It Will Take a Village to Open Schools Safely 

When public schools closed in March because of the pandemic, a different U.S. President would have said to the education community, “Children, their parents, teachers, and the economy will need schools to open in the fall, so please tell me how the Federal Government can help.”  Unfortunately, conflict is Donald Trump’s modus operandi, and so, after ignoring the issue for months, he has recently politicized the issue.  Basically, it’s “Open or else!”   

Back in March, a competent U.S. Secretary of Education would have focused on the challenges ahead. Instead, Betsy DeVos concentrated on vouchers and private religious schools, intent on funneling Covid-19 relief funds in their direction.

Trump, his Education Secretary, Vice President Mike Pence, and others in the Administration are now trying to strong arm public schools into opening their doors completely. No ‘hybrid’ staggered schedules, and no remote learning!  Their bluster, their attacks on teachers and their unions, and their threats to cut federal funding are complicating the difficult problem of providing education for nearly 51 million children.  

Supporters of public education would be wise to avoid a war of words with President Trump.  Instead, educators must focus on providing safe and challenging learning opportunities–in schools or in other physical spaces.  This desirable and essential goal can be achieved by forming alliances with other public agencies, businesses, non-profits, and politicians. In other words, it will take a village to open schools.  

Two priorities cannot be compromised or negotiated: 1) Keep everyone safe, with frequent testing, social distancing, and adequate PPE;  and 2) Create genuine learning opportunities, rather than simply replicating semesters, work sheets, 50-minute periods, and everything else that schools routinely do.  Quite literally, everything else should be on the table, subject to change.

Serious ‘out of the box’ thinking begins with re-examining how schools traditionally use both time and space.

Start with space.  No public school was designed for social distancing, and very few public schools have enough extra room–like the gym–to create safe spaces, even with the reduced ‘3 foot spacing’ recommended by the nation’s pediatricians.  That’s why many school districts (including New York City) have announced plans for a ‘hybrid’ approach in which all students are at home at least part of the time, while other districts (including Los Angeles and San Diego) have announced that all instruction will be remote for the first half of the school year.  

But there’s an important alternative: find new spaces and convert them for instruction.  Spaces that are empty at least part of the day are everywhere: Houses of worship, meeting rooms at the local Y or Boys & Girls Club, theaters, and–because of the recession–vacant storefronts and offices.  It will take some political leadership, but the 3rd Grade could meet at the Y, the 5th Grade at the Methodist Church, the 9th Grade at what used to be a shoe store, and so on. 

Jamaal Bowman, a New York City Democrat who is virtually certain to be elected to Congress in the fall, likes this idea.  He told Politico that he “would use alternative learning spaces to maximize the amount of face-to-face learning children have with a teacher and would demand substantial investments from our federal government so our school district can hire more teachers. I would also encourage cities to repurpose unused spaces like theaters, office spaces, and design spaces to classrooms.” 

Superintendents I have communicated with raised the issue of liability in any new spaces, clearly a problem but not an insoluble one; it should be addressed in federal legislation now being discussed in Congress.

By dramatically expanding the spaces available for instruction, social distancing becomes possible and schools are now safe places to be.  What’s more, everyone goes to school at the same time: no split days with noon starts, and so forth.

Now consider time

Right now schools divide the year into semesters and (except in the early grades) the day into subject periods.  Because these traditional (and convenient) concepts are not based on how children learn, educators should be prepared to abandon them.

For example, those 9th Graders who are meeting daily at the old shoe store can spend a month doing a deep dive into American history, one of their required courses.  Because no one could tolerate an entire day–let alone a month–of reading chapters, lectures, discussion, and regurgitation, teachers and students must imagine new ways to study our nation’s past.  

Project-based learning should become the pedagogy of choice. Teams of students might explore their city’s history or dig into the back stories of the men who signed The Declaration of Independence, for example.  They could interview (via Zoom) local veterans of recent wars and use those memories to help write the story of the conflict.  What monuments can be found in the city or town, and what is their history?  Or pick a prominent building in the town or city and dig into its history: who built it, and why?  Hundreds of interesting questions and projects, none of them cookie-cutter.

Other sections of the ninth grade might convene at a different store front or a house of worship for their own deep dive. Ideally at some point all the ninth graders will go back to their high school, where they would dig deeply into another subject but also have the chance to see each other.

