What Nearly Dying Taught Me



(Hospital photos by Joan Lonergan)






















Campbell’s Law teaches us that, when too much pressure is placed on a single measurement, that measurement inevitably becomes corrupted to the point of being useless.  A straightforward analogy is to physical health.  An individual who worries only about weight is a strong candidate for anorexia and bulimia. On the other hand, the person who pays attention to muscle and skin tone, flexibility, endurance, a balanced diet, daily exercise, and personal appearance–as well as weight–is NOT a candidate for an eating disorder.

The same principle applies to education: When a system values (and measures) many aspects of schooling, such as the amount of art and music, the time devoted to recess, student attendance, teacher attendance, teacher turnover, and academic achievement, the school and its students, teachers and staff are likely to be ‘balanced.’   When only test scores or graduation rates matter, bad things are guaranteed to happen.

Evidence of educational anorexia and bulimia isn’t hard to find.  The absence of art, music, science, and recess is one clear sign. Lots of test-prep is another clear indicator. Rallies for ‘higher test scores’ is strong evidence.  At home, check on your child’s anxiety level. Stomach aches before the days of standardized testing?  Trouble sleeping? It’s all right there in front of us.

Under Washington DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (2007-2010), all that counted was test scores, and before long adults began cheating, knowing that their jobs depended on raising scores.  Under her successor, Kaya Henderson (2010-2016), raising graduation rates became the Holy Grail, and we now know what transpired: hundreds of seniors–one third of the graduating class–were given diplomas even though they had been skipping school regularly or had otherwise not followed the rules.  Her successor as Chancellor, Antwan Wilson, not only failed to monitor and correct that situation; he also broke his own rules and illegally transferred his daughter into a selective high school, bypassing the lottery. 

It’s impossible not to conclude that Washington has been sold a bill of goods by ‘reformers’ like Rhee, Henderson and others. That narrative has been widely accepted and spread by the pundit class and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  The evidence, presented here, only proves that ‘more of the same’ is akin to adding ponies to the pony express team. More speed perhaps, but the stagecoach is still going to arrive days later than the planes, trucks, and trains.

The reaction to the DC fiasco has been revealing.  Those on the far right, including current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, have expressed outrage. DeVos has called for an FBI investigation and for more ‘school choice.’  That’s also been the call from The Manhattan Institute, which claims “The only thing that’s actually worked in Washington, D.C., has been school choice.”  Frankly, these guys and gals will do anything they can to undermine public education.

The defenders of the status quo of ‘school reform,’ notably former reporter-turned-pundit Thomas Toch, have issued a familiar warning: “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water” and attacking–apparently without irony–pundits.  Tom and I exchanged views last year in The Washington Monthly, and in his current piece he continues to sidestep or ignore the bad stuff, such as the revolving door for principals, the swollen central office bureaucracy, and the widening racial and economic achievement gaps. Toch is not alone: Democrats for Education Reform, another cheerleader for what I call ‘test-and-punish’ education, is worried.  These guys and gals refuse to consider the possibility that a ‘school reform’ which reduces students and teachers to data points simply cannot produce significant numbers of capable, well-rounded, well-adjusted young people.

However, with the forced resignation of Chancellor Wilson, Mayor Muriel Bowser and the City Council can demonstrate they are serious about opportunities for all children. The First Step, I suggest, should be a citywide dialogue about the purposes of schooling.  What do the citizens (and not just parents) of Washington value?  


          The ability to read, reason, argue persuasively,  and compute?

          The ability and willingness to work with others?  

          Familiarity with democratic values?  

         The ability to pose questions and search for answers?

         Good physical health and nutrition habits?  

         An understanding of art and music?  

         Intellectual curiosity and a high tolerance for ambiguity?

Whatever the answers, those are what must be measured.  So that’s Step One: measure what we value, instead of just valuing what we now (cheaply) measure.  Creating programs that emphasize and teach these concepts and values will cure the ‘educational anorexia’ that now characterizes the DC schools.

Step Two, in my opinion, is to allow and encourage educators to ask a different question about each child.  Right now school systems look at every student and ask ‘How Smart Is She/He?’ (and formulate their answer based on test scores, appearance, economic status, race, and bias).  Students are then sorted in two basic groups, winners and losers.

Educators need to ask a very different question, “How Is This Child Intelligent?”  Every child has strengths, and today’s technologies allow educators to assess and then build on those strengths and interests.  That’s what most parents–and a few hundred public schools–do.

I have some knowledge of the Washington public school system…and a deep concern for DC’s students. I write this as a former DC resident whose three children attended Washington public schools (Oyster, Alice Deal, and Woodrow Wilson) and as a long-time Education Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; in the latter capacity, I chronicled Michelle Rhee’s time as Chancellor (12 reports over 3 years) and later produced “The Education of Michelle Rhee” for the PBS series, “Frontline.”  Unfortunately, it was only AFTER the Frontline broadcast that I obtained the memo that reveals the extent of Rhee’s and Henderson’s knowledge of the widespread erasures.  And because Rhee and Henderson effectively controlled the investigations of the cheating (and hired Cavern, infamous for stumbling over clues without seeing them), nothing came of those efforts either.  I also produced two long-form documentaries about the teaching of reading in several DC elementary schools.   

With Wilson’s resignation, Washington has a genuine opportunity to rethink and ‘reset.’ In Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” I argue that superficial reform efforts have been doing serious damage to children, to the teaching profession, and to public support for schools. Ironically, my two central examples of superficial reform, the push to raise standardized test scores and the drive to raise graduation rates, have played out—with disastrous results—in Washington.  I talked about this with Jeffrey Brown of the NewsHour in October.

Anorexia and Bulimia are literal killers, plain and simple.  While Educational anorexia and bulimia do not literally kill our children, they snuff out curiosity and the desire to learn.  Kids graduate in a weakened condition, ill-prepared for life in a complex society, easy prey for charlatans at every level from the White House on down.






Graduation Rates & “School Reform” Fraud

The emperor has no clothes, and it’s high time that everyone acknowledged that. Proof positive is Washington, DC, long the favorite of the ‘school reform’ crowd, which offered it as evidence that test-based reforms that rewarded teachers for high student scores (and fired those with low scores) was the magic bullet for turning around troubled urban school districts.

But now we know that about one-third of recent DC high school graduates–900 students– had no business receiving diplomas, and that they marched across the stage last Spring because some adults changed their grades or pushed them through the farce known as ‘credit recovery,’ in which students can receive credit for a semester by spending a few hours over a week’s time in front of a computer.

The reliable Catherine Gewertz of Education Week provides a through (and thoroughly depressing) account of the DC story, which she expands to include data from DC teachers:  “In a survey of 616 District of Columbia teachers conducted after the scandal broke, 47 percent said they’d felt pressured or coerced into giving grades that didn’t accurately reflect what students had learned. Among high school teachers, that number rose to 60 percent. More than 2 in 10 said that their student grades or attendance data had been changed by someone else after teachers submitted them.”

The DC story was initially reported by Kate McGee of WAMU for NPR. That led to an investigation by the DC City Council and action by Mayor Muriel Bowser.

If you have read “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” you have read about Arne Duncan’s “Raise the Graduation Rate” effort, which is prime example of phony reform (along with W’s earlier “Raise the Test Scores” campaign).  Both superficial reforms proved to be malignant in their impact upon students, teachers, and schools.  Students were lied to about their proficiency, administrators and teachers cheated, school curricula were debased, standards were lowered, and confidence in public schools dropped.

The response to the graduation scandal from members of the ‘school reform’ establishment (which includes Republicans and Democrats) has been to blame “a few bad apples” for misbehaving. Wrong, wrong, wrong! This outcome was inevitable and entirely predictable, because this always happens when a system puts all its eggs in one basket.  Too much pressure on a single metric renders that metric unreliable and untrustworthy.  But Education Establishment figures from the (right leaning) American Enterprise Institute and the (left leaning) Center for American Progress call for greater accountability, more early intervention for kids who do poorly on tests, and so forth. No one questions the wisdom of the test-based system, as far as I can see.

By the way, if you think I feel strongly about this, check out this opinion piece, also from Education Week.

How did the graduation scam continue for so long under the leadership of Chancellor Kaya Henderson? You will recall that Henderson succeeded the controversial Michelle Rhee, who came to DC in 2007 and left in 2010.  Henderson, Rhee’s deputy and closest friend, was routinely described in the media as “A kinder, gentler Rhee.”  Unfortunately, people focused on the adjectives, “kinder” and “gentler”and felt relieved to be free of Rhee’s sturm und drang.  Suffering from “Rhee fatigue,” everyone apparently ignored the central point of the description:  Henderson=Rhee.

Sadly, the current DC Chancellor, Antwan Wilson, has not moved quickly to take control. Perhaps this is because he–just like Rhee, Henderson, and many other school leaders–is on record as a supporter of what I call the ‘test-and-punish’ approach to education.

So, end of the day, it’s not really about the people but about a school system that is inadequate for the 21st Century.  We simply don’t have enough kids to sort them into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ at an early age.  Our schools now look at each kid and ask, “How smart is this child?” (often getting their answer from tests, but also from appearance, income level, and race).  Instead, schools should be asking an ethically, morally and socially appropriate question, “How is this child intelligent?”  Building on strengths and interests is the right starting place.

When administrators and teachers change student scores so they can pass, the adults are lying to the students, telling them they are proficient and denying them the remedial help they were entitled to. We will never know how many lives were blighted, and those kids may never catch up.  In Atlanta educators went to jail, but in most other cheating scandals, no adults suffered.

The DC system can identify the 900+ students who received phony diplomas, but what comes next? Should those diplomas be recalled, and the students compensated with additional instruction?  Surely the kids shouldn’t be punished, but neither should they be allowed to keep their diplomas.  The principal of one DC high school has been reassigned, but that doesn’t begin to get to the heart of the problem.

The rot starts at the top, but Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson are long gone from Washington.  And, more importantly, they are not the top.  They were just opportunistically riding the wave.

It doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of energy looking back and casting blame.  We ought to reject test-based reform as the harmful fraud that it is.  That’s the right starting place.

(Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education is available at your local bookseller and on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)

A Bit More on the Fraudulent Grades and Promotions in DC Schools

Please read this carefully

GFBrandenburg's Blog

Anybody interested in reading the official OSSE/Alvarez & Marsal report on grade inflation and phony graduations in many DC high schools, both public and charter, canread it here.

You might be wondering, how did the Ballou administration get teachers to give passing grades to students who were not present and did no work?


