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.




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.



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

Part 2: Hidden peril

Part 3: Botched jobs

Part 4 is an invaluable “School Checkup tool” that allows parents and others to see what’s going on in their school.

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.


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…..

Eight Fixes for the College Admissions Scandal

If you Google ‘College Admissions Scandal’, you’ll get 157 MILLION citations.  That’s how it is dominating our conversations.  It is absorbing stuff, the story of rich people getting yet another advantage in gaining access to the top shelf–but this time getting caught in the act.   Some of the pieces I have read include thoughtful suggestions about how to make the admissions process more fair, but most are largely salacious details and hot air/outrage.   I’d like to suggest EIGHT changes that could make the process a little bit more fair.

My bona fides: I recorded the process at four elite private institutions–Williams in 1986, Amherst in 2004, and Middlebury in 1990 for PBS and Dartmouth for NPR in the late 1970’s.  In every instance, some applicants had been ‘flagged’ by athletic coaches or heads of the music and drama departments.  Some applicants were flagged as ‘legacies,’ meaning a close relative had graduated from the college, and others were noted because their families had the capacity to make a major gift (or had already made one).  That’s standard operating procedure at elite institutions; the central question is, of course, how low would an institution go to accepted a ‘flagged’ applicant?  As a reporter, I could only ask that question.  At the end of the day, it depended upon the integrity of the process and of the individual members of the admissions committee.

Producer Tim Smith and I were the first television journalists to get access to college admissions, at Williams in the spring of 1986. We spent three days videotaping everything that moved, and of course the Committee talked about ‘flagged’ applicants, including athletes, musicians, and children of alumni, but it never occurred to me that the ‘flags’ could have been fabricated.  I assumed that the coaches, orchestra leaders, and other flaggers were putting their team/orchestra’s interests first and saw nothing that made me suspect otherwise.   Now we have to question EVERYTHING.

Those institutions tried to be ‘need blind,’ that is, to accept the most deserving students without considering their ability to pay, and, as far as I can recall, their conversations never touched upon whether a student would need financial aid  However, I am also certain that they could tell from the applications who would need to be supported, and who could pay.  A good admissions officer doesn’t need a completed FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form to separate the “haves” from the “have nots.”

Regarding the current scandal, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because we know that money talks.  However, I am disappointed in the coaches, who I assumed were putting their team first.  I knew that coaches could ‘flag’ athletes, but it never occurred to me that the flags might be for sale.  Now I am disappointed in myself because I failed to ‘follow the money’ when I was doing my reporting.

Here are EIGHT changes that I believe would make the admissions process better:

1) Elite colleges should stop participating in the annual US News & World Report college rankings process.  Just stop!  Because US News uses a college’s rate of rejection as an important measure of its quality, many colleges have stepped up their efforts to recruit applicants–just so they can turn them down.  After all, the more a college turns down, the better US News says it must be.  If Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton, MIT, Stanford et alia just said NO to US News, that would be a step in the right direction.

2) Cap the common application at four, the number of applications that are free of charge for those who qualify.  It’s now too easy for high school students with well-off parents to apply to dozens of colleges with one keystroke, and many kids do just that. This is another loophole that favors the wealthy, and we need to close as many of them as possible.  However, if we want to level the playing field, then colleges should do more reaching out to high schools in low- and moderate-income schools and help students apply.

By the way, the US News frenzy and the common application changed the admission process dramatically between our coverage of Williams in 1986 and Amherst in 2004.  In 1986 prior to the common application, every application was read by at least two members of the committee, and the entire committee met as a whole for days (often arguing passionately about particular candidates). However, by 2004 the flood of applications had forced Amherst to establish a SAT/ACT cutoff point; applicants below a certain number were rejected without a reading.  In 2004 Amherst had what amounted to two committees, which met and admitted and rejected candidates separately.

3) Administer–free of charge–the PSAT to all high school sophomores and juniors in low income schools.  If not the PSAT, then some test that is a good an indicator of talent and potential.  It might be an eye-opener for many kids in low income areas, because now many of them don’t even try to apply to “elite” colleges because they feel they don’t or won’t qualify; their scores might help change their minds.   Always remember that talent is randomly distributed, while test scores are closely related to parental income.  

