The play’s the thing

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.


How did you get through high school? If you are at all like me, your extra-curricular activities were the best part of the deal. The fun stuff — often what we worked hardest on — didn’t really count as far as many of the adults were concerned, but it kept us sane.

I bring this up because the Yale School of Music asked me to talk to 50 of the country’s best public school music teachers earlier this month. Perhaps foolishly, I accepted the invitation — but then had to figure out what I (not a musician) could say that might make sense to them. That got me thinking about the centrality of school’s ‘non-essential’ activities like music. And then I remembered how another ‘non-essential’ activity — drama — had rescued my own teaching. Here’s part of what I had to say:


You are music educators, but because I don’t have the bona fides to talk to musicians, I will try to say something worthwhile about education. But what? Well, Last week I arrived at a recording session early, before my producer got there. The sound engineer and I had some time to talk, and he asked me what I was working on. I told him that I had been invited to speak to some of the nation’s best music teachers and was grappling with the challenge — what to say.

‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Thank them for me.’

What do you mean, I asked?

‘Well, I wouldn’t have made it through high school or college if it hadn’t been for my music teachers.’

Tell me more, I said.

‘I played an instrument, but that wasn’t what made it matter. In music, the rewards are right there for the taking. You work with others and are only as good as the group. But you can get better — and know you are getting better — by practicing. In other classes, the rewards are external and symbolic (letter grades) but not in music.’

So, from 40-something Richard Fairbanks, thank you. I am certain there are hundreds of thousands of Richard Fairbankses out there, adults who survived school — and later prospered — because of you.

From me, congratulations. I am proud to be here with you.

I have read your biographies, and all I can say is ‘wow.’

Why teachers matter….

I think schools are teetering on the edge of a cliff marked ‘obsolescence.’ In my new book, I argue that two of the three reasons for having schools no longer apply. Now I realize there’s a fourth reason, one that involves you.

Here’s the story: I taught high school in New York in the mid-60s right after graduating from college. I write about that experience in The Influence of Teachers. One story I didn’t write about in the book I’d like to tell now, because it’s about how we turned to the arts — even then officially a non-essential activity — to energize our class. Looking back, I think it was the best teaching I ever did.

As a rookie teacher in a rigidly tracked school, I was not allowed anywhere near the kids who were on track to go to college. They were the ‘ones’ and the ‘twos.’ Instead, I was given five classes of ‘threes,’ the borderline kids that no one really cared very much about. They were Italian-Americans or working class Jews, with one or two Hispanics. For one class I was assigned to team-teach with an older Social Studies teacher named Patty Ecker (she was perhaps 24!). We struggled to interest the kids in the two subjects, without much success, until one day Patty said, “Let’s have them write a play.”

John Merrow teaching in 1966
John Merrow teaches at Paul D. Schreiber HS in Port Washington, NY in 1966.

Bingo! We told them that they had to come up with a story, explained plots, talked about ‘beginning, middle, end’ and all that stuff. They could decide on characters, action, plot, and so on. Once they realized that they had a blank slate, they took off.

Maybe predictably, the main characters of their play were tough but misunderstood teenagers, kids the adults looked down on because their hair was slicked back and they wore leather — girls and boys alike.

The plot involved shoplifting from a store in town. Cigarettes, maybe. The owner accused the greasers, of course, and I think the football captain actually fingered them.

You can guess the plot twist pretty easily. The goody-two-shoes guy and his perfect girlfriend were the thieves, and so on.

Word spread that Miss Ecker’s and Mr. Merrow’s class was writing a play and acting it out in class. Which we were. Kids would say their lines, and other kids would critique. Is that what Rocco would say? Is that how Vinnie would say it?

As enthusiasm built, someone suggested actually staging the play in the auditorium. That meant building at least two sets, because some of the action took place in a kid’s garage, some in an official office, maybe the principal’s, maybe the police chief’s — I don’t remember. They scrounged up props, including one kid’s chopped and lowered and louvered hot rod, if I remember correctly. Costumes. The whole nine yards.

For Patty and me, it was heaven. We were having — for the first time — the kinds of experiences that you have enjoyed throughout your careers, because we had engaged our kids in real work that both respected them and challenged them.

We had kids enthusiastically writing and rewriting. We heard from parents who had never been in touch with the school before. I remember a lovely letter I got from Joe Levy’s mother. Written in a loopy scrawl with a couple of minor mistakes, that letter touched me as very little has since, because she said that her Joey had been ready to drop out because he hated school but now he was jumping out of bed, eager to go.

