A Teacher Speaks Out

Dear Friends and other readers,

How do classroom teachers feel about standardized, machine-scored testing?   Below is a letter from a young classroom teacher whose identity I am not revealing.  This teacher, who has been teaching more than 6 years, fears retribution, apparently with good reason. The letter arrived last week.

Hi Mr. Merrow,

We’ve corresponded before.  I’ve been teaching in (WITHHELD) public schools for the past (WITHHELD) years.  I’m an ESL teacher but am also certified in Remedial Reading.  I want to tell you about administering of the (STATE NAME WITHHELD) test to 3-5 grade ESL students last April.  This event was the thing that broke the camel’s back for me when it came to deciding whether or not I could continue with a career in public school education.

As I’m still teaching in (WITHHELD), I chose to email you rather than respond on your blog. They told us they can monitor our social media use and ‘discipline’ us based on that, so…

For three solid weeks I had to administer a computer-based test that was not only too difficult for my students to navigate (computer issues, not having adequate keyboarding skills, English language deficits, etc.) but had specific lessons to be taught prior to the exam, lessons that were bizarre at best.  As any good teacher would tell you, you don’t teach a lesson and test on it immediately, yet the (WITHHELD) exam seems to think it’s perfectly fine.  Hmmm.  My third grade students were instructed to cite three sources in their answers, yet this is not a skill that they are taught in the third grade.  The layout/format of the test was such that most students simply answered the questions, and didn’t read the passages.

As teachers, we were instructed to give no help other than say, “Do your best.  I can’t help you in any way.  Do your best.”  We could touch the computer only to log on a student.  Some computers crashed up to 11 times each test session.

The most heartbreaking part, the one that tipped me over, was having to test a third grade student who had only been in the country a few weeks and was suffering trauma due to family issues. She had to be tested on the math part.  She spoke no English.  She was faced with a math test of mostly word problems. She looked at us pleading for help, but all we could say was, “Do your best…”

We used Google Translation to try to tell her that it was OK, she could just guess, just finish the job, etc. but she really didn’t understand.  This child had to take THREE Math sections.  She understood nothing.  When she finished each day (it sometimes took hours), I had to return her to her regular classroom with both of us in  tears. After I told her classroom teacher what had happened, the teacher would be in tears, too!

What did this measure?  What did this tell us about our teaching?  What did this do to help the student?  NOTHING. If she was reluctant to come to school before the test, now she was MORE reluctant.

All states give a ‘pass’ to ESL students who have been in the country less than a year, but ONLY on the English Language Arts part.  You could literally arrive in the country on Monday, and if the Math test is administered on Tuesday, you must take it.  But today’s math tests include “explain your answer.” Or they are word problems.  Or they test on math aspects that the student may not have been taught yet in his or her country.

The party line we get is “Math is universal…”  Rote calculations, yes, but word problems, and introduction of geometry and algebra concepts in third grade are not universal.

I love teaching my students, but I feel, as do many of my ESL colleagues, that our voices are irrelevant.  And when we complain that the tests are not measuring anything or that they test skills that have not been taught, we are told (or at least the message is implied) that we are ‘negative,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘old-school,’ et cetera.

Thanks for letting me vent.  I know that there are MANY ESL teachers who are feeling the same way.

Do you have any advice for this young professional?  Stick it out, or find a new line of work?

How many other teachers feel as this one does?  Can our system afford to drive away teachers like this (GENDER WITHHELD)?

Three weeks of testing, sometimes for three or more hours a day?  Have we lost our minds?

The current ‘moratorium’ is the ideal time for state-wide conversations about testing and assessment.  I hope many of you are asking your school boards and superintendents to fill out that form I provided last week.

For your convenience, here it is again:

Students in our district will take _____ standardized, machine-scored tests during the course of the year.  Is this an appropriate number?

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. Is this number too high, too low or about right?

There are only  _____ days on our 180-day calendar when a standardized test is NOT being administered. {{1}}

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 {{2}} 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.  Is this advisable?

There is a ____ month lag time between the administration of a test and the delivery of the results.  Is this acceptable?

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. {{3}}  Is this amount low, high or about right?

We devote  _____ hours per year to testing, out of approximately 900 hours of actual class time during the 180-day school year.  Is this amount excessive, too little, or about right?

In addition, many teachers devote another  ____ hours to what is known as ‘test prep.’ The numbers vary from teacher to teacher and school to school and are difficult to pinpoint, but nevertheless the issue merits public discussion.

Last year we fired  _____ 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. Be prepared to be surprised by the answer here because Lee County is not alone. Christina Veiga of The Miami Herald reported a story headlined ‘In Miami-Dade the Testing Never Stops.”  She wrote, “Out of the 180-day academic year, Miami-Dade County schools will administer standardized tests on every day but eight.” http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/09/01/4322452/in-miami-dade-schools-testing.html#storylink=cpy[[1]]

[[2]]2. This is a perfectly plausible approach, as we reported on the PBS NewsHour recently, http://learningmatters.tv/blog/on-pbs-newshour/watch-testing-schools-instead-of-students/12470/[[2]]

[[3]]3. This number will probably NOT be high because most schools buy cheap tests. In Lee County, Florida, for example, the $5,258,493 it spends on testing is not even one-half of one percent of the district’s budget.[[3]]

So There’s A Moratorium. Now What?

Those seeking a moratorium on using high stakes tests to judge teachers seem to have gotten what they asked for. What happens now?

Remember that a “moratorium” is nothing more than ‘a suspension of activity.’  It does not imply any pro-active behavior or a re-examination of current policies. It’s merely a time of doing nothing.  Should we celebrate because Bill Gates, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Washington (DC) Superintendent Kaya Henderson, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have gotten what they wanted?  I don’t think so.

This very limited moratorium means that scores on the new Common Core standardized tests won’t be used to evaluate teachers in many places.  That’s what some might call a necessary but hardly sufficient action.

This moratorium doesn’t mean that a truce has been called between the warring sides in the battle over teacher job protection and evaluation. That war is ongoing, sadly.

And this moratorium doesn’t mean that school districts are now going to examine the role or amount of standardized bubble testing.

And there’s a lot of it {{1}}.  Take Lee County, Florida, recently in the news for flirting with the possibility of defying the state on its testing requirements. Believe it or not, that system will be administering a standardized test to some it its students every single day of the school year. Reporter Emily Atteberry of the News-Press wrote, “If the testing calendar is approved, there will be an exam administered every day of Lee’s 180-day school year.  A News-Press analysis of the district’s tentative testing calendar found that there are 175 tests administered over 95 testing windows throughout the year. Some of the testing windows are more than a month long. While there aren’t 175 different tests, many are administered multiple times throughout the year.”

For a close look at the staggering amount of testing there, here are the testing calendars for elementary, middle and high schools there.

On his blog, Secretary Duncan wrote, “Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can’t afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress.”

The Secretary also questioned the number of tests schools give.  “And we also need to recognize that in many places, the sheer quantity of testing – and test prep – has become an issue. In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction.”

I suggest we take the Secretary at his word and request the following from our school superintendents.  For convenience, here’s a simple fill-in-the-blank format.

Students in our district will take _____ standardized, machine-scored tests during the course of the year.  Is this an appropriate number?

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. Is this number too high, too low or about right?

There are only  _____ days on our 180-day calendar when a standardized test is NOT being administered. {{2}}

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 {{3}} 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.  Is this advisable?

There is a —- month lag time between the administration of a test and the delivery of the results.  Is this acceptable?

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. {{4}}  Is this amount low, high or about right?

We devote  _____ hours per year to testing, out of approximately 900 hours of actual class time during the 180-day school year.  Is this amount excessive, too little, or about right?

In addition, many teachers devote another  ____ hours to what is known as ‘test prep.’ The numbers vary from teacher to teacher and school to school and are difficult to pinpoint, but nevertheless the issue merits public discussion.

Last year we fired  _____ 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.

I hope you will join me in a spirited public discussion {{5}} about testing.

A few superintendents are speaking out about excessive testing. Unfortunately, their powerful messages are strong on emotion but woefully short of factual information. For example, Mark Cross of Peru (Illinois) Elementary District 24 sent this letter to parents.

Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recently published an op-ed in the Miami Herald that is also short on specifics.

His op-ed followed some careful reporting on testing by the Miami Herald.

Rhode Island plans a 1-year review of testing, but the call to action {{6}} is also devoid of data.

Study groups are one thing; action is another. Kudos to the Pittsburgh School Board for voting to reducing the hours devoted to testing in the early grades.  A paragraph from Eleanor Chute’s report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette indicates how out-of-control testing had become:  “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.”

Are you doing the math?  85.5 periods is roughly 60 HOURS of class time devoted to giving standardized tests to 8-, 9- and 10-year olds!   Going forward, only 30 hours!  (Bear in mind that a full school year has perhaps 900 hours of class time, meaning that Pittsburgh’s young children were devoting 7.5% of that time to taking bubble tests.)

FairTest, the anti-standardized testing organization, seems to think the tide has turned in the battle against over-testing. It recently published “Testing Reform Victories: The First Wave,” celebrating what it calls “an explosion of resistance {{7}}.”

FairTest is hardly a neutral observer. In fact, everyone seems to have significant skin in the game, making it difficult to identify an organization {{8}} that could credibly lead an inquiry into the role of standardized bubble tests in public education.

I can think of only one candidate, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. NNSTOY, which was founded in 1980, has an Executive Director, Katherine Bassett, whose goal is to make the organization ‘impactful,’ one Board member told me recently.  NNSTOY’s list of 25 partners includes so many players–including Pearson and the National Council on Teaching Quality, two of the left’s favorite whipping boys–that I doubt if any of them wields much influence.  Boards set an organization’s policies, and most of NNSTOY’s Board members are classroom teachers who have been honored within the profession for their skill and dedication.

Would NNSTOY call on superintendents and school boards to fill in the blanks on the document above and then engage in a public-spirited discussion of the goals and purposes of schooling?

Someone has to….


[[1]]1. Superintendent Nicholas Gledich of District 11 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, wrote to remind me that “There have been several studies of testing and lost instructional time.  One study of two urban school districts performed by the AFT in 2013 found that testing takes 20-50 hours per student per year. Test prep can take from 60 to more than 110 hours per pupil per year.  At a cost of $6.15 per hour, this amounts to a cost of of $700 to $1000 per year per pupil just on testing, the equivalent cost of adding an hour to the school day. (“Testing More, Teaching Less;” Howard Nelson, 2013).[[1]]

[[2]]2. Be prepared to be surprised by the answer here because Lee County is not alone. Christina Veiga of The Miami Herald reported a story headlined ‘In Miami-Dade the Testing Never Stops.” She wrote, “Out of the 180-day academic year, Miami-Dade County schools will administer standardized tests on every day but eight.”  [[2]]

[[3]]3. This is a perfectly plausible approach, as we reported on the PBS NewsHour recently. [[3]]

[[4]]4. This number will probably NOT be high because most schools buy cheap tests. In Lee County, Florida, for example, the $5,258,493 it spends on testing is not even one-half of one percent of the district’s budget.[[4]]

[[5]]5. I raised this general issue with David Hornbeck, the veteran educator who served as Superintendent in Philadelphia and State Superintendent in Maryland and Kentucky. He suggested a deeper conversation, by pursuing the following lines of inquiry:

-How does the testing program contribute to or detract from collaboration among teachers?

