FILLING THE VACUUM

Filling the Vacuum

First, a prediction: the anti-excessive testing drive is not going to lose steam and disappear. To the contrary, I expect that it will only pick up momentum during the coming school year.  Even if the Congress manages to agree on a replacement for No Child Left Behind that the President is willing to sign, it’s too late to counter the genuine revulsion many people feel about excessive testing.

**Too many people now realize that the US is the only advanced country that tests kids in order to judge (and sometimes fire) teachers.

**Too many people are upset about the intrusive nature of testing and data-collection, and too many parents are distrustful of a system that treats their children as a number, a test score.

**Too many people have lost faith in ‘big data’ in education and in the testing industry in general.

As we have reported on the NewsHour, the “Opt Out” movement is made up of strange political bedfellows, united in their opposition. How long these folks remain together depends, it seems to me, upon what happens next.

It’s never enough to curse the darkness.  Being passionately against something works for a while, but it cannot, in the end, carry the day. At some point, you have to be FOR something of substance.

But if high-stakes tests are on the way out, student learning must be assessed.  We also need reliable ways to evaluate teachers and measure school quality.  I hope the anti-excessive testing people will insist on being part of those conversations.

And the second big question: If kids are not going to spend their time prepping for tests and taking tests and reviewing tests, what will they do instead? What should they be opting into?

What will fill the vacuum?

How about arts-based education, which has been tried and has proven true for 20 years? I refer to the A+ Schools program now in four states, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.  For a look at how an A+ school works, take a look at the NewsHour piece Producer Cat McGrath and I did last year.

Arts-based education unlocks student (and teacher) creativity. It’s often project-based and team-based, good preparation for what awaits young people when they leave school.  (You will see some of this in our new film, “School Sleuth: The Case of the Wired Classroom,” which will be on most PBS stations in November.)

I have written about one teacher at that school, and earlier this week I spent a day-and-a-half with about 250 teachers and principals in the A+ School program.  There are few better feelings than being in a room full of arts teachers, whose energy threatens to elevate the roof.  Their intelligence, vision and commitment are palpable and infectious.

The true test of an arts-based school, one person told me, is that you often are not certain exactly what class you are in, because music suffuses math instruction, and vice-versa….as it should because music and math are inextricably connected.

It’s not a quick, order off-the-rack way to re-form a school.  It takes time, energy and commitment.  Teachers have to learn a new way of working. A bigger challenge: Many school principals attended schools where ‘the arts’ were pushed to the side, a frill, and so those leaders have to be re-educated. The A+ program offers guidance and training, so that’s a help.

You’ve seen those protestors with their posters, “My Kid Is Not a Test Score.”  True, but what is your kid, and what do you want him or her to become?  Recalling Aristotle’s wisdom, “We Are What We Repeatedly Do,” what do you want your child to DO repeatedly in school?

Time to get together to decide on ‘post-protest schooling.’

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I AM RETIRING

ADDIO PER ORA

I have some news: I am retiring from the PBS NewsHour and Learning Matters.

For the past 41 years I have been covering public education mostly here in the USA but also in China, Hong Kong, France and Spain. I began at NPR in 1974 (when it was still known as National Public Radio), and I’ve reported for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and the PBS NewsHour 1

I look forward to traveling with my wife and catching up with other areas of my life in the coming months, but retiring from Learning Matters is not a hard stop for me. I have one more report to finish for the NewsHour, and our new film, “School Sleuth: The Case of the Wired Classroom,” will be on most PBS stations in November.

My passion and desire for engagement remain strong. Rather than putting myself out to pasture, I hope to keep active as a moderator, an activity I love, and seize other opportunities and adventures that await, out of sight around the corner. I’ll be weighing in on critical issues in education in Raleigh-Durham in August; DC in September; and Chicago in October.

There’s certainly plenty to talk about:

****Will we hold charter schools, both for-profit and not-for-profit, accountable for their spending and their educational outcomes?
****If the resistance to over-testing continues to grow, how will that change what happens in schools on a daily basis?
****Will technology be used to let students soar and explore, or will educators harness it to improve management of information and fact-based learning?
****Will leadership emerge that will help develop sensible ways of assessing schools, students and teachers–and in so doing drive a stake through the heart of ‘test-based accountability’ that is playing gotcha with teachers?
****How will the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, when it eventually replaces the much-detested No Child Left Behind, change the power dynamics between Washington, DC, and the states?

Friends have asked me what I will miss most. That’s easy: the challenges of reporting and the joys of teamwork. Television is truly a team sport, and I have been blessed with wonderful teammates. Because it’s my face and voice that have been in your faces and ears, I’ve received more credit and attention than I deserve. I hope that, at 74, I am mature enough to cope without the attention.

By now, blogging has become second nature to me, and I will continue to post at least weekly. I invite you to take a look at my new blog, The Merrow Report. (Fun fact: This was the name of my original television series back in the 1990’s.) You will find it at themerrowreport.com

Please consider subscribing.

My departure is not a hard stop (or any sort of stop at all) for Learning Matters and its reporting for the NewsHour. Within a few days, expect an announcement. I’m thrilled that my talented colleagues will continue to do the work they love, and I am extremely grateful that a number of leading foundations are supporting this enterprise.

In later posts I will weigh in on current issues and trends, while also reflecting on the past 41 years of interviewing teachers, students, Secretaries of Education and others in America’s most important venture.

As I sign off, please know that it has been a rare privilege to report for you. I appreciate your trust, and I pledge to do my best to preserve it, whenever our worlds connect.

