Bullying, Suicide, and Murder

Last week in this space I connected the dots between bullying and the suicides and attempted suicides by children and adolescents, pointing out the close correlation between them. This week, I want to surface an equally grim reality: school shootings are also closely correlated with bullying.

Fortunately, there are a number of simple steps that we can take to reduce bullying and, by extension, suicides, suicide attempts, and school shootings.

Let’s cut to the chase: Girls who are bullied beyond their breaking point are most likely to try to kill themselves, not others.  All too often they succeed. 

By contrast, boys who reach the breaking point are far more likely to try to kill others.  All too often, they are successful.

Girls rarely use guns.  Boys usually do.  And guns almost always function they way they are supposed to, meaning that people die.  And, sadly, guns are readily available in modern America.  (About 70% of school shooters got their weapons at home or from relatives, according to ABC News.)

“The modern era of school shootings” (an awful phrase) began on April 20, 1999 in Littleton, Colorado, when two white male teenagers who had been bullied excessively shot up their high school, Columbine High, killing 13 people and wounding at least 20 others before they turned their guns on themselves.  The ensuing 19+ years have seen close to 300 school shootings  including Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, two that you no doubt remember.  By the way, at least 65 of the shooters who survived said they were ‘inspired’ by Columbine.

Perhaps you remember reading about the jock culture that dominated Columbine High School.  Male athletes, usually football players and wrestlers, were reported to have ‘routinely’ stuffed the two boys into trash cans, for example, while the adults looked the other way because, after all, ‘Boys will be boys.’

For more evidence of the role of bullying in these mass murders, see here and  here.   Or read the first few pages of Jesse Klein’s book, The Bully Society.

Five variables combine to produce school bullying, and each one of them needs to be proactively addressed if we want to reduce school shootings and adolescent/child suicide.  Here are my specific suggestions

  1. Vulnerable Kids”  The structure of school– segregating students by age and grade–actually exacerbates the vulnerability of children, because, inevitably, some older kids tease younger ones, and teasing can turn into bullying.  Even though I entered junior high school more than 60 years ago, I still vividly remember being harassed and teased by the older kids; perhaps many of you can recall similar painful experiences.   We can change that by creating cross-grade links.  At my high school, every freshman was assigned to one of three school-wide clubs (Alpha, Beta, or Gamma), immediately linking them with the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders in their club.  We lowly 9th graders could earn points for our club by making a freshman team, being on the monthly honor roll, participating in dramatics, the newspaper, band, choral groups, and so forth.  The club with the most points earned the school’s highly coveted trophy.  The club structure meant that the older students had incentives to support lowly 9th graders in their club, not harass them.

School leaders need to create incentives like that for older students to help and work with younger kids, and this has to be intentionally built into the bones of the institution. I suggest enlisting student leaders in the upper grades to help solve the problem.

Being ‘anti-bullying’ may be a first baby step, but it ain’t even close to being enough  Social services that identify and provide support for troubled kids are necessary, but not sufficient.  If that’s all schools do, nothing will change….

  1. Bored Kids”  The sad truth is the high school is boring for most kids most of the time, because the sorting system that is public education has long since decided which group each kid belongs to: some are college-bound ‘winners,’ but most are relegated to a lesser group of (never stated explicitly) ‘losers’ who aren’t challenged academically.  Inevitably these bored kids are going to find some ways to fill up their time because “idle minds to the devil’s work.”  I write about this at length in Addicted to Reform and cannot do justice to this issue here, but suffice it to say that students who are doing real work rarely get bored.  Real work is just that: assignments that lead to new knowledge instead of the ‘regurgitation education’ that most high school students endure.

Here’s a quick example: Juniors in a public high school science class were tasked with developing an age-appropriate toy for three-year-olds that would facilitate their brain development…and also create a marketing plan for their product. Working in teams, they had to learn about brain development and the physical abilities of that age group. Using CAD programs, they designed their toys, taking into consideration size, color, and ‘feel.’ Then they had to draw up plans for advertising their new toy to young mothers and fathers, or perhaps to pediatricians and grandparents.  There were no obviously right answers to this challenge, although there clearly could be wrong ones (toy too small or too large, and so forth).   Believe me, those kids were not bored!

Schools need to ask a different question about every young person: “How is this child intelligent?”  Stop asking ‘How smart is this kid?”  Then build on those strengths!

  1. Free Time” We are paying the price for cutting art, music, drama, journalism, intramural sports, because those ‘extra curricular’ activities are what matter most to most young people.  Years of so-called “Education Reform” and our disastrous obsession with standardized testing, expressed specifically through  “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” are the means by which we did this to ourselves.  The replacement legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act, is not much of an improvement, unfortunately.

(And most of the men and women who make those disastrous policy decisions do not send their children and grandchildren to bare-bones schools!   If the cooks don’t eat at their own restaurants, we shouldn’t either.)

  1. Anonymous Social Media” Technology is inescapable, and school leaders must acknowledge that.  Too many adults throw up their hands and say, “Oh, kids today are digital natives, and we are just tourists, alien visitors.”  That’s just plain lame. Yes, they are natives, but it’s our job and our duty to teach them to be digital citizens!   That means harnessing technology for good, as in the example above.   Productive kids are less likely to have the time to hound other students.  (Addicted to Reform has lots of useful examples.)

At the same time, adults must make students aware of the dangers inherent in anonymous social media. Examples pop up every week:

“LONDON — The 26-year-old man pretended to be a teenage girl to meet boys and young men on online chat forums.  He called himself “Sandra” or “Henriette,” met boys from Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and asked them to send explicit images and videos, prosecutors say.  When they complied, he threatened to publish the footage on YouTube if they did not keep the images coming. He talked a few into meeting in person. Then, officials said, he raped some of them.”  That’s from this week’s New York Times!

  1. Lack of Effective Adult Leadership”  Being loving, caring, empathetic, or concerned is not enough. Adults must lead by example.  I cited the willingness of some adults at Columbine High School to dismiss widespread bullying because, after all, “Boys will be boys” as one factor in the massacre that followed. Imagine for a moment that those adults had intervened when those two boys were being tossed around and stuffed into trash cans. Suppose they had said, “Hey, we don’t do that here! We are better than that.”  What if the bullies had been called out and shamed for their behavior?  Perhaps those two boys would not have shot up their school, and our history would have been different.

But adult leaders have to do more than just stop looking the other way.

  1. They also can restructure school (as in #1 above) to minimize age/grade segregation;

2.  They can enable teachers to support real work instead of ‘regurgitation education,’ as in #2 above;

3.  They can encourage limiting the number of standardized tests their students must take, and they can work to restore extracurricular activities, as in #3; and

4.  They can reward teachers who harness technology for the creation of knowledge, while they also work to educate students–and their parents–about the dangers of anonymous social media, as in #4.

Perhaps real gun control is not immediately achievable, but real changes in the way our children go to school–those we can work on today and begin to see real results almost immediately.

If you agree, please circulate this post to others who share your concern.



Here is the basic formula for adolescent suicide:   VK + BK + FT + ASM + LEAL = BULLYING & SUICIDE AND SUICIDE ATTEMPTS.

Vulnerable Kids” + “Bored Kids” + “Free Time” + “Anonymous Social Media” + “Lack of Effective Adult Leadership” lead to Bullying, which in turn often leads to Suicide and Suicide Attempts by Some Vulnerable Children.  

Every one of those five variables can and must be addressed by educators, but, sadly, most schools that I know about focus on the first, the victims.  That manages to imply that it’s really the fault of the children who are intent on hurting themselves, even though the data about the impact of bullying by peers is inescapable.