-How much planning time (and training to use it effectively) does the system provide teachers for data analysis and instructional improvement based on assessment results?

-When assessment reveals that a school repeatedly is not doing well, what system is in place to help the school improve its performance? How much money is spent on it?

-How much more money would a system need to have an assessment “system” that would result in “test prep” that actually scaffolded learning that is valued and, thus, encouraged?

-How could time be used to make assessment an integral part of the instructional program? How much more time would have to be devoted to assessment to make that a reality? [[5]]

[[6]]6. When Reporter Linda Borg asked readers to vote on whether Rhode Island schools were testing too much, 73% of the 1409 voters said ‘No.’[[6]]

[[7]]7. Here’s one example from the report: “After hearing mounting concerns about too much teaching to the test, Virginia lawmakers passed legislation to reduce the number of state tests from 22 to 17 in grades 3 through 8. ‘Overwhelmingly, we heard concerns that the ‘teaching to the test’ mentality was depriving students of the opportunity to derive substantive value from the material as opposed to memorizing factoids and regurgitating information without having synthesized it,’ said Mike Webert, a Virginia legislator. A state task force is considering further reductions.” [[7]]

[[8]]8. In Tennessee this week Secretary Duncan challenged the PTA to lead a debate about education during the 2016 Presidential campaign, but he did not speak specifically about the role of standardized tests, as reported by Education Week. [[8]]

Something’s Coming (Something Good)

“Something there is that doesn’t love more bubble tests
And students bubbling and learning how to bubble
When they might be making robots or reading Frost….”
When I adapted Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” earlier this year, I was aware of the growing resentment among parents, teachers and students toward machine-scored tests and test-prep. However, I had no idea that it would–pardon the pun–bubble to the top with such energy.

That said, some of what looks like support for reduced testing may turn out to be something quite different.  What people say is not as important as what they do!

A lot has been happening.  In late August the Lee County (FL) School Board voted, 3-2, to opt out of the state’s testing program, in what one Board member called ‘an act of civil disobedience.’  For six days Lee County, the 37th largest school district in the US with 85, 000 students, was the epicenter of the ‘too much testing’ movement, but on August 27th the Board reversed itself, again by a 3-2 vote.  The School Superintendent had expressed grave concern about the possible penalties, financial and otherwise, that Florida might impose if Lee County boycotted the state tests, and that apparently was enough to push one Board member, Mary Fisher, to change her vote.

For a list of what Florida could do to penalize boycotting districts, click here.

Robert Schaeffer, the Public Education Director of the anti-testing organization FairTest, has lived in Lee County for 15 years. By email I asked Bob what had just happened there. After acknowledging that he has been collaborating with the protestors, he added{{1}}:

“As expected, given the announcement that one member had reversed her position in the face of a massive, disinformation campaign by the Superintendent, the Lee County School Board just voted 3-2 to override its previous decision. However, four of the five board members spoke out against “test misuse and overuse” as well as “the punitive use of standardized exams.”  The two Board members who opposed the original motion (allegedly due to the lack of an implementation plan) pledged to take their concerns to a meeting of the Florida School Boards Association, which is holding a statewide conference beginning tonight, and one threatened a lawsuit against unfunded state testing mandates.
“After the vote, several Board members said that there would be a public workshop next week to discuss how to move forward to reduce testing overkill, and two members pledged that they would make implementation motions at the Tuesday night, September 9 regular Board meeting.The hundreds of parents, teachers, students and taxpayers who packed the room viewed the decision as a temporary tactical setback, not a long-term defeat, for the assessment reform movement.”

The Palm Beach County Schools are reported to be flirting with a possible boycott.

If something like this can happen in Florida, an epicenter of what is called ‘test-based accountability,’ then the rest of the country ought to be paying attention.

It’s not just Florida, of course.  This spring as many as 80% of students in some New York City public schools were opted out of standardized testing by their parents.

The Superintendent of Schools in Colorado Springs, Colorado, says he wants to test randomized samples of students to gather data about school effectiveness, which would reduce the number of bubble tests that all students now have to take.

More than half of the school boards in Texas supported a resolution calling upon the State Board of Education to reduce the number and significance of bubble tests.  That was two years ago, and the Texas Legislature got the message. It passed a bill drastically reducing the number of standardized tests required for graduation, and Governor Rick Perry signed the bill into law in June 2013.

The rebellion may be spreading to New Mexico, where concern about computerized testing is growing.

In Vermont the State Board of Education has called upon the United States Congress to get its act together and do something about No Child Left Behind, which expired in 2007 but remains the law of the land as long as Congress fails to act.  “The motivating force behind the statement is that there is too much testing,” State Board member William Mathis told the Rutland Herald. “Teachers are complaining about it. Parents are complaining about it. We’re just running from one test to the next. It’s tedious, and it’s not the best use of taxpayers’ money.”

But it would be a mistake to assume that every expression of concern is genuine.  In Rhode Island, where students have been protesting over-testing, State Superintendent Deborah Gist{{2}} seems to be taking a stand on the issue.  According to the Providence Journal’s Linda Borg, Gist and Katherine E. Sipala, president of the Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Association, have created what they call “The Assessment Project” to study the issue.

Their letter to local superintendents reads, in part:
“Over the past year or more, many of us have heard from some students, teachers, and parents who expressed their concerns about over-testing in our schools. We share their concerns, and we want to take action on this matter. None of us wants to test students too much, and each of us can consider ways to streamline the assessment process, to eliminate assessments that do not advance teaching and learning, and to ensure that we use assessments to help us make good decisions about instruction. If assessments do not give us information that informs instruction, we should not administer those assessments.”

To this observer, Gist and Sipala’s message is hardly newsworthy. Rather than a call to action, it’s seems to be a politically safe call for ‘more study.’

I have noticed that those who are upset about testing are being careful to avoid coming across as ‘anti-testing.’ Instead, they say that they are protesting ‘over-testing’ or ‘too much testing,’ which is a far cry from being opposed to all testing.  Language matters, and if their voices are to be heard, they have to fight the ‘anti-testing’ label that some supporters of the status quo will try to stick on them.

Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk provided this thoughtful overview recently, pointing out how No Child Left Behind still hangs over every state and school district that has not been granted a waiver by the Secretary of Education.

In late August Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in with his own call for a 1-year moratorium (which the NEA called ‘common sense’).

It’s possible that Mr. Gates and Secretary Duncan were motivated by their desire to save the Common Core National Standards, which are under increasing attack from both the right and the left. Perhaps they are now wishing they had taken the time to disentangle the Common Core and the laudable idea of higher standards from the accountability mess and its roots in ‘the business model of education’ that both support.{{3}}

As the lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote in “Something’s Coming,”
Something’s coming, something good
If I can wait
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is
But it is gonna be great{{4}}.

Will the “something” that’s coming to the world of bubble testing be good?  Is what lies ahead “gonna be great,” or will there be lots of words but little action?  Who knows?  That’s not up to reporters; that’s in the hands of parents and concerned citizens, educators and activists—and the politicians who listen to them.

By the way, you may read the rest of ‘Mending School” here.

If you would like to own your own copy of the fully annotated, four-color, 24″ x 36″ wall poster, simply click here or send your tax-deductible contribution to Learning Matters, 127 West 26th Street, Suite 1200, NY NY 10001.

Oh, I sent the “Mending School” poster to Secretary Duncan, gratis, and I am sending one to Deborah Gist in Rhode Island.

[[1]]1. He sent virtually the same message to Diane Ravitch. [[1]]
[[2]]2. Full disclosure regarding my own relationship with Deborah Gist. She was State Superintendent when Michelle Rhee was Chancellor, and it was her office that detected the unusual patterns of ‘wrong to right’ erasures that strongly suggested cheating. Instead of taking direct action, Gist exchanged memoranda with Rhee for months, during which time Gist applied for and got the Rhode Island job. Because I believed then–and still believe–that the public ought to know Gist’s version of those machinations, I begged her to speak to me on the record. She refused. When Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst, rated state education programs, Rhode Island received the top score, which some interpreted as Rhee’s way of thanking Gist for her silence. [[2]]
[[3]]3.It’s also possible that Secretary Duncan’s friends and handlers in the White House have realized they need the votes of teachers in the midterm elections, just two months away.[[3]]
[[4]]4.As most of you no doubt know, “Something’s Coming” is a love song of joyous anticipation from “West Side Story.” More here.[[4]]

Looking Back (Part 5)

(For the past few weeks I have been traveling down memory lane and then posting entries on my blog. Memories aren’t sequential, I’ve learned. As evidence of that, here is one from my year away from college.)

I’ve been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember-but I’ve been only a fan, not a player. In my case ‘fan’ is short for fantasy, not fanatic. As a kid in the ’50s I spent hours starring in imaginary baseball games, throwing an old tennis ball against the barn wall and pretending to be Johnny Logan or Red Schoendienst in the field, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron or Stan Musial at bat. In real life, unfortunately, I was pretty awful, invariably one of the last chosen for pickup games and almost always the rightfielder. But I had one glorious moment when I was 20, an accidental invitation to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals and a brief – very brief – chance to sit in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dugout during a game.

In 1961 I had taken a year off from Dartmouth and was working in Kansas as a reporter-photographer for The Leavenworth Times. I was restless, enthusiastic and energetic, and I managed to get myself fired in February of ’62, largely for being a pain in the neck.{{1}}

Jobless, I was free to do whatever I wanted, so I decided to hitchhike around the country. I took to the road, intending to wend my way south, toward warm weather and, more important, spring training.

I had read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road at least twice and was ready for adventure. And I had plenty of them: I met hundreds of interesting, lonely people, including a couple of gigolos in New Orleans, got run out of a small town in Idaho by roughnecks who amused themselves trying to run me over, spent a night or two in jail and talked my way into Disneyland and into the Seattle World’s Fair on opening day. But no memory shines as brightly as spring training of 1962 at Al Lang Field.

Carrying only a sleeping bag and a dark blue flight bag with a Pan Am logo on it, I headed for St. Petersburg, Florida, where I knew I’d find the Cardinals, and Bradenton, where the Braves trained. Along the way I found places to sleep where I could, in fraternity houses, once in jail in West Memphis, Arkansas, (my choice, not theirs) and under the stars, snug in my sleeping bag. Coming into St. Petersburg toward the end of one afternoon, I asked the driver I had hitched a ride with to drop me as close as he could to Al Lang Field. He did so, and I still remember feeling awestruck, standing outside the park.

