Three Wishes for the New School Year

As public schools open across the country, I have three wishes:  One, that most parents and most teachers will be open to working together.  Two, that most teachers will accept that parents are their children’s primary educators.  And, three, that most parents will accept and embrace that responsibility.  

This is, unfortunately, a tall order. Some parents have gotten accustomed to playing second fiddle, meaning they are reluctant to get involved. As the same time, some educators truly believe that they are children’s principal educators and thus treat parents with disdain.   While in public forums many professional educators may describe parents as “our greatest asset” and “invaluable partners,” how most schools actually treat parents belies their words.  In my experience as an education reporter, many administrators and teachers hold parents in low regard, and their behavior and policies reflect that. Perhaps that’s an inevitable consequence of attempting to elevate education to a high-status profession.  “After all, you wouldn’t expect a heart surgeon to consult with a child’s parents before replacing a ruptured valve and saving the child’s life,” the thinking goes, as if the work of educating a child were the equivalent of complex surgery. It’s not brain surgery; what it is, instead, is a team effort.

Many schools make parents ‘outsiders’ in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  There’s the once-a-year “Back to School Night” and perhaps a “Parent Involvement Committee’ or a “Parent Advisory Board” that meets occasionally with the Principal.  Many schools expect parents to hold bake sales, auctions and fundraising drives, but that’s not treating parents as partners in their children’s education. Unfortunately, it’s the rare educator who 1) says “We cannot do a good job of educating your child without you,” 2) actually means it and 3) then proves it by his or her actions.

Why this negative attitude toward parents?  Some educators feel that low income parents do not have the time or energy to get deeply involved in their children’s schooling.  But even if their dismissal of parents is rooted in empathy or sympathy, it adds up to the same thing: the exclusion of parents. Unfortunately, however, plenty of administrators and teachers are genuinely disdainful of parents and apt to dismiss them as uncaring, uninvolved or ignorant.  “Just leave the education to us” is how I would characterize their attitude.

As evidence of parental detachment, these administrators and teachers often cite the low turnout at Back to School Night, concluding from the large number of no-show parents that they don’t care.  But look carefully at how Back to School Nights are structured: a quick series of show-and-tell presentations by teachers, one-off lectures that make parents feel like visitors or strangers who happened by. The educators will tell the parents to make sure their kids do their homework assignments and don’t watch much TV.  Why would most parents bother to attend more than once? What’s inviting about being talked down to?

What if parents who need help were taught the skills to help their kids become better readers and treated as partners in the education process?  No lectures, no ‘parent involvement committees,’ no window-dressing, but a genuine partnership with openness and commitment from everyone.

Suppose the root problem is education’s failure to recognize that parents want their children to succeed but may not know how to contribute?  Suppose the real problem is education’s failure to treat parents as assets?

Parents could and should be treated as valuable assets and not as ‘outsiders.’  Teachers–accustomed to holding parents at arm’s length–can learn ways to acknowledge that parents are essential.  Parents, who may have become accustomed to educators saying ‘leave the education to us,’ will have to learn to accept this new role and responsibility.   

Let me add a fourth wish for the year ahead:  That the men and women in charge acknowledge the importance of the citizens who do NOT have children in schools.  The problem with the truism “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child” is that most villagers have no direct connection to children or to the schools they go to. Only about 25 percent of homes have school-age children, and in some communities that number drops into the teens. Even if you include households with grandparents, the percentage probably won’t reach 40.

However, it is the people in those households with no strong connection to public education who hold the future of public schools in their hands.  They vote on school budgets, and so their opinions of schools, teachers and students matter. Not only do older folks vote in greater numbers than young voters, but the gap is increasing. According to the Census Bureau, “the turnout rate among 18-to 24-year olds fell to 41.2 percent in 2012 from 48.5 percent in 2008.  The turnout rates of adults ages 65 and older rose—to 71.9 percent in 2012 from 70.3 percent in 2008.”

For these reasons, educators and those connected to schools must develop and adopt strategies to win the support of those without a direct connection to schools.  It’s not enough for good things to be happening in schools; ‘the outsiders’ need to be supportive, and the best way to make that happen is to get them involved.

It may be difficult for many educators to take this step because they have grown accustomed to a system that says, in effect, “Leave the children and the money at the schoolhouse door, and leave the rest to us.”  That approach won’t work any more, if it ever did. The ‘outside world,’ meaning ordinary taxpayers and the business community, may also have trouble adjusting, because they’ve grown comfortable with being kept at arm’s length.  But that’s what has to change…and determined educators can do this pretty easily by meeting ‘the outsiders’ where they are and involving them in the ‘curriculum’ of the modern world. Here are a few ways that students–generally every school’s underused asset–can make those connections: 

*Students can create a photo gallery of the residents of their apartment building or their street and then post portraits on the web for all to see and talk about.

*Art students can sketch portraits of business storefronts, or workers and bosses, also to be posted on the web.

*The school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county — simultaneously on Skype.

*A video team can interview adults in a senior citizen center around a chosen theme (best job, favorite trip, et cetera), to be edited into a short video for the web. Producing short biographies of ordinary citizens will teach all sorts of valuable skills like clear writing, teamwork and meeting deadlines.

*Music and drama students can rehearse and then present productions at retirement homes and senior centers — but with a twist: involve some of the adults in the process (a small part in the play, a role in selecting the music, and so on).

Once involved with students, these citizens will be much more likely to be supportive of the enterprise….at the ballot box and elsewhere.

With public education under relentless attack from powerful forces, including the current national administration, people who believe in public education must not remain silent or stand on the sidelines.  We must pitch in and work together to give every child multiple opportunities to succeed. 