An Italian friend once cautioned me, “Never say arrivederci to people you care about. Say addio per ora instead, because that means ‘goodbye for now.’”

Addio per ora. I look forward to hearing from you.

John

(john.merrow@gmail.com)


  1. I also worked for a few blinks of an eye for The Learning Channel in 1990. Didn’t last long. Hated all the commercial breaks and made my way back to PBS within the year. 

Forty Years Later

Public Law 94-142, “The Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975,” passed not long after I began reporting on education, and it became the first issue that I dug into deeply on my weekly NPR series. A lot has happened since then, much of it very positive, which makes the 40th Anniversary an occasion to celebrate–while continuing to search for ways to improve the learning opportunities for kids with special needs.

The term “Handicapped” was soon cast aside, and “Special Needs” became the term of choice. Before long “Handicapped” became the field’s “H word,” never to be spoken in public. Word games ensued. Some preferred “Exceptional” as the descriptive adjective–and in fact it had been the Council for Exceptional Children in Washington that pushed hardest for passage of legislation in the 1970’s. Militants often referred to non-disabled children (and adults) as “temporarily able-bodied,” but that did not catch on.

Although the vote in the House and Senate had made it veto-proof, PL 94-142 was not universally popular. In a break with tradition, President Gerald Ford refused to allow photographers into the room when he signed the bill. He was upset and angry about the precedent the law was setting–requiring services but not providing the money. Somewhere in our video archive is an interview with then former President Ford, in which he reflects on the ‘unfunded mandate’ of PL 94-142, which required schools to serve these students but did not come close to providing the funds. He predicted–correctly–that this would become an albatross around the necks of school boards.

PL 94-142 required that every child who was diagnosed and labeled be provided with an IEP, an “Individualized Education Plan,” that would serve as a road map for their education. That essential provision also created a bureaucratic situation, sometimes a nightmare, for parents and administrators.

The new law also created, almost overnight, a new area of specialization for teachers and a growth industry for schools of education. Even today, it’s the easiest area of education to find a job.

The law and its successors have created other problems, most notably the “lawyering up” of parents determined to force public schools to pay for expensive private school education for their children with special needs. It’s not a ‘cottage industry’ for lawyers, the special education attorney Miriam Freedman notes, but a “mansion industry.”

The new law required that students with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” a reaction to the widespread practice of isolating and segregating these students. However, the practice of ‘mainstreaming’ in regular classrooms has created its own issues, and many teachers continue to complain that they have not been adequately trained to work with this population of students.

Complaints and problems aside, PL 94-142 and its successors have transformed the lives of millions of children for the better. Because the 1975 law allowed states to ‘phase in’ their compliance, I was able to visit a few states before they began providing services. That allowed me to report on how these unfortunate children, and their families, were dealt with by public schools.

And it was a nightmare. No other word suffices. In New Mexico, for example, severely physically disabled children were locked up, with little or no consideration for their mental capacity. Some desperate families kept these children at home, rather than condemn them to life in an institution.

Before 94-142, schools did not have to make any special effort to educate children with disabilities, and I visited middle school and high school classrooms where a disabled child was simply assigned to draw pictures or weave bracelets while the other kids studied American history or French. Those days are over, or should be anyway.

PL 94-142 and its successors have created opportunities and occasions for those without disabilities to learn about differences, to learn empathy. That’s no small thing.

A nation and its people can be judged by how it treats its least fortunate. In this respect, the United States deserves some credit.

Like this country, public schools will always be a work in progress. It’s easy to criticize schools, and often the criticism is warranted, but it’s important to stop every once in a while and give ourselves credit for doing the right thing.

The 40th Anniversary of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other iterations is one of those occasions. Well done, America. (Now let’s do it better!)

A Swift Solution to Cheating

Because America is committed to testing every child in every subject in order to make sure teachers are doing a good job, the number of high-stakes tests is increasing, and that means that we have to act boldly to eliminate cheating, which, coincidentally, also has been increasing.

Some background is in order: We have a cheating problem in our schools1. While a handful of students cheat because they are competing to get into top colleges, many more principals, teachers, and administrators either cheat or encourage cheating. After all, their jobs are on the line because we now judge, reward and fire them based on student test scores..

The situation has gotten out of hand. In Atlanta, Washington, DC, Austin, Texas, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Dayton, Ohio and many other places, adults have worked together, even holding ‘erasure parties,’ to change student answers from wrong to right.

So what can we do to punish cheaters? Unfortunately, we cannot just fire the cheating teachers and administrators. After all, who would replace 2 them? Education is fast becoming an undesirable occupation, largely because of the pressure to demonstrate academic achievement (I.E., high test scores), and that is making it extremely difficult to recruit new people into education.

No, we have to work with what we’ve got, just as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had to fight the war with the army he had. There are two obvious steps: 1) increase surveillance to catch the cheaters and 2) make the punishments more obvious to the outside world.

Increased surveillance will cost more, of course, but we can trim other expenditures, perhaps in the subjects that aren’t being tested and therefore not occasions for cheating. I’m thinking of art, music and physical education, but, if schools have already cut those, then electives like journalism, minor sports, and theatre are places to look for savings.

Publicly shaming the cheaters is essential. Making the punishments more public should curtail cheating. For younger students, the shaming should be temporary. Perhaps cheaters should have to wear bright yellow shirts emblazoned with a huge letter 3 “C” for a month or more.