4) Stop requiring the SAT and/or the ACT scores on college applications.  As many as 1,000 colleges and universities have already done this.   What might replace those standardized exams?  Here’s one intriguing possibility, reported by Bloomberg Business Week.

5) Fund public schools equitably so that every student has access to a counselor, who can guide them toward colleges that seem to be a good fit, and modern physical facilities like physics labs, and advanced curricula.   Since education is a state responsibility, state governments must put up the dollars.

6) As national policy, let’s pay for at least two years of higher education (or career training) in return for two years of National Service.  While I think the ‘free college’ talk is bogus, I am all in favor of a return to JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”   I believe a lot of idealistic and pragmatic young people would jump at the idea of spending two years in a branch of our military, the Peace Corps, the National Park Service, Americorps, the University of Notre Dame’s ACE Teaching Fellows Program, Teach for America, a qualified NGO, or other service programs.  Before Ronald Reagan’s presidency, most higher education aid was in the form of grants; today, of course, it is all loans and more loans: 71% of those who graduate owe money, and their average debt approaches $30,000.

If we as a nation invested in the post-secondary education of our young people, that would have a ripple effect: colleges and universities would be less dependent upon the largess of wealthy people, corporations, and foundations.  In time, that would change the dynamic in the admissions process by reducing the advantage that rich people now have.

7) In truth, we do not have to wait for Congress and the Administration to create National Service.  Our richest colleges could strike that deal themselves, because their endowments are staggering.  Our ten richest universities–Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, Texas A&M, the University of Michigan, Columbia, and Notre Dame–control close to $200,000,000,000 in endowment funds.  They could offer every student they admit a ‘full ride’ in return for a commitment to give back two years of service.

(By the way, Berea College in Kentucky has been providing tuition-free college for over 125 years. Berea doesn’t require service in return, but Berea graduates certainly learn to serve.)

For another example of “education for service,” consider the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. Since 2008 it has provided–at no cost–two years at a boarding high school and four years at an elite college or university in the US or Europe to talented young people from every African country. In return they must pledge to return to their native countries to work for an NGO or a public service agency for five years.

8) For that matter, states could stem their ‘brain drain’ by paying the tuition for residents who attend a state college or university and also pledge to remain in the state for a set period of time (five years?) after graduating.  The list of states that are losing young graduates probably includes Michigan, North Dakota, Montana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Maine, for openers.

Perhaps public shaming will prevent wealthy and entitled families from behaving as if the world (and Yale) owe them, but parents treating their kids as trophies is not a new phenomenon. When John Tulenko and I reported on Attention Deficit Disorder in 1995, we found parents who actually wanted their children to be labeled ADD because they seemed to believe that the diagnosis absolved them (the parents) of any responsibility for their child’s not being on track to get into Princeton or Notre Dame.  That’s a close cousin to what’s happening now in college admissions, in my opinion.

Doing more to level the playing field, to make our society more egalitarian and to make college admissions more fair, is in the national interest.  If we want to remain competitive on the world stage, we must do more to find and nurture talent, wherever we find it.

Those are my eight suggestions.  Please share yours on the blog at Themerrowreport.com



“I Was Just Following Orders”

Three questions: Who makes the rules for classroom behavior?  How much should 5-, 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds get to decide, or should the teacher just lay down the rules? And does it make any difference in the long run?

In my 41 years of reporting, I must have visited thousands of elementary school classrooms, and I would be willing to bet that virtually every one of them displayed–usually near the door–a poster listing the rules for student behavior.

Often the posters were store-bought, glossy and laminated, and perhaps distributed by the school district.  No editing possible, and no thought required. Just follow orders!  Here’s an example:best 'class rules'

I can imagine teachers reading the rules aloud to the children on the first day of class and only referring to them whenever things got loud or rowdy.

“Now, children, remember Rule 4.  No calling out unless I call on you.”

There are other variations on canned classroom rules, available for purchase.  This one uses a variety of flashy graphics to make the poster visually appealing, but the rules are being imposed from on high, which makes me think there’s little reason for children to adopt them.

still more 'class rules'

I am partial to teachers and classrooms where the children spend some time deciding what the rules should be, figuring out what sort of classroom they want to spend their year in. I watched that process more than a few times. First, the teacher asks her students for help.