Monthly deep dives into history, biology, English literature, and other subjects are a pathway to genuine expertise and understanding; what’s more, this approach has the strong support of the American Academy of Pediatrics.   Immersion will also be the death knell of skimming the surface of subjects, surely an educational outcome we can get behind.

This Spring’s 3-month shutdown shone a harsh light on glaring inequities. Nationwide, about 14% of homes with school-age children do not have internet access, and in some school systems as many as 40 percent of students reportedly did not have computers or internet access.  But rather than hand-wringing, this is another opportunity for thinking differently.  Why not do as Third World countries do? Forget computers and rely instead on low-cost cell phones, which will provide internet access and can be set up without long distance calling privileges.  What’s more, the money school districts are not spending on standardized ‘bubble’ tests (which have been cancelled) could help pay for the phones, and many long-distance providers have already expressed their willingness to be part of the solution.  

Communities also have valuable resources they can tap into: Well-educated retirees, younger adults who have lost their jobs, and college students whose campuses have closed. After thorough vetting, some can be hired as teacher aides, and perhaps arrangements can be made so the college students receive credit toward their degree.

These are bold moves, but school districts that have already experienced the inadequacies of ‘remote learning’ might now be receptive to new ideas and approaches.  

And what about teachers?  Are they willing and able to retool themselves as professionals?  After all, month-long blocks and project-based learning will be as new to most teachers as they are to students?  That’s a fair question, and perhaps some will not be able to meet the test, at least initially.  But many teachers will prosper in situations that demand the very best of them. Moreover, most students will learn to enjoy having more control over their own learning.

When public schools closed during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the Federal Government responded with funding to hire school nurses.  Because only 60% of today’s schools have full-time nurses and 25% have no nurse at all, Congress should do that.  But it should also provide emergency funding to rent supplemental space, pay for Covid-19 testing and PPE, buy liability insurance, and pay teacher aides. 

Democrats like Senator Tim Kaine (D, VA) are pushing for passage of the Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act. “This legislation provides $430 billion to assist child care facilities, K-12 school districts and institutions of higher education with reopening costs,”  Senator Kaine told Politico.  However, because Secretary DeVos diverted millions of dollars in CARES funds that were intended for public schools to private institutions, Congress must be very specific in its language to prevent her from raiding these funds.  

Mark Cuban, the billionaire tech entrepreneur who owns an NBA team, says the money must also go into communities. He told Politico, “The greatest issue is for working parents: How do they keep their jobs and care for their kids at home? One way to attempt to address this is by having trusted groups of families that can support multiple kids at one home. A better solution would be to offer Caretaker Basic Income that pays a parent $2,000 to $2,500 per month, depending on their cost of living, to stay at home during the period kids are required to take at-home and online classes.

As to whether schools should open in late August or early September, some political leaders are speaking up.  Beto O’Rourke, the former presidential contender who has three school-age children, sets three conditions for opening:  “I’d set in-person education to start as soon as community transmission is under control, we have highly accessible universal Covid testing and the most vigorous contact tracing program possible.

While reopening most public schools is both possible and desirable, it won’t happen unless we think outside the box.  The state reopening plans I am familiar with focus on three options: full open, partial open, and remote learning, with no discussion of looking for new spaces or how schools use time.  I don’t think that’s sufficient.  Reopening schools–once it’s safe– will require imaginative, courageous state and local leadership. 

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it will take the support of the village to open its public schools.  



Here’s a letter I just received from an experienced K-4 school principal.

Dear John,

You asked how I would go about reopening schools this fall. My answer focuses on the schools I know best, K-grade 4, but I believe these ideas are applicable at all levels of public education.  

Others proposals, including those from teacher unions, Education Week, and think tanks, concentrate on the practical, physical arrangements necessary to open school safely, with such strategies as ‘Staggered opening,’ ‘One week on, two weeks off,’ and ‘Bubble classrooms.’  

In addition to testing for the virus, social distancing, and basic hygiene, I would insist on the following SEVEN steps: 

1) Internet access for all students

2) Clearly defined benchmarks that students are expected to achieve during their five years at the school but NOT by grade level. Along the way, ‘accomplishment levels’ that are clearly defined;

3) Students randomly assigned to a team (the number of teams being dependent upon the size of the school). Create a point system that rewards a student’s team for his or her individual accomplishments, such as reaching an ‘accomplishment level’; 

4) Absolutely no talk of “learning loss” or “pandemic deficits” when discussing what students may or may not have achieved during the school year that was interrupted by Covid-19;  

5) A “Tutoring Corps” of older students, retired adults, and others who want to help students reach “accomplishment levels;” 

6) As much free play and recess as possible; and 

7) absolutely NO standardized, machine-scored bubble tests.