When they put on the play one afternoon, those kids became heroes to a pretty sizable segment of the school, the large group of students who are barely visible to the adults. Their play stood up to the in-crowd, but that was only a small part of their triumph. They had flexed their creative muscles, something that hardly ever happens for most kids in “curricular” stuff.

Why these classes and activities are ever called ‘extra curricular’ is beyond me.

What we discovered, quite by accident, is something you know in your core: kids are not afraid of work, not if it’s work of value. Some teachers believe, incorrectly, that they can improve a student’s self-esteem with words and other easy expressions of praise (like high grades) even though the student isn’t doing the best work that he or she can. You know that accomplishment is the foundation of self-esteem. Students know when they’re doing their best, and they know when they’re being allowed to cut corners. They may grumble that their teachers are expecting too much, but good teachers know enough not to listen to that particular complaint.

So how do we save ‘extra curricular’ program like art and drama and music? I don’t believe that special pleading (“Save The Arts”) will work. We need a national conversation about our children, and I challenge you to help lead that.

(That’s my bumper sticker for you: DON’T PLEAD. LEAD.)

We have to ask a number of questions: What do we want our children (grandchildren, in my case) to be able to do? What kinds of people do we want them to grow up to become? What values matter? Are test scores a valid surrogate measure of our hopes for children, our own and those of others?

Then ask how we get there? Ask what the role of the school is? Ask what kinds of programs help kids grow in those directions?

If we ask those questions and if citizens and business leaders and politicians answer them honestly, the inevitable conclusion has to be that the arts in all their forms are fundamental, as important as — maybe more important than — the so-called basics.

When that day arrives, when we finally get our priorities right — and I believe we will — I hope you will be magnanimous and keep English and math and history on the list of ‘basics.’

But if you don’t, I will understand completely.

Again, my congratulations on your richly deserved honor, and thank you for the privilege of speaking with you today.



Does any of that ring a bell for you? What on earth can we do to get the people in charge to wake up to the importance of art, music, drama, journalism and even recess? They’re all being cut in the name of ‘academic rigor.’ And that insane policy is hurting children and youth everywhere.

Test question — can you spell ‘blackmail?’

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

If memory serves, years ago a group of students at a California high school deliberately filled in incorrect answers on a test the state used to evaluate its schools, thereby guaranteeing that the school would sink in the rankings. They were upset because the principal failed to bow to their demand for a smoking area or some similar privilege.

Whether the principal was right or wrong is immaterial. What matters is that the state had put him in that position by creating a test whose results meant nothing to those being tested — but could lead to cash bonuses for schools doing well.

Students at other high schools apparently went to their principals and offered to do really well in return for privileges. Not sure how that turned out.

In 2006, according to California reporter John Fensterwald, students at a charter school in San Jose protested the dismissal of a couple of popular teachers by sabotaging a state test. The school’s score on the all-important Academic Progress Index dropped 203 points, from 731 to 528.

What brings that to mind is the news that New York City is going to spend at least $25 million to create tests whose scores will, they hope, allow them to judge teachers (not students).

As Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said to the New York Times, “How do you create an additional assessment that is actually going to strengthen instructional practice, rather than divert time away from instruction?”

That, he added, “is what we set out to solve.”

From my vantage point, there is so much wrong with this thinking as to be laughable — although maybe Dr. Polakow-Suransky (by all accounts a brilliant man) is being logical given that the legislature passed a law last year that requires districts to find ways to rate teachers on a scale from ‘highly effective’ to ‘ineffective.’ The legislature was doing Washington’s bidding, to help the state win the Race to the Top competition, so perhaps the madness starts in the Congress and the White House.

But madness it is, because New York City will be piling more tests on top of those already being administered. The Times reports that, if the plan is carried out, high school students could end up taking as many as eight additional tests a year, because, after all, not everyone teaches math or language arts. As spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz said in an email, “Some of the things that need to be determined are how are we going to ‘test’ students in art classes…students in Physical education… students in Spanish.”

There will be more tests for elementary and middle school students as well.

Now about the blackmail: When New York City rolls out the test exams next year in 100 or so schools, how long before some savvy students let teachers know that they know what’s going on — and are willing to try their best if the teacher will agree to (fill in your own answer here).

Reporters have to be salivating at the prospect of some really juicy stories emerging from this idiotic policy. If it weren’t so stupid, I would be really pumped too.

According to the Times article, sample tests were given in 11 schools this spring, but no one told the students what the deal was. Good luck with keeping that a secret as the tests spread to other schools.

And in fact, Dr. Polakow-Suransky urged full disclosure. “I don’t think it should be a secret that part of how teachers are evaluated is how kids’ learning goes on in their class,” he said.

Bubble Test

(Perhaps I should say ‘if the tests spread,’ because spokeswoman Ravitz says they have only put out the RFP but “haven’t made decisions.”)