Any teacher who had a student failing their class for any reason had to fill out numerous, complicated, and time-consuming documents showing that the teacher had given the student all sorts of interventions to save them from failing. This might sound like a good idea, but think about it: A high school teacher typically has 100 students or more; if half or more of them are chronically absent (and hence failing), the teacher (not the student) who intended to give all those students the F grades they deserved would have to actually perform hundreds of…

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Transforming Public Schools In Just NINE Steps

I want to make it easier for courageous school boards and superintendents to take on the challenge of transforming their schools.  For them, I have reduced my book’s 12-Step program to just NINE steps.  Here’s my thinking:  Because the country has become addicted to superficial ‘reform,’ it must, like all addicts, own the problem and face up to the costs of addiction.  In my book, those are the first three Steps.  However, school leaders do not need to look backwards and point fingers.  Why not just ask their communities, “Do you think we can improve our schools?”  That (rhetorical) question will elicit a chorus of yes, yes, and yes, which provides a license for moving ahead.

And so, in the interests of encouraging school leaders to grasp the nettle, here are the NINE steps, in brief.  (However, if you are not school leaders, I must insist that you to stop reading right now and go buy the book!)


Our schools and their dominant pedagogy are inappropriate for the twenty-first century and have to be replaced. But what will replace them? The answers become clear when we ask the right question about each and every child.

Remember, today’s schools have evolved into a sorting mechanism to identify and label children from a very young age. Even though tracking has long since fallen out of favor, many (perhaps most) schools have subtle, or not-so-subtle, tracking systems. 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. Economics reinforces tracking as well. Because school characteristics are nearly always a function of a community’s wealth, some of our schools are decrepit to the point of being unsafe, which has the effect of “tracking” those students downward. Schools in wealthy communities have modern facilities, the most experienced teachers, the latest technology, and perhaps even climbing walls in the gym. That is the track for “winners.”

Essentially, our current system examines each child and demands to know, in a variety of ways, “How intelligent are you?” Standardized, machine-scored tests are the “objective” instruments most commonly used to determine the answer to what is, today, the wrong question.

A new system of schools must ask a different question about each child: “How are you intelligent?” That may strike you as a steep hill to climb, but it’s my version of the questions that caring parents, teachers, and other adults ask about individual children. They phrase it differently: “What is Susan interested in?” “What turns George on?” “What motivates Juan?” or “What does Sharese care about?” Or one can pay attention to young children at play to find out what makes them tick; as Yogi Berra may have said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Every child has interests, and those can be tapped and nurtured in schools that are designed to provide opportunities for children to succeed as they pursue paths of their own choosing. Giving children agency over their own education—with appropriate guidance and supervision—will produce a generation that is better equipped to cope with today’s changing world.

Like most of the changes required to remake public education, this shift—close to a 180-degree change—will not be easy. Some policies, procedures, and attitudes will have to change, and people who refuse to adapt will have to be moved out. The current education system works on a medical model, diagnosing what’s “wrong” with children and then putting them in one ward or another for “treatment.” The approach I put forth in this book is, by contrast, a health model, identifying children’s strengths and interests and then developing a course of action that builds on those assets while also taking care to see that children master basic skills such as literacy and numeracy.


“Only connect,” urges one of E.M. Forster’s central characters in his novel Howard’s End. Forster wasn’t writing about adolescents and children, but he could have been. Because most children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, making connections with them is essential. Children need nurturing and support, and when they don’t feel connected to their school and the adults therein, they will look elsewhere. As Erika Christakis notes in The Importance of Being Little, “It’s really very simple: young children need to know and to be known.” Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, adds, “When adults demonstrate that they care and that they believe in you, much is possible.” Carol Dweck makes similar points in Mindset: The New Psychology of Growth.

As a practical matter, this step calls for schools that are small enough so that every student can be well known to at least a couple of adults in the building. That’s the critical piece often missing in public education, where teachers are sometimes responsible for 150 or more students. As the late educator Ted Sizer said, “That’s not teaching; that’s crowd control.” Those conditions make it extremely difficult for caring adults to connect with all the needy children they come in contact with on a daily basis.

Of course, a small school doesn’t guarantee connecting, because what matters far more is a caring attitude and philosophy. Adults need to learn to see the world from kids’ level, from the ground up and not from the top down. There is good news: lots of schools and communities are embracing this idea. Today, it’s usually under the label of “social and emotional learning.” The modern roots of this approach are in the work of Dr. James Comer, M.D., whose Comer School Development Program pioneered the idea that schools must nurture first and teach second.


Connecting early by creating appealing programs for children of preschool age is the next step in the process of transforming the way our children go to school. Here I suggest we follow the model of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. Ike did not build one set of highways for luxury cars and another for cheap ones but instead made sure that every interstate highway was wide, safe, and well-constructed, suitable for military vehicles and luxury cars like Cadillacs and Lincolns but, of course, open to Volkswagens and other less expensive cars.

The Interstate Highway System was justified and paid for as part of our national defense effort, and we might be wise to take a similar approach to early childhood education and daycare programs. After all, if we believe that our children are the future and that our nation will always require a strong defense, shouldn’t we invest early in protecting our future?

I chose the interstate highway model because the record in social programs, including early childhood programs, is clear: when government creates programs just for poor people, it nearly always results in poor programs. Government-funded programs for the disadvantaged, such as Head Start, seem to be constantly scrounging for funds; to reduce staff costs, they often hire people with minimum qualifications; and the hours spent filling in forms and meeting other requirements leaves little time for meeting the needs of children and families, let alone for staff development and “reflection.” To satisfy their communities, some programs give hiring preference to locals, qualified or not, leading to the common charge that these programs exist to provide jobs for adults, rather than to support the healthy development of children.

What is the right age? Is three too young? That’s up to parents. Effective preschool programs such as the Perry Preschool Project and the Chicago Child Parent Centers enroll both three- and four-year-olds. Some say that’s critical to success because so many low-income children are already significantly behind by age three.

A critical issue is what happens during the day. Is its focus academic? Beware of a pushed-down curriculum, because it is probably not developmentally appropriate. Play always matters, but it’s especially critical in the early years. It makes sense to me to think of Recess as ‘The 4th R,’ along with reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.’

It’s also important to figure out who is in charge. Non-educators who are not versed in child development shouldn’t be deciding how three- and four-year-olds spend their days. And under no circumstances should those days involve testing.


Because children become what they repeatedly do, it’s essential that they do different things in school. However, it’s equally important that we do the right thing, which above all means expecting more from them.

Here I am building on a foundation provided by Aristotle and philosopher Will Durant: “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; ‘these virtues are formed in man by his doing his actions’; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Kicking the habit of school reform demands that we look carefully at the routines of school.  If schools demand that students fill in bubbles, color inside the lines, fall into line when ordered to do so, and never ask why or question authority, those children are unlikely to become independent thinkers and doers. Going forward, we must expect and encourage students to dig deeply into subjects and ideas they are curious about. Teachers must then use their students’ curiosity—about The Odyssey, skydiving, auto mechanics, the French Revolution, or rap music—to ensure that they also master clear writing and thinking, mathematical concepts, and other essentials.

This is a fundamental shift. In our current system, teachers are seen as the workers, students as the product.  No longer. In tomorrow’s schools, students are the workers, and knowledge is the product.  For that to happen, the work must be genuine, not regurgitating state capitals or the periodic table of elements.  My book provides examples of real work, often taken from classrooms I have visited, and others are described in Step 6, below.

(Habitual behavior at home also matters. Children whose parents allow them to spend their free time on screens playing video games and texting with friends, who aren’t required to pick up their dirty laundry, keep their rooms clean and help around the house, and who aren’t expected to participate in conversations at the dinner table are likely to grow up to be one sort of adult. On the other hand, children whose parents expect them to join on trips to museums, the library, and the grocery store, who participate in family activities, and who are encouraged to think about the needs of others develop very different habits as adults.)


Spoiler alert: this chapter has a clear bottom-line message. It is that technology, no matter how powerful, will never completely replace teachers. Wisely used, however, it will make good teachers more effective.

Before the age of the Internet, the schools we need to create for all children could not have existed. No chance! While, in theory, teachers could have asked the essential question about every child—“How is this particular child intelligent?”—the second step, which involves personalized learning pathways for each and every child, was unimaginable. However, that is now possible because the Internet and modern technology enable students to dig deeper and soar higher than ever before. But technology must be embraced with care, and adults will have to learn to give up a large measure of control over children’s learning. Neither is guaranteed, and neither one is a slam dunk.

The cliché about idle hands doing the devil’s work has been rewritten for an age of smartphones and computers, and now it reads “Idle thumbs do the devil’s work.” Cute, but wrong, because it is idle minds that do the work of the devil. Because technology is ubiquitous among the young, their minds must be engaged productively; if not, lots of bad things are likely to occur.

For too long schools have either resisted technology or, more likely, employed it to process data and increase control. This step calls for what amounts to nearly a 180-degree turn, so that technology, with the guidance of skilled teachers, enables students to have significant control over their learning.

Let’s begin with the basics. Both the common #2 pencil and the most tricked-out smartphone are technological tools. Both have common sense age restrictions. No three- or four-year-old should be handling a sharpened #2 pencil; the appropriate age for a smartphone is arguable, but it exists. Both tools are value-free, meaning that how they are used depends on the user. The individual wielding a pencil can write a love sonnet, a grocery list, or a threatening anonymous letter. The user of a smartphone (which has more computing power than the computers that sent the first man to the moon in 1969) can do all these things, and far more. However, the essential fact remains: how technology is used depends on the values of the user.


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 percentage drops into the teens. Even if you include households with grandparents, the percentage probably won’t reach 40.

Never forget that people in households with no strong connection to public education 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 younger people, 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 will be difficult for many educators to take this step because they have grown accustomed to a system that says, in effect, “Drop the children and the money at the schoolhouse door, and leave the rest to us.” That approach won’t work anymore, 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 a modern world. Here are a few ways.

  • 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.
  • Utilizing Skype, the school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers simultaneously with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county.
  • 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, including clear writing, teamwork, and meeting deadlines.
  • Music and drama students can rehearse and then present their 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).


Most of the 3.3 million teachers now in classrooms will probably be teaching in the new schools we are determined to create, but with new challenges and opportunities. These experiences will change them and the way they teach. If we do this right, millions of teachers will rediscover why they entered the field in the first place. When they see their students grow and soar, they will become again who they once were, idealistic and socially conscious individuals.

However, embracing teachers is also going to disrupt some institutions and people who work in them. It requires major changes, but since you’ve come this far in the program, why stop now?