Children, let’s make some rules for our classroom.  What do you think is important? 

Or she might lead the conversation in certain directions:

What if someone knows the answer to a question?  Should they just yell it out, or should they raise their hand and wait to be called on?


If one of you has to use the bathroom, should you just get up and walk out of class? Or should we have a signal?  And what sort of signal should we use?

It should not surprise you to learn that, in the end, the kids come up with pretty much the same set of reasonable rules: Listen, Be Respectful, Raise Your Hand, and so forth.  But there’s a difference, because these are their rules.

homemade poster

This poster is my personal favorite. It’s from a classroom in Hampstead Hill Academy, a public elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland (and shared by Principal Matthew Hornbeck).  You’ll have to zoom in to see the details, which include what to do when working in groups: ‘Best Foot Forward,’ ‘Hands on Desk,’ and ‘Sit Big.’ And there are some things not to do, such as ‘Slouch‘ and ‘Touch Others.’

Another homemade one, entitled ‘Rules of the Jungle,’ makes me chuckle. I can picture the teacher and the children poking fun at themselves while creating a structure to insure that their classroom really does not become a jungle.

homemade 2

The words–Kind, Safe, Respectful–can be found in the store-bought posters; however, the children created the art work and made the poster.  It’s theirs; they own it.

The flip side, the draconian opposite that gives children no say in the process, can be found in charter schools that subscribe to the ‘no excuses’ approach.  The poster child is Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academies, a chain of charter schools in New York City.  A few years ago on my blog I published Success Academies’ draconian list of offenses that can lead to suspension, about 65 of them in all.   Here are three that can get a child as young as five a suspension that can last as long as five days: “Slouching/failing to be in ‘Ready to Succeed’ position” more than once,  “Getting out of one’s seat without permission at any point during the school day,” and “Making noise in the hallways, in the auditorium, or any general building space without permission.”   Her code includes a catch-all, vague offense that all of us are guilty of at times, “Being off-task.”   You can find the entire list here.

(Side note: the federal penitentiary that I taught in had fewer rules.)

Does being able to help decide, when you are young, the rules that govern you determine what sort of person you become?  Schools are famously undemocratic, so could a little bit of democracy make a difference?  Too many schools, school districts, and states treat children as objects–usually scores on some state test–and children absorb that lesson.

Fast forward to adulthood: Why do many adults just fall in line and do pretty much what they are told to do? I am convinced that undemocratic schools–that quench curiosity and punish skepticism–are partially responsible for the mess we are in, with millions of American adults accepting without skepticism or questioning the lies and distortions of Donald Trump, Fox News, Alex Jones, Briebart, and some wild-eyed lefties as well.

Because I agree with Aristotle that “We are what we repeatedly do,” I’m convinced that what happens in elementary school makes a huge difference in personality formation and character development.

Students should have more control (‘agency’ is the popular term) over what they are learning, and inviting them to help make their classroom’s rules is both a good idea and a good start.

As always, your comments and reactions are welcome.

My Personal Edition of “The Lives They Lived”

“The Lives They Lived” is an annual end-of-the-year issue of The New York Times Sunday Magazine that tells the stories of people–some famous, some not at all–who died during the previous year.  When it appears, my wife and I read it from cover to cover, as perhaps you do.

Many more interesting men and women who lived lives of significance are not included, naturally, and so here’s my addendum, a tribute to five people who led lives of consequence:  Peter Kaufman,  Gerald Huff,  Bernice ‘Bunny’ Sandler, and two former colleagues, Brian Dowley and Mike Bowler

Peter Kaufman, a brilliant university teacher and co-author of Teaching with Compassion , was only 51 when he died in November of lung cancer. I never met Peter; his parents, Tobey and Barry, are friends and neighbors in our Manhattan apartment building, but you have only to read what his students have to say about him to understand that he led a life of consequence.  If you do nothing else today, please, please read Peter’s powerful reflection on death and dying: (here’s how it starts):

I’m dying. I don’t mean this figuratively—like I’m dying of thirst or dying to visit Hawaii. I mean it quite literally. I have incurable, stage IV lung cancer.