 

(This is excerpted from “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”)

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Did Public Schools Elect Trump? Will They Re-elect Him?

Our democratic republic is at risk, and I think our public schools are partially responsible.  Its elaborate sorting system has turned out too many adults who resent rather than value our nation and our struggle to create a more perfect union. 

While many of these adults voted for Donald Trump in 2016, I believe that many more did not bother to vote at all….and may in fact not even be registered to vote.

This is not new.  If “Not Voting” were looked upon as a choice (candidate), it would have won the popular vote in every Presidential election since at least 1916.  Only three times in the 15 Presidential elections since 1960 have more than 60% of the voting age population gone to the polls.  The turnout in what we like to believe is the world’s greatest democracy generally hovers around 53-54%. It has dipped below 50% three times since 1916, most recently in 1996, when only 49.1% of the voting age population bothered to vote.

Who are these non-voters? Should we scorn them for their indifference? Don’t they understand how many of their fellow Americans have died protecting their freedom and their right to vote?  Surely we can agree that not voting is deplorable behavior?

Not so fast.  I have come to believe that most non-voters are behaving rationally. They do not feel that they have a stake in our government, so why should they vote? They were schooled to see themselves as insignificant, and so, as adults, they keep their heads down, stay uninvolved, and do their best to make ends meet.

I hold public schools at least partly responsible for our consistently low voter turnout, because public education is an efficient sorting machine that is undemocratic to its core.  Schools sort young children in two basic groups: A minority is designated as ‘winners’ who are placed on a track leading to elite colleges, prominence and financial success. While the rest aren’t labeled ‘losers’ per se, they are largely left to struggle on their own. That experience leaves many angry, frustrated and resentful, not to mention largely unprepared for life in a complex, rapidly changing society.   Why would they become active participants in the political process, an effort led by the now grown up ‘winners’ from their school days? (It would take a candidate who understood their resentment to arouse them….which happened in 2016.)

Although formal tracking has fallen out of favor, schools have subtle ways of designating winners and losers, often based as much on parental education and income, race, and class as innate ability. By third or fourth grade most kids know, deep down, whether the system sees them as ‘winners’ bound for college or ‘losers’ headed somewhere else.  

Ironically, A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity,” made matters worse.  In response, America put its eggs in the basket of student achievement–-as measured by student test scores.  Believing we were raising academic standards by asking more of students, we were in fact narrowing our expectations—those test scores again.  This practice went into high gear with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.  “Regurgitation education” became the order of the day. This approach rewards parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education, and citizenship. (And the state of Tennessee just affirmed this approach for its current students!)

This fundamentally anti-intellectual approach has failed to produce results.  Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have largely remained flat and in some instances have gone down. What’s more, students aren’t even retaining what we are demanding they regurgitate.  For example, a survey reveals that one-third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of our government, and half do not know the number of US Senators.

Reducing kids to test scores has produced generations of graduates whose teachers and curriculum did not help them develop the habit of asking questions, digging deep, or discovering and following their passion. Because of how they were treated in school, many Americans have not grown into curious, socially conscious adults. This is not the fault of their teachers, because decisions about how schools operate are not made in classrooms.  It was school boards, politicians, policy makers and the general public that created schools that value obedience over just about everything else. 

But the end result is millions of graduates who were rewarded with diplomas but have never participated in the give-and-take of ordinary citizenship—like voting.  Did they graduate from school prepared for life in a democracy, or are they likely to follow blindly the siren song of authoritarians? Can they weigh claims and counterclaims and make decisions based on facts and their family’s best interests, or will they give their support to those who play on their emotions?

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump welcomed support from those he called ‘the poorly educated,’ but that’s the incorrect term. These men and women are not ‘poorly educated,’ ‘undereducated,’ or ‘uneducated.’ They have been miseducated, an important distinction. Schools have treated them as objects, as empty vessels to pour information into so it can be regurgitated back on tests.

The sorting process used in schools has another result: it produces elitists (in both political parties) who feel superior to the largely invisible ‘losers’ from their school days.  Arguably, those chickens came home to roost in the 2016 Presidential election.  Candidate Clinton called her opponent’s supporters ‘A Bucket of Deplorables,’ and that gaffe probably cost her the election.  But in all likelihood she was speaking her personal truth, because, after all, her school had identified her as a ‘winner,‘ one of the elite. It’s perfectly understandable that she would not identify with the people who had been energized by Donald Trump. Most pundits, reporters, pollsters and politicians fell into the same trap.

Sorting is inevitable, because students try out for teams and plays, apply to colleges, and eventually seek employment, but let’s postpone sorting for as long as possible. A new approach to schooling must ask a different question about each young child. Let’s stop asking, “How intelligent are you?”  Let’s ask instead, “How are you intelligent?”  That may strike some as a steep hill to climb, but it’s essentially the question that caring parents, teachers, and other adults ask about individual children. They phrase it differently, asking, “What is Susan interested in?” “What gets George excited?” “What motivates Juan?” or “What does Sharese care about?”  Every child has interests, and those can be tapped and nurtured in schools designed to provide opportunities for children to succeed as they pursue paths of their own choosing. Giving children agency over their education—with appropriate guidance and supervision—will produce graduates better equipped to cope with today’s changing world.  And a larger supply of informed voters!

The challenge for the 2020 Democratic nominee is reach beyond the traditional party constituency and embrace those who have been neglected by schools and other institutions.  They need to believe that America belongs to them.

And going forward, our democracy must create more public schools that respect and nurture our children. If we don’t change our schools, we will elect a succession of Donald Trumps, and that will be the end of the American experiment.