First, let’s insist on collaboration. Right now teaching is a closed-door profession, just as it was when I taught high school in the mid-1960s. Most teachers can close their doors and operate as they see fit, with rare visits by colleagues or supervisors. Teachers ought to be able to visit each other’s classrooms to learn from each other. That means reducing the number of hours of teaching so that collaboration (including watching each other teach) is possible. At the present time most American teachers teach for about twenty-seven hours a week. Contrast that with Finland, where ten to twelve hours is the norm. This sort of observational learning will require hiring more adults, but we can pay for that by scrapping so-called professional development entirely. It’s almost universally conceded to be useless, and it’s costing as much as $15,000 per teacher per year.

In these new schools, teachers will rarely be asking “what” questions, as in “What is the capital of Missouri?” or “What branch of government originates legislation?” Instead, they will be asking their students “why” and “how” questions. These are big changes.

In our current education system, it’s far too easy for just about anyone to become a teacher . . . and far too difficult for most teachers to excel at the task. It’s estimated that about 40 percent of teachers leave the field within their first five years on the job. What’s not clear is how many of them leave because they failed at the task, how many depart for personal reasons, and how many quit because teaching is frustrating work. Among the problems: low pay, low status, poor preparation, not much hope of advancement, lack of professional atmosphere, and (especially but not only for bright women) benighted male administrators.

The basic idea of changing teaching can be reduced to a bumper sticker: “Harder to Become, Easier to Be.” But making the needed changes will be neither simple nor easy, because some many people and systems actually benefit from today’s inefficient approach of weak preparation, inadequate orientation of new employees, an out-of-whack pay structure, a poor rewards system, and excessive (but often unsupportive) supervision. Teacher training institutions, their home universities, school districts, state budgets and budget directors, and others stand to lose something, or at a minimum be significantly changed. Even teachers, accustomed to a certain way of instruction, will face challenges in reinventing themselves.

However, it is important to remember that other changes will also be taking place because educators, policy makers, and school systems have committed to taking the other steps outlined in this book. They will be assessing students differently, they will be engaging their communities, they will be harnessing technology productively, and they will have embraced a vision in which students are the workers and knowledge their product. Changes such as these will make it easier for rookie and veteran teachers alike to remake themselves and to succeed. Making the field of teaching more attractive is essential. These changes should reverse the decline in interest noted earlier and slow the rate of attrition.


Predictably, our addiction to school reform is most visible every spring, during testing season. That’s when learning and teaching stop in most schools and test prep begins in earnest. In some schools, it’s test prep pretty much all year long. School reform’s supporters are obsessed with measurement and testing rules. Districts spend tens of billions of dollars a year buying, preparing for, administering, and grading standardized tests.

It’s disgraceful but true that children in high- and medium-poverty schools are likely to spend more than a month learning how to take tests, despite clear evidence that test prep does not work. The gap in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was exacerbated by excessive practice taking tests: the more test prep, the larger the drop in scores.

That obsessive focus must be overthrown. But even if you are convinced that our current system of measuring achievement is doing far more harm than good, we still have to find better ways of measuring learning. Assessments are necessary to evaluate students and help them learn, as well as to help make judgments about schools and the adults in them.

The maxim “Measure What Matters” (which is part of my developing line of bumper stickers) is unambiguous:  first figure out what we care about in education, and then develop ways of measuring those skills. Right now most school systems do pretty much the opposite, valuing what’s easy (and inexpensive) to measure. A more cynical but defensible interpretation holds that because the school reform crowd endorses and supports “test and punish,” with teachers as the target, cheap tests are just fine for that purpose. This policy has poisoned learning by turning it into a “gotcha” game.

A healthier approach calls for “assess to improve,” with assessment as a tool to help both students and teachers get better. The contrast between “assess to improve” and “test and punish” could not be more stark.

Whenever anyone talks seriously about changing schools, the elephant in the room is academic achievement: how will we measure academic progress if we abandon these tests, which almost everyone hates? Academic learning must not be understood as the only goal, but its importance cannot be overlooked or dismissed. Yes, the unwarranted emphasis most schools put on costly and time-consuming standardized testing distorts the process of teaching and learning in schools, but the public and parents have the right to know what students are learning. We must have measures of learning—that is, tests—but they must be valid, reliable measures of genuine learning.

The multiple-choice questions on standardized, machine-scored tests are not designed to measure diligence, honesty, tolerance, fairness, and compassion, which are the values and attitudes that parents repeatedly say they want their children to possess. Parents want their kids to be well rounded; to develop the skills they need to continue learning on their own; and to become good citizens, productive workers, and fulfilled human beings. Most employers would probably agree. But how do schools assess those skills and abilities?

My argument is that a new system that asks how each child is intelligent must determine what matters most and then—and only then—develop measures to assess progress toward those outcomes. Or, as some advocates express it, measure what we value, instead of valuing what we measure.


Now the bottom-line question: Do those who are frustrated with the addiction to school reform have the will and the courage to follow this path? That’s hard to say. After all, it will be far easier to keep on doing what we’ve been doing, even when we know we ought to change. It’s more comfortable to work hard on small changes, what David Tyack and Larry Cuban famously called “tinkering toward utopia” in their book of that title—but fiddling and patching, rather than repairing our broken system, is how we became addicted to reform in the first place.

Even though we know in our gut that today’s schools are obsolete, the question is whether states, school districts, and individuals will have the courage to do the right thing. Schools are no longer the repository of knowledge they were in the days before the Internet. Today’s children swim in a sea of information 24/7. However, information is not knowledge. So in this new paradigm schools have new duties and challenges: they must help teach young people how to sift through the flood of information and give them the skills to determine what is true. Teachers have to stop asking so many “What?” questions and instead ask “Why?” and “How?” Formulating more questions and searching creatively for answers is the work that students—knowledge workers—must be doing. We have to build “knowledge factories” for our children, not more schools in the current mold.

We know that, because of technology, the school’s long-standing task of socialization has taken on new meaning with our children, digital natives who socialize via hundreds of apps. Schools need educators who understand that their job is to transform these digital natives into digital citizens. These young digital citizens must use technology to create knowledge, because if they are not encouraged and allowed to do this, many will—out of boredom or malice—use the dazzling variety of tools we call social media to harass and abuse the most vulnerable among them.

If we allow schools to continue as regurgitation factories where students are “products,” if we persist in judging teachers based on the test scores of those products, and if we fail to insist that schools harness the awesome potential of technology, then we will always have schools where the brightest students are bored and the most vulnerable are bullied.

Because we are what we repeatedly do and because we do not want to produce generations of adults who are minimal participants in our democracy, students must spend their days developing the skills and capabilities that we want them to have as adults. It’s a tall order: students must master the basic skills of numeracy, reading, and writing and the new basics of speaking persuasively, listening carefully and critically, working collaboratively, and being reflective, all while mastering modern technology.

It bears repeating that we have to do the work. Experience has taught us that Washington cannot run public education, we know that the well-organized and well-funded school reform crowd cannot be trusted, and the Trump administration has promised to return power to parents, communities and states. DIY, America!

This approach can cure American business’s persistent headache, transform public education, make school much more challenging and relevant for students, and reverse the supposed “rising tide of mediocrity.” Perhaps the best way for a school district to start is with a few pilot schools, built on the basic principles outlined above. Creating a system of schools that measures what matters and takes care to ask of each child “How are you intelligent?” will require strong leadership at every level. The larger community must be invested in what happens to other people’s children, and that won’t happen on its own.

“Freedom to fail” is a new idea for most students, who are used to being spoon-fed information that they then regurgitate. Telling them that those days are over is one thing; getting them accustomed to this new world of greater responsibility and opportunity won’t be easy. School boards and administrators must stick to their guns, because change will be difficult and messy, particularly because every adult grew up in, and was educated by, the old system, the one that sorted them into “winners” and “losers.”

The education press will have to get out of the habit of elevating newcomers to heroic status—for a while—and then tearing them down. They must learn to be skeptical from day one. Not cynical, but questioning.

Schools of education and their universities will be challenged as never before, because when teaching becomes an appealing profession that does not lose 40 percent of new teachers within four or five years, ed schools will lose what has been a cash cow for them. Ending churn will dramatically affect the landscape in teacher education—half of the schools of education currently in existence might go out of business. Let’s hope that only those that provide value survive.

Giant testing companies such as Pearson will lose their huge contracts, as well they should.

There will be other losers:

  1. Those who have been benefitting from failure and mediocrity, that chattering class of critics and scholars who regularly dine out on tales of educational woe or get grants to study trivialities, will discover that their free lunch is over.
  2. Jettisoning the medical model that diagnoses weaknesses and claims it can “cure” our children of their “deficits” with drugs, expensive testing and tutoring, or expensive technology will mean pink slips for all those specialists. Instead we are adopting a health model of schooling that builds on children’s strengths—because all children have strengths.
  3. The biggest and most deserving losers will be the for-profit charter school chains, including the virtual charters. And any non-profit charter school that refuses to be transparent about its spending will lose its right to operate.

But what if we ignore the evidence that is right in front of us and do nothing? What if we continue to isolate children by race and economic status, all while blathering about the “achievement gap”, “no excuses” schools, and the importance of “school choice”? What if we tolerate the continued isolation of schools from the larger society, all the while expecting them to solve myriad problems?

If we do nothing to radically change a system that identifies “winners” and “losers” at an early age; if we do nothing about a system that tests children excessively, labels them permanently, and then uses their test scores to punish educators; if we do nothing about schools that ignore technology’s potential but use it instead to control; if we do nothing to transform a system that expects teachers and schools to “do it all,” thereby setting them up to fail; then we are dooming generations of children to second-class status.

That is not something I can live with or stand for, and I suspect most caring people in the United States feel similarly. Our dangerous, destructive habits have to be kicked.

(Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education is available at local booksellers and on Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites.)


I want to suggest another New Year’s Resolution: Speak up for teachers!  The bashing and the budget cuts continue, the new tax bill undercuts public education in a major way, children and teachers in Baltimore City are forced to spend their days in unheated public school buildings, and teaching is–understandably–losing quality women and men.  We can fight back in lots of ways, starting with organizing to see that schools are adequately supported.

Please take a moment to think about the teachers who helped make you who you are today.  I’m sharing memories of two teachers who changed the way I think about education and (I hope) the way I conduct myself.   I hope you will share your own stories in the comment section

Good leaders keep good teachers in the field, and bad leaders drive them out. It’s almost that simple. In forty-one years of reporting about education, I must have visited at least five thousand classrooms and observed an awful lot of really good teaching. My all-time favorite teacher is George from Maine. To me, George embodies the best in the business, because of what he stood for and how he stood his ground when the going got tough. We met at his public high school in the late 1970s. At the principal’s recommendation, I sat in on George’s ethics class, which was lively and interesting. Afterward we had a cup of coffee at my request, because I wanted to hear his story. Ethics, he told me, was one of a bunch of elective courses that seniors could choose from for their final semester of high school. He had taught it for the first time one year earlier.