Doesn’t anybody have the courage to challenge this slavish devotion to standardized testing (mostly bubble tests, by the way)? Students in New York City finished taking their ‘end of the year’ state test in mid-May, but school itself doesn’t get out until the end of June. For kids (and for the policy types in their comfortable offices), the tests are everything. Teachers, of course, have to hold their students’ interest for another six weeks or so.

Dr. Polakow-Suransky said the challenge was to create an additional assessment that will ‘strengthen instruction.’

I say he ought to examine the premise of the law and challenge it, because the goal ought to be to strengthen teaching and learning. This entire exercise strikes me as a ‘gotcha game’ whose outcome will undermine the teaching profession, increase disrespect among students for schooling, and take time away from teaching and learning. It will, however, allow students to strengthen their bargaining and blackmailing skills.

Assessments can strengthen instruction, of course. Frequent school-based tests in math, for example, can pinpoint which teachers are having difficulty getting certain concepts across; they can then learn different approaches from their more successful peers. That’s not ‘gotcha’ testing but sensible assessment with an immediate feedback loop.

I write about many of these issues in my book, The Influence of Teachers. A lot of our problems in public education stem from a dearth of respect. We don’t respect students’ intelligence; hence we focus on the lowest common denominator in skills. We don’t respect teachers, which is why we turn to standardized testing as the be-all and end-all of evaluation. I’m not sure we even respect learning itself.

Nor do we expect very much from our kids, frankly. Imagine setting the bar for reading at third grade, when most first graders are fully capable of learning to read and learning to enjoy reading?

But enough of this rant. The questions are:

How do we raise expectations?

How do we get beyond the insult of ‘the basics’?

How do we wean ourselves away from our addiction to more and more standardized testing?

The floor is open for suggestions (I’ve done the ranting).

Can this marriage be saved?

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

With all the attention on marriages these days (the Royal Wedding, Newt Gingrich and wife No. 3, Mitch Daniels and his happy remarriage to his ex, and so on) shouldn’t we be paying more attention to one very troubled marriage: the one between the American public and our teachers?

No doubt it’s troubled, but can this marriage be saved? Continue reading

The joys of jargon

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

At Harvard recently a young graduate student asked me a tough question:

Mr. Merrow, you have been interviewing educators for 35 years. How do you know when an educator is sincere and can be trusted?

It’s a great question, but before I tell you how I answered her, let me admit that, once I got back to New York, I queried other education reporters on the subject. Is there language — jargon — that makes you suspicious of educators, I asked?

The flood of responses surprised me. It seems that a lot of reporters have had it up to here with educational jargon. Their (non) favorites include phrases like: ‘at risk,’ ‘scaffolding,’ ‘value-added,’ ‘best practices,’ ‘state of the art,’ ‘laser-like focus,’ and ‘raising the bar.’

For about half a dozen reporters the absolute nails-on-the-blackboard term is ‘stakeholders.’

I can’t resist stringing together expressions, like so:

“Aligned instruction with buy-in by highly qualified teachers for authentic inquiry-based learning and student engagement in professional learning communities will produce 21st Century skills in our youngsters.” (And I’ll bet some educator somewhere has actually said that!)

(But not in my new book, The Influence of Teachers.  I did my best to make it a jargon-free zone and will refund your purchase price if you can find examples of my — non-ironic — use of ‘educationese.’)

Educators apparently adore alliteration: ‘Scaffolding for success,’ ‘ramp up for rigor and readiness,’ ‘data-driven,’ ‘drilling down,’ ‘authentic assessment,’ ‘teaching to the test,’ and ‘rigorous research.’

Reporter Jackie Borchardt of the Casper Star-Tribune made a school board bingo card last year that included ‘literacy,’ ‘goal team,’ ‘rigor,’ ‘pathways,’ ‘research-based,’ ‘engaged,’ ‘high-access,’ ‘what’s best for kids,’ ‘cohort,’ ‘strategic plan,’ ‘and ‘21st century education. She didn’t say whether she called out “Bingo” during a School Board meeting!

JargonDoes jargon disguise vacuity? Anne Lewis, a veteran reporter, offered this analysis: “I have come to the conclusion that it exists because of a professional lack of esteem. Other professions requiring college degrees have a specific language — medicine, the sciences, engineering, law. But educators only have plain English, so they change it into a ‘professional’ language that sounds fancy and inaccessible when it ought to be the most accessible profession of all.”

Do some educators obfuscate because they think it makes them sound more professional? Are some educators so deep in the weeds of their profession that they have forgotten how to communicate with ordinary folks?