I walked right in–no guards, no passes, no questions. My awe turned to confusion because dozens of ballplayers were walking off the field, clad in nondescript, ragtag uniforms that looked more high school than major league. Still on the field standing around home plate, however, were several men in full Cardinal uniforms. Later it occurred to me that they must have been comparing notes on the hopefuls who had just tried out, would-be ballplayers who had paid their own way to St. Pete. That explained their uniforms, as well as what happened next.

Suddenly, one of the Cardinals spotted me at the edge of the field. At 6′ 2″ and 185 pounds, I must have looked like another young hopeful. He walked over and said, “You’re too late, kid. I’m sorry.”

I had no idea what he was talking about and was too intimidated to ask. He must have taken my silence for shyness, and so he put his hand on my shoulder.

“Where’d you come from, kid?” he asked. “Kansas,” I answered truthfully, and his expression grew sadder. “Jeez, I’m real sorry, but we just finished. It’s all over.” I didn’t say anything, and after another minute he asked me how I’d gotten to St. Pete. Hitched, I told him.

“What position you play?”

Rightfield. I answered truthfully, and third base, I added, not so truthfully, because that was Eddie Mathews’s position. He squeezed my shoulder. “You look like you can hit the long ball,” he said. That didn’t seem to be a question but an assumption suggested by my athletic build. I wasn’t about to tell him the truth.

After another silence, he smiled. “Tell you what, kid,” he said. “We’ve got a game tomorrow with the Pirates. You come here a couple of hours early, and I’ll let you hit a few. See what you can do. Whaddya say?”

I was stunned. He was mistaking me for a ballplayer, and he thought I had major league potential!  I thanked him and left in a daze. I had just been invited, sort of, to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals. A genuine major league coach had looked at me and concluded that I might be a longball hitter! For a few minutes I was 11 or 12 again, in a coiled batting stance like Stan the Man, hitting against Lou Burdette or Warren Spahn.

Slowly I came back down to earth. Not only was I not a major league prospect, I was in a strange city. It was dusk, and I had no place to sleep, I hitchhiked to Florida Presbyterian, now Eckerd College, and met some guys who let me crash on the couch in their apartment. At dinner we all laughed at the prospect of my actually trying out the next day–wouldn’t it be funny if I held the bat by the wrong end or threw the ball underhand! In fact, I had no intention of embarrassing myself by going through with the charade and trying to “hit the long ball,” But we all decided to watch the Cardinals-Pirates game, anyway.

Spring training was relaxed and informal in ’62, not the cash cow it is today. The elderly man taking tickets glanced at my old press card and let me in. He didn’t seem to notice when I handed the card back to the next guy, who used it and handed it back to the next guy, until all six of us were in. We sat in the sun for a few innings. but I was feeling cocky and wanted more excitement. I went back to the field entrance and stood near the Pirates’ dugout, watching the game and stealing glances into the dugout at more of my heroes. While I was there one of the Pirates left the dugout, crossed in front of me and went under the stands. He lit a cigarette, and when he took off his cap I saw his nearly bald head and realized that he was Dick Groat, one of the best shortstops in baseball.

I walked over to him and asked for a cigarette. He gave me one, and I told him about my invitation to try out for the Cardinals. Groat was amused, probably because I made fun of that Cardinal coach for having been taken in by my appearance. When he had finished his cigarette, he asked me to tell the story to “some of the guys” in the dugout. A minute later I found myself sitting on the bench. Bill Mazeroski was there, and so was Roberto Clemente, and I hoped my new college friends could see me. Groat told me to tell the guys my story. I started to, but I never finished.

“Who the f**k  is that?” a loud gravelly voice demanded. “Get him the f**k out of here!” It was the tough-talking, cigar-smoking manager of the Pirates, Danny Murtaugh. I waited for Groat or someone else to speak on my behalf, but no one did.

Murtaugh advanced, glowering at me, but then dismissed me with a derisive wave.

“Get your ass out of here. This is the big leagues.”

I left, but not before hearing Murtaugh say, “What are you clowns up to? If you guys want to win, then pay attention. That kid doesn’t even look like a ball-player.”

Every fan’s story should have a hero, and mine is no exception, although it took me a long time to figure out who the hero was. It wasn’t Groat, Mazeroski or any of the other Pirates I’d sat with during my brief major league career. {{2}} No, the hero was that Cardinal coach. I am certain that he had not seen major league potential in me; I’m sure he believed that I was a kid with big dreams, and he wasn’t going to break my heart simply because I was a few hours late. I wish now that I knew who he was…and that it hadn’t taken me so long to appreciate his gesture.


[[1]]1. Which I wrote about in part one of this series[[1]]

[[2]]2. Dick Groat hit .294 that season.  Clemente hit .312 and won a Golden Glove.  Mazeroski hit .271, while Eddie Mathews, my childhood hero, hit .265, drove in 90 runs, and walked 101 times.  All four made the All-Star team.  (Time was I actually knew statistics like that. No longer–I had to look it up.)[[2]]

Some Predictions as the New School Year Arrives…

With the arrival of the new school year, what can we expect?  Here are 6 predictions and a big question.

Prediction #1. More school districts will back away from relying  heavily on standardized test scores to hold teachers accountable. It seems to me that many educators and other leaders are aware what often results from ‘test-based accountability’: cheating, low morale, higher absenteeism/truancy, and growth in homeschooling.

When Washington, DC, Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced that she was putting her system’s method of judging and firing teachers (based primarily on bubble scores) on hold, the US Department of Education expressed dismay, but Henderson deserves credit for acknowledging that the approach {{1}} was causing more trouble than it was worth. Not only has DC’s central office budget been bloated by the cadre of highly-paid ‘inspectors,’ but test scores have flattened, while cheating incidents continue to be an issue.

Henderson cited the support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a moratorium. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo now supports a moratorium on the use of test scores, something long advocated by the American Federation of Teachers and their state and local affiliates in the state.

I think we will see more of this. Whether the Department of Education wakes up to a new reality is the big unknown.

I believe that the best possible outcome of a widespread moratorium would be a concerted effort to create a useful and reliable way of judging teachers and the schools they work in.  “Multiple measures” rolls easily off the tongue, but we need to agree on what those measures are.{{2}}

Prediction #2. The tide may turn in the ongoing ‘war against teachers.’  We will hear more from Diane Ravitch and other defenders of the profession, and less from the attacking crowd.

Diane Ravitch is energized.  Her blog recently received its 14 millionth page view.  That remarkable number, 14,000,000, seems to be inspiring the tireless Dr. Ravitch to work even harder.

Ravitch’s principal antagonist, Michelle Rhee, has announced that she won’t be leading the organization she founded in 2011, StudentsFirst. She says her intention is to work with her husband, the Mayor of Sacramento, and serve as a Director of the company that makes Miracle-Gro, {{3}} but it’s also accurate to point out that her audience had shrunk considerably and that her organization has also been contracting in size and influence.

Expect Campbell Brown, a former TV journalist, to fill the gap. She’s smart and photogenic, and she apparently {{4}} has inherited the financial backing of many who once supported Rhee.  She’s reduced the pitch to its most basic talking point–‘tenure protects bad teachers and hurts kids’–and hasn’t gone into political battles in states and communities the way Rhee did.  To the right wing, Brown may seem preferable to Rhee. For one thing, she doesn’t have a track record to attack. Say what you will about Rhee, she at least has been in the arena, working with schools, parents, teachers and students.  Brown can’t be attacked for her failed policies because she doesn’t seem to have any.

Is the tide turning?  I have been talking with teachers who are not active in their unions.  One told me that she feels that public support is stronger now than at any time in her career.  “I think they understand how hard the work is,” she said.  Then she added a provocative insight.  “The public sees teaching as a calling more than a profession, and they are probably right.”  And because it’s a calling, she said, “We are too easy to push around. We are nurturers, not fighters.”

So, is ‘nurturing’ a profession?  Can a few million nurturers be part of a profession that refuses to be pushed around and taken advantage of?

Prediction #3: There will not be a letdown in the attacks on the two teacher unions, because that’s the right wing’s mantra–teacher unions are the source of most, if not all, of education’s problems.  I wonder what they make of the data that shows a high correlation between positive educational outcomes and strong unions, and the reverse: lousy results and weak unions. I know that correlation is not cause, but come on….

Teacher unions have enough problems (sometimes of their own making) without being recklessly attacked. Their membership is down, even though the teaching force is growing larger.  Some younger members are questioning their leadership’s strong support of LIFO, ‘last in, first out.’ A few state and local chapters are upset about the national leadership’s using so much money for political action {{5}}.

I have a sneaking suspicion that many of those attacking the NEA and the AFT are not particularly concerned about “education.”  Instead, they are fundamentally opposed to unions per se. They represent management/capital in the unending struggle between labor and management. Teacher unions are a prime target because private employer unions are weak and because teachers are public employees with strong and effective unions.

Prediction #4: The media will pay attention to preschool, a good thing. The first stories will be of the feel-good variety about kids toddling off to get hugs, naps and cookies. But then there will be stories about unprepared teachers (probably true) and weak programs (also true, most likely). Please keep in mind that the alternatives for these children were worse.

Prediction #5: The Common Core brouhaha will get louder as public support weakens–which it has, according to the new Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll. “Most Americans (60%) oppose the Common Core State Standards, fearing that the standards will limit the flexibility of the teachers in their communities to teach what they think is best,” the report says.

Education Week is reporting that many teachers don’t feel prepared.

And you know that the politics will continue to be nasty. Some opponents of the Common Core are fighting it because they oppose any and all federal involvement in education. They’re perfectly happy to spread half-truths if it aids their cause. {{6}}

In another conversation, a teacher told me that the Common Core “has opened up teaching {{7}} for me because it’s foundational and leaves lots of room for creativity.”  She said that it had been put into effect ‘really quickly’ and that she and her colleagues didn’t have enough time to prepare, but she added her approval. “This tells us what is expected of us, and that’s what we need to know.” {{8}}

I love that veteran teacher’s common sense: “Tell us what we are expected to teach but don’t tell us how to teach it.”  Amen..

Prediction #6: Expect continuing turmoil in the teaching force. The resident guru regarding teacher data is Professor Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania, and he reports that 41% of new teachers leave within five years {{9}}.  Any competent business leader can tell you that even the simplest of businesses–say, fast food–is hurt by constant turnover.  Churn in teaching is particularly high in schools in low-income neighborhoods, places often lacking in stability.

His report is worth your attention.

Ingersoll and his colleagues report on the changes within the profession as the teaching force grows larger.  Our middle and secondary schools apparently have about 50% more subject-area teachers, but there’s been a significant redistribution–winners and losers.

Among the losers are art, music, and physical education. Among the winners, besides special education, are mathematics and science. The number of teachers with mathematics or mathematics education degrees went up by 74 percent from the late 1980s to 2008. The number of teachers with degrees in one of the sciences or in science education went up by 86 percent. Although there are two and a half times as many general elementary teachers as mathematics and science teachers, the increase in math and science teachers accounts for almost 15 percent of the overall ballooning. Interestingly, the data also show that the fastest rate of increase among mathematics and science teachers occurred during the 1990s, before the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act.