1.   ACCESS TO THE INTERNET: This is a non-negotiable condition for reopening, which means School Boards and the town’s leadership better get cracking.  Figure out which families don’t have it and come up with a plan for meeting that need.  Raise the money from corporations, foundations, wealthy families, and your State government.  Do whatever you have to do, but make it clear that nobody goes to school until everyone has access. (One source of funds: The savings from Step #7.)

This matters because it’s possible–and even probable–that all students will be learning at home some part of the year, perhaps even one or two days a week, in order to comply with social distancing rules. 

2. BENCHMARKS: It’s essential for educators, parents, other community members, and older students to reach agreement on what students are expected to be able to do after attending four years of school, seven years of school, ten years of school, and twelve years of school.   

For example, in my school, I believe the following skills should be the floor for children after four years of school (plus Kindergarten). They should be able to:

  1. Read with understanding.
  2. Paraphrase and summarize–orally and in writing–what they have read (and not merely recite what happened in the story).
  3. Write coherent short essays in standard English.
  4. Add, subtract, multiply, and divide large numbers.
  5. Multiply and divide fractions.
  6. Speak confidently to a group.
  7. Ask and answer questions in a second language.

The idea is to establish a reasonable floor, not a ceiling.  

An obvious challenge to this idea is its unfamiliarity:  All of us went to graded schools, and so did our parents.  But perhaps not our grandparents and great grandparents, who may have attended one-room schools.  However, grouping children into First Grade, Second Grade, Third Grade and so on is an administrative convenience to make schools run smoothly, rather than a strategy based on how children actually learn.  Because individual 9-year-olds learn at different rates and in spurts, there’s as much variation among 9-year-olds as there is between 9-year-olds and children who are 8 or 10.  And because children learn at different rates and grow in unpredictable spurts, schools should establish larger groups of students, not grades per se but ages 5-9, 10-13, and so forth.  

We’re not abolishing grades, merely minimizing their importance.  Students will still meet by grade at the beginning and end of every day, in their ‘homeroom’ and have opportunities to talk about whatever is on their minds.

However, the current practice of automatically segregating children by age creates a pecking order, with the older kids picking on the younger ones. I know I’m not the only adult with dark memories of 7th grade and the cruel bullying by some 9th graders.

A challenge to my benchmark strategy is the fact that a few 6-year-olds will reach some of the goals before some 9-year-olds.  That means dividing children into ‘accomplishment levels’ (not ‘ability groups,’ please).  And some 6-year-olds may be in a higher group in mathematics and language but lower down in English or the second language they are studying. 

Here’s what matters most: No one should be permitted to languish, and everyone should get whatever help is needed.

As students reach interim benchmarks in these areas, their accomplishments will be heralded, because hard work and achievement must be rewarded.  These accomplishments also earn valuable points for the student’s team–as explained below.  

Again, these agreed-upon benchmarks are floors, not ceilings, and teachers and parents need to work with students to see that they continue to learn and grow

3. TEAMS: To minimize the possibility of high-achievers making fun of those who are lagging, every school must strive to become a community of supportive learners.  Here, rewards for teamwork will help. First, randomly assign students to teams (Epsilon, Gamma, Theta, for example). Then develop a point system for positive accomplishments.  When an Epsilon asks and answers questions in a second language, she earns points for her team.  An older Gamma who tutors a younger student and helps him read with understanding earns points for Gamma.  Individual and group accomplishments are encouraged, celebrated, and rewarded, with a community-wide celebration at year’s end for the team with the most points.  This gives students a vested interest in the success of everyone on their team, regardless of age.

This is not some glorified system of ‘external rewards’ that take precedence over learning. Rather, think of a track team.  In that sport, the athlete who does well in an individual event like the broad jump, the 200-meter dash, or the shot put earns personal recognition AND points for his or her team.  Every athlete on the track team has a rooting interest in their teammates doing well.