Although the principal had already told me the basic outline of George’s story, I asked him to tell me what had happened in his class. He agreed. “I set the bar high because it’s an ethics class,” he said. “I tell the students that I accept only A or B work. Anything else, they get a grade of incomplete. I make it crystal clear to them that they cannot flunk the class—or even pass with a D or a C.” He told me that he did this because he wanted them to approach their lives and careers that way.

How did the kids react? “They’re seniors, and so a lot of them blow it off, of course,” he told me, “but I make them sign a letter of agreement up front. If they won’t sign, they can’t take the course.” He had cleared this approach with the principal, who agreed to support him. Midway through the semester not even half of the kids were doing A or B work, and so he reminded them of the contract they’d signed. He told me he could see their eyes roll.

With a few weeks left, many were still well under the A/B bar. And that’s when it got really interesting, he said. When the guidance counselor spotted all those incompletes on the interim reports, she called those students to her office and told them their diplomas were in jeopardy because no one with an incomplete was allowed to graduate.

Panic ensued, he told me. The students came clamoring to his classroom. “Please just flunk me,” some kids begged. They told him that they had enough credits to graduate, so an F wouldn’t hurt. “Remember the contract,” he responded. “No grade of F, D, or C allowed. Go back and do the work,” he advised. Now, remember that George had obtained the principal’s approval in advance, probably because he anticipated some problems. But he couldn’t have imagined what happened next. One student with an incomplete went home and complained to his father, who just happened to be the chair of the school board. That gentleman made an appointment to see George.

He came in, George recalled, with a mix of bluster and unctuousness. “I’m so proud of my son,” George remembers him saying. “My boy has been accepted at Colgate, he was voted most likely to succeed, he’s interning this summer at the local bank, and he’s spending all his time working on his speech for graduation—he was chosen to be class speaker. He’s on track to graduate, so why don’t you just give him a D? Or even an F, if that would make you feel better?”

“This is an ethics class,” George told the father. “And are you certain that’s the ethical lesson you want me to teach your son: that contracts don’t matter, that his word doesn’t matter, and that all that really matters is who you know?” Chastened, the father went home. The son did the work.

For me, George and his principal became models for the profession: high standards and expectations; clear rules; choices for students; academic performance as the constant, with time the variable; intellectual courage on George’s part; and solid leadership from the principal.

The best teacher I had outside of school and home was a coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. I’ve been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember, but I’ve been only a fan, not a player. In my case fan is short for fantasy, not fanatic. As a kid in the 1950s I spent hours being the hero of imaginary baseball games, throwing an old tennis ball against the barn wall and pretending to be Johnny Logan or Red Schoendienst in the field, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, or Stan Musial at bat. In real life, unfortunately, I was pretty awful, invariably one of the last chosen for pickup games and almost always the right fielder. But I had one glorious moment when I was twenty: an accidental invitation to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals, and a brief—very brief—chance to sit in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dugout during a game.

In 1961, during my year off from Dartmouth, I was working in Kansas as a reporter-photographer for the Leavenworth Times. I was restless, enthusiastic, and energetic, and I managed to get myself fired in February 1962, largely for being a pain in the neck.

Jobless, I was free to do whatever I wanted, so I decided to hitchhike around the country. I took to the road, intending to wend my way south, toward warm weather and, more important, spring training.

I had read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road at least twice and was ready for adventures. Carrying only a sleeping bag and a dark blue flight bag with a Pan Am logo on it, I headed for St. Petersburg, Florida, where I knew I’d find the Cardinals, and Bradenton, where the Braves trained. Along the way I found places to sleep where I could: in fraternity houses, in the jail in West Memphis, Arkansas (my choice, not theirs), and under the stars, snug in my sleeping bag.

Coming into St. Petersburg toward the end of one afternoon, I asked the driver I had hitched a ride with to drop me as close as he could to Al Lang Field. He did so, and I still remember feeling awestruck, standing outside the park.

I walked right in—no guards, no passes, no questions. My awe turned to confusion because dozens of ballplayers were walking off the field, clad in nondescript, ragtag uniforms that looked more high school than major league. Still on the field standing around home plate, however, were several men in full Cardinal uniforms. Later it occurred to me that they must have been comparing notes on the hopefuls who had just tried out, would-be ballplayers who had paid their own way to St. Pete. That explained their uniforms, as well as what happened next.

Suddenly one of the Cardinals, seemingly one of the coaches, spotted me at the edge of the field. At six feet two inches and 185 pounds, I must have looked like another young hopeful. He walked over and said, “You’re too late, kid. I’m sorry.”

I had no idea what he was talking about and was too intimidated to ask. He must have taken my silence for shyness, and so he put his hand on my shoulder.

“Where’d you come from, kid?” he asked.

“Kansas,” I answered truthfully.

His expression grew sadder. “Jeez, I’m real sorry, but we just finished. It’s all over.”

I didn’t say anything, and after another minute he asked me how I’d gotten to St. Pete. I’d hitched, I told him.

“What position you play?”

“Right field,” I answered truthfully, “and third base,” I added, not so truthfully—my favorite player, Eddie Mathews, was a third baseman.

“You look like you can hit the long ball,” he said. That didn’t seem to be a question but an assumption suggested by my athletic build. I wasn’t about to tell him the truth.

After another silence, he smiled. “Tell you what, kid,” he said. “We’ve got a game tomorrow with the Pirates. You come here a couple of hours early, and I’ll let you hit a few. See what you can do. Whaddya say?”

I was stunned. He was mistaking me for a ballplayer, and he thought I had major league potential! I thanked him and left in a daze. I had just been invited, sort of, to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals. A genuine major league coach had looked at me and concluded that I might be a long-ball hitter! For a few minutes I was eleven or twelve again, in a coiled batting stance like Stan the Man, hitting against Lou Burdette or Warren Spahn.

Slowly I came back down to earth. Not only was I not a major league prospect, I was in a strange city. It was dusk, and I had no place to sleep.

I hitchhiked to Florida Presbyterian (now Eckerd College) and met some guys who agreed to let me crash on the couch in their apartment. At dinner we all laughed at the prospect of my actually trying out the next day—wouldn’t it be funny if I held the bat by the wrong end or threw the ball underhand? In fact, I had no intention of embarrassing myself by going through with the charade. But we all decided to watch the Cardinals-Pirates game anyway.

Spring training was relaxed and informal in 1962, not the cash cow it is today. The elderly man taking tickets glanced at my old press card and let me in. He didn’t seem to notice when I handed the card back to the next guy, who used it and handed it back to the next guy, until all six of us were in. We sat in the sun for a few innings, but I was feeling cocky and wanted more excitement. I went back to the field entrance and stood near the Pirates’ dugout, watching the game and stealing glances into the dugout at more of my heroes. While I was there one of the Pirates left the dugout, crossed in front of me, and went under the stands. He lit a cigarette, and when he took off his cap I saw his nearly bald head and realized that he was Dick Groat, one of the best shortstops in baseball.

I walked over to him and asked for a cigarette. He gave me one, and I told him about my invitation to try out for the Cardinals. Groat was amused, probably because I made fun of that Cardinal coach for having been taken in by my appearance. When he had finished his cigarette, he asked me to tell the story to some of the guys in the dugout. A minute later I found myself sitting on the bench. Bill Mazeroski was there, and so was Roberto Clemente, and I hoped my new college friends could see me. Groat told me to tell the guys my story. I started to, but I never got the chance to finish.

“Who the fuck is that?” a loud, gravelly voice demanded. “Get him the fuck out of here!” It was the tough-talking, cigar-smoking manager of the Pirates, Danny Murtaugh.

I waited for Groat or someone else to speak on my behalf, but no one did. Murtaugh advanced, glowering at me, but then dismissed me with a derisive wave. “Get your ass out of here. This is the big leagues.”

I left, but not before hearing Murtaugh say, “What are you clowns up to? If you guys want to win, then pay attention. That kid doesn’t even look like a ball player.”

Every story should have a hero, the person who teaches an indispensable lesson. It took me a long time to figure out who the hero was. It wasn’t Groat, Mazeroski, or any of the other Pirates I’d sat with during my brief major league career. No, the hero was that Cardinal coach. I doubt that he’d seen major league potential in me; instead, he saw a kid with big dreams, and he wasn’t going to break my heart simply because I was a few hours late.

I wish now that I knew who he was . . . and that it hadn’t taken me so long to appreciate his gesture.

Excerpted from “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education” (The New Press, 2017)

Moskowitz and Mussolini

Say whatever you want about Eva Moskowitz; At least she makes the trains run on time.

Because the above comment, not directed at me, came from across the dinner table in a large, noisy banquet room, I wasn’t able to hear responses.  However, the speaker was clearly praising Moskowitz for her schools’ academic success, not equating her with the Italian Fascist dictator and Hitler ally.

But it got me thinking about both Mussolini and Moskowitz, one of whom was shot while trying to flee to Switzerland, the corpse then mauled by the public before being hanged upside down from a steel girder in a Milan suburb, while the other is riding high on a wave of adulation stoked by puff pieces in major publications including The Atlantic.  In addition to a commitment to efficiency, could Moskowitz and Mussolini be close in other ways?

Back to Mussolini: How did Il Duce get the trains to run on time?  Could he have ordered them to do whatever was necessary to stay on schedule?  Perhaps he issued a directive: ‘If people are still trying to get on the train, but it’s time to leave–just leave.’  He might have added, ‘If a flock of sheep, or some school children, are on the tracks, don’t slow down but toot your horn and plow on through so you can stay on schedule.’  Perhaps there was a third fiat:  ‘If a train is so crowded that it cannot get up to full speed, just toss some passengers off the moving train and get back up to speed.’

If tactics like that enabled Mussolini’s trains to stick to the schedule, then he and Eva Moskowitz have something in common, because the latter has a long history of discarding students who don’t meet her exacting standards.  As Kate Taylor in the New York Times (also here). Juan Gonzalez in the New York Daily News (here), (here) and (here), and my colleagues and I on the PBS NewsHour have reported, Success Academies use a wide variety of questionable tactics to weed out students who are not performing–or do not seem likely to perform–well on bubble tests.  Those tactics keep her trains running on time, I.E., scoring at the top of the charts on standardized tests.

Elizabeth Green’s endorsement of Success Academies and their approach to education The Atlantic, headlined “How Charter Schools Won,” is particularly disappointing.  Green mentions Taylor’s New York Times reporting but only in the context of Moskowitz’s attacks on her.  Green ignores reporting done by Gonzalez, a two-time recipient of the George Polk Award.  If she had contacted me, I could have introduced her to a Success Academy custodian who told us about regularly emptying student vomit from the wastebaskets.  Although he declined to appear on television, I believe he would have gladly educated Green.