What concerns some teachers I’ve spoken with is not the churn as much as the replacements.  One  veteran says the new teachers are simply not prepared to meet the needs of low income minority children. “It’s not their fault,” she said, “but they just are not prepared to teach children whose home situations may be unstable, who may be transient, and who often have huge gaps in their social and educational background.”  I asked her if she was talking about teachers from schools of education or from Teach for America?  “Both,” she said emphatically.

The Big Question: Can Teaching Become a Well-Respected Profession?  How?

Consider another observation from Ingersoll’s report: “Together, ballooning and attrition indicate a growing flux and instability in the teaching occupation, as both the number of those entering teaching and the number of those leaving teaching have been increasing in recent years.”

This phenomenon, “growing flux and instability,” has serious implications for the notion of a teaching profession.  How ‘professional’ can a profession be if 41% of those who join it abandon it within five years?  That simply does not happen in law, architecture, medicine, et cetera.

It’s easy to blame schools of education for the teaching’s low status. As I have written in this space, many of them actually benefit from churn, because they earn money training the replacements.  Just as it would be folly to expect polluters to clean up the river, it would be foolish to expect most schools of education to play a strong leadership role in strengthening teaching.

For teaching to become a genuine profession, it must be made more attractive, so that good people stay in the classroom.  We have to make it ‘easier to be’ a teacher, just as we need to raise entry standards in order to make it harder to become a teacher.

I think the problem largely resides in many school systems, which are often cavalier about their work force. Rather than invest in programs and policies that enable teachers to get better, they throw away dollars on superficial ‘professional development’ provided by outsiders and then hire cheap {{10}} replacements when lots of teachers leave.  A serious system would make sure that teachers had time to watch each other teach and then provide feedback.  A serious system would expect teachers to help develop curriculum and tests, and it would make sure teachers had time to do those things.  Don’t forget that America’s teachers spend significantly more hours in classrooms full of students than do their counterparts in other, more successful nations.

When I began my high school teaching in 1966, it was ‘sink or swim’ for rookies like me. Sadly, I have seen that ‘policy’ repeated time and again as a reporter.  When I mentioned that this morning, the teacher on the other end of the line nearly jumped through the phone:  “It’s still that way. My district doesn’t listen to us and doesn’t help us with problems like classroom management and lesson planning.”

Teaching won’t be a highly-regarded profession until teachers are treated like professionals, with serious pre-service training, carefully thought out opportunities to improve on the job, and significant responsibility for what is taught, how it’s taught, and how students are assessed.

But will those responsibilities just be handed over to them?  How often is power given up voluntarily?  Rarely, if ever.

But if professional responsibilities are what teachers want, then that is what they must be fighting for, not simply higher pay, fewer meetings, and more job security.


[[1]]1. It was put in place by her predecessor, Michelle Rhee.[[1]]

[[2]]2. Teacher turnover is an essential component of any yardstick being used to judge schools. Where 30-40% of teachers leave every year, something is terribly wrong, and intervention is called for, in my opinion.[[2]]

[[3]]3. But I would not count out Michelle (Rhee) Johnson, even though she failed to raise $1 billion and recruit 1 million members.  She’s smart and determined, and she seems to thrive on being in the spotlight. http://www.sacbee.com/2014/08/13/6626720/michelle-rhee-stepping-down-as.html [[3]]

[[4]]4. Like Rhee, Brown won’t say who’s paying the bills.[[4]]

[[5]]5. That the AFT got punished for its smokescreen contribution to the 2012 Boston mayoral race can’t have made too many members happy.  It funneled $500,000 into a New Jersey (!) political action committee, which in turn sent the money to a Massachusetts group, which then spent $480,000 on TV ads supporting the eventual winner, Marty Walsh.  The AFT was fined $30,000 and signed a consent agreement. [[5]]

[[6]]6. It seems to be working. The PDK/Gallup poll reports a decline in public support for federal involvement in public education, and 43% gave President Obama’s education policies a D or an F. [[6]]

[[7]]7. But the PDK/Gallup Poll reports, “For the 60% of Americans who oppose using the Common Core, their most important reason is that it will limit the flexibility that teachers have to teach what they think is best.” Go figure.[[7]]

[[8]]8. That’s in sharp contrast with what a New York teacher posted on Diane Ravitch’s blog: “Common Core was imposed on teachers by non-educators. We were fed a lot of mistruths along the way, as well. However, there would be no backlash if the CC founders gave us an educationally sound reform package. We are rejecting CC primarily because the standards in ELA are un-teachable and un-testable, abstract and subjective thinking skills – essentially content free, the math standards are the SOS shifted around in developmentally inappropriate ways using unnecessarily confusing pedagogy, and the tests tied to teacher evaluations have become the epitome of educational malpractice. Furthermore, the notion of producing educational excellence with standards that cannot be changed, altered, deleted, or improved, is insult to our profession. And until the ESEA is dealt with by Congress, we are stuck inside a very deep hole, whether we support the CC or not.”[[8]]

[[9]]9.  Ingersoll reports that 45% leave because of dissatisfaction, 20% because they were laid off.  Here’s a relevant graf about the 41% from his report: “(W)e have also found that these already high levels have been going up since the late 1980s. Rates of leaving for first-year teachers rose from 9.8 to 13.1 percent from 1988 to 2008—a 34 percent increase. Again, however, an increase in the annual percentage does not tell the whole story. Since the teaching force has grown dramatically larger, numerically there are far more beginners than before (Trend 3), and hence the actual numbers of teachers who quit the occupation after their first year on the job has also soared. Soon after the 1987-88 school year, about 6,000 first-year teachers left teaching, while just after the 2007-08 school year, more than four times as many—about 25,000—left the occupation. Not only are there far more beginners in the teaching force, but these beginners are less likely to stay in teaching.” [[9]]

[[10]]10. The replacements may be cheap, but the system is losing in lots of ways, most notably in failing to educate its human capital–kids–to their fullest potential.[[10]]

Looking Back (Part 4)

(For the past couple of weeks I have been writing about my own experiences as an education reporter. Here’s another segment.)

I left the warmth and security of NPR in 1982, but in early 1985 I was unemployed and, to put it mildly, nervous about my future.  The 7-part documentary series I had spent 2 ½ years working on, “Your Children, Our Children,” had not resulted in a flood of job offers for me, but it had won an Ohio State Award {{1}}.  I went to Columbus for the ceremony, and, before that event was over, I had an invitation to try my hand at reporting on television.  It happened because of Doug Bodwell, then Director of Education at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the umbrella organization over both PBS and NPR.

Not only was Doug a big deal at CPB, but he was also a big guy, standing about 6’ 8”, which turned out to be just as important.

I was hanging out by the wall in a large room full of journalists when I saw Doug standing in the center of the room, towering over everyone. With one hand he was motioning to me to come over; with the other he was signalling someone else. I made my way through the crowd, and Doug introduced me to the other person he had been beckoning: Linda Winslow, then Deputy Executive Producer of the NewsHour.  “Linda, John should be reporting for you,” Doug said.  Linda asked me if I had some story ideas.  I didn’t, but of course I said that I did. She asked me to send them to her, which–once I came up with some–I did.  She hired me to report on two {{2}} of them, and before long I had a half-time job, which within a few months turned into a full-time job, and a great one at that. A big and influential audience, and lots of time to tell a story.

I have often wondered how my career would have turned out if Doug Bodwell {{3}} had been only 5’ 8”.


Sometime late in 1989 I got a phone call from a person with close connections to the White House. The caller wanted to know if I had any interest in becoming George H.W. Bush’s Education Advisor?

Who, me?

There was a backstory to the offer, which I was familiar with.  The Administration’s first choice, John Chubb, had apparently told one person too many that he would soon be in the White House, riding herd on Lauro Cavazos, the elegant but supposedly ineffectual Secretary of Education. When that bit of gossip showed up in print somewhere, probably in the Washington Post, Secretary Cavazos made it clear to the White House that, if Chubb got the job, he would resign. Well, the Secretary had enough juice to get Chubb booted out before he even got to move in.

The Administration’s second choice was Joe Nathan of Minnesota, who had come to their attention because of his work for the National Governors Association. However, Joe turned down the job because he wanted to stay in his home state with his wife and young children.  I knew this because Joe had asked my advice about the job, life in Washington, schools for his kids, and so on.

So it was clear to me that I wasn’t anyone’s first or second choice. I surmised that I was being considered {{4}} because of my report on school choice in District Four in New York City, a lovely NewsHour piece that celebrated that District’s truly remarkable but under-the-radar accomplishments.   As Producer Tim Smith and I had reported, District Four ranked #32 out of the city’s 32 districts when the leadership (Anthony Alvarado and Sy Fliegel) decided to scrap all their junior high schools.  They invited staff to submit proposals for unique schools organized around themes.  In the end Alvarado and Fliegel approved some interesting ‘themed’ schools; fine arts, back to basics, and maritime junior highs were among those that got to open. Then parents and their children were told, “Take your pick.”

School choice was a huge success, and within a few years, District Four had climbed to all the way to 17th of the 32 districts in academic achievement.  Parents from outside District Four were doing whatever they could to get their children in the schools there.  And if some schools were not chosen by enough parents, they went out of business and were soon replaced by new approaches dreamt up by education entrepreneurs.  Republicans and other conservatives loved the story, and the piece—with me in it—was shown all over the place, including the White House.

I assumed that someone in the Bush Administration connected the dots (erroneously): “Gee, he reported favorably on school choice, so he must be one of us.” {{5}} I was wined and dined by some fancy financial types in penthouse dining rooms and beautiful estates.  Then I got a letter asking me to come to the White House for an interview with the President’s Domestic Policy Advisor, Dr. Roger Porter.

Invitation in hand, I went to see Robin MacNeil and Jim Lehrer.  Could I go over to the other side for a while, I asked, without destroying my future credibility as a reporter?  Sure, both assured me, as long as I didn’t stay too long.

So I trotted off to the White House for a meeting with Dr. Porter.  You may remember that President Bush was our self-styled “Education President.” He had called the first-ever National Education Summit, an event held with great fanfare in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1989.  Out of that meeting of 49 of the 50 Governors {{6}} had emerged a commitment to National Education Goals, which I assumed were being developed at the time of my interviews.

The idea of helping set our public schools on a strong path was heady stuff, and the lure of the inner circle was strong. After all, I had been around in 1983 when ‘A Nation at Risk’ warned about the ‘rising tide of mediocrity,’ and now we had a President who seemed genuinely committed to public education in ways that his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had not been.  I knew public schools pretty well and told Dr. Porter that I felt I could help shape the goals in ways that would make them sensible and achievable.

“That’s not the job,” he told me.  “We’ve already written the goals. They were pretty much in place before Charlottesville. Your job will be to sell them.”