This is not a new idea. Plenty of independent schools have been doing this for years and years because it builds unity across grades and creates barriers to bullying.

4. NO TALK OF ‘PANDEMIC DEFICITS’: Make it clear that talking about ‘educational deficits’ and ‘pandemic learning loss’ won’t be tolerated.  Too many educators are wringing their hands about how much some kids have fallen behind during the months that schools were closed.  This kind of talk stigmatizes students and sets them up for failure (while potentially providing excuses for their teachers).  With new groupings and reasonable floors for accomplishments, everyone should be considered as making a fresh start. 

Whoever needs help, gets it, in a new era of ‘no fault’ education.  

In my view, this pandemic has exposed a serious design flaw in public education: it’s a sorting system that identifies ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ sending the former off to elite colleges and universities, and the latter to work or community colleges. What’s more, the sorting is deeply flawed, largely ratifying a student’s socio-economic status, family background, race, and ethnicity.  Not only is this fundamentally immoral; it’s also bad national policy because we’re losing the brain power of millions of young people by not asking the right question about each and every one of them.

The operative question about each child is not “How Smart Is She?” but “How Is She
Smart?”  Every child has strengths and interests. The challenge for educators is to work with parents to identify those strengths and interests.  And it may not be all that tough, because children and adolescents who have spent months in social isolation will be hungry for contact. Teachers should respond by emphasizing project-based learning, which brings students together to explore challenging subjects that are of interest to them.

5. A CORPS OF VOLUNTEER TUTORS: Every community has a pool of individuals who would like to make their world a better place, and the coronavirus pandemic means that many of them may have time on their hands.  Consider college students, their campuses shuttered.  Recruit them.  Work with local education institutions to create courses in which their students would get academic credit for helping your students reach desired accomplishment levels. 

Since fluency in a second language is one benchmark, reach out to those in your community whose first language in something other than English and ask them to help. 

This is already happening, of course. Here’s one impressive example worth learning from.

6. PLAY, AND MORE PLAY: Stop denying the age-old truth uttered by the poet Juvenal, “Mens sana in corpore sano,” which translates as “A healthy mind in a healthy body.’ 

During our decades of test-obsession, too many schools eliminated both recess and physical education in order to concentrate on higher test scores.  It didn’t work, of course, although it probably produced a generation of adults who have bad memories of public school.  

Recess shouldn’t be 50 minutes a few times a week. It can be a series of 10-minute breaks AND one 50-minute period of unstructured free play every day.  Children need this.  

This won’t be easy because some districts are deep into plans to subdivide gyms into classrooms, in order to achieve social distancing.  While that may be necessary, those leaders must also have a clear plan for regular and frequent exercise.

If you aren’t convinced, please read Let The Children Play, by Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle.

7. NO BUBBLE TESTS: There’s little point in administering so-called ‘end of year’ standardized bubble tests in 2021. They will reveal that most students in wealthy towns like Darien, CT, perform better than their counterparts up I-95 in Bridgeport.  Use those dollars to close the technology gap and to create more learning opportunities in your Bridgeports. 

Use the time that would ordinarily be spent (that is, wasted) on test-prep to continue exploring what students are interested in.

This is not tantamount to abandoning assessment. In fact, that process should be frequent and in the hands of those who know students best, their teachers.  But to make assessment as non-threatening as possible, the operating principle must be ‘Assess to Improve’ (replacing the common–and dangerous–’Test to Punish’ that has been the hallmark of so-called ‘school reform’ for the past 20 years or more).

  • An eighth goal is aspirational: Create a school environment that is physically, emotionally, and intellectually safe for every child.  Physical safety is the easiest of those three.  Emotional safety means more than adults keeping their antenna alert for bullying.  A more effective strategy is to enlist student leaders in this effort, to persuade them to set the bar high and to communicate to other students about bullying and other harassment:  “We don’t do that here!”   In an intellectually safe environment, it’s cool to ask questions and be curious, and it’s admirable to acknowledge when a student isn’t grasping a concept or understanding what the teacher just said.  Displaying ignorance in pursuit of knowledge is to be expected and encouraged, not mocked.  

Fall 2020 will test the proposition that every crisis is also an opportunity.  It’s unfortunate that we do not have strong national leadership that believes in public education, but at least there’s no ambiguity.  We know that it is up to those who care about America’s future to step up.