The omissions in Green’s article (and, to be fair to Green, in most coverage of Moskowitz) are almost too numerous to mention: She does not tell her readers that Moskowitz drives away children–some as young as five–by excessive use of out-of-school suspensions.  Banning kids from school for days at a time is an effective device for getting rid of children, particularly when the parents have jobs outside the home. And it’s easy to get suspended from Success Academy.  On my blog I published Success Academies’ draconian list of offenses that can lead to suspension, about 65 of them in all.  “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” can get a child an out-of-school suspension that can last as long as five days.  The code includes a catch-all, vague offense that all of us are guilty of at times, “Being off-task.”

Let’s play out how this might work: When an out-of-school suspension is handed out the first time, maybe the Mom asks her mother to watch the child; the second time, maybe her sister can pitch in.  But the third one…that’s probably when the Mom decides to seek another school for her first grader.   Was that the administration’s goal?  In our NewsHour piece we reported on the out-of-school suspensions at one Success Academy and a co-located district school, and the numbers were staggering.  Kate Taylor reported on one Success Academy principal’s ‘Get Rid Of’ list.  How many others have similar lists?

Although Success Academies are public (charter) schools funded with taxpayer dollars, she does not fill open spaces (after grade 3) when children leave.  Law-abiding public schools are required to take all comers.  

What is also missing from Green’s puff piece are other steps Moskowitz takes to ‘cull the herd,’ steps that seem designed to eliminate all but the most dedicated parents.  For example, Success Academies does not participate in the free transportation for students. What is the impact of that?  Does it eliminate single parents who work and don’t have time to bring their children to school?  Is it designed to do that? Do any other charter schools pass up this perk? I have not found any.  

Green does not bring up an important question: what happens to the children who do not meet Moskowitz’s standards? Whether they leave of their own accord, are pushed out, or are effectively thrown out, they have to go to school somewhere. If the Moskowitz model were to be widely accepted, which is what Green is endorsing, where would those children go to school?  

Green’s article (and other superficial press coverage) ignore student turnover, a critically important measure of school success.  After all, if students are leaving in droves, something is amiss.  There are two obvious ways to measure retention, one that’s brutally honest, and one that obscures the facts.   Guess which one Moskowitz employs? Here’s the honest way: The charter network known as KIPP counts students from Day One of the school year through the beginning of the next school year, meaning that whoever drops out during the summer is counted as a loss (and, from KIPP’s point of view, a failure on its part). That’s 365 days.  However, strictly speaking, charter schools are allowed to count from the district’s official ‘count day’ in early October and can stop counting on the last day of school. That’s about 260 days, not 365. Doing it that way means a school does not have to report any children who leave before the ‘count day’ (perhaps because administrators have ‘encouraged’ them to leave).  Nor does a school have to report those who drop away during the summer.  That narrow approach is how Success Academies measures its own retention…and they still don’t do all that well.

Teacher turnover is another key measure of the health of a school that is overlooked. Teacher turnover is high at Success Academies.   

Elizabeth Green admits that Eva Moskowitz is scary to cover.  In our reporting, we learned just how frightened people are; close to a dozen parents whose children had been expelled from Success Academies for what seemed to be trivial offenses changed their minds, at the last minute, about appearing on camera.  The source I most regret losing is that custodian who told us how many times a day he had to empty vomit from the wastebaskets in the Success Academy classrooms.

While Green is correct about the academic achievements of Success Academies, she does not explore disturbing patterns and numbers.  Had she done so, she might have been less enthusiastic. How many of Success graduates have done well enough to gain admission to the New York City’s selective high schools like Bronx Science?  Last time I checked, it was zero.  And Green, a veteran reporter, must have heard stories about how Success kids, after years of regimentation, proved unable to handle a relatively unstructured environment.  In Moskowitz’s own Success Academy high school, an attempt at a less-structured environment failed because the graduates of her highly regimented K-8 system were unprepared for even a small taste of freedom

Success Academies and their founder ignore the wisdom of Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  Because Moskowitz worships test scores, students at her schools spend an inordinate amount of time being tested or practicing for tests. Moreover, they are rewarded for obedience and punished for drawing outside the lines and thinking outside the box.  Who on earth thinks these students are being prepared for life in a complex society?

Dr. Moskowitz is very smart, focused and ruthless.  She knows how to work the system, and she has humiliated Mayor de Blasio more than once. On one level, it’s tragic that she has bought into the ‘test scores rule’ approach to education.  She does have some ‘progressive’ instincts that, had she followed them, might have produced schools that children want to attend.

However, at base, Moskowitz’s instincts are dictatorial, not democratic, and in that she resembles Mussolini, both authoritarians at their core.   While it is true that democracy is messy (one of Green’s complaints), there are plenty of examples of effective schools. The best schools approach each child with a paradigm-shifting question, “How is this child intelligent?”  Success Academies ask the opposite question: “How smart is this child?” 

Moskowitz has perfected a ‘sorting machine.’  Not only does she sort children by test scores; she also discards those who don’t measure up.  One could defend sorting if the goal were to create the best ways to help all children, but she does not do that.  Instead, she discards.

I suspect that Green did not think through her endorsement very carefully, even though she wrote on Chalkbeat, the electronic newsletter she co-founded, about her anguish.  I am not alone in being concerned.  One other concerned observer, Andrea Gabor, just published an article worth reading.

There is clearly a powerful Moskowitz bandwagon—the $250,000 Broad Prize for charter networks, strong support from Governor Andrew Cuomo, multiple millions from billionaire supporters Dan Loeb, John Petry, Julian Robertson, and others, uncritical pieces in New York Magazine and The Atlantic, and a cautiously skeptical piece in The New Yorker.   I am a contrarian. I believe that Success Academies represents an approach to schooling that we need to move away from–and as quickly as possible.

News and Fake News about My Book

“Two of these reviews are not like the others.

Two of these reviews just do not belong.

Can you guess which two are real (and not phony)

Before I finish my song?”

                                                                                  (with apologies to ‘Sesame Street’)

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: “There’s no way I will say something nice about a book that makes fun of President Obama and I, not after people made fun of me when I slipped up and asked ‘Is our children learning?’”

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: “This foundational book will be in my Presidential Library. When the foundation is poured, I will personally see that it is shredded and mixed in with the wet cement.”

FORMER SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN: “When I read what he wrote about my “Race to the Top” program, I created a special race for Merrow’s book: “Race to the Dumpster.”

PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP: “I know that John Merrow is the son of the famous CBS broadcaster Edward R. Merrow, but, even if you put them together, I am more famous than them. If I were going to read a book, it would not be this one, unless maybe Frederick Douglass recommended it to me personally!”

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R, FL):  “I’m not even mentioned in “Addicted to Reform,” so why would I buy this book?”

THE WALTON FAMILY: “We respectfully decline to endorse “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”  Not only does it criticize our effort to improve education, but the author is known to shop at Costco.”

CHESTER E. FINN, JR.   “The problem starts with the author’s tendency toward narcissism. …  he’s a sort of discombobulated radical who seeks many worthy changes in the American K–12 enterprise but whose “plan,” for all its dozen steps, isn’t likely to result in the overhaul he wants. … Merrow’s brain contains a rosy vision of a different future.”

BILL GATES, co-founder of Microsoft and co-president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “Merrow has zero credibility.  He spent his entire life working in public broadcasting and probably never made more than $50,000 a year.  Ergo, zero credibility.”

JOHN THOMPSON, historian and retired teacher:  “In “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education”, John Merrow lets it all out. … Merrow shows how corporate reform began as a fundamentally anti-intellectual movement (by admittedly smart people who knew little of the institution they sought to transform) and ended up defending policies that are sometimes irrational and/or cruel.”

MICHELLE A. RHEE, former Chancellor of the public schools in Washington, DC: “WTF?”

EVA MOSKOWITZ, CEO of Success Academies: “Ditto!”

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: “There’s no way that I would allow myself to be alone in a room with this book. For one thing, John Merrow’s wife is attractive.  Very, very attractive, as a matter of fact.  And, come to think of it, Merrow was a good looking guy when he was young.  Temptation, begone.  If you want to risk damnation and read it, do it in a crowded public library…but please pray first.”

BETSY DEVOS, United States Secretary of Education: “As an American, I have choice about the books I read, and I choose not to read it.”

JOHN FALLON, CEO of Pearson:  “John Merrow was on our Board of Directors for one day back in April, 2015, so it would be a conflict of interest for me to endorse it. And when he wrote about it, he greatly exaggerated the truth, so why should I trust anything he writes?”  https://themerrowreport.com/2015/04/01/teaming-up-with-pearson/


“Too Good To Be True” Proves to be False

On June 29th NPR broadcast a remarkable story to the nation, the “feel good” tale of a struggling high school in Washington, DC.  The 4-minute story breathlessly asserted, “While in the previous year only 3% of students could meet the city-wide performance standards in reading, this year every single senior–all 191 of them–has been accepted into college!”  Moreover, the piece reported that 164 of 191 seniors at Ballou Senior High school had earned diplomas, meaning that, in just one year, the school had raised its graduation rate from 57% to better than 85%.   As Kate McGee of member station WAMU reported:

So how did this dream become a reality? It started with a pledge from the class of 2017 when they were just juniors looking ahead to their final year of high school.

But it was a strong support system within D.C. Public Schools that made it a reality. For months and months, staff tracked students’ success, often working side-by-side with them in the school library on college applications, often encouraging them to apply to schools where data show D.C. students perform well.

The reporter tacked on two disturbing facts at the end of the piece, one of which contains a highly misleading internal contradiction, calling all seniors ‘graduates‘ while acknowledging that 26 of these ‘graduates‘ had not done the work necessary to earn diplomas. (The punctuation error in the print version doesn’t help matters).

More than a quarter of the teaching staff quit before the end of the school year — that’s not usually a good sign. And out of the nearly 200 graduates, 26, are still working toward their high school graduation — hoping to earn their diploma in August.  

The reporter did not explain why so many teachers had left, nor did she dig into the school’s boast about 100% admission to college.   An obvious question–How do 26 students who haven’t yet graduated from high school get admitted to college? Which colleges accept non-graduates?–were apparently not asked, and we were not told whether any local colleges automatically accept everyone with a high school diploma.

A quick visit to the website of the University of the District of Columbia reveals that “All students who have earned a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent are eligible for admission to the Community College.”   One wonders how many Ballou seniors had been accepted there.  After all, how much does that 100% mean if a lot of students have been accepted by a college that accepts everyone?  And the reporter might also have followed up by asking how 26 non-graduates got college acceptances.  How does that work?

What’s more, given that Ballou High School is in the District of Columbia, a school district that has been plagued by years of academic corruption, the reporter and her editor(s) ought to have approached this story with heightened skepticism.