Summer Reading/Forbes.com/Bike Donations

First, let’s follow the money!  Apparently quite a few of you contributed to a favorite cause, including Planned Parenthood, Chess in the Schools, and the Network for Public Education.  From what was reported to me, the total seems to be just north of $8,000. Thank you, because having that public challenge provided a major incentive NOT to quit!   And, believe me, there were a few times during my 78-mile ride when my 78-year-old body cried out for a nap!

(Sorry to be so late with this news: We have had a houseful of family and, full disclosure, the Women’s World Cup was a very high priority in our home!)

I have begun blogging at Forbes.com, at their invitation.  My first piece is titled  “It’s Summertime. Do You Know Where Your Children’s Teachers Are?”   I’d appreciate your clicking to take a look……

Summer reading for education wonks:  My list includes David Kirp’s forthcoming The College Dropout Scandal; William Doyle and Pasi Sahlberg’s Let The Children Play; Parker J. Palmer’s On The Brink of Everythingthe paperback edition of Ted Dintersmith’s What Schools Could Be; and The Wit and Wisdom of Diane Ravitch. 

Not exactly education but not to be missed: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (I’m late to the party with this one).

Also, please do not miss Ted Kolderie‘s short and compelling booklet, Minnesota Is Creating a Self-Improving System.

I also have The Mueller Report.  Reading the second part makes me wonder why the House has not opened an Impeachment Inquiry.  If not now, when!!  (There are at least three different editions; I have the Washington Post version.)

Happy reading…..

 

Attempting 78 Miles on a Bike to Celebrate My Birthday

Well, last Friday was so beautiful that, even though it wasn’t literally my birth anniversary, I decided to go for it.  My daughter Elise and I hit the trail at precisely 7AM. While we were the only humans around, we certainly were not alone.

The snapping turtle, one of two, was intent on laying her eggs, and the goslings were protected by at least a half dozen aggressively vigilant Canada Geese.  The adult deer could have been the yearling I encountered on the path a year ago.  During the day we probably saw three or four times as many chipmunks as people!

The first half went well, and we stopped for lunch (energizing smoothies) at the 44-mile mark in Yorktown, New York.

My daughter kept an eye on me, making certain that I was hydrating properly. What’s more, Elise was riding a folding bike!  This is the cycling equivalent of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers line: “She did everything he did, only backwards and wearing heels.”  While I’m no Fred Astaire, Elise is a latter day Ginger Rogers.

So….if you’re donating, do it in her honor. Or maybe you should give twice as much?

So now you want to know how it turned out? Did we make the full 78 miles?

(roll of drums)IMG_0369

Yes, with an extra 8/100ths of a mile (about 400 feet!) tossed in for good measure.

I know 78 miles sounds like a lot, but the secret is simple: a flat course that’s almost entirely in shade, a slight tailwind for the return half, lots of liquid, and great company.  Next year I hope some of you will join me/us for a 79-mile ride (Lord willing and the creek don’t rise).

Now, about those donations. It’s time to pony up, friends.  I am giving to the Network for Public Education, Planned Parenthood, and Chess in the Schools, a wonderful program for NYC kids founded by Lewis Cullman, the remarkable philanthropist who died at age 100 on Friday.  I’ve served on the Chess Advisory Board for years and have seen first hand how much good it does for so many children; it introduces them to the mental discipline of chess, and that skill often carries over into other aspects of their lives.

A final note: On Monday, four days before my ride, I was diagnosed with a slight tear in my right rotator cuff. I didn’t ask the orthopedist or my new physical therapist whether I should attempt the ride, because I was pretty certain how they would have answered.  But it was all good…..

Thanks for your interest.  Write those checks, and now let’s get back to the serious stuff of reclaiming America and America’s public schools from the grifters and ideologues.

All the best,

John

The Birthday Bike Ride Challenge

What follows is a diversion from the political madness and (perhaps) an opportunity for you to donate to a favorite cause.   In just a few days I will turn 78, and on or around my birthday I will once again attempt to bike my age.  This will be my 9th consecutive attempt, and, while I was successful the first eight times, as a stock prospectus is required to state, “Past performance is not indicative of future results.”

The ride doesn’t get any easier for two obvious reasons:  Every year the distance increases, and every year I am a year older.  An athletic nephew has suggested that it might be time to consider switching to kilometers; to be honest, there are mornings when yards would be a challenge!

However, last year I managed 83 miles, which I guess means I have 6 miles in the bank, plus 2 miles stored up from the year I was supposed to bike 73 and went 75.

 

 

 

Last year I challenged readers to donate $77 to their preferred cause if I made it, and many of you accepted the challenge.  You reported donating $90,000, an astounding sum!  However, my friend and noted author Jim Loewen (“Lies My Teacher Taught Me,” “Sundown Towns”) generously earmarked $77,000 of his annual donation to Tougaloo College, the HBCU in Mississippi, in my name and said I could count it toward the total, which I did.

Still, $13,000 is a pretty cool number.

Last year I suggested Planned Parenthood as a recipient, and that’s an even better idea this time around.

The Network for Public Education does important work on behalf of teachers and strong public schools (and also for “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”).

I’m impressed by the fledgling Coalition of Independent Public Charter Schools, a group that is trying to get charter schools to behave honorably (which, unfortunately, many do not do.)

As a former education reporter, I’d be happy if you chose to donate to the Education Writers Association,  The Hechinger Report, or Chalkbeat, three organizations that improve the quality of education reporting and contribute mightily to the public’s understanding of the enterprise.