I hope this is useful.  Thanks for asking me.



NO Television for My Birthday Ride, but I Rode Anyway

3PM, Monday, June 8:  This morning was a perfect day for my birthday ride, so I called ESPN to discuss plans for live-streaming on ESPN-27, the channel devoted to amateur athletes.  I recorded the conversation.

ESPN:  Good morning, ESPN. How may I help you?

ME: May I speak to the Executive Producer at your ESPN-27 Channel please? I’m calling about the live-streaming of my attempt to bike my age.

ESPN: There is no ESPN-27 channel. We have ESPN, ESPN-2, and ESPN-3. That’s it.l

ME: But I was told……

ESPN: Sir, there’s no such channel.  You’ve been tricked.

ME: Then perhaps ESPN would be interested in live-streaming my effort on ESPN-3.  I know you are desperate for live sporting events.

ESPN: I don’t think we’re that desperate, sir.

ME: It might draw an audience. After all, my effort is sanctioned by ABBA.

ESPN: What? A musical group is sanctioning athletic events?

ME: No, ABBA is the Association of Birthday Bikers Athletes. It’s in Sweden. Nothing to do with music.

ESPN: Would you mind holding for a minute, sir?

(A minute or more passes)

ESPN: Sir, I’m afraid someone is pulling your leg. There is no ‘Annual Birthday Bikers Association.’  There is ABBA, the Swedish pop supergroup that’s world famous for songs like ‘Dancing Queen.’  Sir, you need to get out more often.  Thank you for calling ESPN.

(She concludes the call)

Well, it turns out that she was correct. Apparently ABBA is/are some singers in Sweden, kind of like The Weavers, The Kingston Trio, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Peter, Paul & Mary, or the Yale Glee Club.  Who knew?

Someone tricked me about ABBA and ESPN-27.  I owe you an apology, because what I told you last week about riding with a Target logo on my back, wearing Depends for Men bike pants, and being pumped up by Vacurect (my tires) was false.  

Lucky for me, Vin Scully, Al Michaels, Tony Kornheiser, and the other famous sports announcers hadn’t yet responded to my invitation to get involved in the live-streaming. It would have been embarrassing to have to let them down.  I guess they were waiting until my actual birthday, June 14th, got closer to accept my invitation.

But yesterday was a perfect day for biking, and so I rode anyway…


As you can see, I added an extra mile for good measure.  So, friends, please write your checks for $80, $800, $8,000 or some other multiple of 80 in support of organizations in minority communities affected by the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.

Once again, I apologize for misleading you about ABBA.  I’m thinking it’s a good idea to have an organization of birthday riders, but it needs a different name.  Maybe Birthday Athletes Biking Annually?

Stay safe….



Sometime between today and June 14th, my 79th birthday, I will once again attempt to bike my age.  This will mark the 14th year in a row of this challenge, which, so far, I have been able to meet. 

But this time things are more exciting and more challenging for these five reasons:

1 & 2: The ride is a mile longer, and I am a year older.

3:  I cannot use my familiar (and very flat) route outside New York City because we are now living in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, a hilly and windy island.  

4: For the first time, my attempt is authorized by the Association of Birthday Bicycle Athletes (ABBA), which will be monitoring my effort from its international headquarters in Sweden. If I make it, it will be certified and officially recognized. ABBA has some pretty serious rules and regulations, including these four:  

A.  The cyclist may not get off the bike more than 7 times during the ride;

B.  Nap or rest breaks cannot exceed 15 minutes, and no more than two naps are allowed during the competitive effort;

C.  No performance-enhancing drugs;

D. No sex during the ride. (This provision is the subject of much debate within ABBA. All of the French and Italian ABBA members, men and women, want the rule revised to prohibit unprotected sex, but not all sex. That debate continues, which means I will be abiding by the current rule.)

Although I went well beyond the required 78 miles last year, 83 ABBA’s strict rules do not allow me to count the surplus of 5 miles toward this year’s goal.

5: My effort will be live-streamed on ESPN-27, the sports channel for amateur athletic events.  This is a big deal for me, as you might imagine. If you’re not familiar with ESPN-27, it scored a ratings hit when it live-streamed 62-year-old George Hood’s 8:15.15 plank back in late February.  At times during that broadcast the audience reached into the high double figures.