(Because context matters, it’s worth noting that The Washington Post had reported two months earlier that all Ballou seniors were applying to college, a first.  So apparently this was a simple “Let’s follow up and find out how many get accepted” kind of story and not a more skeptical “Will colleges accept students from a school where 95% cannot pass the city exam?” approach.)

The cliché, “When something seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t,” applies to this story, big time, and five months later, on November 30th, NPR walked back the story with this editor’s note.

Since this story was originally published, we’ve done additional reporting. We spoke with 11 current and recent Ballou teachers and four recent Ballou graduates, and we reviewed hundreds of attendance documents, class rosters and emails. They show that many students graduated despite chronic absenteeism. Records show half the graduates missed more than three months of school, or 60 days.

NPR could as easily have said, “Whoops, we got just about everything wrong the first time around,” because, sadly, it did.  In the new report (which runs for nearly 8 minutes), listeners were told, ”

We reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a district employee shared the private documents. Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school.  According to district policy, if a student misses a class 30 times, he should fail that course. 

After the piece aired, I was told, quite a few listeners were upset and angry about what they felt was an incomplete story.  At least one person, a school district employee, leaked documents revealing just how badly NPR had missed the mark.  Here’s how NPR explained it:

An internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation or community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.

Because the devil is in the details, this longer excerpt is worthy of attention. It reveals just how low administrators were willing to go.

“It was smoke and mirrors. That is what it was,” says (history teacher Brian) Butcher.

WAMU and NPR talked to nearly a dozen current and recent Ballou teachers — as well as four recent graduates — who tell the same story: Teachers felt pressure from administration to pass chronically absent students, and students knew the school administration would do as much as possible to get them to graduation.

“It’s oppressive to the kids because you’re giving them a false sense of success,” says one current Ballou teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job.

“To not prepare them is not ethical,” says another current Ballou teacher who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

It’s rumored that certain administrators filled out and submitted college applications for students who had no interest in attending. They were then called to the office and told to sign the applications….all in the name of achieving that 100% success rate. NPR’s follow up report, which is a 1000% improvement, still does not include an important fact: The University of the District of Columbia, accepts all DC high school graduates.

“They’re not prepared to succeed,” says Morgan Williams, who taught health and physical education at Ballou last year. Williams says the lack of expectations set up students for future failure: “If I knew I could skip the whole semester and still pass, why would I try?”

Williams taught physical education and health at Ballou for two years. She says her students were often chronically absent, but the gym was always full. Students skipping other classes would congregate there, she says, and her requests for help from administrators and behavioral staff to manage these students were often ignored.

Williams, and other teachers we spoke to for this story, say they often had students on their rosters whom they barely knew because they almost never attended class.

The NPR report provides shocking numbers: One-fifth of seniors missed more than 90 days of classes, and one-half missed 60 days.  District policy calls for automatically failing any student who misses more than 30 days of classes.

Near the end of a term, Williams says, students would appear, asking for makeup work like worksheets or a project. She would refuse: There are policies, and if students did not meet the attendance policy, there was nothing she could do to help them. Then, she says, an administrator would also ask how she could help students pass.

At one point, while she was out on maternity leave, she says, she received a call from a school official asking her to change a grade for a student she had previously failed. “[They said] ‘Just give him a D,’ because they were trying to get him out of there and they knew he wouldn’t do the makeup packet.”

Williams says she tried to push back, but she often had 20 to 30 kids in one class. Repeatedly having the same conversation about dozens of students was exhausting. And the school required extensive improvement plans if teachers did fail students, which was an additional burden for a lot of already strained teachers.

Many teachers we spoke to say they were encouraged to also follow another policy: give absent or struggling students a 50 percent on assignments they missed or didn’t complete, instead of a zero. The argument was, if the student tried to make up the missed work or failed, it would most likely be impossible to pass with a zero on the books. Teachers say that even if students earn less than a 50 percent on an assignment, 50 percent is still the lowest grade a student can receive.

It’s at this point that the highly suspect–and widely popular–scheme known as “Credit Recovery” raised its ugly head at Ballou.  Typically, “Credit Recovery” entails spending about a week in front of a computer, responding to prompts.  The usual outcome for this effort is a full semester’s credit!

During the last term of senior year, some seniors who weren’t on track to graduate were placed in an accelerated version of the classes they were failing. Those classes, known as credit recovery, were held after school for a few weeks. School district policy says students should only take credit recovery once they receive a final failing grade for a course. At Ballou, though, students who were on track to fail were placed in these classes before they should have been allowed. On paper, these students were taking the same class twice. Sometimes, with two different teachers. Teachers say this was done to graduate kids.

Whistle-blowing was apparently not an option.  If teachers pushed back against these practices, they told NPR, the administration retaliated against them by giving them poor teacher evaluations.

“Going along” was the best way to get ahead in a system that hires, fires and promotes teachers based largely on student performance. Playing the game has financial benefits. If an evaluation score reaches the “highly effective” mark, teachers and administrators can receive $15,000 to $30,000 in bonuses.  While the NPR report did not include information about bonuses at Ballou, the local NBC station did, in its follow-up story: “Last school year, 15 teachers at Ballou received bonuses of $20,000 to $25,000, a school district spokeswoman said. Additionally, six administrators received bonuses of as much as $2,000, sources said.”  NPR did report that three teachers it interviewed lost their jobs at Ballou, perhaps because they protested against changing grades.

In their detailed report, NPR also explored the lessons that students may have learned from this broken approach.

Many students have figured out they don’t have to show up every day.  “These students are smart enough to see enough of what goes on,” (music teacher Monica)  Brokenborough says. “They go, ‘Oh, I ain’t gotta do no work in your class; I can just go over here, do a little PowerPoint, pass and graduate.’ Again, this isn’t about the teachers. What is that doing to that child? That’s setting that kid up for failure just so you can showboat you got this graduation rate.”


Could that be true?  NPR spoke to several graduates, one of whom related this tale.

“I came to school when I wanted to,” she says. “I didn’t have to be there; I didn’t want to be there.”  …   While she says she got calls and letters from the school about her absences, she wouldn’t show up until they threatened to send her to court for truancy. “That’s when I was like, ‘Oh, let me go to school.'”

Further evidence that the 100% college acceptance story is bogus comes from academic results.  Only 9% of seniors were able to pass the city’s English test, and not a single student passed the math test.  The average SAT score for Ballou test-takers was 782 out of a possible 1600.

This disgraceful approach to schooling does widespread damage beyond what is obviously done to kids who receive phony diplomas but no real education, and to teachers who are pressured to pass students who haven’t done the work.  One teacher told NPR,  “This is [the] biggest way to keep a community down. To graduate students who aren’t qualified, send them off to college unprepared, so they return to the community to continue the cycle.”

What happened to the 26 students who had been accepted into college but didn’t have enough credits to graduate from Ballou, as the original story reported?  Did they graduate?  NPR doesn’t tell us, but apparently they did not make it.  According to the school district’s website, Ballou’s graduation rate in 2017 was 64%, an increase of just 7% from 2016.   Here something is definitely fishy, because NPR’s follow-up report maintains that 164 Ballou seniors received diplomas in June, while 26 did not.  That’s 190 students.  Mathematically, however, a graduation rate of 64% entails a senior class of 256 students, far more than reported.

Ballou Principal Yetunde Reeves refused to speak to the reporter, but she did interview new Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson and Jane Spence, chief of D.C. secondary schools.  When the reporter asked how so many students could miss all these days of school and still graduate, “Wilson and Spence abruptly ended our interview.”  Later the administrators told NPR that “they stand behind the school’s decision to graduate these students despite missing so much school.”

The NPR report prompted DC’s Mayor to call for an investigation. A few days later, on December 4th, the school system removed Ballou’s principal and reassigned her to “another function in the District.”  The District City Council has scheduled a hearing for December 15th.

I am not writing this to criticize NPR for missing the story** the first time around. I did that myself more than once in my 41-year career, and I was late in recognizing the flaws in Michelle Rhee’s ‘test scores are everything’ approach in Washington.  Her wrong-headed strategy is, arguably, responsible for the mind-set that exists at Ballou today.

Here’s what really matters: the Ballou fiasco is the bitter fruit of the ‘School Reform’ movement that continues to dominate educational practice in most school districts today.  These (faux) reformers continue to support policies and practices that basically reduce children to a single number, their scores on standardized, machine-scored tests.  This approach has led to a diminished curriculum, drill-and-kill schooling, buckets of money leaving the schools and going instead to testing companies and outside consultants, the growth of charter schools (many run by profiteers), and a drumbeat of criticism from ideologues who seem determined to break apart and ruin public education, rather than attempt to reinvent it.

(This approach also once again proves the truth of Campbell’s Law, the more importance  given to a single measure, the greater the probability that it will be corrupted.  When test scores rule education, some people cheat.  And when high school graduation rates rule, people also find ways to cheat.

The dominance of these (faux) reformers throughout both the Bush and Obama Administrations is the reason I wrote “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education” (reviewed here).  It needs rescuing from these folks, and soon……


** Readers of the original post will notice that I have expanded the piece internally and made a correction in the opening graf. All 190 seniors had not actually graduated, as I stated, but all have been accepted into college.  I apologize for the error.  The blatant discrepancy–some haven’t graduated but have been accepted into college–should have been the hook for the piece, as I see it.  That screams for an explanation, and I am baffled that the reporters and editors involved did not go down that road.

I should add that I get no pleasure out of criticizing NPR, which is a national treasure and also where I began my own reporting career. I was there from 1974-1982, the very early days when we often had to explain to people that we were “just like public television, PBS, but without pictures.” In those days, car radios did not receive FM stations, where most NPR stations could be found, and it was a huge victory when President Frank Mankiewicz and his team persuaded Congress that FM ought to be in car radios. I was also there when NPR’s subsequent hubris led to a revolt by local stations led by Minnesota Public Radio that culminated in the creation of a rival, American Public Radio.  Many of my fondest memories are of those days, and some former colleagues are still at it, bless them.  Today we wake up to “Morning Edition,” never miss “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” and catch “Radio Lab,” “This American Life,” and “All Things Considered” as often as time allows.