But for anyone cheating after 5th or 6th grade, a shaming shirt isn’t enough. After all, 10-year-olds are mature enough to understand consequences. Here’s where I think a permanent tattoo would do the trick. The first offense should produce a stern warning. But a the second offense demonstrates they are beyond redemption, so let’s tattoo the letter ‘C’ or the word ‘CHEATER’ 4 on the back of the criminal’s dominant hand. Should there be a third offense, the tattoo ought to be placed more prominently, perhaps on the cheater’s forehead. While I doubt matters would ever get to that point, leadership has to be ready to make the hard decisions, for the greater good. 5

Would prominent tattoos on hands and foreheads be enough to stop principals and adults from cheating to save their jobs? Perhaps not, and so we ought to be willing to have a free and open discussion about other penalties, including–hopefully as a last resort–lopping off the index fingers of persistent violators.

It’s important to do whatever is necessary to protect the integrity of the learning and testing process.



  1. In colleges too: http://www.academicintegrity.org/icai/integrity-3.php 
  2. A judge sent some Atlanta educators to prison, creating family hardships and the replacement problem. 
  3. Perhaps it should be scarlet in color even though, because of all the testing, most kids may not have heard of Nathaniel Hawthorne. 
  4. Tattoo artists are paid by the letter, and school budgets are tight. Because education is locally controlled, that decision, ‘C’ or ‘CHEATER,’ ought to be made by local school boards 
  5. There’s precedent here. I’ve seen lots of war movies where the Nazis would shoot every 10th man as a way of making sure the occupied village did not cause any trouble. Most times, that got rid of the trouble, although some people didn’t get the message and kept on fighting. 

March MADNESS

We owe Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a debt of gratitude. Thanks to his “Race to the Top” program, teacher evaluation has finally moved out of the 19th Century. Thanks to him, the outmoded and unfair approach–an administrator sitting in the back of the room once or twice a year–is history. And it’s about time, because that approach was susceptible to favoritism, laziness and sexual harassment.

My first school principal at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, New York, evaluated us that way. Mr. Henderson, who was approaching retirement the year I began teaching, was known for playing favorites. He liked coaches who also taught, and he loved teachers who kept their classrooms quiet; those folks received glowing reports. Noise, even if it was a lively classroom discussion, was a bad thing in Mr. Henderson’s book, and those teachers received a talking-to. (I was one of those.)

Secretary Duncan has effectively replaced that outmoded approach with a performance-based, data-driven system where teachers are evaluated based on the scores of students on standardized tests. He did this with “Race to the Top,” the competition for scarce resources at the height of the Great Recession. To qualify for funds, states and districts had to commit to judging teachers by test scores.

Although most states didn’t get the money, nearly all of them fell into line in their efforts to qualify. In some states, 50% of a teacher’s rating is now based on test scores.

Of course, like any forward-looking innovation, this new approach isn’t perfect. For example, because most subjects are not tested, quite a few teachers can’t logically be held responsible for test scores. Some districts have gotten past this small bump in the road by linking those teachers to the scores of students in other classrooms, in other subjects, and even in other schools (but in the same district).

Another solution to this problem has been to add tests in more subjects. While this means more tests for kids and more money out the schoolhouse door and into the pockets of testing companies, this bold, progressive step will help achieve the goal of holding all teachers accountable.1

Secretary Duncan’s new approach has another tiny problem: The results generally don’t affect students, just teachers. The scores don’t determine whether kids advance a grade or graduate, for example, and it’s not unheard of for students to fill in answers randomly. So it’s ‘no stakes’ for kids and ‘high stakes’ for the adults. That’s led to occasional revolts, like the one led by idealistic students in Colorado who refused to take a test that would have been used to judge their teachers. It’s also led to cheating by adults, worried about their jobs, in too many places to mention. 2.

However, one very important teacher is not being held accountable by this new system. I’m referring to our Secretary of Education, arguably the nation’s number one teacher. He’s now being judged in the old way, through informal and formal contact with and observations by his ‘principal,’ President Barack Obama.

Wouldn’t test scores be a fairer way? President Obama likes athletes, and Secretary Duncan is an exceptional basketball player who scrimmages fairly regularly with the President, which could mean that his performance on the job is not being truly measured. And if the President has actually visited the Department of Education, it probably wasn’t much more than a drive-by. I believe the President needs some standardized test scores to measure just how effective his Secretary of Education is.

I have a modest proposal: Let’s hold Secretary Duncan accountable in the same way that regular classroom teachers are. To help move the process forward, I’m developing a standardized test to be administered to the nearly 4300 employees at the U.S. Department: The “Measuring Arne Duncan’s National Effectiveness with School Systems,” or MADNESS.

MADNESS will be a multiple-choice test, with questions of varying degrees of difficulty. I’m releasing a few sample questions here but, for obvious reasons, cannot publish the entire test.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was passed by Congress in:
A. 1964
B. 1965
C. 2001
D. None of the above

2. The first person to receive an Associate’s Degree from a community college in Indiana was:
A. Clark Harris
B. Harrison Clark
C. Clarissa Harrison
D. None of the above

3. How many people work in the U.S. Department of Education?
A. About 3930
B. About 3712
C. About 4230
D. About half of them

Wander the halls of the Department of Education, as I have done over the years, and you will see men and women at their desks, apparently working on grants to states and districts. Sometimes they’ll be on the phone, perhaps explaining rules and regulations that govern how federal funds can be legally spent. After all, the Department distributes about $60 billion, money that school districts count on receiving in a timely fashion, and so the work of these anonymous bureaucrats is essential to keeping our public education system functioning.