I’m wearing a Go-Pro camera for the live-streaming. Commentary will be provided by prominent sportscasters, who will weigh in during the 8-hour broadcast.   I’ve invited the eloquent Greg Gumbel, the articulate Jim Nantz, the trail-blazing Robin Roberts, the unflappable Al Michaels, the perceptive Hannah Storm, the quick-witted  Tony Kornheiser, the hebetudinous Brent Musburger, the cerebral Erin Andrews, the incomparable Vin Scully, and Herman Mullakang. Only Herm, the backup engineer at Martha’s Vineyard Community Service Television, has accepted the invitation as of this moment.

Three companies purchased spots on my biking attire to advertise their products.  My main sponsor is Target, which has bought the rights to  my shirt. I will be riding with its logo on my back and over my heart.  Other sponsors are Vacurect, which is underwriting the inflation of my tires, and Depends for Men, which is sponsoring my biking pants.   The proceeds are, of course, being donated to charity.

Even in the best of times, this venture of mine is akin to Trivial Pursuit.  To make it meaningful, I am asking people to contribute 79 cents, $7.90, $79, $790, $7,900, or any other multiple of 79 to non-profit organizations in communities of color affected by the coronavirus and the protests over the murder of George Floyd.  As always, pledges are contingent upon my riding 79 miles.  If I don’t make it, you don’t have to make the donation.

If you wish to make your commitment public, that’s great.  There are two ways: 1) Make your promise in the ‘reply’ section below, or 2) Go to my Facebook page and make your public commitment there.

Thanks, and stay safe…..

Betsy DeVos Needs to Work Harder

Betsy DeVos has been working to undermine public education ever since she became Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education in February 2017, about 1200 days ago.  Will a recent exposé on the front page of the New York Times derail–or even slow down–her determined effort?

That’s doubtful.  But you should know that she’s now using pandemic dollars to weaken public schools.  

Frankly, she’s not as efficient as she could be, so at the end of this piece I have a couple of tips that will help DeVos finish her apparently divinely-inspired mission to completely destroy public schools, forever.  Please read on…  

In a story headlined “DeVos Funnels Coronavirus Relief Funds to Favored Private and Religious Schools,” the Times’s Erica Green lays out in excruciating detail how the Secretary, herself a graduate of a Christian high school and a Christian college, has taken the $30 billion appropriated by Congress to help education institutions upended by the pandemic and diverted it to institutions and policies that support her vision of privatized, God-centric education.  In doing so, she’s taking dollars away from low-income children–not because she’s against disadvantaged children. They happen to attend public schools, her target.

And we are not talking chump-change here, either.  For example, Bergin University of Canine Studies in California, whose purpose is to ‘advance the human-canine partnership through research and education,’ received $472,850 in pandemic relief funds.  That’s $11,532 per student, because its website reports an enrollment of just 41 students. Yes, you read that right: 41 students and $472,850.

The invaluable Inside Higher Ed has been pursuing the story as well.  Here’s one snippet from its coverage:  ‘Denver’s Montessori Casa International, which had received $3,492 in stimulus funds, is now in line to get another $496,508. That means the school, which trained 12 students in the Montessori method in the 2017-18 academic year, could get a whopping $41,375 per student.”  

There’s method to this madness, of course: starving public education: “Private schools are set to receive more support than they expected from the federal coronavirus relief package, while high-poverty school districts are set to receive less, thanks to guidance put out by Betsy DeVos’s federal education department,” according to Chalkbeat, the on-line education newspaper.  Basically, DeVos has told states that they must give more of the pandemic funds to private schools, whether they enroll low-income students or not.

Here are more details from The Times: “In Louisiana, private schools would receive at least 267 percent more funding, and at least 77 percent of the relief allocation for Orleans Parish would be redirected, according to a letter state that education chiefs sent to Ms. DeVos. The Newark Public Schools in New Jersey would lose $800,000 in federal relief funds to private schools, David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, said in a letter to the governor of New Jersey asking him to reject the guidance.”

Some state education leaders have said they will not follow her directive. (Congratulations, Indiana).  Others, like Tennessee, have fallen in line.

Secretary DeVos has even been sending money to schools that didn’t apply for it, Green writes.  “The Wright Graduate University for the Realization of Human Potential, a private college in Wisconsin that has a website debunking claims that it is a cult, was allocated about $495,000. All of the colleges could apply for the funds or reject them, and Wright officials said the school did not claim the funds.”