To remain aloft, a hot air balloon must be fed regular bursts of hot air. Without hot air, the balloon falls to earth. That seems to be the appropriate analogy for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) during the ten-year regime (2007–2016) of Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson. Their top-down approach to school reform might not have lasted but for the unstinting praise provided by influential supporters from the center left and right—their hot air. The list includes the editorial page of the Washington Post, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and philanthropist Katherine Bradley. The most recent dose is “Hot for Teachers,” (in The Washington Monthly) in which Thomas Toch argues that Rhee and Henderson revolutionized the teaching profession in D.C. schools, to the benefit of students. But this cheerleading obscures a harsh truth: on most relevant measures, Washington’s public schools have either regressed or made minimal progress under their leadership. Schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods seem to be thriving, but outcomes for low-income minority students—the great majority of enrollment—are pitifully low.Toch is an engaging storyteller, but he exaggerates the importance of positive developments and misrepresents or ignores SEVEN key negative ones:  1) dismal academic performance; 2) a swollen central office bureaucracy devoted to monitoring teachers; 3) an exodus of teachers, including midyear resignations; 4) a revolving door for school principals; 5) sluggish enrollment growth; 6) misleading graduation statistics; and 7) widespread cheating by adults.


When they arrived in 2007, Rhee and her then deputy Henderson promised that test scores would go up and that the huge achievement gaps between minority and white students would go down. Here’s how Toch reported what has happened on their watch: “While Washington’s test scores have traditionally been among the lowest in the nation, the percentage of fourth graders achieving math proficiency has more than doubled on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) over the past decade, as have the percentages of eighth graders proficient in math and fourth graders proficient in reading.”

Those results, however, stop looking so good once we disaggregate data about different groups of students. Despite small overall increases, minority and low-income scores lag far behind the NAEP’s big-city average, and the already huge achievement gaps have actually widened. From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP reading scores of low-income eighth graders increased just 1 point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low-income students (called “others” in NAEP-speak) climbed 31 points, from 250 to 281. Over that same time period, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the “proficient” level remained at an embarrassingly low 8 percent, while proficiency among “others” climbed from 22 percent to 53 percent. An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: black proficiency increased 3 points, from 8 percent to 11 percent, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined, from 18 percent to 17 percent. In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be reported, but in 2015 white proficiency was at 75 percent.

The results in fourth grade are also depressing. Low-income students made small gains, while “others” jumped to respectable levels. As a consequence, the fourth-grade proficiency gap between low-income and “other” students has actually increased, from 26 to 62 percentage points, under the Rhee/Henderson reforms.

Results of the Common Core tests known as PARCC, first administered in 2015, are similarly unimpressive. The black/white achievement gap is 59 percentage points. Although DCPS students achieved 25 percent proficiency system-wide, the average proficiency in the forty lowest-performing schools was 7 percent. In ten of the District’s twelve nonselective, open-enrollment high schools, somewhere between zero and four students—individuals, not percentages—performed at the “college and career ready” level in math; only a few more achieved that level in English. This is a catastrophic failure, strong evidence that something is seriously wrong in Washington’s schools.

Remember that these students have spent virtually their entire school lives in a system controlled by Rhee and Henderson. In short, despite promises to the contrary, the achievement gap between well-to-do kids and poor kids as measured by the NAEP has widened under their watch and is now over twice as high in fourth grade and two and a half times as high in eighth as it was a decade ago. White proficiency rates now run 55 to 66 percentage points above black proficiency rates and 42 to 66 percentage points above Hispanic rates.

Toch asserts, “Scores have risen even after accounting for an influx of wealthier students.” However, evidence suggests that the test score increases in some grades are most likely a by-product of gentrification. The percentage of white test takers has increased steadily over the last decade (5 percent to 16 percent in fourth grade and 5 percent to 9 or 10 percent in eighth grade), as has the percentage of Hispanic students (9 percent to 16 percent in fourth grade and 7 percent to 15 percent in eighth grade). In the nation’s capital, almost all white kids are from well-to-do families, while Hispanic and black kids in public schools are mostly from low-income households. A 2015 report by the National Research Council pointed out that most of the recent academic gain was likely the result of more affluent families moving into Washington and enrolling their children in public schools.

Central Office Bloat 

Under Rhee and Henderson, spending on non-teaching personnel has swollen dramatically. According to the latest statistics from Census Bureau fiscal reports, DCPS central office spending in 2015 was 9.5 percent of total current expenditures, compared to 1 percent or less in surrounding districts. Today DCPS central offices have one employee for every sixty-four students, a striking change over the pre-Rhee/Henderson-era ratio of 1 to 113 students. Those central office dollars could have been used to provide wraparound social services for children, services that would have allowed teachers to be more effective.

Many of these highly paid non-teachers spend their days watching over teachers in scheduled and unscheduled classroom observations, generally lasting about thirty minutes—not even an entire class meeting. Why so many of these teacher watchers? Because those who subscribe to top-down management do not trust teachers—which leads to the next part of the DCPS story that its admirers misrepresent, downplay, or ignore.

Teacher Turnover and Resignation

Toch writes about Washington’s success in recruiting teachers, even poaching them from surrounding districts. He attributes this to higher salaries and increased professional respect and support. And he adds, in a carefully qualified sentence, that “the school system’s strongest teachers are no longer leaving in droves for charter schools.” Well, perhaps they’re not leaving for charter schools, but they sure as heck are leaving—in droves. Toch fails to mention the embarrassingly high annual turnover of 20 percent system-wide and a staggering 33 percent every year over the last five years in the forty lowest-performing schools. This means that in the neediest schools, one out of every three teachers is brand new every year. And all newly hired teachers, whether novices or poached from elsewhere, leave DCPS at the rate of 25 percent annually. In a recent study of sixteen comparable urban districts, the average turnover rate was just 13 percent.

Defenders of the D.C. approach would have you believe that these teachers have failed to increase test scores. While that is true in some cases, other evidence should be considered. Student journalists at Woodrow Wilson High School interviewed this year’s departing teachers, who expressed frustration with “DCPS’s focus on data-driven education reforms” and “lack of respect and appreciation.” Teachers, including those rated “highly effective,” cited the stress of frequent changes in the demands of the IMPACT teacher evaluation system as well as the absence of useful feedback.

Nor does Toch discuss the large number of resignations during the school year, always a sign that something is amiss. The Washington Post reported recently that nearly 200 teachers quit their jobs after the school year began. “It is an emergency when a quarter or more of the teachers in some schools have resigned during the school year,” D.C. council member Robert C. White wrote in a letter to the chairman of the council’s education committee. According to the Post’s analysis, half the schools in the system had three or more midyear resignations.

The Revolving Door of the Principal’s Office

Every year about 25 percent of DCPS schools open with a new principal. Research finds that principal turnover generally results in lower teacher retention and lower student achievement, particularly at high-poverty and low-achieving schools. Research also suggests that principals must be in place for at least five years to accomplish large-scale change, but only twenty-five of the 115 DCPS schools in the 2016–17 school year had principals who had served five years or more, and most DCPS schools have had two or three principals in the past five years. Unfortunately, the greatest upheavals are in schools serving large numbers of low-income children, kids who need stability wherever they can find it.


Toch makes much of the recent enrollment increase, calling it evidence of the success of the Rhee/Henderson approach. It’s true that PS enrollment, after bottoming out at 44,718 in 2009, had risen to 48,555 in fall 2016. But over the same span, charter enrollment grew by more than 11,000 students. If parents are voting with their feet, then DCPS acolytes ought to be concerned.

Deceptive Graduation Numbers

Toch cites DCPS graduation rates as having climbed to 69 percent, “the highest in the city’s history.” But even education reform enthusiasts dispute the validity of claims about graduation rates. Analyst Robert Pondiscio calls graduation percentage “the phoniest statistic in education,” and veteran Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews suggests that reported improvements are “a mirage.” They argue that increased pressure on teachers and principals to pass students, and highly suspect “credit recovery” practices that allow students to complete a semester’s course work online in a week, combine to inflate the graduation numbers. By some estimates, at least 25 percent—and perhaps as many as 50 percent—of DCPS’s graduating seniors are helped across the line by at least one credit recovery class.

Even if the graduation rate increase is real, given the minuscule percentages of students in most high schools who are proficient by the Common Core PARCC standards, what significance could it possibly have? If undereducated students are being graduated, how is that anything but a hollow triumph?

Cheating by Adults

Toch dismisses D.C.’s cheating scandals in just two sentences: “In March 2011, USA Today ran a front-page story headlined ‘When Standardized Test Scores Soared in D.C., Were the Gains Real?,’ an examination of suspected Rhee-era cheating. The problem turned out to be concentrated in a few schools, and investigations found no evidence of widespread cheating.”

Contrary to Toch’s assertions, cheating—in the form of suspiciously high rates of erasures of wrong answers and filling in the right ones—occurred in more than half of DCPS schools. The changes were never thoroughly investigated beyond an initial analysis by the agency that had corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill. Deep erasure analysis was never ordered by Rhee, her then deputy Henderson, or the mayor. The “investigations” Toch refers to were either controlled by Rhee and, later, Henderson or conducted by inept investigators—and sometimes both. The first two were conducted by a company that had failed to detect cheating in Atlanta, the epicenter of cheating. Rhee, and subsequently Henderson, tightly controlled the inquiries, limiting the number of schools that could be visited, the number of interviews that could be conducted, and even the questions that could be asked.

Why would so many schools be driven to cheat? In her one-on-one meetings with all her principals, Rhee insisted that they guarantee test score increases and made it clear that failing to “make the numbers” would have consequences. The adults who subsequently changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were intent on keeping their jobs, which depended on higher test scores.

As noted, Toch makes two factual errors in his second sentence.  Cheating–erasing wrong answers and replacing them with correct ones–occurred in more than half of DCPS schools, and every ‘investigation’ was either controlled by Rhee and later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators–and sometimes both.  All five investigations were whitewashes, because no one in power wanted to unmask the wrongdoing that had produced the remarkable test score gains.

Four essential background points: The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in those meetings, made them guarantee test score increases.  We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.

Point number two: The test in question, the DC-CAS, had no consequences for students, none whatsoever. Therefore, many kids were inclined to blow it off, which in turn forced teachers and principals to go to weird extremes to try to get students to take the test seriously. One principal told his students that he would get a tattoo of their choice if they did well on the DC-CAS (They could choose the design; he would choose the location!).

Point number three: For reasons of bureaucratic efficiency, the DC-CAS exams were delivered to schools at least a week before the exam date and put in the hands of the principals whose jobs depended on raising scores on a test the kids didn’t care about. This was a temptation that some school leaders and some teachers found irresistible. Test books were opened, sample questions were distributed, and, after the exams, answers were changed. Some schools had ‘erasure parties,’ we were reliably told.

Point number four: Predictably, test scores went up, and the victory parties began.

Contrary to Toch’s assertions, the ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures in half of DCPS schools were never thoroughly investigated beyond the initial analysis done by the agency that corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis would have revealed any patterns of erasures, but it was never ordered by Chancellor Rhee, Deputy Chancellor Henderson, or the Mayor, presuming he was aware of the issue.