Unfortunately, their important work will have to come to a halt for at least three weeks before MADNESS is administered, to give USDE employees time to become familiar with the test format and to study the material that the test will cover. Some may have forgotten–or never even studied–Indiana community college history, for example, and that makes test-prep vital. Even though they know that the MADNESS results will not affect their own status, many will want to help their boss keep his job.3 If some employees decide to blow off the test, there’s nothing that can be done about that. Let’s just hope that doesn’t put the Secretary’s job in jeopardy.

To acknowledge Secretary Duncan’s prowess as a basketball player, MADNESS will be administered in March. As with most standardized, machine-scored, tests, the results will not be available until late August.



  1. The additional testing will help us in international competition. We are number one in giving tests to students, and we are the only advanced nation that uses test scores primarily to measure teacher effectiveness. (Other countries use student test scores to assess students, if you can imagine that.) Go, USA! 
  2.   It’s also led to growing disrespect for schools generally, as I see it. 
  3. I wish I had thought of this earlier because then the President would have some baseline data to allow him to judge the Secretary’s progress. It’s too late for VAM, value-added measurement, but this will be a start. 

Is Teaching a Profession, an Occupation, a Calling, or a Job?

“So, are they quitting because they’re fed up with their heavy-handed union bosses?” The hostility of the question took me by surprise. I was explaining to my dinner companion, a veteran lawyer, that 40% of teachers leave the field within five years, and right away he jumped to his anti-union conclusion disguised as a question.

No, I explained. Unions don’t seem to have anything to do with it; it’s most often related to working conditions: class size, discipline policies, and how much control and influence they have over their daily activities.

“It’s not money?” he asked, aggressively suspicious. Not according to surveys, I explained.

I described what I’d seen of a teacher’s daily work life. He interrupted, “How can it be a profession if you can’t take a leak when you need to?”

While that’s not a criterion that social scientists use to define a profession, my cut-to-the-chase acquaintance might be on to something.

Can teaching be a true profession if you can’t take a bathroom break when nature calls?

Certainly, teachers and their supporters want teaching to be seen as a profession. They’ve won the linguistic battle. If you Google ‘the teaching profession,’ you’ll get 153,000,000 references, while ‘teaching as an occupation’ and ‘the teaching occupation’ produce only 67,000,000.

Social scientists have no doubt about status of teaching, according to Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania. “We do not refer to teaching as a profession. It doesn’t have the characteristics of those traditional professions like medicine, academia, dentistry, law, architecture, engineering, et cetera. It doesn’t have the pay, the status, the respect, the length of training, so from a scientific viewpoint teaching is not a profession.”

He carefully refers to teaching as an occupation, noting that it’s the largest occupation of all in the USA. And growing at a faster rate than the student population.

Jennifer Robinson, a teacher educator at Montclair State University in New Jersey, disagrees with Ingersoll. She believes our familiarity with teachers and schools breeds disrespect for teaching. “We don’t treat teaching as a profession because we’ve all gone to school and think we’re experts. Most people think, ‘Oh, I could do that,’ which we would never do with doctors.”

Robinson suggests that a significant part of our population–including lots of politicians–does not trust teachers. She cites the drumbeat of criticism in the media, blaming teachers for low test scores.

A common criticism is that teachers come from the lowest rungs of our academic ladder, a charge that Ingersoll says is simply not true. “About 10% of teachers come from institutions like MacAlester, Yale and Penn,” he says. “Perhaps 25% come from the lowest quartile of colleges,” meaning that close to two-thirds of teachers attend the middle ranks of our colleges and universities.

According to Ingersoll, one hallmark of a profession is longevity, sticking with the work. In that respect, teaching doesn’t make the grade. As noted above, his research indicates that at least 40% of new teachers leave the field within five years, a rate of attrition that is comparable to police work. “Teaching has far higher turnover than those traditional professions, lawyers, professors, engineers, architects, doctors and accountants,” Ingersoll reports. Nurses tend to stick around longer than teachers. Who has higher quit rates, I asked him. “Prison guards, child care workers and secretaries.”

Perhaps teaching is a calling? Those who teach score high on measures of empathy and concern for others and social progress, Ingersoll and others have noted. As a reporter and a parent, I have met thousands of teachers whose concern for their students was visible and admirable.

Trying to elevate the profession’s status (or arguing about it) is a waste of energy. That’s the view of Robert Runté, an associate professor on the faculty of education at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. In a fascinating essay that’s now 20 years old, he wrote,

Since one needs schools before one can have school teachers, teachers are stuck with their status as salaried employees working within large organizations. Teachers have always been and will always be subject to direction from their school board and the provincial bureaucracy. They are, to that degree at least, already proletarianized.
Consequently, the whole question of whether teaching is a profession, or can become one, is a red herring. The real issue is the degree to which teachers can resist deskilling and maintain some measure of autonomy within the school bureaucracy.

1
To some, he may be going off the deep end when he asserts that the construct of ‘profession’ is a trumped-up label created to flatter workers and distinguish themselves from others.

The only feature that ever really distinguished the professions from other occupations was the “professional” label itself. What we are is knowledge workers, and as such we have a responsibility to both ourselves and to the public to become reflective practitioners. As reflective practitioners we can reassert, first our ability, and then our right, to assume responsibility for the educational enterprise. We must stop worrying about unimportant issues of status and focus instead on the real and present danger of deskilling.