What follows are three disturbing stories,  the first about a 9-year-old boy in Denver, the second about a 9-year-old girl in Birmingham, Alabama, the third about a 12-year-old girl in Lakeland, Florida.  I conclude with some very specific actions that I believe schools and the adults in charge must take, if we are to stem this epidemic of child/adolescent suicides and suicide attempts.

The first story, from Denver, Colorado: — ‘Leia Pierce shuffled out the front door on Tuesday. Her son, Jamel Myles, 9, had killed himself last week, and she was still struggling with the basics. Eating. Sleeping. “I took a shower, but I put the same clothes back on,” she said, staring at the ground. “I need him back.”

Jamel, a fourth grader at Joe Shoemaker Elementary School in Denver, hanged himself in his bedroom last Thursday, according to the county coroner, and his death has plunged a mother into despair and a community into disbelief.

Ms. Pierce says her son committed suicide after a year in which he and his older sister were bullied frequently at school. Over the summer, he had told his mother he was gay. Now, she is angry at the school, which she believes should have done more to stop the taunts and insults.

Will Jones, a spokesman for Denver Public Schools, said administrators planned to conduct a thorough review of the case. “We are deeply committed to our students’ well-being,” he said in a statement.

Jamel’s death comes amid a startling rise in youth suicides, part of a larger public health crisis that has unfolded over a generation: Even as access to mental health care has expanded, the suicide rate in the United States has risen 25 percent since 1999. Middle schoolers are now just as likely to die from suicide as they are from traffic accidents.’

The second story, from Birmingham, Alabama:  “The parents of a 9-year-old Alabama girl who hanged herself say a combination of bullying and her ADHD  medications was to blame. Madison “Maddie” Whittsett, a fourth-grader from Birmingham, was declared dead at a hospital on Monday morning — three days after her mom found her hanging in her bedroom closet, she told AL.com.  …. Maddie, who suffered from ADHD, had trouble with bullies at school who called her names like “stupid” and “dumb” because she required one-on-one coaching with teachers, her parents said. Weeks prior to her death, Maddie started a new ADHD medication, which lists possible “suicidal thoughts” as a side effect.  “The bullying plus the medicine, I think, gave her the boost to do that,” her stepfather said.

Educators need to be aggressive on this issue. They must show leadership and set a tone, “We don’t do that here at our school!”  But anti-bullying campaigns, even 24/7, won’t do what needs to be done.

And while it’s essential to work with troubled kids to help them understand that suicide is “a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” educators also ought to be looking at the underlying causes of suicide attempts—such as intense academic stress.

I believe that schools MUST also engage students in productive uses of technology, to offset the 99% ‘consumption’ experience they otherwise have.  Schools must engage students in meaningful work, because otherwise some will spend their idle time harassing the vulnerable kids. Remember, it’s not idle hands or idle thumbs that do the Devil’s work.  Idle minds do the Devil’s work….

The Times reported Jamel Myles’s suicide, the Post about Maddie Whittsett’s, and in “Addicted to Reform,” I wrote about Rebecca Sedwick.  She was 12, not 9, but otherwise the story is frighteningly similar.

The third story, from Lakeland, Florida: When technology’s powers are ignored by adults and abused by children, death and disaster can be the outcome. Rebecca Sedwick’s story should give you pause. The official records note Rebecca Sedwick’s death as a suicide. While there’s no disputing that the twelve-year-old jumped to her death from an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland, Florida, what happened to her requires new terminology. Perhaps we should call it “peer slaughter” to convey what killed Rebecca, who had been “absolutely terrorized on social media” by fifteen middle school girls for over a year, according to the sheriff of Polk County, Grady Judd.

Preventing tragedies like this requires more than vigilance by parents and educators. Anti-bullying campaigns may help, but unless schools are proactive in their use of technology so that the energies of young people are engaged in meaningful ways, idle hands (and thumbs) will continue to do the devil’s work.

The “mean girls” phenomenon is not new, but what’s different and frightening today are the weapons at their disposal, an array of apps that allow users to post and send messages anonymously. Rebecca’s mother singled out Ask.fm, Kik, and Voxer as three the girls had used to send messages like “You’re ugly,” “Can u die please?” and “Why are you still alive?”

Rebecca is one of the youngest children to die from the growing number of cyberbullying incidents. About 20 percent of young people have been victimized, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, a clearinghouse of information on cyberbullying. Around 15 percent of teens admit that they have bullied or ridiculed others on social media, photo-sharing sites, and other websites, according to the center.

“It’s now 24-7. It’s not just something you can escape after the school day,” Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, told the Orlando Sentinel.

Rebecca and her mother, Tricia Norman, fought back. Norman told the New York Times that she closed down Rebecca’s Facebook page and monitored her cellphone use. She changed Rebecca’s cellphone number and kept tabs on her social media footprint. Rebecca changed schools, and for a while her life seemed to have turned around. Then she began using the new apps, setting off a new round of cyberbullying. (Apparently her original “offense” was showing interest in a boy that one of the other girls liked.)

“I don’t want parents to wait for a tragedy to have those conversations,” Cherie Benjoseph, co-founder of the Boca Raton–based KidSafe Foundation, told WPTV. “We’re all still pretty naive on many levels. We’re all still crossing our fingers and hoping it doesn’t happen to our children.”

Benjoseph said that Sedwick’s suicide should be a wake-up call to all parents, who must demand to know what their kids are really doing online. Keeping computers and phones out of a child’s bedroom is another good move, she says, because what teens do online must not be off-limits to parents. “Our children sometimes lead double lives,” she said.

More good advice: Have device-free times at home, especially at mealtimes. It’s difficult to know what’s going on in your children’s lives if they are always looking at screens. Bedrooms should be device-free. I know families in which everyone (including the adults) is required to leave their phones in a basket at the foot of the stairs when they head upstairs to bed. The phones recharge downstairs, the humans upstairs. Computers and tablets belong in common spaces, not in bedrooms. Getting all parents to adopt sensible policies and practices is unrealistic, particularly in a time when a lot of parents seem to negotiate every decision with their children, no matter how young they may be. But even if most parents were to adopt these practices, schools still need to do the right thing.

Schools are where most children are, and adults there can set the tone and—more important—determine what kids do with their devices. I often hear adults describing today’s young people as “digital natives,” usually with a tone of resignation or acceptance: “They are so far ahead of us, but we can turn to them for help.” That kind of thinking smacks of abdication of adult responsibility. Yes, most young people know more than we adults do, because the fast-changing world of modern technology is largely alien to us, wildly different from the one we grew up in. But being a digital native is not the same as being a digital citizen. Young people have always needed ethical guidance and the security of rules and boundaries. That’s truer now because many apps allow kids to “go nuclear” without fear of being identified. Kids who spend hours every day on their devices are unlikely to develop empathy for others, and it’s a lack of empathy that seems to fuel cyberbullying.

Some experts say that kids spend 90 percent of their tech time consuming, and perhaps 10 percent doing creative work. If that’s accurate—if they’re texting, playing Angry Birds and Grand Theft Auto, linking up on Facebook and Google Circles, sexting, and cyberbullying 90 percent of the time—then we adults should be ashamed.

Unless, of course, we are equally guilty of obsessing over our devices. A central function of schools is what’s often called socialization. It might be more useful to call it “developing empathy.” As Catherine Steiner-Adair notes in her book The Big Disconnect, “Empathy might seem a ‘soft’ skill when compared to reading, writing, and math, but it is actually a neurological phenomenon as well as a soulful one.” She adds, “The development of empathy comes from direct experience.”  Cathy Davidson of Duke University says much the same thing: “The brain is what it does.”