Here’s more: God’s Bible School and College in Cincinnati, which enrolls 378 students, has already received $155,000 in higher education coronavirus relief money and has been offered an additional $337,447.  The institution, which enrolls 239 students, told The Times that it wouldn’t accept the additional funds.

From the beginning, Congress has rejected the Secretary’s efforts to create and fund a massive program that would give parents valuable ‘vouchers’ that they could spend for their children’s education wherever they chose, including religious and for-profit institutions. (DeVos and her family apparently have invested in some on-line education efforts.)  The pandemic funds have provided DeVos a backdoor to achieving this goal.

It must make DeVos furious that some institutions have given back the pandemic money, out of conscience or principle.   Since her goal is to shovel our tax dollars out the door and into the hands of the undeserving, she needs to make sure she doesn’t send money to people with principles, or to those with a conscience.  She needs to focus her campaign on people without scruples.

Just as Willie Sutton robbed banks because ‘that’s where the money was,” DeVos should send checks only to those who are demonstrably unworthy of receiving it.

Actually, she doesn’t need to do any original research to find the scammers, the crooks, and the zealots.  Their names are readily available.  For example, The Network for Public Education has published detailed information about thousands of publicly funded charter schools that are guilty of wrong-doing.  All DeVos has to do is get copies of “Asleep at the Wheel” and “Still Asleep at the Wheel,” pick out some scamming schools, and send them checks.  There’s even a map, so she can direct the money to states that her boss needs to win in November. What could be easier!!

Funneling money to undeserving colleges and universities doesn’t require any work either. Just use Google for a full list and take your pick among dozens of unrecognized ‘religious’ colleges and universities.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for DeVos to help Golden State School of Theology.   “It is with a sad heart that we announce that as of March 31st, 2020, Golden State School of Theology has ceased opperation (sic).”  (Clearly, Golden State didn’t emphasize spelling.) 

But the Secretary has plenty of options if she wants to support religious institutions that cannot earn accreditation. Why not send pandemic dollars to Louisiana Baptist University, which is not accredited by any organization recognized by her own United States Department of Education?  “The current president of LBU is Dr. Neal Weaver.[10] Mr. Weaver holds no doctorate from an accredited university. LBU’s faculty page list a Ph.D.[11] from Holy Trinity Seminary.[12] Holy Trinity Seminary does not issue degrees, and is a non degree granting institute.”  I’m not picking on LBU, because there are literally dozens and dozens and dozens more…..

If I may close by addressing the Secretary directly.  Madam Secretary, no doubt your fellow religious zealots in the Trump Administration–Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and others–support what you are doing.     

I’m wondering whether you find it ironic that your boss, who has only a passing knowledge of Christianity and other religions, lets you try to undermine an institution of immense social value, our public schools, in the name of your notion of God?  Or don’t you care, because for you the end justifies the means (as Christ never taught)? 

Hard as you are trying to destroy public education, you will not be successful.  Most Americans believe in and value public education, which will be here long after you are gone.

That said, however, November cannot come soon enough!!


One More Question…..

“Dr. Merrow, I have just one more question for you.  We’re pretty conservative here, pretty slow to change.  If we hire you to be our School Superintendent, what’s the biggest change you would want to make in our schools?”

“That’s a great question, sir,” I replied, my brain whirling and spinning and searching for a suitable answer.

His question feels as fresh today as it did in 1973 when  I was living on Nantucket, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. I had just received my doctorate from Harvard, I was unemployed, the schools were looking for a superintendent, and the minister at our church happened to be on the school board.  Thus I was asked to apply, which culminated in that great question….which proved to be my downfall.

I settled on an answer, which went something like this.  “I strongly believe that reading competently with understanding is the foundation of almost all learning. Therefore, I would institute a clear policy: no one advances to fourth grade until everyone can read.”

To my surprise my questioner, an elderly white gentleman, expressed his support.  “That’s not radical, Dr. Merrow.  That’s just common sense.”  He paused.  “After all, nobody should be promoted to fourth grade until he can read. 

“With all respect, sir, that’s not what I said. Under this policy, NOBODY goes to fourth grade until EVERYONE can read.  Your neighbor’s son isn’t promoted until YOUR daughter is reading, or vice-versa.”