And are some being duplicitous, saying, ‘We know what works’ when in fact they do not?

I suspect it’s “Yes” to all of the above.

So how did I answer that young woman?

I told her that two terms make me hyper-vigilant: rigorous and ready to learn. ‘Ready to Learn’ tells me one of two things: either the educator hasn’t thought about the difference between being ‘ready to learn’ and being “ready for school” OR she actually believes they mean the same thing. If the latter, that’s remarkable arrogance. If the former, let’s hope the leader can be taught the difference.

I hate it when educators talk about the need for a ‘rigorous curriculum’ because that tells me they haven’t thought much about the meaning of the adjective (harsh and unyielding). Perhaps they think it makes them sound tough, as if that were a good thing, but I associate rigor with death (‘rigor mortis’). Who needs that in our classrooms? Why not say ‘challenging’ instead?

But what I listen for are clues about beliefs. When an educator looks at a child, I want to know if he wonders, “How intelligent is this kid?” — or is he thinking “How is this child intelligent?”

If the former, then the educator is operating from a medical model, with himself as the doctor and provider of cures. I don’t like that philosophy. If the latter, he is working from a health model and is ready to build on the child’s strengths.

I advised the young woman that one cannot simply ask educators which way they look at the world, because they will spit back the politically correct response. Instead, I said, watch and listen carefully. Cut through — or even ignore — the jargon, which at the end of the day is a nuisance and a distraction. It’s the core beliefs that matter.

The “Failure” of Head Start

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Every American toddler should have the opportunity to attend a high-quality, free preschool.  Whether they go or not would be up to their parents or guardians, of course, but the opportunity should be there. We now know that most brain growth occurs before a child reaches kindergarten age. It is a fact that most American parents are working outside the home. Our economic competitors are already providing this opportunity for their 4-year-olds (and often their 3-year-olds), a fact that has implications for our economic health.

It’s not that we haven’t made a stab at creating preschool programs. Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” created Head Start back in 1965, but I would say (tongue firmly in cheek) that Head Start is a “failure.” The federal preschool program for 4-year-olds was supposed to level the playing field for poor children, and it has not done that.

Continue reading

Now more than ever, we must speak up for teachers

American public education remains front and center, which is mostly good news.  Let me start this ‘news summary’ in Washington, DC, where President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are calling for fundamental changes in the law known as No Child Left Behind, the Bush Administration’s version of Title One of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

No Child Left Behind

I doubt you could find more than a handful of educators who like NCLB these days, but whether anyone in the nation’s capital will be able to agree on what a new version should call for is highly questionable.

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In education, a lack of response to basic demand

I started writing this blog entry on a flight to California from New York; I’m headed there for another book party and a meeting of the Learning Matters board.

For the last 30 minutes or so, I have been listening to a father talk about his two young children, ages 7 and 10.  He’s an older Dad with at least one adult child, and he radiates child-like enthusiasm about what amounts to a second go-round of childrearing. He’s been telling me about their endless curiosity; they always are asking “why?” and “how does this work?” and so on.

As I listened, a dark cloud flickered across my eyes and I wondered: what would their schools do to their spark?

Nurture it, tolerate it, or extinguish it?

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E.D. Hirsch, Mike Smith and Linda Katz offer insights on reading development

If journalism is history’s first rough draft, then perhaps blogs like this one are journalism’s notes and outline. For me, this blog continues to be a wonderful learning opportunity, largely because of thoughtful readers who question my assumptions and provide me with information I have either forgotten or never seen.

In the few days since I posted my thoughts about early reading, I have received several (welcome) wake-up calls from E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (of Core Knowledge fame), Marshall ‘Mike’ Smith (former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton), and Linda Katz (Director of the Children’s Literacy Initiative in Philadelphia).

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The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading helps with a national crisis

I am currently in Washington, DC attending the kick-off of what is being called “The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading,” a three-day event focused on an issue constantly growing in importance. Its organizers, led by the irrepressible Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, initially expected to attract between 50 and 70 participants; more than 200 of us signed up, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who will deliver the closing address on Tuesday.

Because we are now editing a piece for PBS NewsHour about what is often called ‘the vocabulary gap’ that develops in the first three years of life, I am especially aware of the need for public action.  We know that about 75 percent of the children who aren’t reading competently and confidently by the end of third grade will never catch up.

No mistake: This is a crisis!

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Another year without Fred Rogers, and more reminders of why we miss him

With some members of Congress intent on eliminating federal funding for public radio and television, a friend sent me this remarkable video.  It reminds us of what we lost when the remarkable Fred Rogers died eight years ago this Sunday, but it has a second powerful message about the value of public television and radio, then, now and tomorrow:

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