Both are echoing the timeless wisdom, “We are what we repeatedly do.” In my experience, the education community uses technology 80–90 percent of the time to control—everything from keeping the school’s master schedule and monitoring attendance and grades to tracking teacher performance and imparting the knowledge we believe kids need to have. That’s pretty much the opposite of what should be happening.

Because an important purpose of school is to help “grow adults,” then the creative use of technology—by adults and young people—must be ramped up dramatically. Students ought to be using today’s technologies to create knowledge and to find answers to important questions. If they aren’t doing that, then those idle brains and thumbs will be doing the devil’s work, as those girls in South Florida were doing.

The law is very much on the side of the victims, and school authorities ought to know that they are obligated under federal law to protect young people. I am referring not to anti-bullying legislation, which differs from state to state, but to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, sometimes known as “that damned sports law.” Title IX clearly prohibits sexual harassment, and most cyberbullying and other forms of bullying include sexual references. Girls are called “sluts” and “hos,” boys are called “fags” and other names. Sexual rumors and comments are frequent. All that violates Title IX.

Title IX also prohibits these behaviors outside the school (for example, when personal computers are used) when the behavior is disruptive to learning or affects a student’s ability to partake of the opportunities for learning and in other opportunities provided by the school. In short, schools and school administrators, under Title IX, are obligated to stop sexual cyberbullying. Moreover, they stand to lose federal funding if they do not. Some districts have paid six-figure settlements for their demonstrated failure to protect students from harassment and cyberbullying.

Money talks. Understanding the legal and financial ramifications of all forms of bullying is one of the best incentives to get schools involved in developing specific programs for students, families, administrators, teachers, staff, including the janitors. Self-interest is a powerful incentive, as are the threats of federal involvement and individual lawsuits. Together, these should motivate schools to proactively develop strong prevention programs—to let everyone know that “we don’t tolerate bullying here, because we’re better than that.”

But defensive behavior is not sufficient. Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them twenty-four hours a day. You and I were sent to schools because that’s where the knowledge was stored—but that was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. Because computers seemingly have all the answers, young people need to be able to formulate good questions.

When schools do these things, young people will be learning (or reinforcing) real-world skills that will help them once they move out of school. They’ll be working together; they’ll be gathering, assimilating, and analyzing data; they’ll be learning how to present what they are learning. They will be working with numbers and writing persuasive reports. No doubt some will be speaking publicly about their findings. This is career-track stuff, 180 degrees different from the regurgitation that is the hallmark of most education today.

Another plus is that the hours they spend on projects like these are hours they cannotspend consuming technology. And because they are using technology to create, they will not be bored, and will be less likely to use technology’s power negatively. Stronger in their own sense of self, they will probably be less likely to feel the need to cyberbully others. Had Rebecca Sedwick’s schools taken this approach, she might be alive today.

Please remember that “We are what we repeatedly do.” We cannot wish today’s powerful technology away or keep it out of our children’s hands. It’s naive to think that anti-bullying campaigns and posters will be sufficient. Technology can be used for good or ill, and how schools employ it depends in large part on us.  And using technology to create knowledge and engage children will save lives.

Perhaps doing that will save the life of someone you care about,  or perhaps it will save the lives of children who, if allowed, would grow up to cure cancer, win Academy Awards, serve as effective political leaders, or become brilliant classroom teachers!

Here’s that formula again.


Vulnerable Kids” + “Bored Kids” + “Free Time” + “Anonymous Social Media” + “Lack of Effective Adult Leadership” lead to Bullying, which in turn often leads to Suicide and Suicide Attempts by Some Vulnerable Children.  

Please share this, and please intervene wherever you have influence.

As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap…..

We cannot let continuing evidence of the folly of test-centric education be obscured by the craziness of our polarized politics or the increasingly frequent (and devastating) proof of climate change, because, make no mistake, public education is in danger, and not just from Betsy DeVos and her privatizing schemes.

Here’s my headline: Since the non-partisan “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 ushered in ‘accountability’ and ‘school reform,’ things have generally gone south, and students and teachers are paying the price. Students are being mis-educated and undereducated by a system that basically reduces them to a number, their score on standardized, machine-scored tests.

The latest evidence comes from ACT’s report on the “Performance of 2018 Graduates,” and it’s not pretty.  The ACT score range is 1-36, with 20 being “OK.”  The average score in English, 20.2, is a point lower than its high point in 2007.   And the average math score, 20.6, represents a 20-year low.

But it is actually worse than that, because ACT also claims to measure measures whether our high school graduates are ready for college…and most are not.

As Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz reported, “Math and English scores drew the attention of the ACT by another measure, too: readiness for college-level work. The ACT’s score benchmarks are correlated with the likelihood of earning Bs or Cs in credit-bearing coursework. And increasing numbers of students are falling short.

Only 4 in 10 met the math benchmark, the lowest level since 2004, and down from 46 percent in 2012. Six in 10 met the English benchmark, the lowest level since the benchmarks were introduced in 2002.”

It’s tempting to simply reprint data from ACT’s own report, merely adding emphasis here and there.

Slightly fewer ACT-tested graduates were ready for college coursework this year than last year. The percentage of students meeting at least three of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in the four core subject areas was 38% for the 2018 US high school graduating class, down from 39% last year but the same as in 2016.

• A higher percentage of students this year than in recent years fell to the bottom of the preparedness scale, showing little or no readiness for college coursework. Thirty-five percent of 2018 graduates met none of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, up from 31% in 2014 and from 33% last year.

• The national average ACT Composite score for the 2018 graduating class was 20.8, down from 21.0 last year but the same as in 2016. Average scores in English, mathematics, reading, and science all dropped between 0.1 and 0.3 point compared to last year.

Readiness levels in math and English have steadily declined since 2014.

Readiness levels in reading and science have varied over the past five years, with no clear upward or downward trends.

• The average Composite score for Asian students rose this year compared to last year. Average scores for students in all other racial/ethnic groups, however, were down.

College readiness levels remain dismal for underserved learners (low-income, minority, and/or first generation college students—who make up 43% of all ACT-tested graduates). Once again, fewer than a fourth of underserved graduates showed overall readiness for college coursework.


These seniors have had 12 or 13 years of test-centric education, and the kids coming up behind them have also endured what the ‘school reformers’ designed.  How much more evidence do we need of the folly of “No Child Left Behind” and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” before we take back our schools?

People who have consistently been ‘half right’ have been in charge of public education for too long.  Now some are changing their tune (“Perhaps we have been testing too much,” they say) and asking for another chance.  Others, however, are doubling down, calling for more charter schools, vouchers and other aid for private schools, and more anti-union initiatives.  I say a plague on both their houses.

It’s past time for progressives to speak loudly in support of strong public education….as well as other social initiatives that will address homelessness, hunger, and lack of health care.  Schools don’t function in isolation, not when–for example–about 10 percent of New York City’s public school students are homeless.

My suggestions for a clear path forward can be found in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”  You might also want to pick up Dan Koretz’s “The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better;These Schools Belong to You and Me,” by Debbie Meier and Emily Gasol; and Ted Dintersmith’s “What Schools Could Be.” 



Can the Charter Movement Be Saved?

Can we agree that the charter school ‘movement’ is in big trouble?  Scandals emerge daily, or so it seems.   “Are Charter Schools the New Enron?”, one reputable study asks, for example.  Here’s one awful scandal.   Here’s another.  This is not just smoke; it’s a raging fire that threatens all charter schools, it seems to me.