I was diagnosed in June 2017, a few months after my fiftieth birthday. My only symptom was a nagging, dry cough, but by the time the disease was detected the cancer had metastasized throughout my body. Since then I have had numerous treatments and interventions. Some of these worked quite well, allowing me to resume most of my normal activities; others were not as effective, resulting in adverse side effects, extreme discomfort, and, in one instance, a week-long stay in the hospital. My current treatment plan showed great initial promise but now, after just a few weeks, the tumors started growing again.      

For me to have lung cancer—indeed any form of cancer—is the epitome of a tragic irony. I have never smoked or tried illegal drugs, and I’ve never even been drunk. I’ve pursued clean living, good nutrition, and regular exercise in part to avoid the sort of medical misfortune that I am now experiencing. As a kid I played sports all day long. At sixteen I swore off junk food. At eighteen I became a vegetarian. In my twenties I ran marathons and did triathlons, and, in my thirties and forties when my aching knees no longer let me run, I swam or biked most days. About six months before my diagnosis I completed a one-day workout that simulated two-thirds of an Ironman triathlon, swimming 2.4 miles, then biking 120 miles (with 5,000 feet of climbing). A few weeks later I recorded my fastest one-mile swim time ever. I was incredibly healthy . . . until I wasn’t.

Peter Kaufman did not ‘go gently into that good night,’ but neither did he ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ Instead, he looked death in the face, turned it every which way, and thought deeply about its–and life’s–significance.

I predict that you will also find Peter’s Twitter Feed intriguing and moving.   I urge you to share these links widely

Cancer also took Gerald Huff, the author of Crisis 2038.  Gerald was only 54 when he died in November, just seven weeks after his diagnosis.  Like Peter Kaufman, Gerald Huff led a life of consequence, and–with our help–his legacy will continue.  I met Gerald only once, and then just to shake hands and exchange pleasantries.  His mother, Gisele, was and is a good friend; through Gisele I learned of her son’s accomplishments and concerns.

A libertarian who came to believe that Americans should be provided with an adequate living income as a floor to build on, Gerald was consumed by questions we all would do well to ponder: “Will society change fast enough in response to the rise of AI, automation, and robots?  If it does not, what will happen as more and more jobs disappear?”   He did more than write, of course.  He was a principal software engineer at Tesla, where he was the technical lead for the software that manages the flow of thousands of Model 3 parts throughout the factory. Before joining Tesla, Gerald was director of the Technology Innovation Group at Intuit, exploring the application of emerging technologies to solve problems in the consumer and small-business space.

After his death, his family published Crisis 2038, his thrilling novel about the impact of technology on society in 20 years.  The story forces readers think about the society our children and our children’s children will live in—and how we can shape it. The novel–reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s best work–is the culmination of a 5-year journey, and its publication was the focus of his final days. Gerald is survived by his wife, Judy, and his two children, Paul and Jane.  You can buy the book here.

When Bernice Sandler was a schoolgirl in the 1930s and ’40s, she was annoyed that she was not allowed to do things that boys could do, like be a crossing guard, fill the inkwells or operate the slide projector.  That’s the lead sentence of Dr. Sandler’s obituary in The New York Times.

Bernice “Bunny” Sandler is widely acknowledged to have been the driving force behind Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972, sometimes called ‘that damned sports law’ by people opposed to equal rights and opportunities for women.  To be completely forthright, I remember that I created as many opportunities as I could to interview Bunny for my weekly NPR radio program, ‘Options in Education,’ which ran from 1974 to 1982.  She was always engaging, honest, relevant, challenging, and provocative; at the time I had two infant daughters, and Bunny was teaching me what their futures could and should be.

(Bunny passed away at the age of 90 early in January of this year, and so her story technically belongs in next year’s New York Times Sunday Magazine, but I am not willing  to wait till then to celebrate her life of consequence.)

The Times obituary continues:  When she was older, teaching part-time at the University of Maryland, she was told that she wasn’t being hired for a full-time job because “you come on too strong for a woman.” Another interviewer complained that women stayed home when their children were sick. Another rejected her by saying that she was “just a housewife who went back to school.”