Finally, if you want to give me a birthday present, please send a copy of my book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” to friends of yours who still believe in the faux ‘Education Reforms’ of George W. Bush (“No Child Left Behind”) and Barack Obama (“Race to the Top”).   While it is obvious that the Trump Administration is hostile to public education, his predecessors did incalculable damage with their embrace of ‘test and punish’ accountability and largely unaccountable charter schools.  As I argue in the book, schools have to stop asking, “How Smart Is This Child?” and ask instead, “How Is This Child Smart?”

If you think you might want to ride with me (and one of my daughters, bless her), send me an email at john.merrow@gmail.com.

I will let you know the outcome, one way or another.  If you will tell me about your donation(s), I will keep a running tab….

And thanks for reading this far. Now I have to go stuff myself with pasta!!

“Restaurant” & “Charter School” Are Vague Descriptors

“Charter School” is a vague descriptive term, akin to “Restaurant,”  in that neither term tells you very much. One of them, however, is dangerously vague.

“Restaurant” is vague but not dangerous.  The word tells you only that the establishment serves food of some kind, but nothing else. It might offer great cuisine–or greasy slop.  It might be a fast-food joint or a 3-Star Michelin legend with a 6-month waiting list for a reservation.   And, if you do go there for a meal, that’s the extent of your obligation.  If it’s bad, you can get up from the table and leave….

So, now imagine you are standing outside a building sporting a sign reading “Charter School.”   All you can discern from the term is that it’s one of about 7,000 publicly funded but privately managed charter schools.   And the possibilities of what that charter school might be are dizzying.  Here are just some of them:

  1. It might be part of a national chain of schools or a stand-alone “Mom and Pop” school;
  2. It might have been authorized locally or set up by a distant authority (which may not be keeping its eye on things);
  3. It might have a Board of Directors made up of local parents and other residents, or it could be controlled from afar by a Board with no local representation whatsoever;
  4. It might have an admissions test, even though it is supposedly a public school, or it might be open to all comers;
  5. It might be financially transparent, or it could refuse to reveal how it’s spending the public money that it receives–which means its leader could be making more than $500,000 a year, even if his or her school has only a few hundred students;
  6. It might have a Draconian–and unpublished–discipline code that, unbeknownst to the public, systematically excludes students with special needs and/or children of color, or its code could be published for all to see; and
  7. It could be what’s called a ‘conversion charter,’ a school that is closely connected to its home school district, or it could be fighting its own district for resources.
  8. You won’t see a sign for a ‘Virtual Charter School,’ where education is conducted on line.  According to Education Week,  a study of 163 “virtual” high schools revealed that many fail to graduate even 50% of their students.  From the article: “Online charter schools, which are run mostly by for-profit companies, have long struggled with poor academic outcomes—from test scores, to academic growth, to graduation rates, to attendance rates. The most high-profile study, done by economists at Stanford University in 2015, found that students attending an online charter school made so little progress in math over the course of a year that it was as if they hadn’t attended school at all.”   In 2016 Education Week published “Rewarding Failure,” an exhaustive study of the ‘Cyber Charter School industry, and its findings remain shocking.

Now let’s follow the money, because our hypothetical “charter school” might have been established as a not-for-profit school or set up to make money.  As it happens, that supposed distinction is now one without a difference, because an awful lot of so-called non-profit charter schools are systematically looting their state treasuries in ways that are perfectly legal, thanks to state laws that were deliberately written to allow the ripoffs.   In “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” I focused on North Carolina.   But here’s information about Arizona.  PennsylvaniaFloridaMichigan. California.  California againTennesseeNew Mexico.  (I could go on and on, but you get the point: the Charter School Industry is rife with scandal.)

If you are on Twitter, just follow #anotherdayanothercharterscandal, for a drumbeat of verified bad news.   Here’s one from earlier today.  And another.

The Network for Public Education, which is vigorously and vigilantly anti-charter, recently summarized the situation in a report entitled “Asleep at the Wheel.”

The most prominent pro-charter school organization, The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, generally ignores any and all bad news, preferring instead to serve as a cheerleader.  It has its own “Hall of Fame” and “Champions for Charters,” for example, and it offers a template for local charter schools so they can fill in the blanks to boast about themselves.  These smart marketing techniques are, I suppose, designed to keep the public from knowing the truth about the chaos that is Charter World.

Could our hypothetical “charter school” be doing great work?  Well, sure, but the evidence suggests that most charter schools do not outperform their traditional counterparts. 

Many of the Democratic hopefuls are weighing in on education generally and charter schools specifically.  Peter Greene, a keen observer, has created a clever way to evaluate what they are saying.  Echoing a standardized test scoring system, the candidates can be deemed to be ‘below basic,’ ‘basic,’ ‘proficient,’ or ‘advanced.’ Here’s part of what it takes to receive an ‘advanced‘ score: The candidate recognizes that “The modern charter school movement is understood as part of a larger wave of privatization that threatens to replace government by the people with ownership by the rich and powerful. Advanced candidates recognize that the teaching profession is suffering not just from low pay, but from shrinking autonomy and a lack of support for public institutions. They recognize that high stakes standardized testing is driving schools in unproductive and toxic directions.”  

I began by saying that ‘Charter School’ is a dangerously vague term.  Unlike restaurants you can walk away from, many parents make extraordinary sacrifices to enroll their children in charter schools–without knowing enough about the school they are committing to.  It’s not so easy to walk away, but that charter school might be one of the awful ones described above.

If you’ve read this far, you know that I am concerned about charter schools, an effort that began with the best of intentions more than 30 years ago.  I served as moderator of the seminal meeting near the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota, back in 1988.  From that meeting came the draft legislation that Minnesota passed in 1990 and the first charter school in Saint Paul in 1992.  The visionaries hoped that all school districts would establish charter schools as learning laboratories, but that has just not happened.