“Deskilling” is the enemy, a concerted effort to reduce teaching to mindless factory work. Remember that awful graphic in “Waiting for ‘Superman’” where the heads of students are opened up and ‘knowledge’ is poured in by teachers? That’s how some politicians and education ‘reformers’ understand the role of schools and teachers. And how much skill does it take to pour a pitcher? Not much, and so why should we pay teachers more, or even give them job protection? Just measure how well they pour (using test scores of course), compare them to other teachers (value-added), and then get rid of the poor pourers. Bingo, education is reformed!

Teaching has taken some big hits in recent years, driven in great part by the education reform movement that argues, disingenuously, that ‘great teachers’ make all the difference. This position allows them to ignore the very clear effects of poverty, poor nutrition, poor health and substandard housing on a child’s achievement.

Most parents are not fooled by this. Their respect for their children’s teachers and schools remains high, which must frustrate the Michelle Rhee/Campbell Brown/Democrats for Education Reform crowd.

So what’s to be done? Professor Lethbridge asserts that teachers should embrace their role of ‘knowledge workers,’ and I agree, sort of. I believe that schools ought to be viewed as ‘knowledge factories’ in which the students are the workers, teachers are managers/foremen/supervisors, and knowledge is the factory’s product. In that model, students must be doing real work, an issue I wrote about recently.

To show respect for teaching and teachers, I suggest we leave the ‘profession/occupation’ argument to academics. Instead, let’s consider doing three things:

1) Supporting leaders whose big question is “How is this child intelligent?” instead of “How intelligent is this child?”

2) Electing school board members who believe in inquiry-based learning, problem solving, effective uses of technology, and deeper learning.

3) Insisting on changes in the structure of schools so that teachers have time to watch each other teach and to reflect on their work. These are a given in Finland and other countries with effective educational systems.

Oh, and bathroom breaks when necessary….



  1. Is Teaching A Profession? Reprinted from Taylor, Gerald and Robert Runté, eds.
    Thinking About Teaching: An Introduction. Toronto: Harcourt Brace, 1995. 

41 Years Later…

For nearly all of the 41 years I have been covering public education, the people in charge have been focused on competition, most often with other nations. Of course, educational competitiveness didn’t start when I began reporting in 1974; In 1957 the Soviet space satellite Sputnik got America’s juices flowing and led to the National Defense Education Act. It hasn’t stopped {{1}}; ever since, most of our leaders have pushed schools, teachers and students to try to outperform the rest of the world.

Think ‘A Nation at Risk {{2}}’ in 1983, or President George H.W. Bush’s “Education Summit” in 1989 that spawned Goals 2000 and a drive to make us ‘First in the World’ in math and science. {{3}} IBM’s Chairman Louis V. Gerstner convened two more Education Summits in the years that followed. The Glenn Commission on Math and Science Teaching issued a dire warning at the turn of the century.

The Clinton administration and George W. Bush’s presidency upped the ante, and the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top,” fueled by our fear that we are losing to Finland, South Korea and a host of other nations, has raised the stakes even more.

The people in charge have for years been challenging students and their teachers, asking in effect “How intelligent are you? Prove it by doing better than X and Y and Z.” And many in leadership positions have also been roundly criticizing the system for its perceived failures.

Has our obsession with beating others worked? Is it working now? Have years and years of “education reform” produced the kinds of schools and students that we are proud of?

Well, we are still ‘losing’ to Finland, South Korea, Singapore and a host of other nations; we are falling behind in college graduation rates, and so on. High school graduation rates have climbed, but record numbers of those graduates end up in remedial classes when they get to college. Not a great scorecard, but our leaders seem to determined to keep criticizing our schools and teachers until they shape up, which undoubtedly brings to mind that cartoon about how “the whipping will continue until morale improves.”

41 years later, I see a nation of people who don’t trust their government, who don’t vote, and who don’t even speak to people who hold different points of view. The adjectives ‘angry’ and ‘disillusioned’ describe a lot of the people I meet. How much of this is a result of their having attended schools that were organized to designate a few of them as ‘winners’ and most of them as ‘losers’ from Day One?

The question we need to ask is pretty basic: is beating someone else the best way to motivate students to learn? Does the competitive approach help develop competent adults who can be happy, productive citizens able to adapt to a fast-changing world?

What if our schools were designed to ask “How are you intelligent?” of each child? What if schools and classrooms were structured to encourage both individual growth and teamwork? What if we focused on the child, not the world?

You may remember the parable of the father and child. The kid wants to play catch in the backyard, but Dad wants to read his magazine. Tired of being pestered, Dad tears a page from his magazine and shows it to his child. On the page is a map of the world. The father tears the page into small pieces, hands the kid the pieces, and says, “We’ll play catch as soon as you can put this page back together.” Then he resumes reading, confident that he’s bought himself an hour of peace.

But the kid is back within minutes, the page scotch-taped together perfectly. “How did you do that,” the father demands? “It was easy. On the other side there was a picture of a child. I just put the child together, and the world took care of itself.”

OK, it’s a hokey parable, but you get the point: focus on the child.

If we did, our schools would provide more intensive attention in the first few grades, but those smaller classes would be replaced by larger classes in which older students were engaged in group projects and self-directed learning. Technology will allow them to collaborate beyond the walls of their classrooms, and so fewer teachers will work with more students, on projects that have real meaning for the kids.  New forms of assessment will also emerge over time, and these will, I believe, be integrated seamlessly into the learning loop.

This approach will be more effective, I believe. It seems certain that it will, in the long run,also be cheaper. (That got your attention, didn’t it!)