I don’t remember if he laid them out for me then, but what eventually emerged became known as ‘Goals 2000,’ with 2000 representing the year they were to be achieved; today the eight seem almost quaint {{7}} –and still out of reach:

1. All children in America will start school ready to learn {{8}}.

2. The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent {{9}}.

3. All students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, the arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation’s modern economy.

4. United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.

5. Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

6.  Every school in the United States will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.

7. The nation’s teaching force will have access to programs for the continued improvement of their professional skills and the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to instruct and prepare all American students for the next century.

8.  Every school will promote partnerships that will increase parental involvement and participation in promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children.

OK, I gulped.  I remember telling him that the best way for me to do that would be to write opinion pieces and speeches, and I could do some of that from New York, where I was living.

“Not our way,” Dr. Porter said. And he told me that I would be expected to be in the office early and to stay late, making it clear that brownie points went to those who put in the longest days {{10}}.

“Oh, and another thing,” he said.  “Education is just half of the job. Your portfolio will also include transportation.”

Wait a minute, the Education Advisor to our Education President is supposed to spend only half of his or her time on education?  What’s wrong with this picture?

We agreed to disagree, and I turned down the job before it was ever offered to me.

I was beginning to suspect that hypocrisy in the Nation’s Capital was widespread and bipartisan. Could it be that almost everyone in Washington was focused on images, politics and elections, and that kids and schools would get the leftovers, no matter who was in charge?


[[1]]1. I just looked it up; my program received one of 20 ‘Achievement of Merit’ awards given out that day, and not an actual Ohio State Award; basically we got second prize. For some bizarre reason, the judges categorized “Your Children, Our Children” as a program for children (it wasn’t!) but they did say they considered it ‘excellent with regard to significance, authoritativeness and uniqueness’ and praised its ‘quality research, well-crafted script, flawless pacing and high technical standards.’  That I went all the way to Columbus on my own dime suggests I was pretty desperate for a job.[[1]]

[[2]]2. The first was a piece about public school teachers, including Harry Chandler (who became a friend) and their summer jobs in delis, hardware stores and fast-food restaurants. Producer Mike Joseloff and I flew to McMinnville, Oregon, for the story.  I was accustomed to holding the radio equipment, not standing in front of camera, and had to borrow Mike’s blue knit necktie for my first TV standup.[[2]]

[[3]]3. Douglas F. Bodwell was only 55 when he succumbed to cancer in February, 1998.  Doug and I were about the same age and had started in Washington the same year, 1974.  We became friends, and I came to know him as the soul of generosity, a good friend to everyone who cared about learning.  His death was a great loss in so many ways.   As Director of Education for CPB from 1974 until his death, Doug helped start 22 school television series, including “Reading Rainbow,” “3-2-1 Contact,” and “Square One TV,” (Emmy winners all). He also helped create the Adult Learning Service at PBS, the Learning Link computer network, and the 23-state Satellite Educational Resources Consortium, in addition to being instrumental in the development of The Annenberg Channel.[[3]]

[[4]]4. Years later Joe Nathan told me that he had brought up my name.[[4]]

[[5]]5. At least one Democrat, the great Ted Sizer of the Coalition of Essential Schools, liked the school choice piece (produced by Tim Smith for the NewsHour). A few months after it aired, Ted wrote, in part, “It is absolutely first rate. Sy Fliegel was a wonderful spokesman, and I have been struck at how often I have heard reference to the show. This one really has made–and continues to make–a difference.”[[5]]

[[6]]6. Trivia question: which Governor did not attend?  Post your answer on the blog to qualify for the prize. (This is how we find out who reads footnotes.)[[6]]

[[7]]7. Notice there’s not one word in any of the 8 goals about test scores!  And Goal #8 encourages social and emotional growth. I say ‘Bravo,’ but wonder what happened to that noble idea.[[7]]

[[8]]8. That phrasing, ‘ready to learn,’ should have told me that these people had no clue about children or learning.  All children are ready to learn, because learning is what we humans do. Many may not be ready for school, but that’s an entirely different thing. It’s the height of arrogance or ignorance (or both) to equate learning and schooling, and people who do not grasp the distinction should not be setting national goals.[[8]]

[[9]]9. It’s nearly 80% now, 14 years after it was supposed to reach 90%.[[9]]

[[10]]10. His Wikipedia entry reports that Roger Porter is now the IBM Professor of Business and Government at Harvard and Master of Dunster House, one of Harvard’s residential colleges.[[10]]

Looking Back (Part 3)

(For the past two weeks I have been writing about my own experiences as a young education reporter. Here’s another segment.)

In my mind’s eye, I can still picture the vast, dimly-lit room. About half the size of a football field, it was filled with men, women and children strapped into wheelchairs or otherwise restrained. If I close my eyes, I can hear the wailing and moaning, rising and falling in a cacophony of animal sounds that I never would have imagined humans were capable of making.

This ‘snake pit’ was in New Mexico’s main facility for handicapped children and adults, the Las Lunas Hospital and Training School. How I ended up there in 1979 with my tape recorder requires some explanation.

When I arrived in Washington in 1974, handicapped {{1}} children were the center of attention. The Congress had become aware of our failure to educate some children simply because of their mental and physical differences.  Out of the estimated eight million handicapped children, one million were receiving no formal education at all; some were kept at home, while others, abandoned by their families, were doomed to spend their lives in institutions like the one in New Mexico. Still more handicapped children went to special schools, which often provided little more than custodial care, or were isolated in regular schools.

Legislation was working its way through House and Senate committees. In the White House, Gerald Ford (our new President after Richard Nixon’s resignation) was hoping it would not pass, because, as a Republican, he felt that education was a state responsibility.

Despite Ford’s objections, Public Law 94-142, “The Education of All Handicapped Children Act,” passed easily in 1975 {{2}}.  It told states they must provide a ‘free and appropriate public education’ for these children {{3}} in what was described as ‘the least restrictive environment.’  Schools must prepare an IEP, an individualized education plan, for every handicapped child, with the involvement of parents, and these IEPs would become the road map that schools would be accountable for following.

Federal money for this new effort was ‘authorized’ but not provided in PL 94-142, because actually setting aside the money is the responsibility of another part of Congress, its appropriations committees.  That would turn out to be a huge problem, and PL 94-142 would become a poster child for what are called ‘unfunded mandates,’ when Washington tells states what to do but doesn’t pay for doing it.

Knowing that a veto would be overridden, President Ford reluctantly signed the bill into law. He showed his displeasure by banning photographers from the official signing.  No pictures exist. No ceremonial pens handed out either, apparently.

PL 94-142 did not become effective immediately but gave the states until September 1, 1978, to be in compliance.

Curious about the states that seemed to be ignoring PL 94-142, in the spring of 1979 I went to New Mexico, one of the holdouts. My 8-year-old son, Josh, was with me, because I had told my children that they could travel with me as soon as they could read (which turned out to be a great incentive).  We stayed for a couple of nights in Albuquerque with the Monzano family. Their Down’s Syndrome son David, 15, and my 8-year-old got along well because they were about the same mental age. I believe that experience helped Josh develop into the open-minded man he is today.

The next day was a different story.  As soon as I heard the dim sounds of keening and wailing, I knew that what was ahead would not be appropriate for an 8-year-old. I told Josh that he should get out his book, and I left him in the waiting room.

Inside was that unimaginable snake pit.  My guide led me toward the distant corner where the ‘retarded’ children were kept. Along the way she stopped to point out an adult in a wheelchair, his arms and legs restrained. His name was Charlie, and he was, she guessed, in his mid- to late-twenties.  Charlie’s neck was puffed up like two softballs, one on each side, the grotesque growths expanding and contracting as he breathed.

My guide explained:  “If you watch him, he’s pulling air in through his mouth into a cavity that he’s probably created over the years, between his carotid arteries and his skin…It’s very self-stimulatory, and this has evolved over the years. This fellow’s been institutionalized ever since he was a young infant, and I guess in earlier days he was considered to have no potential for anything at all. People just left him to his own devices, and he began to self-stimulate.”

I asked her how children ended up in such a horrible place.  Sometimes, she told me, babies and infants were left on the doorstep during the night, abandoned by parents who couldn’t cope.  When she saw my skeptical look, she told me about the Christmas cards.  The institution sent holiday cards to the parents or guardians of all the residents every Christmas, and every year at least half of them came back marked ‘Addressee Moved, Left no Forwarding Address.’

In the children’s corner, she introduced me to Bill, a young man in a wheelchair. He was 21, a quadriplegic who could not speak, the result of cerebral palsy.  But he could move his head, and he smiled as we were introduced. He was wearing a miner’s helmet with a lamp, and on the front of his wheelchair was a blackboard with common words like ‘feel,’ ‘need,’ ‘hungry,’ ‘love,’ and the pronouns in boxes.  Around the edges of the blackboard were the letters of the alphabet, and in opposite corners at the top, the words ‘YES’ and ‘NO.’  On the bottom were the days of the week.  Using his lamp to shine on words and letters, Bill could communicate with others.

Bill was clearly not mentally retarded, but he was in the state hospital that housed the mentally retarded.  I asked her how this could have happened?

“Because Bill is so physically handicapped he could not–okay, there are certain tests that they run through these children or adults that, because he was handicapped, he couldn’t do certain testing.  And so therefore they had diagnosed him at lower functioning.”

What she was saying, basically, is that almost everyone in the institution just assumed that physically disabled individuals were also mentally retarded and therefore just given minimal care, and no education to speak of. Bill got lucky, because one day an attendant thought she saw a light in his eyes, more than just a glimmer of intelligence, and so she and others improvised ways to teach him to read and compose messages.  He had learned rapidly, she told me, and now he could carry on a conversation.

“He’s very aware of everything. In fact, he’s pretty–he can be pretty conniving.  He’s got us all jumping. I think that, if Bill would have been given the educational opportunities, he could be at a very, very high level.”

Then I interviewed Bill, saying aloud into the tape recorder what he signaled with his head lamp. He told me that would rather be on television than just plain old radio, smiling as he wrote those words.  Here’s the end of that interview:

“What do you do on Sundays?”
“Church. You go to church on Sundays?”
“Do you believe in God”
“How many years have you been going to church?”
“Two years. Got it. Thank you, Bill.”

Of course, I could not keep from crying.  Was I shedding tears of joy because this young man’s story demonstrated that the human spirit is unquenchable? Or tears of sorrow that his life, and so many other young lives, have been wasted because society was unable to see beyond physical and mental differences?

In my view, Public Law 94-142 stands as a monument to what is best in our society, our impulse to improve the lives of the least fortunate among us.  We’ve messed it up, of course, by failing to help regular classroom teachers, by rushing into ‘mainstreaming,’ by being too quick to label some kids–especially the poor and minorities, and by allowing some lawyers to exploit the system to get certain students placed in expensive private schools at public expense.

Despite the errors and omissions, however, PL 94-142 and its successors have improved the lives of millions of special needs children and, at the same time, broadened the horizons of children (like my son) fortunate to be ‘temporarily able-bodied,’ as the advocates used to say.