Everyone knows that charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, supposedly bound by a ‘charter’ that spells out what the school will accomplish.  These licenses, typically for three or five years, are not supposed to be renewed if the school does not deliver. That does happen occasionally, but most often charters are renewed unless and until some awful scandal–usually financial–emerges.  And most charter schools are not financially transparent, meaning that it’s probable that more skullduggery goes unnoticed than is exposed.  That means that public funds–possibly billions of dollars–have been going into private pockets. I write about this at some length in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education” (which is available at good bookstores and on Amazon).

Charter schools were supposed to allow educators to innovate and improve student learning, and the best of them have done so.  However, academically, the overall results are mixed at best, and in some instances have led to more segregation by race and class. 

Those interested in the history of the movement should turn to Ember Reichgott Junge’s book, Zero Chance of Passage, a compelling read.  For critical analysis of the book and the charter story in Minnesota, go here.

I’ve been interested in this story since I moderated the founding meeting at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1988, thirty years ago this October, and I’ve reported on charter schools in Arizona, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, New Orleans, Minnesota, and elsewhere.  Since the first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1992, thousands more have been started, and some bizarre things happened:  1) Entrepreneurs and hustlers saw an opening for money-making; 2) some ideologues saw charter schools as an opportunity to bust teacher unions and maybe get school vouchers too; and 3) some elitists of varying political stripes decided they could open a charter school that would, in effect, be their children’s private school (at public expense).

But it was not all bad, not by a long shot, because lots of decent, idealistic men and women jumped at the opportunity to provide transformative educational experiences for children.

While in theory there are non-profit charter schools and for-profit ones, that’s a distinction without a real difference, because some of the supposed non-profit ones are laughing all the way to the bank.  That said, for-profit schools (usually run by an Education Management Organization, EMO) are, as far as I can tell, almost uniformly bad.  Here’s some good news: Just today California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law legislation banning for-profit charter schools across the state.  Let’s hope more states follow that example!

What’s more, all non-profit charter schools must be required to as financially transparent as their traditional public schools!

Plus we need strong oversight of on-line charter schools, a major scam in too many places.

The best-known charter schools like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First are large networks; these are known as Charter Management Organizations, shortened to CMO’s.  If you are in New York City, you must know about Eva Moskowitz and her CMO/network of Success Academies. Those schools are controversial because of their harsh tactics that cull their classes of students, usually ones who aren’t likely to do well on standardized tests, often using ‘out of school suspensions’ for very young children.  I’ve reported on this for the PBS NewsHour, as has Kate Taylor of The New York Times.  And you can read Eva’s draconian list of 65 offenses for which a child can be suspended here.  (Some fans of Benito Mussolini were upset when I compared the two.)

What you may not know is that most  of the roughly 5,500 charter schools are one-off, independent institutions, sometimes called ‘Mom and Pop’ charter schools.  Within this universe is a wide range of institutions, many of them focused on children and run by idealistic and public-spirited men and women.

But not all!  Some skirt or cross the line.  Two years ago I became curious about the salaries of charter school operators. How much were they paying themselves, on a per-pupil basis?  The winner of my faux award for “Does Least, Earns Most” was the operator of one of those independent charter schools!  

So where are we today? As I argue in “Addicted,” the term charter school today is virtually meaningless. It’s akin to saying ‘restaurant,’ a term that tells you nothing about the type, quality, or cost of the food being served.   That should have the supporters of quality charter schools up in arms….but it doesn’t.

I began by asking whether the charter school movement can be saved.  Well, the supposed ‘good guys’ of the movement don’t seem to be lifting a finger.  The major group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is conspicuously silent about the burgeoning scandals, as are the major Charter Management Organizations like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First.

The only positive step I am aware of has been taken by a small group of independent charter school operators, led by a human dynamo named Steve Zimmerman.  The group is committed to financial transparency, multiple measures of learning, no admissions tests for students, and local, site-based decision making about everything that goes on in the schools.  I have gotten involved in the start-up process and co-moderated a virtual teleconference of independent charter school operators just last week.   Co-host Chris Norwood of Florida and I had a good time bouncing from coast to coast, talking with students and administrators at independent charter schools in Los Angeles; Queens, NY; Rhode Island; North Carolina; Oregon; St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota; Livingston, Alabama; Lake Wales, Florida; Denver, Colorado; Maine; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Orange County, California over the course of 2 1/2 hours. Legendary educator Debbie Meier stopped by in person.  You can watch all or parts of the event here.

The new organization has a name: the Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools.  Please take a look at what this organization stands for.  So far a few hundred independent charter schools have taken the pledge.  Stay tuned for the next six or eight months to see how many are willing to stand up and be counted, because this group might well be the charter school movement’s best chance for surviving.


Safe Students, Safe Schools

Now that public schools have reopened, school safety is receiving a lot of attention…and promises of money (here and here and here)…..and, while that’s a good thing, what’s not good are the exceptionally narrow parameters of the discussion of the issue of safety–i.e., how those dollars are being spent.

If we want our kids to be safe at school, those schools must be emotionally, intellectually and physically safe.  Three related components, all essential, discussed in some detail below.

However, from what I have learned from news reports, beefing up school security is priority #1, with more (armed) guards and security police and more metal detectors.  Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is on record as approving the spending of federal funds to buy weapons for teachers, perhaps the most idiotic suggestion ever made by a United States Secretary of Education.

Politicians who are enthusiastic about enhanced security measures don’t seem to be willing to address a root cause of school violence, the easy availability of guns.  Doing the latter would upset the NRA, something most politicians won’t do.

Of course, the prospect of more money has attracted a crowd.  Eager tech-savvy capitalists have created programs which, for a fee, will spy on student postings on Facebook and elsewhere and then alert school authorities about any comments that their algorithms find upsetting. (more here.)   (That most kids don’t use Facebook these days is just one of the problems with this approach.)

Other profit-seekers are hyping their ‘bullet proof backpacks’ and such.   Lord only knows what damage these approaches are doing to impressionable young children!

In July I was privileged to spend two days at the annual meeting of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the men and women I spoke with or heard from were very concerned about security.  To a person, their preferred approach was more counseling, not metal detectors, police, or armed teachers. They said that they need Preventive services to identity and provide help for troubled kids.

If we truly want safe schools, we need to focus on the needs of children of all ages.  We need to recognize that, where schools are concerned, “safety” has three components: physical, emotional, and intellectual.  As noted above, today’s focus is just on physical safety, even though the other two are, arguably, more important.

An emotionally safe school in one in which every student is known to at least one caring adult, preferably more than one.  That old cliché, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” is spot on.  Emotionally safe schools are staffed with adults who are trained to deal with the ups and downs that are part of every child’s life. These schools have structures that allow kids to be open, such as extended homeroom periods that create a positive ‘home-like’ atmosphere.  In emotionally safe schools, the adult leaders encourage older students to model positive behavior and to intervene in bullying, saying, in effect, “We don’t do that here.”  (I devote quite a few pages to this important subject in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” and hope you will take a look.)

Next, an intellectually safe school is one in which it’s OK to display your ignorance, to admit “I don’t understand,” and to ask questions.  Intellectually safe schools encourage curiosity, crayoning outside the lines, and other expressions of individuality, and teachers are quick to support the kids who are willing to stick out their necks.  When other kids laugh or mock these students, teachers respond by showing their disapproval of the mockery and their support for the courageous students.

Teachers can model this behavior in order to set the tone.  So, for example, at the end of a presentation the teacher should ask, “What questions do you have?” because that phrasing expects and encourages questions.   Teachers should NOT ask, “Does anyone have any questions?” because that phrasing subtly discourages questions.

Intellectually safe schools challenge kids. They employ technology to create knowledge, not just to compile data on student attendance and achievement.  Students who are challenged are less likely to use technology to harass and bully weaker and younger kids, which makes schools safer.  (I also address this in “Addicted to Reform.”)