Is there hope?  There might be, because some of the independent public charter schools are banding together in a new organization, The Coalition of Community Charter Schools, which is designed to give a voice to the 3,000-plus independent (‘Mom and Pop) charter schools.  This organization seeks to return to the original vision of charter schools. To that end, it has created a comprehensive Statement of Principles that it expects all members to adopt and adhere to.  The Principles, the equivalent of the old Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, include financial transparency, no admissions test, local control, multiple measures of accomplishment, collaboration, a commitment to diversity, and respect for teachers.

How many independent charter schools will be willing to commit to these principles is an open question.  I’m hoping that at least half will join.   If very few are willing to be open, then the charter movement is in deeper trouble than I feared

Frankly, I think this is the last best hope for charter schools, but I am not neutral on this.  I helped a little bit with the planning for the new organization and have moderated two of their early gatherings.

To sum up, the term “Charter School” tells us almost nothing, which is why I suggest that no one even consider enrolling a child in a charter school unless they have access to its disciplinary code; its graduation, promotion, and retention rate; the diversity of its students and teaching staff; the measures of accomplishment it uses; and the salaries of its leadership.  All that information is the equivalent of a restaurant menu, and just as you read a menu before ordering, so too should you learn this information before entrusting your child to that supposedly wonderful “Charter School.”

Your comments welcome at themerrowreport.com, and thanks….

Let’s Hear it FOR Betsy DeVos!

Full disclosure: Although I have never met or interviewed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, I am a huge fan.  In fact, the closest I have been to her was at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference in Baltimore recently.  Sitting maybe 75 feet from her, I was dazzled as I watched her hold off some tough questions from education reporters, a notoriously aggressive bunch. That stellar performance gave the lie to those who mock her intelligence.

In Baltimore she proved that she is smart.   Sure, she made a lot of gaffes early in her tenure, but now–after just 27 or 28 months on the job–she doesn’t get flustered.  She has learned to avoid  answering direct questions; instead, she ignores whatever she is asked and pivots back to her talking point: “Students and parents need ‘freedom’ to choose.”  Ask her anything, and she will–with a smile–talk about ‘freedom.’   She couldn’t do that if she weren’t a smart cookie.

Moreover, Secretary DeVos is a gutsy defender of minority positions.  Here’s an example: A less courageous person would fold under pressure and take the popular position that public schools are vital to our future because they enroll about 90% of students.  But, showing a backbone of steel, DeVos swims against the tide.  She is not afraid to criticize public education.  And she hasn’t just shown courage once or twice; no, she’s out there regularly–every day–taking on public education, essentially saying “Damn the consequences!”

I also admire her because she is a great friend of the American teacher, something her critics never acknowledge. In Baltimore, for example, she came out strongly in favor of paying teachers about $250,000 a year!  She cleverly suggested pegging teachers salaries to the salary of the President of the American Federation of Teachers.  Since the average teacher salary today is under $60,000 and the AFT President makes nearly $500,000, the Secretary is proposing a salary INCREASE of about $190,000 for the average teacher.   So, the next time someone says DeVos doesn’t like public school teachers, wave that in their face and tell them to zip it!

Sadly, not a single education reporter led with that news in their stories about DeVos at the EWA annual meeting.  I was embarrassed for my profession, frankly.  Quadrupling teacher salaries, for crying out loud!  Why wasn’t that their lead story?

I also admire the Secretary’s neutrality on the question of pedagogy.  Although she is the nation’s leading educator, she refuses to get drawn into arguments about which approaches to teaching and learning are most effective.  Phonics and phonemic awareness versus whole language?  No comment!  Project-based learning versus rote memorization?  No comment!  Social and emotional learning versus a strong focus on academics?  No comment!   So neutral is she that I don’t believe DeVos has ever said anything about teaching and learning, focusing instead on ‘freedom.’  When it comes to the central issues of teaching and learning, she is religiously opinion-free.

And finally, DeVos has shown that she’s in it for the long haul. She doesn’t get thrown off course by an occasional stumble or a temporary setback but hunkers down and works harder toward the goals she has set.  Let me give you an example, more evidence for you to use should you hear anyone criticizing our Secretary of Education.  DeVos is from Michigan, where she and her billionaire husband have strongly supported school choice, virtual charter schools and for-profit charter schools.  On her watch, 80% of Michigan’s charter schools began as or became for-profit schools, and the overall education system has declined in what some have called ‘A Race to the Bottom.’   Even when evidence emerged that for-profit charter schools generally have disappointing academic results, low graduation rates, and frequent financial scandals, DeVos has not wavered in her support.

Now that she is our nation’s top educator, she is promoting what she supported in Michigan, arguing that these approaches, when free from picky regulations and serious oversight, will give students the ‘freedom’ that is a vital part of the American dream.

Some other leaders might have looked at the evidence and wavered in their commitment, but Secretary DeVos has the courage of her convictions.  She’s in it for the long haul.

Call me a fanboy, but, as I see it, Education Secretary Betsy Devos has it all: brains, the courage to defend minorities,  pedagogical neutrality, a deep commitment to higher salaries for America’s teachers, and the strength to stay the course despite the evidence.

Convinced?

 

Want to ‘Fix’ Public Education? Then Fix the Economy!

I was raised to believe in public schools.  My parents taught me that good public schools both improve and unite their communities.**  Moreover, they said, great teachers transform children’s lives by unlocking their potential, which allows them to cast off whatever shackles they had been born into and rise into the middle class and beyond.  Education was liberation, they said, and I embraced the view that schools did not simply ratify the social status a child was born into.

Now, however, I realize that our economic system is so sharply tilted in favor of the privileged that even the best efforts of teachers are not enough to open the doors of opportunity to significant numbers of poor and underprivileged students.