Face it: Our competitive ‘teach and test’ approach is expensive. School systems spend billions of dollars every year on textbooks, test-prep materials, testing, test grading and reporting. School systems also pay many more millions to people whose job is to watch the teachers (because teachers aren’t trusted and have to be watched).

We can realize a lot of savings there.

We have to find ways to cut costs. Teachers are already the largest single part of the American labor force, and their numbers are growing at a rate far faster than the student population’s rate of increase. Yes, we have more students…but, fueled by demands in special education and English language learners, schools are hiring many more teachers.

Despite the high rate of churn that keeps bringing young people into the field, education’s labor and unfunded pension costs are spiraling out of control {{4}}. Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania follows these trends closely, and he told me recently, “It’s a ticking time bomb. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see how employee numbers can go up at a couple times the rate of the client base.”

The job of school is to help grow adults. All three words matter: ‘Help’ because education is a team sport involving families and the larger community. ‘Grow’ because it’s a process of fits and starts that cannot be measured or judged on one moment’s performance (i.e., a test score). And ‘Adults’ because that’s the end game, not a test score.

Right now we have a prohibitively expensive approach to schooling that doesn’t work very well. Shall we keep on tinkering? What do you think?

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[[1]]1. There have been occasional lulls when we directed our attention away from international competition, like the pause that led to The Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.[[1]]
[[2]]2. That spawned the inevitable “A Nation STILL at Risk” reports down the road, of course, like this one from the right: https://www.edreform.com/edreform-university/resource/a-nation-still-at-risk-1998/ [[2]]
[[3]]3. In 2002 Learning Matters and I produced a program for Frontline called “Testing Our Schools” Here’s a pretty good summary of those years, and the film as well: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/schools/standards/bp.html[[3]]
[[4]]4. http://www.governing.com/gov-data/state-pension-funds-retirement-systems-unfunded-liabilities-obligations-data.html
http://www.statebudgetsolutions.org/publications/detail/promises-made-promises-broken-2014-unfunded-liabilities-hit-47-trillion [[4]]

Why ‘WD-40’ Is Not Known As ‘WD-1’

If you’re at all like me, somewhere in your home you have at least one can of WD-40®, because the stuff works wonders. If you teach science, I believe that you ought to have a large WD-40 poster on your classroom wall. Not to advertise the product but to teach a basic lesson about learning: failure is an essential part of succeeding.

You may know the story of WD-40.{{1}} More than 60 years ago the three employees of the San Diego-based Rocket Chemical Company were trying to develop a product that would prevent rust, something they could market to the aerospace industry. They tried, and, being methodical, they kept careful records. They labeled their first effort Water Displacement #1, or WD-1.

I’ll bet you have figured out how many times they failed before they were finally successful.

Students need to know that adults try and fail and fail and fail–and keep on trying. More than that, they need to experience failure. While I am a big fan of both project-based learning and blended learning, I believe the most critical piece of the pedagogical puzzle is what we ought to call ‘Problem-based learning.’

Projects where the teachers already know the outcome won’t work, especially with older students. Blending technology and teaching so students can add fractions faster? That’s not the best approach either.

Give students problems to tackle–and make the problems real! Lord knows we have plenty of problems worth tackling that can be given to students. They cannot be intractable (how can we achieve peace in the Middle East?) or trivial and uninteresting (what color should classrooms be painted?)

A pedagogy based on discovery flies in the face of what seems to be happening in most classrooms and schools {{2}}, where the emphasis seems to be on ‘critical analysis’ to get the predetermined answers.

Some years back I interviewed a math teacher in Richmond, Virginia, who told me how he used to take his students down to the James River and challenge them to determine how far it was to the opposite shore. He didn’t give them a formula; just the challenge. Then they put their heads together and, he said, eventually worked it out. Lots of failure…and lots of genuine discovery. Sadly, he said, the new state-mandated curriculum doesn’t allow time for field trips and discovery. Now, he said, he has to give his students the formula and a bunch of problems to solve. Which group of students is more likely to have retained that information?

Here’s a genuine problem-based project that’s easy to incorporate into the curriculum. Equip every third grade class in the city, region or state with an air quality indicator {{3}}. Have students go outside and take the measurements four or five times a day. They plot the data. Share the data with other third graders. Look for differences. Take photos to see if the measurements correlate with cloud patterns. Figure out the possible causes. Study weather patterns. Bring in scientists and meteorologists and ask them questions. Write up the findings, including everything that they could not explain. That is, write about the failures, the as-yet-unanswered questions.

That’s real work, something those third graders won’t forget doing. And, while they may not be aware that they’re also developing a skill set that will serve them well as adults, that is what will be happening.

Oh, and those kids will probably do just fine on whatever standardized tests the system throws their way.

©John Merrow 2015

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[[1]]1. http://wd40.com/cool-stuff/history [[1]]
[[2]]2. The entrepreneur Elon Musk has started his own school because he wasn’t happy with what his kids were experiencing. It sounds as if the entire curriculum in this school-without-grades is based on problem solving. [[2]]
[[3]]3. A device can cost as little as $30.[[3]]

Good Stuff

When my wife and I moved recently, the process forced me to dig through piles of stuff and discard what I didn’t care enough about to pack and then unpack. In the process I came across some really good stuff, and that triggered this list of books, organizations, films, and websites that I value. {{1}}

The Hechinger Report is celebrating its fifth anniversary as a reporting organization, after many years of focusing on training education reporters and editors. It’s first rate. Help them celebrate.

