors. My heart went out to all three, but especially to young Lisa, who seemed destined to travel the awful road that Mary was on.

The two NPR programs aired in 1978. To meet Lisa and her doctor, click this link.  To get to know Roy and Mary and their doctor, click here.

When we said goodbye, Roy assured me that he wasn’t going to attempt suicide again.

Roy: I think I can make it.
Merrow: Want to shake on that?
Roy (laughs): Yes
Merrow: Okay
Roy: I guess that’s all I can say now. Bye.

I met them 36 years ago. Today Lisa would be 45, Roy 54 and Mary 55. I hope they made it somehow.  At the time, we asked the hospitals to keep us informed, but that did not happen.

The doctors treating Lisa, Roy and Mary were not optimistic about their patients. Lisa’s doctor feared she would end up as a prostitute or in serial, abusive marriages. Roy’s best bet, his doctor said, was vocational remedial education and, perhaps, a job as a janitor or greenhouse worker.  Mary’s future was even darker because of her apparent addiction to street drugs.

I would not be allowed such access today, but I am virtually certain that, if I were, I would meet today’s versions of Lisa, Mary and Roy in every public mental health facility.

Our world has gotten better in many ways, but, when it comes to caring for children and the least fortunate among us, we have such a long way to go.  Some people seem to think that some combination of dedicated teachers, ‘no excuses’ schools and more tests will pull these children through.  Perhaps those folks should have been watching Ken Burns’s film, “The Roosevelts,” for a better understanding of what government can accomplish in times of crisis.


[[1]]1. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/17/us/politics/census-report-poverty-income.html?_r=0 The poverty rate for children under 18 declined last year for the first time since 2000, the census bureau said, and the number of children in poverty fell by 1.4 million, to 14.7 million.[[1]]

[[2]]Children growing up in affluence or middle-class comfort are not exempt from emotional deprivation and neglect, of course. Poverty makes it tougher for well-meaning adults to care for their young, but certainly not impossible.[[2]]

[[3]]I think Lisa had somehow figured out that NPR was ONLY on FM. Maybe she couldn’t spell, but she was clever and smart.[[3]]

[[4]]4. Austin State Hospital was the first state facility of its kind built west of the Mississippi. In 1856, the governor of Texas signed a bill providing for the establishment of the Texas State Lunatic Asylum. Construction started in 1857, and the first patients were admitted in 1861. The facility was renamed the Austin State Hospital (ASH) in 1925.

Today, the original building serves as the administration building for a modern, innovative facility providing psychiatric care to a 38-county region in Central Texas. ASH admits over 4000 patients in a fiscal year, with about the same number of discharges, and has an average daily patient census of 292. The focus of recovery is stabilization for people with  acute psychiatric illness and support of their return to the community. ASH provides care through three large services – Adult Psychiatric Services, Specialty Adult Services, and Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Services. … Child and adolescent programs offer services to children to the age of 12, an adolescent girls unit, and an adolescent boys unit.[[4]]

[[5]]5. Two percent of the cases, the director of that hospital told me.[[5]]