What’s to be done?   Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, politicians in Florida and elsewhere, many Republicans, and ‘Corporate Democrats’ like Cory Booker want to change the way we go to school–by providing vouchers or opening more charter schools.  This approach, which they call ‘choice,’ will not even begin to touch the inequity that pervades education. In fact, I believe these changes would weaken an already endangered system.

It may be helpful to look back to how things were just over a half century ago. As it happens, things have not always been so unfair.

After finishing college in 1964, I taught for two years in a public high school just outside New York City.  I came to admire the energy and commitment of many of my colleagues,  women and men who were in the business of transforming lives and unlocking potential.

After more teaching and two graduate degrees, I began covering education for NPR in 1974, the start of a 41-year career, most of it spent in public school classrooms.  I met countless women and men who dedicated their lives to helping kids grow and move up. I told as many of their stories as I could, in order to make the point that race, class, economic status, parental education, and neighborhood were not destiny.  Public education at its best was a liberating force.

But gradually it dawned on me that my stories were all too exceptional, and that the real story was that far too many hard working young people were not catching a break, not being rewarded for their effort and their accomplishments. For them, The American Dream that they believed in was a hoax.

Make no mistake about it. These are special kids, high-achieving students from the bottom economic quartile who have triumphed against great odds. Just consider the money that is spent on the schools they attended for 12 years.  Sometimes the dollar gap is racial:  School districts where the majority of students enrolled are students of color receive $23 billion less in education funding than predominantly white school districts, despite serving the same number of students – a dramatic discrepancy that underscores the depth of K-12 funding inequities in the U.S.” 

But education’s dollar divide cuts across racial lines.  Basically, the poorest districts–Latino, White, and Black–also have the least-experienced teachers, the worst facilities, the highest rates of teacher turnover and teacher shortages, the most time given over to drill and practice, the fewest Advanced Placement opportunities, and on and on.

Despite this, these students–no doubt inspired and pushed to succeed by their teachers–achieved enough to warrant acceptance into highly selective colleges…..IF those highly desirable colleges were willing to open their doors to students in need of financial aid.

Whoops, that’s a BIG ‘if,’ because most are not.  While more than one-third of all college students qualify for Pell Grants (a reliable proxy for family income), only about 10-15% of the students at our most selective colleges are receiving Pell Grants.  Pell recipients are likely to attend colleges that accept most applicants.  For example, at Cal State University at Merced, about 61% of students are on Pell Grants, and it’s 58% at the University of New Mexico and 44% at Montclair (NJ) State University.   But Pell Grant recipients make up only 15% of the students at Yale, 13% at Duke, and 11% at the University of Chicago.

Poor kids, no matter how qualified, just are not likely to show up in The Ivy League.  Here are some harsh facts from the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce.

“Today’s higher education system is divided into two unequal tracks stratified by race and funding. White students are overrepresented at selective public colleges that are well-funded with high graduation rates, while Blacks and Latinos are funneled into overcrowded and underfunded open-access public colleges with low graduation rates. The gap in funding for instructional and academic support between selective and open-access public colleges has also been growing, which makes the system even more separate and unequal.”

AND:  “Students at selective colleges have an 85 percent chance of graduating, while students at open-access colleges have only a 51 percent chance of graduating.”

AND:  “Selective public colleges spend, on average, almost three times as much per full-time equivalent student on instructional and academic support as open-access public colleges.”

AND: “The combination of racial segregation and widening disparities in spending between public selective and public open-access colleges has exacerbated race-based gaps in educational and economic outcomes. Not all students can access the best public colleges and the benefits they confer. The result is that the public higher education system is another factor that is disproportionately keeping Blacks and Latinos from fulfilling their potential, entering the middle class, and living fully in their time—the basic commitments of a democratic capitalist society.” (emphasis added)

Those who do persist are almost guaranteed to graduate deeply in debt, a circumstance that shapes their life choices.   It’s not just the Pell Grant recipients who are in debt.  Collectively, 44 million men and women–not all of them graduates–owe more than $1.5 trillion, which works out to about $35,000 per debtor.   But chances are that it’s those who started out disadvantaged are still in the same boat, deeper in debt than their privileged counterparts.

However, even if we managed to equalize education spending in public schools and even if all colleges agreed to have a minimum of 20% of their student body be Pell Grant recipients, that would not begin to touch what has gone wrong with our basic economic structure.

Some history: “Up until the early 1980s, an annual minimum-wage income—after adjusting for inflation—was enough to keep a family of two above the poverty line. At its high point in 1968, the minimum wage was high enough for a family of three to be above the poverty line with the earnings of a full-time minimum-wage worker, although it still fell short for a family of four. The falling minimum wage has led to poverty and inequality. Today, at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, working 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year yields an annual income of only $15,080.”

Is that clear?  Back then, One worker earned enough to support a family, meaning that the other adult could choose to be at home with the children.   Today, a worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and putting in a 40-hour week earns $15,000 a year…..and 21 states still use the federal wage as their guide.

I have a friend about my age whose first job–in New York City!–paid enough so he could afford his own apartment in Manhattan.  Contrast that with today’s young graduates, often sharing space with two, three, or four others.

Today the working poor bear the brunt of our unequal system.  “The promise of work is part of the American Dream. Most Americans believe that people who work, especially those working full-time year round, should be earning enough to provide for their families….And the experience of working poverty for most racial/ethnic groups in the U.S., including Whites, has increased since 2000, signifying a disturbing trend in the labor force and a need for policy that ensures all work pays a fair wage.”