New Visions for Public Schools just celebrated its 25th Anniversary. What has it accomplished? Today roughly one in five NYC high school students has benefited or is benefitting from the educational opportunities provided by New Visions schools. Small schools, strong leadership, and a commitment to learning opportunities for all students drive this exceptional organization. New Visions embraced the idea of small high schools before they were cool, grew when the Gates Foundation started writing checks, flowered when Joel Klein was Chancellor, withstood the Gates Foundation’s sudden departure, and continues to create opportunities for thousands of New York City’s children.

CEI, the organization created when the Center for Educational Innovation and the Public Education Association merged in 2000, has been helping schools improve since–take your pick–1989 when CEI was created, or 1895 when the Public Education Association was founded. Either way, it’s a remarkable track record. I got to know its principal, Sy Fliegel, in the late 1980’s when he was running District Four, the NYC school district that put school choice on the national map.

Reach Out and Read, Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library….and every other program that puts interesting books in the hands of children. Click on this link to learn what’s at stake and what can be done.
Here’s our NewsHour piece about Reach Out and Read.
We profiled Dolly Parton’s program as well.

Speaking of reading, Readworks is a wonderful resource for teachers who want their students to become better readers. (That’s just about every teacher I’ve ever met.)

“The Game Believes in You,” by Greg Toppo, is a mind-changing book by an outstanding reporter. Published by Palgrave Macmillan, it carries the subtitle “How Games Can Make Our Kids Smarter.”

I have Sir Ken Robinson’s new book, “Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution that’s Transforming Education,” in my books-to-read pile.

Also awaiting me is Freeman A. Hrabowski’s “Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth from the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement.”

Speaking of books, “Cage-Busting School Custodians” is Rick Hess’s newest effort in his franchise series. Write Rick directly at rhess@AEI.org to order the sequel to “Cage-Busting Leadership” and “The Cage-Busting Teacher.” Rumor has it that the prolific author has a contract for yet another in the series, (working title) “Cage-Busting School Crossing Guards.”

The Education Writers Association, which seemed bound for oblivion when the number of newspapers with education reporters declined precipitously, has reinvented itself under the leadership of Caroline Hendrie. In the mid 1970’s the tiny, disorganized organization {{2}} kept its financial records in a shoebox. EWA grew under Executive Director Lisa Walker’s leadership, floundered when newspapers began to go under, and then bounced back. Today EWA is an invaluable resource for anyone attempting to report on education. It’s there for us, every day, 24/7.

“Education Week” has been required reading since forever and remains so.

Blogs from Diane Ravitch and Whitney Tilson make my list of Good Stuff. http://edreform.blogspot.com is published by Mr. Tilson, who views education from the right. He notes, “I sometimes don’t have time to post here everything that I send to my school reform email list, so if you want to receive my regular (approximately once a week) emates, please email me at WTilson@tilsonfunds.com.” (I read his email, not his blog.)
At one time Diane Ravitch also viewed education from the right. Now easily the blogosphere’s most influential person on the left, Dr. Ravitch posts many times every day. Signing up for her email feed allows you to glance at everything and then read whatever you find compelling. She’s had more than 20,000,000 pageviews!

The Harmony Program puts musical instruments in the hands of school children who might not otherwise be exposed to serious music, and then provides excellent lessons taught by professional musicians.  You can watch our NewsHour report about this wonderful New York City-based program as well.

Investigative reporters Marian Wang and Heather Vogell, whose work for ProPublica is shocking readers and waking up lawmakers. Marian Wang exposed the machinations of Baker Mitchell, a North Carolina charter school operator whose ‘non-profit’ charter school has fattened his personal bank account.
Before moving to ProPublica, Heather Vogell blew the whistle on Atlanta’s school cheaters.

The Khan Academy: free learning opportunities in easily-digestible chunks. Did I mention that it’s free?

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The remarkable Ron Thorpe has revived this organization, blending into it the “Celebration of Teaching and Learning” that he created when he was at Channel 13 in New York City. Teaching is a profession that should be harder to enter but easier to practice, and the National Board is doing everything it can to make that a reality.

KIPP. The Knowledge is Power Program had to do something with the powerful knowledge that most of its graduates were not succeeding in college. Yes, KIPP has been growing, but it has also been reinventing itself.

Community Schools, Project-based Learning, and Blended Learning. They’re all significant, and, best of all, they’re not mutually exclusive.

“Most Likely to Succeed” is a new, as-yet-unreleased documentary that is ostensibly about project-based learning but that actually covers a much bigger topic: what we want for our kids. Look for it.

“If You Build It” is a terrific documentary about a refreshing way of learning.

And don’t miss “Brooklyn Castle.”

Our own “School Sleuth: The Case of the Wired Classroom” makes my list, of course. This 1-hour film brings back our film noir parody detective, The School Sleuth, who’d been on hiatus since he solved “The Case of an Excellent School” in 2000. This film hasn’t been released, but I predict you are going to love it. It’s a light-hearted way of exploring a serious issue, the use and misuse of technology in schools.

That’s my list. What have I forgotten? What’s on your list?

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[[1]]1. Because I have some sort of personal connection to nearly every item on this list, I am not going to go into detail. If you think I’d make recommendations based on friendships, then you probably still believe that I am on the Board of Pearson Education. Stop reading now….or keep reading until you discover the fake one.[[1]]
[[2]]2. My first reporting award came in 1974 from the National Council for the Advancement of Education Writing, which must have been the organization’s original name.[[2]]

Running in Place?