By that time, which was 1969, Dr. Sandler was more than annoyed. She was good and mad. And that led her to become the driving force behind the creation of Title IX, the sweeping civil rights law of 1972 that barred sex discrimination by educational institutions that received federal funding.

Bunny’s obit ends this way:  In a 2007 article, she concluded that Title IX had precipitated a social revolution comparable to the Industrial Revolution. Women and men, she said, “are far closer to equal than they have ever been in the history of the world.”

But, Dr. Sandler added, “We have only taken the very first steps of what will be a very long journey.”

Brian Dowley was one of the best cameramen I ever worked with in my 33 years in television.  He was hard-working, intelligent, focused, and positive. Television is a team sport, and Brian was the ultimate team player.  Even though he was taking the video, Brian knew that sound was at least as important as his pictures;  some call TV ‘sound with pictures,’ and that’s not far from the truth.  So Brian always listened carefully to what was being recorded and took care to capture images and events that worked with the sound.  Some cameramen think they’re driving the train, and they pull the sound recordist away from what he or she is focusing on. Brian never did that, and, as a result, we often came away with riveting material.

Brian was only 67 when he died of leukemia this past August on Martha’s Vineyard, the island where he had grown up.  I visited Brian a few months earlier in Cambridge, where he and his wife, Mimi Michaelson, were living.  He had been battling the disease for years and was living in as sterile an environment as humanly possible.  I donned a mask and all sorts of other sterile clothing and sat as far away from Brian as possible.  Sick as he was, Brian was positive and upbeat, and he and I laughed about memorable shoots we had been on, including several remarkable days in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Here’s more about this wonderful man, from his obituary in The Boston Globe:

Brian was well known in Boston film circles as a Director of Photography for over 35 years working on dozens of documentaries and narratives films for NOVA, American Experience, Frontline as well as independent documentaries. He was a life long hockey player and a highly respected coach for Cambridge Youth Hockey where a scholarship for young hockey players was established in his name: www.gofundme.com/brian-dowley-youth-hockey-fund. Brian graduated from the Darrow School and received his BFA and MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. 

And finally, Michael H. Bowler, another good friend from education reporting.  Mike was 77 when he died–also of cancer.

He spent most of his career at The Baltimore Sun, which reported his death.  After leaving reporting to become an editor, Mike served on his local school board.  He was a true fan and supporter of public education.  Here’s one graf from the obit:

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who has been president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County since 1992, also was a friend for decades.  “When I think of Mike Bowler, I think of the best of journalism and humanity. The man cared so much about education, people, teachers and children,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “He taught us to tell the truth on all occasions and to live authentically. I think of his great sense of humor, smile and laughter, and we will never forget that which reflected a very serious and generous spirit.”

Dr. Hrabowski got it right.  Mike’s big and boisterous–and ever-present–laugh made everyone around him feel better, and I have no doubt that his genuine good humor and positivity also helped even the most cantankerous people work for the common good.

Dr. Hrabowski delivered the eulogy at Mike’s memorial service, which was–fittingly–held in a public school and was–also fittingly–packed with friends and admirers from education, politics, journalism, and his church.  I worked closely with Mike for many years, and it was he who provided the driving energy that saved the Education Writers Association when it came close to folding nearly 40 years ago.  Although I knew Mike for well over 40 years, I only learned about his fascinating back story when I visited him last summer–including this:  His father, Clyde Hendrix Phillips, who was a newspaperman on the Helena Daily Independent, died of leukemia when his wife, Edeen Elizabeth Carlson, a homemaker and musician, was pregnant with their son.  His father’s newsroom colleague, Duane Wilson “Doc” Bowler, later married his friend’s widow and adopted Mr. Bowler. 

So, there you have it.  My version of “The Lives They Lived,” five stories of people I know made the world around them a better place.   Please remember Peter Kaufman, Gerald Huff, Bunny Sandler, Brian Dowley, and Mike Bowler, and perhaps write your own version of “The Lives They Lived” about others The New York Times missed…and share it with others.  Above all, let’s resolve to live lives of consequence.

Did “Sesame Street” Create Twitter?