While a higher minimum wage would help, the real issue is income/wealth inequality and not education spending, how schools are structured, or the minimum wage.  Since 1969 the number of people in poverty hasn’t changed much, but the share of wealth going to the top one percent has doubled.  And the super-rich, the nation’s highest 0.01 percent and 0.1 percent of income-earners have seen their incomes rise much faster than the rest of the top 1 percent in recent decades.  Right now the richest 0.1% take in 188 times as much as the bottom 90%, a situation that the Trump tax cut only exacerbated.

“In the 1950s, a typical CEO made 20 times the salary of his or her average worker. Last year, CEO pay at an S&P 500 Index firm soared to an average of 361 times more than the average rank-and-file worker, or pay of $13,940,000 a year,” according to recent reports.

Happily, I’m not the only slow learner now catching on.  According to a new Washington Post/NBC poll,  60% of registered voters say the economic system benefits those in power, not all people.  They’re understanding that today’s young generation is all but guaranteed to be the first in our history to earn less than their parents, unless we make some drastic changes.

Of course schools need to change.  Right now, schools are asking the wrong question–“How Smart Are You?”–and then using test scores to provide most of the answer.  And so, despite legions of talented and dedicated teachers, our education system ends up ratifying the social and economic status  that their students entered with.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

We need to allow teachers to ask the more important question about every child–“How Is He or She Smart?”  Asking that question changes the game….as I write about in “Addicted to Reform.”

We do NOT need vouchers, private school choice, or for-profit charter schools.  These are schemes to draw attention away from efforts to defund public education.  That ‘noise’ keeps us from looking at the big picture, the fundamental unfairness of our economy.

But make no mistake about it: We cannot solve public education’s problems without attending to the fundamental unfairness of the American economy.

I say forget “Make America Great Again” (or any other slogan that involves ‘Again.’)  Why not “Make America Play Fair” or “Make America PAY Fair” instead?

Your comments are welcome at themerrowreport.com

 

** Full disclosure: My parents’ belief in public education did not prevent them from sending me off to boarding school in 9th grade.  In their defense, that’s what their parents had done with them; they had six children living in a 3 1/2 bedroom home; and I was a genuine pain-in-the-neck.

 

“Fake News” and Fascism

Those who shout about “Fake News” and assert that journalists are “The Enemy of the People” are either demagogues and wanna-be dictators, crooks who are trying to cover up their crimes, or people who have been duped.  While the demagogues and crooks are probably beyond redemption, many of those who have been fooled might be open to evidence.  So in that spirit, let’s show them what good journalism looks like; let’s show them how strong independent journalism makes our society function more honestly and more effectively.

With that in mind, I want to ask you to dig into at least some of the following  examples of remarkable reporting in the education space, finalists in the 2018 Education Writers Association annual journalism contest.  I had the distinct privilege of being one of the judges.  Below are examples of the very opposite of “Fake News.”  Real news that matters….

1) First, here are three pieces from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, whose coverage area includes Parkland and Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School.  The first provides a time line that reveals how many adults failed to do their jobs, which meant that more kids died.

http://projects.sun-sentinel.com/2018/sfl-parkland-school-shooting-critical-moments

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/parkland/florida-school-shooting/fl-florida-school-shooting-discipline-20180510-story.html

https://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/parkland/florida-school-shooting/fl-ne-florida-school-crime-reporting-20181127-story.html

2) I have no doubt that you have heard of MS-13, the notorious gang known for its brutality. President Trump has spoken about it many times.  What you may not know is how some schools have responded to the threat.  Pro Publica, working with The New York Times and New York Magazine, did some digging and produced these two chilling stories that you will not quickly forget.

https://features.propublica.org/ms-13/a-betrayal-ms13-gang-police-fbi-ice-deportation/

https://features.propublica.org/ms-13-immigrant-students/huntington-school-deportations-ice-honduras/

3) Journalists perform a public service whenever they dig deeply into an issue that most of us wonder or worry about.  Here’s an example: reading problems.  No doubt you have children, grandchildren (or friends and neighbors with either) who struggle with reading.  Want to know why?  So did Emily Hanford, with this remarkable result: https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read   Prepare to be shocked when you learn that most teachers are not taught how to teach reading.  There is established science, but it turns out that a lot of education professors either ignore it or are unaware of it.

4) Great education journalism makes our children and our schools safer and better.  That’s a huge generalization, but I stand by it.  Here’s a wonderful example, this 4-part series from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Part 1: Learn at your own risk
http://www.philly.com/philly/news/lead-paint-poison-children-asbestos-mold-schools-philadelphia-toxic-city.html

Part 2: Hidden peril
http://www.philly.com/philly/news/asbestos-testing-mesothelioma-cancer-philadelphia-schools-toxic-city.html

Part 3: Botched jobs
http://www.philly.com/philly/news/lead-carbon-monoxide-silica-poisoning-construction-students-teachers-philadelphia-schools-toxic-city.html

Part 4 is an invaluable “School Checkup tool” that allows parents and others to see what’s going on in their school.
http://data.philly.com/toxic-city/lead-poisoning-paint-asbestos-mold-asthma-philadelphia-schools-map-search-tool.html#/

By the way, interactive features like Part 4 of the Inquirer’s series are becoming standard operating procedure in journalism today.  Here’s a wonderful one about lead in the water in public schools in California, created by Ed Source.  https://edsource.org/2018/interactive-map-lead-levels-found-in-california-schools-drinking-water/602769  I urge you to share it with all your California friends and family members.