[[1]]1. Back in 1975, the word ‘handicapped’ was not politically incorrect.  Or perhaps those pushing for the legislation, like the Council for Exceptional Children, did not want to waste any energy fighting about words.  Later on ‘handicapped’ would be replaced by words and phrases like ‘special needs,’ ‘disabilities,’ and ‘exceptionalities.’[[1]]

[[2]]2. The vote in the Senate was 83-10. The House tally apparently was not recorded, but the margin was overwhelming and veto-proof.   Here’s the US Department of Education’s page about the law: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers/idea35/history/index_pg10.html [[2]]

[[3]]3. The law specified that no more than 12% of a student population could be labeled handicapped, a provision added because some feared schools would label excessively just to get the federal dollars.[[3]]

Looking Back (Part 2)

(Last week I published a piece of my own story, a summer diversion.  Here’s a bit more.)

National Public Radio {{1}} was a wonderful place to work, and I stayed for 8 years, from 1974 to 1982.  Many of the voices you grew to know were there then: Susan Stamberg, Bob Edwards, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, Robert Krulwich, Carl Kasell, Scott Simon and Ira Flatow, among others. Back then, one of the producers of “All Things Considered” was a guy named Bob Siegel–you know him as Robert Siegel, for many years a host of ATC.

“Options in Education,” my weekly series, became a fixture on NPR, and we managed to raise money from the Ford Foundation {{2}} and a couple of other places.  With my own weekly 1-hour NPR program and a mandate to report on ‘education,’ I had a pretty big tent to operate in, and I loved just about every moment.

Radio is a far more engaging and intimate medium than television. Listeners hear only a voice and apparently fill out the rest of the picture–height, age, weight, et cetera–in their minds (at least they did so before the internet eliminated secrets).  We would get somewhere between 75-100 letters a week, often very personal.  We answered all the mail.

Susan Stamberg’s office was across the hall, and one day I noticed that she had taped about a half dozen envelopes addressed to her on the door–and each envelope had a different spelling of her name: Stanberg, Steinberg, Stonehead and so on.  As it happened, I regularly received similar envelopes, and so I proposed a contest: a year of collecting different versions of our names, with lunch to the winner {{3}}. After a year, Susan had about 30 variations on her name, but I had nearly 40, including Bob Merrow, Joe Marrow, Ed Merrill (but, alas, never Ed Murrow) and so on. My favorite, however, was “John Moron.”{{4}}

I took full advantage of my freedom to report. I snuck into China with a group of Canadians in early 1977 or 1978, the first NPR reporter to get into that vast country. Because a Canadian physician, Dr. Norman Bethune, had cared for Chairman Mao during the Long March and thereafter, Canadians had special status, while Americans were viewed with suspicion.

Visiting schools and universities in (mostly rural) China was revealing {{5}}. This was in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, and we saw and heard first-hand the devastation that spasm of narrow mindedness had wrought.  A lasting memory is of an older man whose hands were misshapen because all his knuckles had been broken.  When we met him, he was working on a farm, but we learned that, prior to Mao’s demand for a Cultural Revolution, he had been the first violinist at a prominent symphony in a big city.  The revolutionaries, some just teenagers, had ‘re-educated’ him to cleanse him of his bourgeois ways…and had broken his hands to guarantee that he wouldn’t backslide.

The Cultural Revolution was officially over–Mao was dead–but its effects were permanent for many.

We arrived early at a few elementary schools, before the teachers had shown up.  What a surprise to find that the classes were quiet, orderly and under way, led by young boys wearing Cub-Scout-like uniforms with bright red bandanas.  Although these ‘Young Pioneers’ were no older than their classmates, everyone followed orders. That simply would not happen in the US.  It was on one level impressive, but scary on another.

As I said, the Cultural Revolution was officially over, but apparently the Young Pioneers had not gotten the news. I’ve often wondered what those young students grew up to become.


In 1976 I did what may have been the first in-depth reporting about gay kids in schools.  I discovered–and reported–that quite often the kids suffered most at the hands of gay teachers, who were forced to be in the closet themselves and often did not dare reach out to children who must have reminded them of themselves at a young age.  Unable to find comfort at schools and often shunned at home, many gay kids dropped out onto the street, where they were exploited by predatory men known as ‘chicken hawks’.

How that program came about has a backstory. I had gone to Boston to be on a panel at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools.  I hoped to find some interesting people to interview for my weekly program.

I learned that meetings do not make for great radio, and so I had no material for my weekly program.  A few months earlier I had consulted with my newly formed National Advisory Board (which the organizations giving me money required me to have).  I told the Board that I thought I should be covering dramatic and controversial issues in education, in order to attract national attention. I suggested topics like child abuse and—because it was in the news in Washington—homosexual teachers.  The Board was appalled at the idea and advised me to stick to traditional education issues like teacher training and school finance.

All well and good, but there I was in Boston at a boring meeting with an hour to fill.  So gay teachers it would be, I decided.  Because I had no clue about how to begin, I called the hippest guy I knew at Harvard.

“Larry,” I said, “I want to do some reporting about gay teachers and am hoping you can help me.”

“How did you know?” he asked.

“How did I know what?” I asked in return.

After a while, I figured out that he was gay, and he figured out that I had been unaware until that moment.

Larry introduced me to the underworld of gay men and women.  A teacher himself, he knew many closeted gay educators, and soon I was interviewing them.

The kids have it worse, several told me, and so Larry took me to shelters to meet the young boys.  Though classified as ‘runaways,’ most had in fact been thrown away by their families, because being gay was a mark of shame that disgraced the entire family, at least in the eyes of their fathers.

The 1-hour program we produced, “Gay Teachers, Gay Students” brought my series the national attention I was seeking. (Listen to the program here.)  It was reviewed in the Washington Post and a few other national publications.  In a gay newspaper the writer praised the program by noting that he couldn’t tell from the broadcast whether I was gay or straight.

My Advisory Board was wrong.  Restricting reporting to classroom education and school finance would neither grow our audience nor move people.  From here on out, “Options in Education” and I would define ‘education’ in the broadest possible terms.


Later I spent nearly three months in juvenile institutions (which we were not supposed to call ‘prisons,’ although many were) in several states.  This transformative experience that taught me that, once a bureaucracy has been created, its first obligation becomes to perpetuate itself, whether its original purpose was to save souls or collect trash. That is, I learned to distrust bureaucracies.  {{6}}

I discovered that, once a state had opened a juvenile facility, it needed to keep it full of young offenders to justify the annual expense of keeping it open, keeping adults on the payroll, and so forth.  And they figured out ways to lock kids up, even when the juvenile crime rate went down. They did it by criminalizing behavior that, in times of high juvenile crime, drew a slap on the wrist or a call to the parents.  So,for example, in 1981 Minnesota began locking up kids who ran away from home for a day or two, just to keep the juvenile institution full and the adults working. When the juvenile crime rate was high, those kids were labeled PINS (persons in need of supervision) and were sent home with a (figurative) slap on the wrist and a lecture.


One of my brothers had a mental breakdown when he was 21. Because of that experience, I have been alternately fascinated and repelled by our national attitude toward mental illness. Because of George’s struggles {{7}}, I decided to report on mental health services for children.  I spent about six weeks visiting facilities in Maryland, Texas and a few other states.  What I learned is now old news: Rich kids get therapy; poor kids get powerful drugs. Rich kids are treated for as long as necessary; poor kids are put out on the street when they hit the (limited) number of days that will be covered by insurance.

The 4-part series I produced on that subject was controversial because of the tough issues and because of occasional profanity.  Another lesson I learned: tough issues may not get you thrown off the air, but curse words and descriptions of explicit sex will.

In Texas at a state institution for young children with mental problems, I interviewed children for several days. The interview that is burned in my mind was with a young girl, maybe 9 years old.  We were alone in a fairly large room, sitting on a couch, talking about whatever was on her mind. I wasn’t sure what to ask, so I just listened.  Suddenly she stood up in front of me, smiled and asked, “Do you like me?”  Yes, of course I do, I told her.

“But do you really like me?” She smiled again when I said yes. Then she did an awkward curtsey and lifted her dress up over her head, showing me her underpants.  “Now do you like me?”

I was dumbfounded. I ended the interview right there because I didn’t know what to do or say. A 9-year-old girl was offering me her body.  What sorts of awful things must have been done to her by adults, and for how many years?

And how does one treat the mental problems caused by that abuse?  The answer again depended on family income and/or insurance.  In private mental institutions treatment was individualized and not drug-dependent.  But in state institutions, where children were entitled to a few weeks of treatment and there were not enough counselors, the default treatment was drugs.

I saw that up close at a Texas institution for older children, where (to my amazement) I was allowed to interview whomever I chose. Again, one interview has stayed with me. She was about 15 and back in the institution for the second or third time. It was this interview that got me thrown off the air, because she told me in graphic detail what had happened when she was released when her allotted weeks ran out. “They gave me a few dollars and opened the gate and told me to go,” she said. “I had to hitchhike home. It was a hot day, and a convertible of boys came by and stopped to give me a ride. I got in, but they wouldn’t take me home until I gave them all blow jobs, so I did.”

We put that on the air, although we sent all the stations an advance warning notice and we put a disclaimer on the air at the beginning of the program.  As it happened, some stations aired my program in the afternoons. After all, it was called “Options in Education,” and what could be more wholesome than education in the afternoon?   Most NPR stations were affiliated with colleges or universities, and a college president in Texas happened to be riding in his car, listening to ‘his’ NPR station, when all of a sudden he heard some girl talking about blow jobs.  In a New York minute, that Texan banned my series from ‘his’ air.

However, I gained a friend from that 4-part series, a more than fair trade. Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood heard the programs on his public radio station in Pittsburgh and wrote me a fan letter!  From then on, whenever he came to Washington, I would take my kids out to see him. In later years we would get together on Nantucket, where we both spent parts of the summer. He was a great man, and I miss him still.

(to be continued, perhaps)


[[1]]1. Now it’s just NPR, not National Public Radio, which may be appropriate, because the N doesn’t apply (I have Irish friends who listen to ATC), it’s heard on the internet by many listeners, and–sadly–NPR is less Public than it was, because of all the corporate funding that targets specific coverage (of ‘Asian Rim issues,’ for example) and chips away at journalistic independence. That’s an issue for us at Learning Matters as well.[[1]]

[[2]]2. And in particular Harold ‘Doc’ Howe II and Edward J. Meade, Jr. [[2]]

[[3]]3. When Ira Flatow learned about the contest, he wanted in. We turned him down.  We knew who would win that contest.[[3]]

[[4]]4. It is possible that this variation was not an error, however, because the letter began, “You are an asshole” and went on from there.[[4]]

[[5]]5. It was also a tense time for me. At any moment my recorder and audio tapes might have been confiscated, because what I was doing had not been approved by any central authority (I hadn’t asked). At every stop a new local guide joined the group, taking over the ‘chaperone’ duties.  I remember their being very friendly but not sophisticated; however, every third day or so, a national guide would join the group, probably to make certain ‘the Canadians’ were being treated well. Whenever a national guide arrived, I stashed my cassettes with two American sisters I had befriended, probably an overreaction on my part. When I returned to Washington, I enlisted the aid of Chinese Government representatives (no Embassy then) and produced a multi-part series about schooling in China for my NPR series.[[5]]

[[6]]6. The NPR series that resulted, “Juvenile Crime, Juvenile Justice,” received the George Polk Award, and I got to have lunch with I.F. Stone and Kurt Vonnegut.[[6]]

[[7]]7. George took his own life in 1971, after a long struggle with mental illness.  He was only 23 years old. We felt helpless when he was being treated, and his five siblings and our parents struggled for years to understand his decision.  Acknowledging and then coming to terms with my own anger was as tough as dealing with my sense of having failed him.