I’m old enough to remember when Sesame Street first appeared on public television in late 1969.  After its wildly popular first season, some critics complained that the program’s appealing structure–fast-paced short segments–would eventually destroy children’s ability to remain focused; they would grow up accustomed to receiving new stimuli every minute or so and would eventually become unable to learn any other way.  Any activity that required more than a few minutes of concentration would become beyond their reach, and their teachers would have to be, above all, entertainers.

As far as I know, that particular doomsday did not occur–not in the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s, and not in the first 15 years of this century.

However, I fear that doomsday is upon us now, in the age of Twitter.   Twitter co-founders Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, Evan Williams, and Noah Glass were born in the 1970’s, which means they were in the program’s target audience during its golden years and probably grew up watching Sesame Street.  In creating Twitter, they have fulfilled the prophecies of the program’s fiercest critics. They invented the tool that has turned us into exactly what Sesame Street‘s critics predicted: a populace unable to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes (unless we are in actual danger).

Exhibit A would be Donald Trump (known in another context as “Individual A”).  Trump bounces from pillar to post, and Twitter is his favorite means of communication.

I’m afraid that I might be Exhibit B, because I have become addicted to Twitter.  At least 10 or 20 times a day I check the posts of the 1,578 people I follow.  I often retweet items to my 10,200 followers. During the day, I unspool the threads of Trump’s fiercest critics like Seth Abramson  (@sethabramson) and Scott Dworkin (@funder), and I delight in the snark of The Hoarse Whisperer (@horsewisperer).

But my addiction is worse because I also follow my old employer, The PBS NewsHour (@Newshour), CNN (@CNN), Jake Tapper of CNN (@jaketapper), Maggie Haberman of the New York Times (@maggieNYT), Jane Mayer (@janemayernyer), Joy Reid of MSNBC (@JoyAnnReid), the AP (@AP), investigative reporter Jack Gillum (@jackgillum), The National Review (@NRO), neo-conservative and Never-Trumper Bill Kristol (@BillKristol), reliable liberal David Axelrod (@Davidaxelrod), Soledad O’Brien (@soledadobrien), Axios (@axios), and others who tweet about politics.  I also follow a few actual politicians like Senator Tim Kaine (@timkaine), Representative Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff), and Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi).

Naturally, I am following a bunch of education sites: The Hechinger Report (@hechingerreport),  Education Week (@educationweek), Chalkbeat (@chalkbeat), the 74 (@the74), The Network for Public Education, (@Network4pubEd), Diane Ravitch (@DianeRavitch), Randi Weingarten of the AFT (@rweingarten), Lily Eskelsen Garcia of the NEA (Lily_NEA), conservative Democrat Whitney Tilson (@whitneytilson), and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (@arneduncan).

There’s a real downside to our national obsession with Twitter and other forms of instant gratification: We are inundated to the point of exhaustion with news, trivial news, and fake news.  In my view (and in the opinion of many others), any one of a dozen of Trump’s actions could (should?) have led to–at the very least–his censure by Congress, but the full out fire hose of incidents and lies seem to have overwhelmed our capacity for outrage and public action about any one action.

With our heads and brains in a constant spin, we are paralyzed.  Can we break the addiction and take back our country?

If you have suggestions for ways for me to kick the habit, my Twitter handle is @John_Merrow.

Ironically and sadly, the only sure way to get my attention is via Tweet.


“Pragmatic” NETFLIX Chooses Profit over Principle

The news that Netflix has pulled one of its programs at the ‘request’ of the Saudi dictatorship in order to prevent Saudi citizens from seeing it is causing  concern among defenders of free speech, who say Netflix is putting profits above principle. For its part, the giant company defends its action as normal business practices; it’s just following a country’s laws. In a prepared statement, Netflix said, “We strongly support artistic freedom worldwide and only removed this episode in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal request – and to comply with local law.”  In other words, this was Pragmatism, nothing more.

Maybe so, but it’s also precedent-setting…and a slippery slope.  How long before other dictators and populist strong men demand that Netflix remove episodes of this or that from Netflix Poland, Netflix Turkey, Netflix Hungary, Netflix Philippines, and so on?  If all it takes is a local law, well, that’s hardly a challenge for a dictator.