And here’s another, created by Alvin Chang for Vox, that reveals how school districts can deliberately segregate schools: https://www.vox.com/2018/1/8/16822374/school-segregation-gerrymander-map

(To see all the 2018 finalists, go to the home page of the Education Writers Association: https://www.ewa.org/awards/2018-finalists-reporting-awards)

Clearly, great journalism isn’t just about writing but about telling stories that matter.  So here’s one final example that should put the “Fake News” screed to rest, the faces and voices of people affected by the Parkland murders.  http://interactive.sun-sentinel.com/voices-of-change/  It was also produced by reporters at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a newspaper that I have just subscribed to.

One request: Share These Stories…

Just as important, please support your local journalism.  This endangered profession will not survive unless we act.  Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Thank you…..

No Glove Left Behind: A Cure for Retirement Blues

(I originally titled this piece “Retirement Sucks,’ but a careful reader, the education wonk Joe Williams, sent a note using the phrase “No Glove Left Behind,’ and I have shamelessly stolen it from him….because it’s far more clever than my effort.)

To be completely honest, I’ve been at loose ends ever since retiring from the PBS NewsHour a few years ago.  Reporting about public education gave me a sense of purpose, and suddenly that was gone.  I tried my hand at business, hoping to finally make some decent money, but, sadly, my college admissions consulting business went belly-up, I was no longer serving on the Board of Directors of Pearson, whose board I had joined in hopes of reforming that controversial organization from within, and I couldn’t interest a publisher in the book I wanted to write, “101 Reasons Manhattan’s Upper East Side is NYC’s Most Exciting Place to Live.” 

Basically, I had nothing but time…and nothing to do.  So I spent hours every day on long meandering walks, trying to come up with an activity that would give my live a real sense of purpose.   One day in early December, it clicked.  Everywhere I looked, or so it seemed, I saw a lost glove or a misplaced mitten. It happened so often that I finally decided to do something about it. 

 

 

IMG_20190119_161422.jpg (2434×2287)I began picking them up, taking them home, cleaning them, and putting them in a pile in our second bedroom.  Because I got so focused on searching for strays, I walked into lampposts and more than a few pedestrians.  But the thrill of the hunt was worth a few bumps.

I enlisted my wife and a few friends and neighbors, and before long we had more than 100 mismatched gloves and mittens, the stash pretty much taking over our second bedroom.

IMG_20190214_152744.jpg (2234×1935)

 

You might think that collecting lost gloves is a fool’s errand.  I disagree.  The needy receive coats and hats from Operation Warm and One Warm CoatSolefulCaring and Shoes for the Homeless provide winter boots for the needy, but no one has been paying attention to their hands.  We could fill that niche and meet that need!

IMG_20190209_111101.jpg (2430×2433)I suggested calling our effort “gLOVEs” or maybe “Mitten Smitten,” but those names didn’t fly with my family.  Then a grandchild who’s been helping out composed this haiku:

          Lost gloves, lone mittens

          searching for a mate. Please help

          warm shivering hands.  

And her last line struck a chord, and that’s how our organization to collect, clean, match, and donate gloves and mittens got its name, WARM HANDS.

 

My son, a computer whiz, is building a data base and an app that will allow us to make easy matches. 

 

 

Matching gloves turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined.  The two (one left, one right) have to be the same color, type, and size.  And in pretty much the same condition.

IMG_20190315_173655.jpg (2448×1981)Gloves and mittens are actually pretty interesting.  Turns out that until fairly recently most of those sold here in the United States were made in China or somewhere else in Asia, but there’s been a resurgence, and most gloves sold here in America are also made in America.  That was a pleasant surprise.  Glove factories can be found on Native American reservations, in Orthodox and Amish communities, and in several state prisons.  Not sure where this fancy suede driving glove was made, but it’s a beauty.

purple

Much of what I learned about gloves and mittens came from the glovemakers trade association, Making American Gloves Again.  I have a connection to the organization and am hoping that it will endorse WARM HANDS.  While I don’t know its President, a Mr. José Loff, personally, my sister-in-law has a second cousin who lives just four or five blocks from Mr. Loff and has seen him walking his dog.  I hope that connection will be enough to get an endorsement from Mr. Loff’s organization, MAGA.

 

 

By the way, that fancy suede driving glove turned out to be our first matched pair.  I found the first one near our apartment, and three or four days later my wife came across its mate not far from where I found the first.  We’re surmising that the owner either dropped both the same day or perhaps came back to search for #1, failed to find it, and threw away #2. 

pair It’s now April, and I am pleased to report that we have donated three dozen pairs of clean gloves and mittens to a homeless shelter not far from our home in New York City. 

We now have close to 250 unmatched gloves and mittens in our apartment, and it turns out, the more gloves and mittens we have, the easier it is to find matches. That’s why I am hoping you will send any stray gloves and mittens you find to the address below.  After all, WARM HANDS is filling a need, and we want it to grow.

WARM HANDS helps in another important way.  It’s an antidote to despair. If you are feeling powerless in an age when Presidential lying and Congressional cowardice are rampant, WARM HANDS will restore your sense of purpose!  You are significant, you are making a difference, you are saving the world, one glove at a time! 

Right we’re delivering clean pairs of gloves and mittens to needy organizations here in New York City, but–if this takes off–I see no reason why we cannot help needy people in Chicago, Indianapolis, Lincoln, Nebraska, and elsewhere.  I came across these two yesterday morning, the last day of March, but I think that has to be the end, for now, because glove/mitten weather is a thing of the past here in New York City.

 

Please send the gloves and mittens–but clean them first!–to WARM HANDS, 1148 Fifth Avenue, Apartment 9D, New York, NY 10128.  

To be honest, I still miss reporting on Betsy DeVos.  However, I am continuing to work on  my book for tourists, tentatively called “The 101 Most Exciting Things to Do and See on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.”  I could use some help with the list because so far I have found only six or seven.

Thank you, and bless you…..