When the erasures continued in Ms. Rhee’s second year on the job, she came under pressure to investigate, and so in December 2009 she hired Caveon, a security firm that is based in Utah. Why Caveon?  Ms. Henderson explained to a City Council subcommittee, “The reason that we hired Caveon was because we thought that we needed an objective third party to actually do the investigation and to make recommendations to us.”

Caveon was the perfect choice–if one wanted to turn a blind eye to any wrongdoing. Prior to its work for DCPS, Caveon had been hired by the (so-called) “Blue Ribbon Committee” established to look into allegations of cheating in Atlanta.  Caveon looked–and reported finding nothing wrong in what turned out to be the epicenter of cheating by adults on standardized tests.  Dr. John Fremer, the head of Caveon, told me that while he ‘knew’ there was widespread cheating going on, that was not mentioned in his final report. “We did not try to find out who was cheating,” he said.  “Our purpose was to rank order the schools beginning with those with the most obvious problems (of unbelievably dramatic score increases), in order to make the task of investigating more manageable.” In other words, Caveon produced a list!

Dr. Fremer admitted that he knew some Atlanta teachers were lying to him, but he said his hands were tied because he didn’t have subpoena power.

Georgia’s investigators were contemptuous of Caveon’s efforts, labelling it a ‘so-called investigation.’  Richard Hyde, one of the three leaders of the investigation, told me that “either by coincidence or design, it was certain to fail.”  Mr. Hyde denied that Caveon needed subpoena power because its investigators were representing a governmental agency, and under Georgia law it is a felony to lie to someone representing the government.  What’s more, Mr. Hyde said, Caveon had a fundamental conflict of interest–it was investigating its employer, at least indirectly, because the “Blue Ribbon Commission” (which Mr. Hyde dismisses as “The Whitewash Commission”) included a deputy superintendent of schools.

Robert Wilson, another leader of the Georgia investigation, was even blunter. Of course Caveon didn’t find cheating because “Caveon couldn’t find its own ass with either hand,” he scoffed.  Why anyone would hire Caveon was, he said, beyond him–unless they didn’t want to find out anything.

Dr. Fremer seemed hurt and offended by the criticism. “We try to be non-emotional,” he said, acknowledging that “People who listen only to the law enforcement side do not respect us.”

And so DCPS hired Caveon, which found nothing wrong in DC.  And, almost predictably, that first Caveon investigation became the linchpin for all that followed, from DC City Council Chairman David Catania’s giving it a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to Rhee’s and Henderson’s claims that the investigations vindicate them.

But let’s dig deeper into the surreal world that Caveon inhabits.  Caveon President Fremer maintains that his firm did not conduct an investigation in the normal sense of the word because his firm does not conduct investigations.  “We use the word ‘investigation’ in our materials because everyone else does,” he said, “but we do analysis, with the goal of process improvement and quality assurance.”  Then he added, “We were not brought in to help DCPS with an analysis of what had happened.”

The contract was for a two-part project: a security audit and questioning of certain people at just eight DCPS schools (even though many more schools had been implicated). But, he emphasized again in our conversation, it was not an investigation because Caveon was hired to “review and collect information.”  He told me,  “I give advice as to where to focus attention. I am not trying to position a client to put people in jail. Instead, we give them enough information about problems to allow them to fix them in the future.”

The security audit, he said, consisted of examining DCPS’ policies and procedures around the testing.  Caveon did not seek to find out if principals and teachers actually followed the rules, and so Caveon apparently did not inform Chancellor Rhee just how easy it would be to cheat on the DC-CAS before, during and after its administration.  Caveon did make some recommendations to improve security–recommendations, he said, that DCPS did not follow.

Part Two of Caveon’s work–the questioning–is even more interesting.  Dr. Fremer told me that DCPS gave him a list of the eight schools it was authorized to go into. DCPS also gave Caveon about 50 questions to ask of teachers, proctors, principals and assistant principals.  He said DCPS indicated that Caveon was not to stray from the list.  Follow-up questions, the essence of a good investigation, were actively discouraged, according to Dr. Fremer.

He told me that DCPS’ list of questions did not include “Did you see anyone erasing answers?” or “Did you participate…” or “Are you aware of organized erasures?” or “Are you aware of cheating?”

Dr. Fremer told me that his employees never use words like ‘cheating’ or ‘illegal behavior’ because they are ‘too emotional.’  Instead, he said, they asked individuals if they could explain huge discrepancies in wrong-to-right erasures between classrooms.

Caveon was contractually obligated to show DCPS drafts of the report before it was made final, which Dr. Fremer said was completely appropriate.  “There was no pressure to ‘sweeten the sound’ of our report,” Dr. Fremer said. “We wanted DCPS to check for mistakes and make certain that we did not reveal the identities of individuals.”

Caveon sent DCPS its final report in February 2010, saying that it had not found evidence of cheating–which it had not been looking for, as Dr. Fremer explained.

Caveon I and II were Chancellor Rhee’s first foray into ‘investigation,’ and she and Henderson regularly cite the Caveon reports as evidence that all was well–because Caveon did not find cheating–which it was not looking for.

Next in this row of dominos is DC’s Inspector General Charles Willoughby, who leaned heavily upon Caveon’s report as he exonerated DCPS. If Caveon’s work was superficial, Inspector General Willoughby’s investigation was downright inept. Just how weak was Mr. Willoughby’s effort?  As we reported on Frontline, the Inspector General’s investigation is remarkable for what it did not investigate. He chose not to investigate 2008, the year with the most erasures. He chose not to investigate Aiton, a school notable for its high rate of wrong to right erasures. He did not examine the test answer sheets or perform an electronic analysis. And he did not investigate J.O Wilson – a school with excessive WTR erasures in 100 percent of its classrooms – simply because Chancellor Henderson had assured him that it was a good school.

Although more than half of DC’s schools had been implicated, he focused only on Noyes Education Campus, the school that USA Today had made the centerpiece of its investigation. Over the course of 17 months, his team interviewed just 60administrators, teachers, parents and teachers, all from Noyes Education Campus. By contrast, Atlanta investigators interviewed over 2,000 people and reviewed 800,000 documents. Rather than seek outside experts as Atlanta investigators had, he relied heavily on information from Caveon, which had been, of course, in the employ of DCPS. He did not ask to perform erasure analysis but relied on interviews–sometimes conducted over the phone. And he produced a 17-page report, in sharp contrast to Atlanta’s (post-Caveon) 813-page report.

Without the power to put people under oath, he told City Councilman Kenyan McDuffie in February that he just asked them if they had cheated. If they said they hadn’t, that was the end of it, because, he explained, he “wasn’t conducting a fishing expedition.” Test monitors sent by the central office to patrol Noyes for the 2010 test told Mr. Willoughby that they had been barred from entering classrooms. School officials denied that charge–and Mr. Willoughby believed them, not the monitors.

At a DC City Council subcommittee hearing, Mr. McDuffie asked Mr. Willoughby why he had examined just one school, Noyes, and had not scrutinized other high-erasure schools. “Because we didn’t find evidence of a conspiracy to cheat at Noyes,” he replied, and because that was what was recommended to him. Was it prudent to take the word of firms that were paid by DCPS instead of seeking an outside, independent opinion and to rely on media reports, Mr. McDuffie asked. “Yes,” Mr. Willoughby replied.

Asked if he had tried to find an explanation for the pronounced test score drops when security was tightened, Mr. Willoughby replied, “We were told that it was caused by an influx of new students.” Mr. Willoughby found no evidence of widespread cheating at Noyes but cited some security concerns and noted that one teacher had been dismissed for coaching students on a test. The IG’s essential message: except for that one teacher, all was well.

Finally, there was the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General’s investigation, which leaned heavily upon Mr. Willoughby’s work when it reported in January, 2013, that “No information was obtained or developed during the course of the investigation that substantiated the allegation of false claims made to the federal government or confirmed widespread cheating on standardized tests.”

Rhee and Henderson defend their approach. The investigations “found that there was some cheating, but that it was isolated to only a few schools,” Rhee said in February, 2013. Henderson is proud of how she conducted the inquiries.  “We have had six investigations that have cleared DCPS of widespread cheating,” she said in April, 2013. “I am frustrated because people are saying I haven’t done enough,” she told ABC News. “I have used every tool in my tool kit to get to the bottom of cheating.”

The exact opposite is true. Rhee’s and Henderson’s insistence on higher test scores created a climate that encouraged people to game the system. The adults who changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were not thinking about their students, just themselves, their jobs, and the appearance of success. Kids were numbers, nothing more, nothing less.  That is what Toch, once an aggressive reporter, should have told his readers, because Rhee and Henderson were stealing children’s opportunities to get a decent education.

The fantasy that top-down, data-driven, test-centric ‘reform’ works is perpetuated by articles like Tom Toch’s. Sadly, his piece has been widely distributed by the editorial pages of the Washington Post, influential blogger and co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform Whitney Tilson, and others.

What Has Gone Well

The D.C. public school system has improved in a number of ways since Rhee became chancellor in 2007, and both Rhee and Henderson deserve recognition. Full-day preschool for three- and four-year-olds has been greatly expanded. Facilities have had extensive, badly needed repairs, and a majority of schools have undergone complete modernizations. Pupil/staff ratios are smaller, more schools have extended-day or extended-year programs, and schools offer more electives, activities, and sports. More students participate in AP courses and dual-language programs than did ten years ago. Teacher salaries remain significantly higher than in almost everywhere else in the country.

But, ultimately, Rhee and Henderson lived and died by test scores, and their approach—more money for winners, dismissal for losers, and intense policing of teachers—is wrongheaded and outdated. Their conception of schooling is little changed from an industrial age factory model in which teachers are the workers and capable students (as determined by standardized test scores) are the products. The schools of the twenty-first century must operate on different principles: students are the workers, and their work product is knowledge. This approach seeks to know about each child not “How smart are you?” but, rather, “How are you smart?”

Rhee and Henderson had the kind of control other school superintendents can only dream of: no school board, a supportive mayor, generous funding from government and foundations, a weakened union, and strong public support. Yet, despite carte blanche to do as they pleased, they failed. Without the hot air of public praise, the Rhee-Henderson balloon would have plummeted to earth.

Toch’s article indicates that the stream of hot air will continue to keep the DCPS balloon aloft. The stakes are high, because other like-minded reformers around the country hold up DCPS as “proof” that a top-down, test-centric approach is the key to improving public education. It appears that under Henderson’s successor, Antwan Wilson, the failing Rhee-Henderson approach will continue. That’s sad, because Washington’s students and teachers deserve better.

(For even more about the failure of policies championed by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and Republican policy types, please read my book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”)

(You will find Tom Toch’s reply here.)