Schools that are both intellectually and emotionally safe are staffed with adults who look at each child and ask NOT “How smart is this kid?” but “How is this young person smart?”  Asking that question–and acting on the answer–makes all the difference.

When schools are emotionally and intellectually safe, it’s easier for them to be physically safe. However, it’s not automatic, because unacceptable conditions may actually create unsafe schools, most of which are, in my experience,  overcrowded and understaffed.  If we want physically safe schools, we have to provide the resources to hire enough qualified teachers, and we have to attend to the physical condition of the buildings.  Many of America’s public schools are in deplorable condition.)  It should go without saying that physically safe schools have clear rules and procedures for dealing with physical bullying and other violence.

Simply spending more money won’t make our children safe.  Spending it wisely, and spending most of it on human resources–not metal detectors, monitoring programs, armed guards, or guns for teachers–is our best chance to keep children safe.

What questions do you have?



Stopping Brett Kavanaugh

The United States Senate is preparing to do its constitutional duty regarding the current vacancy on the Supreme Court.  It will consider and then vote on Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court. Those who oppose him need to get involved, or double down on their current efforts.

Here are just three of many reasons to oppose Kavanaugh: his anti-labor & pro-business track record, the continued secrecy regarding his role in the George W. Bush administration, and the high probability that he will vote to reverse or severely undercut Roe v. Wade.

There’s also the issue of the legitimacy of the 2016 Presidential election.  Should Donald Trump have the privilege of appointing a second Supreme Court justice when we do not know the extent of his campaign’s collusion with Russia?

But what can liberals, progressives, Democrats, and concerned Republican DO, given the GOP majority in the Senate and the possibility that at least two Democratic senators in Trump-heavy states who are up for re-election may feel that they have to support Kavanaugh?

Here’s a suggestion: Let’s urge certain Senators to vote ‘PRESENT’ when asked to vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination.  They don’t have to vote against him, merely abstain.

Who might do that?  Begin with outgoing Republicans who have expressed their strong concerns about Trump.  Specifically Bob Corker of Tennessee (202-224-3344) and Jeff Flake of Arizona (202-224-4521).  They have done a lot of talking; here’s where they can walk the walk….

At least two Republican Senators, Susan Collins of Maine (202-224-2523) and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (202-224-6665) are on record as being worried about more restrictions on a woman’s right to choose.  Urge them to vote “PRESENT.”

Ben Sasse of Nebraska (202-224-4224) has shown willingness to challenge Trump on ethical issues.  Perhaps he could be persuaded to vote to leave that Court seat vacant until Robert Mueller finishes his investigation of the 2016 election.  He could do that by voting “PRESENT.”

Are there others?  Call or write them now….  (When I called, I spoke to two live human beings who promised to convey the message to their boss and three answering machines.)

Please urge your concerned friends to get involved.

Here is a link for the contact information for all United States Senators:  https://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm

Now’s a good time to start!!!!

Arne Duncan’s “How Schools Work”

Moderates and liberals concerned about public schools will enjoy “How Schools Work,” the new book by former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  Conservatives and Second Amendment acolytes will not be happy because Duncan cares deeply about our national failure to restrict access to guns.  However, those who care about accuracy and full disclosure will be deeply disturbed by the omissions and distortions that run through the book.  Luckily for Duncan, this last group is probably not large enough to slow down his publicity machine.

Education runs on lies.” As attention-getting opening sentences go, this one from Arne Duncan has to rank near the top. And toward the end of the book, he writes, “The truth is that we not only don’t value our teachers. We don’t value our kids.”   Strong stuff. However, except for passionate, angry, and deeply moving chapters about gun violence, “How Schools Work” is not the ‘inside account’ Duncan promises; instead, it’s notable for what he glosses over or omits entirely. Duncan was by far the most powerful and consequential United States Secretary of Education in the Department’s 42-year history. In 2009, the year he arrived in Washington, Congress gave him $4.35 billion to spend as he saw fit, far more discretionary money than the other 10 Secretaries combined.  How he spent that money changed public education and upended the federal-state relationship.

Duncan is an admirable and likable person. Many children growing up with supportive parents, a private school education, and basketball skills that opened doors to the Ivy League might emerge feeling entitled, but that did not happen in Duncan’s case. He acknowledges that basketball got him into Harvard, and he seized the opportunity. He graduated magna cum laude (sociology) and co-captained the varsity basketball team. When he did not make the NBA, he played professionally in Australia for several years before returning to Chicago to work with underprivileged youth, which he and his sister had done regularly in their mother’s early childhood center in inner city Chicago.

Though education has been Duncan’s career, guns and gun violence are central to understanding the man. Children at his Mom’s center lost family members to gun violence, and as CEO of Chicago’s schools he went to a student’s funeral every two or three weeks for seven years. Early in his career, the National Rifle Association singled him out for disapprobation, a badge he continues to wear with honor. In fact, the most eloquent and moving chapters of “How Schools Work” are those about gun violence, the seemingly intractable problem that the passionately optimistic Duncan is now tackling back in Chicago.

“How Schools Work” includes many engaging stories. One concerns a Chicago rising senior, Calvin Williams, an African American who was ‘twice the player I was.’  As Calvin’s tutor, Duncan asked him to take a language arts test, to establish the skills he needed to work on.  Looking over Calvin’s shoulder, “I plainly saw that Calvin struggled to read and could barely form a proper sentence. His letters were fine but his spelling was dismal. His ability to craft a cohesive thought using written language was nonexistent. I wasn’t an expert, but if I had to guess, Calvin Williams, a rising high school senior on the B honor roll, could read and write at a second- or third-grade level.”

His conclusion: Chicago schools had systematically lied to Calvin and his parents about his progress.  How many more Calvins were there, and what could he do about it?  He would get his chance in 2001 when Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed him CEO of the public schools. He closed many schools and opened charter schools, and, although test scores and graduation rates improved, many other cities made greater gains. He served until 2009, when another Chicagoan, Barack Obama, asked him to come to Washington.

Throughout this century, two school reform strategies have competed for domination. The top down ‘Better people’ approach identifies and rewards ‘good’ teachers and drives out ‘bad’ ones, with good and bad determined largely by students’ standardized test scores. By contrast, the ‘better job’ approach gives teachers more responsibility for what is taught and how success is measured.  In Chicago Duncan kept one foot in each camp; in Washington, however, he embraced the ‘better people’ approach.

In Chicago Duncan chafed under No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal law that required that all students achieve proficiency by 2008; he writes about traveling to Washington to beg Secretary Margaret Spellings for a waiver from a federal ruling telling him who he could hire for his summer school program (She eventually granted the waiver). Although Congress hated NCLB, it couldn’t agree on a revision when it expired in 2008, and so the law, which Duncan called “fundamentally broken and obsolete,” remained in force.

When he became Secretary, every state needed a waiver to avoid being in violation. Given his strong feelings about NCLB and federal overreach, Duncan could have said, “Of course. Now let’s work together to improve schools.” He did not do that. Instead, he granted conditional waiversWhen I interviewed him for the PBS NewsHour, I posed this question: “So, states will get more money if they do this thing that Mr. Duncan wants?” His response: “If you play by these rules, absolutely right.”

In other words, although Duncan had railed against federal “micromanagement,” he embraced the opportunity. Readers looking for some acknowledgment of the irony will be disappointed.

Then Duncan announced his plan for allocating the discretionary money. A former professional basketball player, the new secretary decided to make states compete for the money.  Independent reviewers would judge states according to their commitment to 1) improving their data collection, 2) raising their academic standards; 3) ‘turning around’ high schools with high dropout rates and poor academic scores; and 4) overhauling teacher evaluation.