His suicide occurred when I was in graduate school in Cambridge.  The family gathered on Nantucket to mourn and seek comfort.  The following year I moved my family to Nantucket, where my other brothers and I built a house with our own hands, an exercise in physical/emotional therapy and family bonding.  I wrote my doctoral dissertation there and finished the Harvard program in record time.[[7]]

Looking Back (Part 1)

Although I spend most of my waking hours working on or thinking about the stories we’re trying to tell, I have also been retracing the paths that have led to the perch I now occupy, 40 years later.  What follows is a trip down memory lane.

I got my first reporting job in the fall of 1961 with the Salina (KS) Journal. Less than five weeks later I was fired.  Here’s how that happened. Because I accomplished very little my first two years of college and had a declining GPA as evidence, I concluded that I would be wasting my time and my parents’ money if I stayed in college. With their reluctant blessing, I dropped out of Dartmouth. In my own mind, I would be Jack Kerouac, “On the Road” in search of an identity.

Because I had worked for my high school and college newspapers, I decided to spend my year away from college working for a newspaper. And I would do it ‘out west,’ which, to this Connecticut Yankee, began on the other side of the Mississippi River. Once I crossed that mighty river, I would begin my new career.

My job search started with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where I confidently approached the personnel office.  They politely laughed me out of the room, and the city.  It couldn’t have helped my cause that I had spent the previous night sleeping in my car at a nearby private golf course, although I had brazenly walked in and showered in the men’s clubhouse. (I didn’t need to shave in those days.)

For the next few weeks I went from town to town, applying at the local weekly (which–hard to believe today–most towns had in 1961).  Each time I would introduce myself to the owner/editor-in-chief, “I’m John Merrow, I’m taking a year off from college, and I would like to write for you.” Each time I was sent on my way.

At newspaper number 16 or 17, The Salina (KS) Journal, I made the decision to lie. “Hi, I’m John Merrow,” I said to Glenn Williams, the managing editor. “I just graduated from Dartmouth College, and I would like to be a reporter on your fine paper.”

He hired me.

Of course, I knew it was dishonest, but I rationalized thusly: “Once I get my first big scoop, I will go into the Mr. Williams’ office and tell him the truth. He will be so impressed that he won’t object, probably will give me a raise.”  That’s what I told myself….

Unfortunately, Mr. Williams figured out that I was a callow youth long before I came close to a scoop, and he fired me. Properly suspicious, he called one of my references, “Professor David Barker,” actually my college roommate. In those days, the only phones were in the hall, so I had given my boss the number for the 4th floor of my dormitory,Gile Hall. I can only imagine the conversation when Mr. Williams asked to speak to “Professor Barker.” {{1}}

Game over….

He did, however, get me a job with another paper, The Leavenworth (KS) Times.  Leavenworth was (and probably still is) a murky, depressing town whose economy revolved around crime. It’s the home of four prisons, not just the Federal Penitentiary made famous by Hollywood. Just outside Leavenworth are the state men’s and women’s prisons, and nearby Fort Leavenworth is the home of the United States Disciplinary Barracks, the toughest Army prison of all. I had the prison beat, a dream.

Before long I got fired again, although this time it was a badge of honor. It was an open secret that Leavenworth’s police chief was on the take.  He had to be: he lived in a very expensive home and drove a brand new Cadillac.  Another reporter who was older and wiser and I agreed that was an outrage, and so we decided to expose him. First, we figured out how the scam worked.  The chief’s brother-in-law had a garbage collection company, which–conveniently–collected trash only from the town’s bars and similar establishments.  Those bars were notorious for serving underage soldiers from the Fort.  Prostitution was a thriving business too, and the pimps and whores were probably paying protection to the chief as well.

It was heady stuff. Byron (last name lost to memory) and I staked out the bars, followed the garbage trucks, took pictures and schemed about how we could get evidence on tape.  Byron was the brains and guts of our effort, and so when the powers-that-be got wind of what we were up to, they came down hard, and he took the brunt. One night all four tires of his car were slashed, someone threw a brick through his apartment window, and tough guys threatened his wife and children.  I got some nasty phone calls and occasional jostling on the street, but that was all.

I wish I could say that the good guys won and that the chief was exposed, but it didn’t happen that way.  Byron and I were fired and sent on our way. (I remember that Byron’s wife was relieved.)  The police chief probably died rich and happy, and as crooked as ever.

I was upset about leaving the girl I had met but otherwise excited about whatever was coming next. I sold my car and hitchhiked around the country for the next four or five months, stopping to work whenever I ran low on funds. I went to spring training in Florida, spent nights in college fraternities, church-run missions and even a jail, got propositioned by women and men quite often, turned down a chance to ‘work’ as a gigolo in New Orleans, went to opening day at the Seattle World’s Fair, and crisscrossed the country, using only my thumb.

As I had promised my parents, I returned to Dartmouth in the fall and graduated in the spring of 1964, one year behind my classmates.


After graduating from Dartmouth, I taught high school English on Long Island for two years, earned my MA in American Studies at Indiana University, taught at a Black college in Virginia for two years, earned a doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, lived on Nantucket Island for nearly two years, and then, in 1974, took a job with an education ‘think tank’ in Washington, DC.  I figured out pretty quickly that I was not temperamentally (or intellectually!) suited for sitting around thinking.  That realization led me to National Public Radio.

I knocked on the door of the headquarters of NPR, then at 20th and M in Northwest Washington, sometime early in 1974. The only thing I remember about the meeting is the reaction to my announcing that my boss had given me a budget of $10,000 to “get the word out about education.”  I was all but embraced.

NPR was largely unknown at the time. I know I had never even heard of it when I moved my family to Washington, but, then again, we had been living on an island where most of the world’s news went unremarked.  But it turns out, most people in Washington and everywhere else were also unaware of its existence.  It was necessary, I learned, to explain to people that NPR was ‘like PBS, only without pictures.’

NPR had gone on the air in the spring of 1971. When I showed up, it had a flagship news program, “All Things Considered,” and a couple of strong music programs, “Jazz Alive” and “Voices in the Wind.”  It also had a catchall daily series, “Options,” where it stuck all sorts of programs, and that’s where NPR sent me.

I ended up recording an interview with two school finance experts, who explained—at great length and in too much detail–how the system worked.  The producers who had been assigned to help me decided to make the conversation into–I still cannot believe this–two 1-hour programs, which they called “Where the Money Comes from” and “Where the Money Goes.”  Even then I realized the interview was boring, but NPR needed material to fill the hungry maw, and so I made my national debut in what must be one of the dullest programs ever recorded.

Luckily for me, NPR encouraged me to make another program. As I remember it, this time we decided I would go ‘in the field’ with a tape recorder.  Pell Grants were in the news, so I called the office of Senator Claiborne Pell (D, RI) and asked for an interview.  “Sure,” his press guy said, “Just send over the questions you’re going to ask.”  I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know enough to tell him to take a hike.  Instead, I wrote up some questions and sent them over.  A few days later I dutifully showed up at the Senator’s office, introduced myself, set up my tape recorder, and asked my first question.

Senator Pell never even looked up.  He just read the answer off a piece of paper he was holding.  Question two, same thing.  And so on.  I remember being bewildered. Only later did I get angry, probably to cover my embarrassment.

I learned my lesson: never again would I submit questions in advance.  And, if I could help it, I wouldn’t interview career politicians. {{2}}

And so I went on the road, carrying only a small reel-to-reel tape recorder (which, I later learned, was the same model that President Nixon was using in the oval office to secretly record his conversations).  My first trip was to Kanawha County, West Virginia, where angry parents were burning textbooks in an effort to keep their children from learning about evolution and other ‘leftist’ ideas.  I can still see and hear them belting out John Denver’s “Country Roads,” their theme song.  Rather than mock them for their ‘backward’ views, I sat in their kitchens and listened to (and recorded) what they had to say. (Listen to that program here.)

It was a great learning experience for me: most people have stories to tell, but rarely do those in power deign to listen.  All I had to do was turn on the tape recorder and every once in a while say, “Please tell me more,” and I would end up with audio gold.

(to be continued)

[[1]] 1. Not only did I get fired, but Mr. Williams was sitting on the throne when he flushed me.  It was the end of the day, and I went to the men’s room to wash up before heading out.  As I was washing my hands, I heard Mr. Williams call from behind a door, “I need to talk to you, John. I called Professor Barker today.”  [[1]]

[[2]]2. Luckily I did not take a vow to never interview politicians, because over the years I have spent some time with thoughtful men and women in politics.  Former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean and Representatives George Miller and Al Quie come immediately to mind.

Cabinet appointees are also political creatures, whatever else they may be.  I have managed to interview every sitting Secretary of Education, beginning with Shirley Hufstedler, who gave up a lifetime appointment to the Federal bench to become the first Secretary, under Jimmy Carter.

My own particular favorite among Secretaries is former South Carolina Governor Richard Riley, a gentleman with a steel backbone.  Like the late Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Governor Riley made you feel valued.

Years ago my Dad taught me to watch the way people treat waiters, clerks and others they perceive to be their underlings. If they treat them disrespectfully, he warned, you might be next.  I say all this because I wanted to admire Bill Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s tough-talking Secretary of Education.  After all, he had dated Janis Joplin, knew the names of Buddy Holly’s backup singers and other rock and roll trivia, and was willing to speak truth to power about self-indulgent college students.  But he also displayed two faces, two personalities.  When the lights were on and the camera was rolling, Secretary Bennett was the picture of civility.  Once the the lights and recording equipment were off, however, I saw him behave rudely to the crew that had just made him look good.  That taught me a valuable lesson, a twist on the adage about the measure of character being how one behaves when no one is looking. In this day and age, it’s how one behaves when he’s not on camera. [[2]]

Michelle Rhee’s High-Priced PR

In just one year{{1}} Michelle Rhee spent about $2 million to buy the public relations services of Anita Dunn {{2}} and SKDKnickerbocker.  It’s a continuing relationship that goes back to early in Rhee’s Chancellorship in Washington, and it’s probably the best money Rhee has ever spent (especially because it was contributed by her supporters).