As a (retired) reporter, I regard Netflix’s action as deplorable.  It is yet another crack in freedom’s wall.  Presented with the opportunity to support freedom of expression, Netflix failed to do so.  I find its ‘pragmatic’ behavior upsetting.

However, as someone who has had a modest relationship with Netflix founder Reed Hastings, the company’s ‘pragmatism’ is not surprising. I’ve experienced it first-hand.

Here’s the backstory:  I meet Reed around 2004, when we were working on a documentary about California public education, the film “First to Worst.”  I hadn’t considered interviewing him for our history, and in fact I met him only because he came to our home in Palo Alto for a screening of the film as the guest of John Doerr, the venture capitalist who organized the screening.  Reed actively participated in the subsequent conversation.  I found him to be smart, articulate, personable, and willing to challenge conventional wisdom–a very impressive thinker.

Hastings had been Chair of the California State Board of Education, a position he was bounced from at the insistence of the powerful teachers union, the CTA.  A freethinker, he had become convinced that public education needed the challenge of competition, which meant that he supported charter schools and efforts to hold the system accountable.  The union was not happy with either of his positions.

We met again a few years later.  Because the Education Writers Association was in danger of going out of business, I arranged a meeting between Reed and EWA’s executive director.  At some point, she asked for a contribution.  If memory serves, he said he believed in education reporting and wrote a check for $25,000 on the spot.

Now fast forward to 2009.  Davis Guggenheim, who won an Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth,” was producing “Waiting for ‘Superman’” and wanted to use our footage of Michelle Rhee firing a principal on camera.  Davis called me and asked to buy the rights to the footage.  While we had never sold any footage, my non-profit company was in tough straits, and so I told Davis that, for the right price, we would sign a deal.  

A week or so later, he offered a few hundred dollars, an insulting amount–which we rejected.  Then, just before he screened the film at Sundance, he had one of his assistants call to issue an ultimatum: accept their offer because he was using the footage anyway. 

I was furious. Our lawyer wrote letters to Paramount, and I started calling influential people, including Reed Hastings, to ask for their advice.   Reed reacted, well, pragmatically.  He told me that fighting back was pointless, because Guggenheim had big money and a major studio (Paramount) behind him, and we were a struggling non-profit.  I remember Reed’s saying that some battles were not worth fighting. He mentioned ‘taking one for the team’ and joked about ‘rolling over and enjoying it.’  I told him that we weren’t willing to do that.

Guggenheim may have expected us to cave, but we didn’t.  Instead, we leaked the story to the Washington Post, Variety, and some other outlets. Some reporters wrote it as a “David versus Goliath” story.

In the end, Guggenheim’s backers, embarrassed by the negative publicity, paid us a decent amount.  “Waiting for ‘Superman‘” was a big favorite among conservatives; from my perspective, it is shallow, slickly-made propaganda that is, unfortunately, quite convincing.

(Guggenheim made Rhee a hero of his film. I’ve often wondered whether he considered changing the film when the epidemic of cheating by adults on her watch was exposed, and Rhee herself emerged as the epitomé of the flawed ‘school reform’ known as data-driven decision making.)

The kerfluffle didn’t seem to matter to Reed, if he was even aware of it.   His foundation was one of the funders of my 2013 film about New Orleans public schools after Katrina, and Netflix aired the film for three years.

Today Reed Hastings is an even more passionate advocate for charter schools. He has been supporting efforts in California to expand their number and to elect pro-charter school board members in Los Angeles and elsewhere. He’s on the progressive left’s list of betes noires, of course. He’s also a brilliant–and pragmatic–businessman whose model, Netflix, continues to upend the digital world.   

Whether his ‘pragmatic’ approach to self-censorship will prove harmful is anyone’s guess.  We’ll learn more when the next dictator demands that Netflix stop airing some programs.  Stay tuned.

(And I may be part of the problem, because we haven’t cancelled our subscription and are looking forward to bingeing on “Frankie and Grace.”)

Is Reed Hastings still a strong supporter of independent journalism and a vigorous free press?  I hope so, but, based on his Saudi Arabia decision, I don’t think the Education Writers Association should bother asking for support any time soon. 

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.