(A quick aside: When Duncan announced ‘Race to the Top,’ we saw a great opportunity for a compelling NewsHour series. I called Peter Cunningham, Duncan’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, to propose we be given access to the application process, the judging, and everything else behind the scenes. Peter invited me to pitch the idea to Duncan, which I did. Declaring that openness was essential to show the public that the process was not ‘political,’ Duncan agreed. We were thrilled at the prospect of a gripping ‘serial’ that would run for several months, but at the eleventh hour the Department’s General Counsel nixed the idea, on the grounds that setting that precedent would make it difficult to turn down other journalists who wanted to report on the department’s inner workings. However, Duncan did have the process recorded, and the judging’s integrity was not questioned.)

Two of Duncan’s targets, teacher evaluation and higher academic standards, were genuinely controversial.  Most states set their own academic standards, but, as Duncan writes, “Wouldn’t it be nice if what a kid learned in El Paso was equivalent to what a kid learned in Nashville or Boston?”  An effort—led by the National Governors Association, not the federal government–to raise standards was well underway, but when Duncan’s Race to the Top required higher standards, accusations of ‘national curriculum’ and ‘federal takeover’ filled the airwaves, and before long Duncan was accused of acting like ‘the nation’s school superintendent.’  In the end, however, nearly every state adopted what the NGA called the Common Core. Although over time some states dropped the name for political reasons, nearly all have remained committed to the goal.  Chalk that up as a win for Duncan.

Although almost everyone in education acknowledges that teacher evaluation is embarrassingly inadequate, changing it proved to be problematic.  Generally, ratings were based on how well prepared teachers appeared to be, not on how their students performed; in some districts principals needed a teacher’s permission before they could sit in the back of the room to observe.  In hopes of rewarding the ‘best’ teachers with extra pay and identifying the ‘worst’ teachers, Duncan wanted them to be judged largely based on their students’ academic achievement, something that was prohibited by law in California, Wisconsin, and a few other states.  When Duncan announced that states with those laws could not enter the competition, legislatures were quick to get rid of the offending legislation.  Another win for Duncan.

However, using test scores as the primary measure of teacher effectiveness created serious problems. All teachers were to be evaluated by test scores, but students were tested only in math and English language arts. How should teachers of science, social studies, art, music, and physical education be judged? Because those tests did not exist, some of those teachers found themselves being judged based on the English and math scores of students who weren’t in their classes–and in some cases not even in their schools.

That test-centric policy has meant more tests, more test-prep, and, sadly, cheating by adults fearful of losing their jobs. Googling ‘cheating by teachers on their students’ standardized tests’ produces 2,400,000 hits with stories about Atlanta, Columbus Ohio, Austin, Texas, and Duncan’s favorite reform ‘success,’ Washington, DC. Even that approach’s strongest supporter, billionaire Bill Gates, has concluded that teaching is too complex to be measured so narrowly, but Duncan makes no reference to the controversies, except for what amounts to an aside: “(M)aybe we had screwed up on the amount of testing districts were subjecting their kids to, but not the importance of testing in general,” he writes.

Duncan’s other two ‘pillars’ were not controversial.  School district data systems were notoriously unreliable; some made their own rules for counting dropouts, for example, making district-to-district comparisons virtually impossible, and Race to the Top forced the states that entered the competition to improve their systems.  That’s a win for Duncan.

Duncan’s fourth ‘pillar,’ the effort to ‘turn around’ failing schools, was both reasonable and ambitious.  In 2009, about 12 percent of the nation’s 27,000 high schools were producing a disproportionate number of the nation’s dropouts—if those schools could be ‘turned around,’ the overall graduation rate would soar.  Calling this effort his ‘biggest bet,’ Duncan doubled down on ‘school improvement,’ using both Race to the Top money and additional billions from another program.

That failed spectacularly. As the Washington Post reported in January 2017, “One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.”  Its failure is not mentioned in “How Schools Work.”

Although the 3-year Race to the Top competition produced only 19 winners, Duncan notes that the 46 states (plus DC) that applied changed their rules in order to be eligible.  While that’s a clear win for Duncan, the more important question has to do with educational outcomes.  At one point, Duncan writes, ”As I look back I wonder, Have we succeeded?”   And, while he asserts that we won’t know until today’s 4th and 5th graders are in college, the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress.(NAEP) results reveal that most scores have remained flat since 2007. In a particularly offensive attempt at deception, Duncan celebrates the increase in scores since 1971 but makes no reference to the ‘lost decade’ that occurred largely on his watch.

Duncan the author wants to have it both ways. For example, his closing chapter is about a school whose faculty and staff worked as one to support one troubled child; Duncan presents this as the ideal situation, but his own Race to the Top policies pitted teachers against each other (those test scores).  Is he unaware, hypocritical, or late to understand?

In the end, “How Schools Work” is mostly the memoir of a decent, unassuming, and genuinely nice man who insists that everyone “Call me Arne.” Duncan highlights what went well on his watch, ignores what didn’t, and uses old NAEP data to try to make it look as if his approach worked.   While he should be taken to task for this, he probably won’t be.

I hope I am not the first reviewer to suggest that his story (unintentionally) demonstrates that Washington cannot run public education, a lesson we ought to have learned from No Child Left Behind.

A final omission: Duncan never addresses the Congressional rebellion against federal domination of public education that he inadvertently brought about. When Congress enacted the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, it took pains to limit the power of future secretaries of education.  The current secretary, Betsy DeVos, has an estimated $10 million in discretionary money, not even one quarter of one percent of what Duncan had at his disposal. Moreover, one suspects it will be a cold day in hell before Congress gives future secretaries of education piles of money to spend however they choose.



8 Great Ideas (7 of Them Save Schools $$)

My friend Mike Petrilli, the tireless pusher of ‘school reform,’ has just published his recommendations for going forward, calling it ‘Where Education Reform Goes From Here.”  He acknowledges that things haven’t gone swimmingly for the past dozen or more years–a classic understatement if ever there was one–but then asks that we trust him and keep on doing what we’ve been doing: More charter schools, more choice, tougher tenure rules, and so on.

Ever the phrasemaker, Mike writes, “The question is not whether schools can do it all — but whether they are doing all they can.”  It’s actually a false choice designed to help us agree with his premise, that it’s time to double down on the ‘school reforms’ that he, Arne Duncan, the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and others have been pushing.

This blog, unsupported by major foundations and others with vested interested in testing, charter schools, and other corporate reforms, will not reach a fraction of the readers who will see Mike’s piece. Rather than argue with Mike’s recipe, I would like to offer a different path, one that will, I believe, lead us away from the disaster of ‘school reform.’   Below are eight suggestions, only one of which will cost a school district money.  And the other seven will produce real savings—and make schools more interesting and productive places for children and adults.  Here goes:

  1. Pool all the district’s professional development dollars and cancel contracts and plans for spending that money.  Instead invite teachers and other educators to develop plans for their professional growth.  I will bet that your system will end up spending less on what will prove to be better PD, more effective because your teachers will own it.
  2. Declare a 3-year moratorium on all machine-scored bubble tests, during which time invite the entire community to debate what matters in schooling.  The goal is to ‘Measure What You Value,’ instead of continuing the foolishness of merely valuing what you measure.  I suggest one criterion when deciding which tests to keep: Keep only those tests whose results come back in time to be useful.  That will get rid of a lot of tests, the ones whose results come back in late August!  The goal ought to be ‘assess to improve,’ not ‘test to punish.’  You won’t be writing those big checks to the testing companies….
  3. Create as many ‘Early College’ opportunities as possible for your ambitious high school juniors and seniors (and perhaps even some sophomores).  Here’s a look at a successful program in Texas that we reported on for the PBS NewsHour.  This district actually lured high school dropouts back to school with the promise of a more engaging curriculum that included opportunities to take college courses. At the high school graduation we attended, most seniors also had college credits, and quite a few members of the class also received their 2-year college degrees with their diplomas!   Fewer high school dropouts, a clear and strong bridge to higher education, a better reputation, and cost savings…..what’s not to like?
  4. Do not buy ANY canned technology programs. None! Nada! Zippo!  Instead, identify the early adopters among your staff and figure out why the district wants technology in the first place.  Please read the chapter about technology in my book, “Addicted to Reform.”  This field is full of hucksters and aggressive salespeople, eager to take advantage of naive educators.  It’s mostly BS….but too many school districts have wasted millions and millions of dollars on crap.
  5. Create cross-age tutoring opportunities, enlisting older students to help struggling younger ones.  This actually benefits BOTH age groups, and it’s effective.  It teaches other lessons as well, including the importance of community and of sharing what you know with others.  It will keep some kids from being held back and others out of special education.  That’s better for them, and it saves your district money.
  6. Use technology to link with other schools on projects.  Just because kids have to come to a building, there’s no reason on God’s green earth for them not to be working with students around the state or nation (or globe).  Find interesting ways to connect with other schools: About 25 communities are linked by name to Christopher Columbus–what a great way to connect on a project. The dozen or so Brooklyns or the 15 or so towns connected to Lafayette–they could work together.  If you believe that students are the workers in a school, and knowledge is their product, then encourage your teachers to make those connections.  “Addicted to Reform” includes a bunch of projects that your teachers might find appealing.
  7. Trust teachers more than you do right now, because, like you, teachers are management. Remember, the kids are the workers, doing real work.  If you enable teachers to do what they signed up to do–which is help children grow toward their full potential– your best teachers will stay longer, your recruitment costs will go down, and your administrators will spend less time ‘breaking in’ the rookies every year.
  8. Expand early childhood programs!   It’s time to spend the money you’ve saved by following steps 1-7.  And, please, no testing of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. These programs should be enjoyable learning and play time.  Stress-free.  Staffed by professionals who enjoy the same status as your K-12 teachers.

Your improvements to this list are more than welcomed….

Learning from a Talented Grifter

Late one summer evening in 1988 or 1989 as I was leaving the New York office of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, someone called out to me, “John. Mr. Merrow.”  I turned to see a well-dressed young Black man coming toward me, hand outstretched.  He introduced himself with a first name I have forgotten and added, “I’m Kwame’s son. We met a while back in Washington.”   NewsHour watchers will remember Kwame Holman, our distinguished Capitol Hill correspondent.  Kwame and I had shared an office in Washington for about four years and had gotten to know and like each other.  My youngest, Kelsey, sometimes came to work with me, and Kwame, a gentle man with an easy laugh, was just super with her. We brought drawing paper and colored pencils, and one time she did a memorable sketch of Kwame’s ficus tree in our office that I still have somewhere.   We talked about our children, sharing pictures and stories, but when the young man greeted me, I couldn’t remember the number or genders of Kwame’s children.
But something was odd: Could Kwame have a son this old?  Then the young man went into a spiel about having run out of gas: his car was a few blocks away and could he borrow a few bucks to get some gas?  That set of an alarm bell, but I didn’t question him, which I am sure was partially race-related. As a white man, I just wouldn’t have been comfortable questioning him. What if he actually were Kwame’s son? How would I explain that, or live with that? Later I tried to figure out how I might have expressed my doubts, but to this day I haven’t figured it out.
I gave him $10 and the next morning I called Kwame.  He got a huge kick out of it, as well he should have. As I remember, he told me that his son was nowhere near that old.  We had a good laugh, even though I was embarrassed at my having been taken in.
Later, however, I had a very different reaction….I found myself admiring that young man.  Consider what he had done:  He had somehow learned who I was, perhaps by gaining access to the NewsHour lobby where all our photos were displayed.  He must have memorized all our names and faces, positioned himself to watch people leaving.  I happened to come out, and he acted.  That effort took ingenuity, determination, intelligence, and courage.  Skills and assets that our society could use, talents that could have propelled him to a successful life in mainstream America. But he he was, basically, a grifter, a con man, getting $10 for all that effort when he could have been, well, working for the NewsHour for starters.
In the late ’60’s I spent two years teaching English at night in a federal penitentiary in Virginia.  There I taught some of the brightest and most focused kids I ever encountered (and I also taught in a NY High school, at Virginia State College, and at Harvard).  I often lamented that those men had taken wrong turns and wondered how that happened, and why.
I had the same reaction to my encounter with Kwame’s ‘son.’  Such a waste…
Thomas Grey’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard includes the memorable lines, ‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, to waste its sweetness on the desert air,’ but, powerful as that image is, it misses a larger point.  In our society, ‘flowers’ don’t waste their sweetness on the desert air; instead their talents are too often misdirected into negative and anti-social channels.  A just society would be outraged by this waste of talent and would address the wide opportunity gaps that exist.  To his credit, President Clinton’s Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, tried and failed to persuade Congress to focus on ‘the opportunity gap,’ but everyone else was–and is–fixated on ‘the achievement gap.’)
Those two experiences, teaching in a penitentiary and being duped by Kwame’s ‘son,’ had a powerful effect on my own thinking and on my reporting for the NewsHour and my subsequent writing.  Our current public education system is a well-oiled ‘sorting machine’ that examines every child, seeking to know ‘How Smart Are You?’, using testing, income, parental education, race, and social class as measuring sticks.  All the ‘education reforms’ of the past 20 or so years have failed to address the nature of the system; instead reformers have tinkered at the margins.
It’s within our reach to create schools that ask a different question about each child, not ‘How Smart Are You?’ but “HOW ARE YOU SMART?”  That’s what most parents ask about their own children, and it’s also what the best private and public schools do.  I believe it’s within our reach to create schools that ask that question about most children and then act accordingly to allow kids to develop their talents, but only if we can develop the will to do so.  I think we owe it to Kwame’s ‘son’ and all the other talented young people in our society…and it’s also in our own best interests to do so.
What do you say?


Summer is upon us, which means an increase in street crime and ice cream consumption. However, neither one causes the other; they are both highly correlated with summer’s heat, which brings more people out of their homes and onto the streets, where some eat ice cream and some get mugged. Correlation is not causality.

Here are two more facts to ponder: American children take lots of standardized, machine-scored, multiple-choice tests, and they are getting fatter. Is this just another correlation, or could one be a cause of the other? Could excessive testing be at least partially responsible for the increase in child obesity?

What makes this issue complex are two other variables, an increase in poverty and the disappearance of school recess.  This sad and entirely avoidable situation also illustrates the unfortunate truth of the maxim, “What we don’t care enough to measure does not matter.”

No question that obesity is on the rise. An astonishing 18.5% of American youth ages 12-19 are obese, and 5.6% are severely obese. If we include children who are overweight but not necessarily obese, the situation becomes direr. “31% of children ages 10 to 17 were categorized as overweight or obese. This statistic varies slightly by gender, with boys more frequently affected than girls (33% of boys versus 29% of girls).” That study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranks states, ranging from Rhode Island’s 39% to Oregon’s 16%. One more number from that study: Nearly half (47%) of American children do not exercise regularly.

Seven out of 10 overweight adolescents grow up to be overweight or obese adults, and the consequences are grim: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, abnormal glucose tolerance, heart attacks, and diabetes. The latter often means other serious health issues like blindness and early death; diabetes and its complications kill about 200,000 Americans every year.