I wrote the paragraphs below nearly five years ago. Besides changing a few names, how much revision is needed to make the observations accurate in mid-2015? Perhaps we haven’t been running in place, but I am convinced that we are fighting the wrong battle in the last war.

“Microfiche,” the 14-year-old asked, staring at the machines tucked away in the New York Public Library? “What’s microfiche?”

How many people under age 30 could explain it? Her question is a powerful reminder of how technology has turned learning on its head. Just a few years ago, libraries and schools were the places that stored knowledge—on microfiche, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and in the heads of the adults in charge. We had to go there to gain access to that knowledge.

Not any more. Today knowledge and information are everywhere, 24/7, thanks to the Internet. Unless libraries have been closed because of budget cuts, they have adapted to this new world. Most have become multi-purpose centers with Internet access that distribute books, audio books and DVD’s. Librarians encourage patrons to ask questions, because they need to keep the public coming through their doors.

By contrast, schools remain a monopoly, places where children are expected to answer questions, by filling in the bubbles or blanks and by speaking up when called upon.

Providing access to knowledge, one of three historical justifications for schools, no longer applies in the usual sense. Of course, children need teachers to help them learn to read and master numbers, but, beyond that, a new approach is required. More about that later.

A second justification, socialization, has also been turned on its head by technology. Today’s kids don’t need school for socialization in the usual sense of learning to get along with their peers in the building. Why? Because there are Apps for that, dozens of them, including Facebook, FarmVille, MySpace and so on, and so ‘socialization’ takes on new meanings when kids routinely text with ‘friends they’ve never met’ across the continent or an ocean. Again, schools must adapt to this new reality.

Only custodial care, the third historical justification for school, remains unchanged. Parents still need places to send their children to keep them safe. So does the larger society, which has rejected child labor and does not want kids on the streets.

But when schools provide only custodial care and a marginal education that denies technology’s reach and power, young people walk away, as at least 6,000 do every school day, for an annual dropout total of over 1 million.

And, unfortunately, some of those who remain in marginal schools will find themselves in danger, because the youthful energy that ought to be devoted to meaningful learning will inevitably be released, somewhere. Often it comes out in bullying, cyberbullying and other forms of child abuse by children. That is, marginal education often produces dangerous schools.

Unfortunately, those in charge of public education have not been paying attention to these seismic changes. Instead they are warring over teacher competence, test scores, merit pay and union rules, issues that are fundamentally irrelevant to the world children live in.

Who are these warriors?

On one side in this battle is a cadre of prominent superintendents and wealthy hedge fund managers. Led by New York’s Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, 15 leading school superintendents issued a 1379-word manifesto in October 2010 asserting that the difficulty of removing incompetent teachers “has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.”

This side believes in charter schools, Teach for America, and paying teachers based on their students’ test scores. Publicly pushing this “free market” line is a powerful trio: Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” movie; NBC’s semi-journalistic exercise, “Education Nation;” and Oprah Winfrey. And if one movie isn’t enough, this side also has “The Lottery” in the wings.

It has identified the villains: bad teachers and the evil unions that protect them, particularly Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.

The other side is clearly outnumbered: The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the two teacher unions; many teachers and some Democrats. Its villains are No Child Left Behind and its narrow focus on bubble test scores in reading and math. This side’s far weaker megaphone is wielded by historian Diane Ravitch, a former Bush education policy-maker turned apostate. …….

But what’s most striking about this bitter battle is its irrelevance. The adults in charge are fighting the last war, and whoever wins doesn’t really matter to the millions of young people now being denied on a daily basis the learning opportunities that modern technology affords.

Our young people should be learning how to deal with the flood of information that surrounds them. They need guidance separating wheat from chaff. They need help formulating questions, and they need to develop the habit of seeking answers, not regurgitating them. They should be going to schools that expect them to discover, build, and cooperate.

Instead, most of them are stuck in institutions that expect them to memorize the periodic table, the names of 50 state capitals and the major rivers of the United States.

That’s what I wrote five years ago. Since that time, Diane Ravitch’s megaphone has proved to have an astounding reach {{1}}, and Dr. Ravitch herself has only grown stronger, despite a serious knee injury and the normal physical challenges that age brings. Joel Klein has moved on, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” has been thoroughly discredited as a propaganda film with staged scenes, “Education Nation” has been shelved, MySpace has disappeared, and the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top” has supplanted “No Child Left Behind” as the left’s federal whipping boy.

When I wrote those words in 2010, the Common Core State Standards existed on a drawing board. Today, they’re under attack by critics from left, right and center. The catalyst for the current battle was the CC testing now being administered. The ensuing “Opt Out” movement seems likely to lead to cuts in the number and frequency of standardized testing.

Just being opposed to ‘excessive testing’ is not enough, but, unfortunately, very few educators are addressing the fundamental irrelevance of schools, which was my point five years ago.

This rebellion will lead to less regurgitation, but no one who cares about the future of our democracy should be satisfied with that small step. It’s time for schools to enter the 21st Century, which, in my view, means embracing both “blended learning” and “project-based learning.”

We will always have schools, where working parents will send their kids. Beyond that, everything has to change. Young people’s bodies may be within a building, but their brains should be engaged with students across town, in other cities and around the globe. Young people can and should be doing real work. Discovering, not parroting.

Do any of the declared or likely presidential candidates get this? Any governors or mayors? Educational leaders?

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[[1]]1. As of today, her blog has had 20,244,461 page views.[[1]]