Just consider the challenge facing the PR team: The former Chancellor of the Washington, DC public schools ignored clear evidence {{3}} of cheating by adults {{4}} on the District’s standardized exams, as Linda Mathews, Jay Mathews, Jack Gillum, Michael Joseloff and I documented in “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error.”

But Rhee went beyond covering up the misdeeds. Instead of making a sincere effort to root out the cheaters, Rhee stage-managed four ‘investigations’ so that they cleared her.  All the while, a feckless Mayor and the local newspaper averted their eyes, in sharp contrast to the vigorous investigation of a comparable cheating scandal in Atlanta. 

With her test-based accountability schemes discredited and her reputation as a fearless, tough-minded leader severely damaged, Ms. Rhee might have been expected to disappear from the scene.  However, that has not happened. Instead, she remains in the public eye, writing op-eds {{5}} and offering analysis of educational developments.  This fall she will be a presenter in the annual “Schools of Tomorrow” education symposium sponsored by The New York Times–even though the subject is higher education.

Even more surprising (to this observer anyway) was the omission of the District of Columbia from the list of cities with school cheating scandals in Rachel Aviv’s otherwise solid reporting about Atlanta. {{6}}

This can only be the result of a smooth PR campaign.

Another tribute to Dunn’s prowess is the fact that Michelle Rhee is still considered a Democrat, even though the organization she created after leaving Washington in 2010, StudentsFirst, has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, largely in support of conservative candidates and organizations. {{7}}

Politico’s Morning Education newsletter reported on July 3rd that “Rhee, who earns nearly $350,000 a year, also spent heavily on political activism in the year covered by the tax forms. StudentsFirst gave $500,000 to a business-backed committee in Michigan that successfully worked to defeat a union effort to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. It also spent $250,000 to support a charter-school campaign in Georgia. StudentsFirst gives to candidates and committees from both parties but many of its biggest political donations went to Republican caucuses and conservative alliances in states including Florida, Maine, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

StudentsFirst gave $10,000 each to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in Tennessee and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon in Missouri. The group also donated to scores of state legislative candidates, including some tea party members who have worked against the Common Core – which Rhee supports – but who back other elements of the StudentsFirst agenda, such as vouchers or charter schools.”

However, on its 990 IRS tax form, however, StudentsFirst says it did not engage in political activities and declined to answer a question about lobbying activities. {{8}}

When she created the organization, she said she would raise $1 billion; she has fallen far short of that big number, but she has raised over $60 million, tax records reveal. However, she does not identify donors or list all donations.  Students First is reported to have 110 employees, up from 75 in 2012.

The most important of these has to be Anita Dunn.

On this I have some personal experience. While we were actively investigating Rhee’s response to the erasures for a Frontline documentary, I found myself the victim of a carefully targeted smear campaign. A 10-page letter dated January 24, 2012 and sent to Frontline, the NewsHour, PBS, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, accuses me:

  • of “demonstrable and material misrepresentations of fact.”
  • of soliciting funds from “a wide swath of leaders in the education community including opponents of education reform and vocal critics of Michelle Rhee.”
  • of actively seeking “dirt” about Rhee and of hanging up on someone who praised Rhee.
  • of making “false allegations” about Rhee’s response to the widespread erasures.

The letter, signed by a StudentsFirst Vice President, urges PBS not to broadcast my reporting and closes by noting that “we are discussing our options with our attorneys.”

According to reliable sources inside StudentsFirst, Anita Dunn organized the carefully targeted smear campaign. Hoping to learn more about her work for Rhee and StudentsFirst, I have called Dunn’s office at least four times but have not been able to interview her. {{9}}

Every one of the accusations in the StudentsFirst letter is false, as I painstakingly demonstrated to Frontline, the NewsHour, PBS and CPB. However, ‘The Big Lie’ technique is effective, as others before Dunn have proven, because I spent three weeks marshalling the evidence to refute the charges, three weeks that I could not spend investigating Rhee’s behavior in regards to the erasures.

It is possible that I lost more than three weeks, because, even with the proof I supplied, I cannot say with certainty that none of the mud stuck. Is it possible that some who received the missive still have lingering doubts about my integrity? I hope not, of course, but I have no way of looking inside the minds of the letter’s recipients.

The smear campaign was hung on a slender thread, a personal email I sent to one possible supporter.  Apparently the recipient shared it, and eventually it made its way to StudentsFirst.  Here’s what I wrote: “We are editing a powerful documentary about Michelle Rhee, the controversial educator who has become a national figure. After she left Washington, strong evidence of widespread cheating on standardized tests in roughly two-thirds of her schools emerged, along with a paper trail that indicates that the Chancellor declined to investigate the situation, despite being urged to do so by the official in charge of testing.  When test security was eventually tightened–after three years–scores declined precipitously. In fact, at half of the schools with the highest erasure rates, where scores had jumped as much as 50%, achievement scores are now below where they were when the Chancellor took office.”

Every word {{10}} of that email is true.

I wrote that paragraph BEFORE I obtained a copy of Dr. Sandy Sanford’s devastating memo, the one that warned Rhee that some of her principals were probably responsible for the erasures.  The memo confirms that Rhee knew the truth, and we know that she looked the other way. In this, she had the support of right-leaning foundations and individuals, as well as opinion leaders who desperately want to believe that ‘getting tough on teachers’ will improve schools.

Rhee’s PR offensive hasn’t always gone smoothly. In the fall of 2013, she launched an effort to cast herself as a ‘healer,’ scheduling a series of “Town Meetings” that, she promised, would bring teachers and teacher union leaders together for a dialogue.  The not-so-subtle subtext of Rhee’s effort was that union leaders were on one side–the wrong one–of issues, regular teachers another. She criticized the polarized atmosphere, with no acknowledgment of her own role in its creation:  “Teachers’ voices are vital to the conversation about how to improve our national education system,” Rhee wrote to supporters. “Unfortunately, the dialogue around public education has become too often polarized, with extreme rhetoric and personal attacks overshadowing what’s important: getting all of our country’s kids into great schools with great teachers.”

The effort drew intense criticism when Rhee attempted to hold her Alabama meeting in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, just a few days from the 50th anniversary {{11}} of the bombing that killed four little girls who were in the church basement at the time. After strong protests, the meeting was relocated.

One could argue that her “Town Meetings” were a success even though they produced no discernible ‘healing,’ because she garnered headlines and some favorable newspaper columns, including this piece {{12}} in the Financial Times.  And Rhee seems to crave attention.

To some, Rhee is simply a well-compensated mouthpiece for those with an ideological interest in tearing down public education, an analysis suggesting she doesn’t believe what she is saying.  I do not think she can be dismissed as a mere opportunist, although she certainly does know how to seize opportunities. She has–brilliantly–made the issue of “Last Hired, First Fired” her own, and the LIFO issue has legs.  It makes absolutely no sense, in a skill-based profession, to adhere to LIFO blindly and inflexibly. Those who cling to LIFO guarantee that Rhee will find a sympathetic audience.

Interestingly, Rhee may have become a pariah within the right-leaning community of democrats who favor a certain brand of education reform, at least according to a highly-placed source within Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  She has, my source tells me, consistently bad-mouthed others who are nominal allies, in an effort to muscle them aside and claim grant money for her own organization.  “We’ve learned not to trust her,” my source says.

Michelle Rhee is smart, talented, hard-working, charismatic and ambitious, but, in the public education arena, she is a fraud. That this truth is not widely acknowledged is a tribute to the PR skills of Anita Dunn of SKDKnickerbocker.


[[1]]1. http://www.scribd.com/doc/98216272/StudentsFirst-501c4-Form-990-Final-NO-Sch-B-1-Nz [[1]]

[[2]]2. http://www.skdknick.com/staff/anita-dunn/ Ms Dunn was brought on while Rhee was Chancellor, ostensibly to keep her from inviting other camera crews to film her firing principals, and stuff like that. The money to hire Dunn was provided, sources tell me, by a well-meaning education reformer, Katherine Bradley, who also played a major role in selecting Kaya Henderson to succeed Rhee.  (Ms. Bradley also hosted a screening in Washington of our film about New Orleans, “Rebirth.”)  When Rhee left DC and started StudentsFirst, she retained Dunn’s services.  Careful readers of Dunn’s webpage will note that it does not mention her work for Rhee and StudentsFirst.[[2]]

[[3]]3. Rhee left Washington in November 2010.  USA Today broke the suspicious erasure story in March, 2011. The brilliant exposé was reported by Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello and edited by Linda Mathews. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/2011-03-28-1Aschooltesting28_CV_N.htm [[3]]

[[4]]4. Principals changing answers to make test results look better is deplorable. In other places administrators have pushed low-achieving students out of school. Walt Haney documents instances in Texas, Florida, Alabama and New York in “Evidence on Education under NCLB (and How Florida Boosted NAEP Scores and Reduced the Race Gap),” In G.L Sunderman, (Ed.) Holding NCLB Accountable: Achieving Accountability, Equity and School Reform. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008, pp. 91-102).[[4]]

[[5]]5. Albeit for the Washington Post, her cheerleader, and the Wall Street Journal, an ideological soulmate.[[5]]

[[6]]6. July 21, 2014 issue. Aviv lists Philadelphia, Toledo, El Paso, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston and St. Louis but omits Washington, DC.  As USA Today reported in 2011, the magnitude of unexplained ‘wrong to right’ erasures in most Washington schools boggled the mind and defied the odds.  One has a better chance of winning at Powerball than of these erasures occurring by chance, it reported. [[6]]

[[7]]7. Rhee’s critics have applauded the news that StudentsFirst has ‘retrenched,’ pulling out of Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa, but the cheering might be premature because Rhee could be husbanding resources for specific campaigns in support of ending tenure, opening charter schools and creating voucher programs. “As an advocacy organization fighting for better education for kids all across the country, we frequently shift and reallocate resources around where they’ll have the most impact,” Francisco Castillo, the group’s national spokesman, said, explaining the changes.[[7]]

[[8]]8. The specific question is “Did the organization engage in direct or indirect political campaign activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for political office?”  Whoever filled it out checked the NO box and did not answer the following question about lobbying (“Did the organization engage in lobbying activities or have a Section 501(h) election in effect during the tax year?”).  Michelle Rhee signed the form. [[8]]

[[9]]9. On July 22nd I spoke with her briefly; she said she was too busy to talk then but would call back at 3 that afternoon.  At exactly 3PM her assistant called to say she was still too busy to talk then but would try at a later time. She has not called. I have continued to call her office, to no avail.[[9]]

[[10]]10. I wish it weren’t, because I wanted Rhee to succeed when she burst on the scene in 2007. My own children went to DC public schools, and so I knew first-hand that many were ineffective, an embarrassment to the Nation’s Capital.[[10]]

[[11]]11. Rhee scheduled her event for September 12th, a Thursday. The bombing occurred on Sunday, September 15th, 50 years earlier.[[11]]

[[12]]12.  To my annoyance, the columnist credits Davis Guggenheim’s film for the footage of Rhee firing that principal.  How much else he got wrong, I don’t know.[[12]]