Poverty and obesity are positively correlated, unfortunately. The poorer a child is, the more likely he/she is to become obese. “For a long time researchers have tracked high rates of obesity among black and Hispanic kids, but a closer look at communities shows family income matters more than race in predicting which kids are overweight.” Based on data about 111,799 Massachusetts students in 68 school districts, a study by the University of Michigan Health System showed that as poverty rises, so does the rate of obesity among children.

Testing is also increasing, making American students the most tested in the world. As Harvard’s Dan Koretz, author of “The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better,” told me in an email, “Just the requirements in reading and math under the Every Student Succeeds Act mean being tested 14 times, and that’s the tip of the iceberg in many locations because of all of the interim and benchmark testing.” He added that countries with a reputation for being test-centric, such as Singapore, test students only two or three times during a student’s years in school.

Like obesity, testing correlates positively with poverty: the poorer a child, the more time he/she will spend being tested or practicing test-taking. According to a 2016 survey of teachers, Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices, 26 percent of teachers devote more than a month to test prep, and “A greater share of teachers in high- and medium-poverty schools reported spending more than a month on test-prep activities for district and state tests.” That’s at least one-eighth of the school year, and, since it all comes at once, it must seem like an eternity to those low income students and their teachers.

So, we have lots of overweight kids taking lots of standardized tests, but here’s where it gets interesting: Because the length of the school day is fixed, in order to increase testing and test-prep time, schools had to eliminate something. Sometimes the arts and science were slashed, but often the first to go was free play time, a.k.a. recess. The pressure to improve standardized test scores was particularly intense in low income communities, which fixated on ‘the achievement gap.’ Atlanta, for example, eliminated recess entirely. ”We are intent on improving academic performance,” Superintendent Benjamin O. Canada, told The New York Times in 1998. ”You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”

(Incidentally, the no-recess policy was continued by Canada’s successor, Beverly Hall. During her tenure APS was engulfed in a massive cheating scandal. Here’s an irreverent question: Does lack of recess for children merely correlate positively with cheating by adults? Or is it a cause?)

The disappearance of recess is a plausible explanation for the epidemic of childhood obesity. Of course, there are other culprits, including too much screen time and fast and processed food, but lack of exercise–remember, 47% of children don’t get regular exercise–plays a huge part.

Unlike obesity and testing, recess time is negatively correlated with poverty. Simply put, richer children get more time on the playground. The poorer the children, the less time on the playground. And, sadly, cutting recess does double damage to many inner city kids, whose parents are loath to let their young children play outside after school because of dangers, real and perceived. So no play time at school may mean no daily exercise at all.

A chain of causality seems to be emerging: Excessive testing causes cuts in recess, which then contributes to widespread obesity, and poverty makes everything worse. That’s merely speculative, so let me suggest a fact-based alternative chain: Regular recess leads to better physical and mental health (i.e., no obesity and better academic performance).

And that’s not speculation, causing one to wonder about the mental acuity of educators who did away with recess. How could they not know that regular exercise pays dividends, that it reduces the risk of obesity, provides socializing opportunities, and promotes mental agility and improved academic performance? Don’t the recess-cutters understand that improved physical fitness is positively correlated with better performance on standardized tests and higher grades? As the experts put it, “Studies have found that lifestyle changes and small amounts of weight loss in the range of 5-10% can prevent or delay the development of type 2 diabetes among high-risk adults. Lifestyle interventions including diet and moderate to intense physical activity (such as walking for 150 minutes per week) were used in these studies to produce small amounts of weight loss. The development of diabetes was reduced by 40% to 60% during these studies, which lasted three to six years.”

Another intervention study found that providing overweight children with 40 minutes of physical activity increased cognitive scores. School-based physical activity can improve students’ attention, concentration, and ability to stay on task. And kids who get to run around and burn off energy behave better in class.

The World Health Organization says children need 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, a goal that regular recess at school could help achieve. Unfortunately, most public schools do not provide recess. Only 11 states require either recess or “general and physical activity” during the school day. New York is not one of them, but the New York State Education Department does have a PE requirements of 120 minutes per week. Physical education must be taught by a certified teacher who provides instruction according to New York State PE standards, but, even if recess is provided, it doesn’t count toward that 120 minutes per week.  In the District of Columbia, the Central Office has a “Wellness Policy” calling for at least one 20-minute recess period per day for ‘child-initiated discretionary time,’ but it’s not clear whether schools actually adhere to this, or if there are consequences for not falling in line.  Students in Texas get on average only 20 minutes of recess per week, a decline of over an hour since 2001, which was the year the test-focused No Child Left Behind became federal law.

We’ve known about the importance of regular exercise for a long time. Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower on promoted physical fitness among young people. Ike established the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in 1956. President John F. Kennedy famously took 50-mile hikes to promote exercise. Lyndon Johnson created a special award for 10-17-year olds, the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, and enlisted baseball superstar Stan Musial to attract attention to the cause. Under Ronald Reagan we got a postage stamp honoring physical fitness. And so on.

These campaigns about the value of exercise had no appreciable impact on schools, which generally don’t respond to exhortations, only to pressure. Our schools report only what we tell them to measure, and society’s consistent message has been: Tell us your test scores!   Those scores, generally speaking, are the only educational measurement with real consequences, and they are used to reward and punish educators, schools, and students.

Assuming that no one wants children to become obese or even overweight, schools must provide regular recess, but that won’t happen unless it’s mandated and measured. Instead of just providing test scores, schools must be required to report the answers to two more consequential questions: “How many hours of recess do students have each week, and in how many separate segments?” We should provide incentives (such as playground repairs where needed) and at the same time make it clear to principals that if they fail to provide recess, they will be penalized. Before long, more children will be out on the playground or in the gym, playing.

But this will not happen until recess is both mandated and measured.

While how much recess children should have, and how many times each day, are local decisions, educators might want to look to other countries for examples: As the USPlay Coalition explains, “Japanese children get 10-20 minute breaks between 45-minute lessons or five-minute breaks and a long lunch. Finnish and Turkish children have 15 minutes to play after each 45 minutes of work. Ugandan students have an eight-hour school day, but they have a half hour of play in the morning, one hour for lunch and play, and 1.5 hours of activity time (sports, music, art, free-choice playtime) in the afternoon.”

Establishing that recess matters–with incentives for success and consequences for not measuring up–sets an interesting precedent. Perhaps we should also ask ourselves what else besides academic performance and recess matters. If we decide that art, music, and drama are important, let’s insist that schools provide them and then take pains to measure the hours of opportunity students have to pursue them.

Measuring academic achievement is clearly important, but the academic health of a school can be determined by testing a well-drawn sample of students. We can test less and still know what we need to know. Not all students need to be tested every year, as long as teachers are deeply involved in assessing student progress. Instead of practicing test-taking and taking lots of standardized tests, students could be playing, reading, writing, doing original research, and working on projects.

Excessive testing doesn’t cause obesity directly, but it has led schools to reduce or eliminate recess, which has in turn contributed to the rise of weight problems. Unfortunately, poverty correlates with excessive testing, weight problems, and reduced recess, meaning that poor children once again draw the short straw.

If we hold schools accountable for both academic results and hours of free play, educators will be forced to cut back on testing and test-prep drilling. That simple change—call it “Measuring What Matters”–is a sensible education policy that should also produce measurable health benefits. And since kids who get to exercise regularly tend to do better academically, we should also see improvements there as well.

Bottom line: This is totally on us!  If we truly want healthier children, we have to cut back on testing and test-prep and bring back recess and free play.