I still remember the stunned looks on the faces of the School Board members.  As I recall, I qualified my position with some loopholes for children with disabling conditions, but that didn’t matter.  The interview was essentially over, and I wasn’t asked back for the second round of interviews.

So, 47 years later and in the midst of a pandemic, how would I answer that question?  

Actually, I would ask for even bigger changes, starting with these eight: 

1) Suspension of all high stakes machine-scored bubble tests for at least two years. Use the savings for teaching materials and teacher salaries.

2) Frequent measurement of academic progress, led by teachers, guided by an “assess to improve” philosophy.  That is, lots of low-stakes assessments.

3) End-of-year testing of a randomized sample of students, which would produce a reliable analysis of how the entire student body is doing.  Sampling is done in every other aspect of society (including when your doctor withdraws a sample of your blood!).  It’s far less expensive and highly reliable.

4) A rich and varied curriculum that includes at least five short breaks for recess every day in all elementary schools.  Play is essential!

5) A strong commitment to project-based learning, preferably involving students from other schools (perhaps in other states and countries).

6) A school environment that celebrates accomplishments of all sorts–and not just athletics!

7) A school environment that promotes inquiry, one in which it is safe to say “I don’t know” and praiseworthy to be curious.  It’s not enough for schools to be physically safe for students. They must also be emotionally and intellectually safe.

8) A public rejection of the philosophy of ‘sorting’ because our economy and our democracy need everyone to be educated to their fullest capacity.  Ideally, schools will seek to ask these questions about every student: How Is This Student Smart? What Are His/Her Strengths and Interests, and How Can We Respond Appropriately?   

I might not make it to the second round of interviews again, but there would be an interesting discussion at the Board meeting.

And you?  What big changes would you ask for if you were being interviewed for a school superintendency?


May has been an educational ‘dead zone’ for years.  Because of our national obsession with standardized test scores, teachers–particularly in low income areas–spend class time showing students how to guess at answers, giving practice tests, and even teaching children how to fill in bubbles for the standardized, multiple choice ‘bubble’ tests that await them.  These activities come with a huge opportunity cost for students, because they are of no educational benefit whatsoever and probably set their learning back; for teachers, they are an insult to their profession.  And school districts spend billions of dollars buying, administering, and grading the bubble tests required by their states and the federal government.

When I was reporting I occasionally heard people  complaining–in song–about  “the morbid, miserable month of May,” riffing off an old Stephen Foster tune, “The Merry, Merry Month of May.”  As I recall, the expression surfaced in 2003 or 2004, which is when the unintended consequences of the 2001 federal “No Child Left Behind” law became apparent.  Because NCLB penalized schools that didn’t achieve what it called ‘adequate yearly progress’ on standardized tests, many districts eliminated art, music, drama, journalism, and even recess in order to concentrate on ‘the basics.’ 

That’s when the month of May became a ‘morbid’ dead zone, educationally speaking. 

I don’t remember where I first heard the expression. It might have been in the suburban North Carolina elementary school that held ‘pep rallies’ in advance of the upcoming state exams, or in Richmond, Virginia, where a veteran middle school teacher told me “Teaching and learning are done; now it’s all test prep.”  Or perhaps it was the Chicago high school teacher who confessed that he vomited in his wastebasket when he saw his students’ scores, or the custodian in a Success Academy charter school in New York City who said he rinsed out classroom trash cans every night because students regularly threw up in them during testing.  Another possibility is the Washington, DC, parent whose young son couldn’t sleep because his teacher said she’d get fired if they didn’t do well on the tests.  

The good news is that May 2020 does not have to be ‘morbid,’ ‘miserable,’ or ‘malignant.’  Because schools are closed and state standardized testing has been cancelled, May is a blank slate–and an opportunity for us to make it ‘magical’ and ‘memorable.’   

News reports indicate that many parents are unhappy in the role of ‘teacher at home.’  (They are also coming to realize just how hard it is to be an effective teacher!)  Teachers are frustrated because nothing in their training prepared them for teaching remotely.  And so, because the March-April experiment in ‘remote learning’ hasn’t been a rousing success and because May is a tabula rasa, let’s embrace ‘out of the box’ thinking. Stop thinking like educators whose jobs depend on high test scores.  Think differently!

(An earlier blog post about librarians, swimming instructors,  highway engineers, and gardeners is here.)

Imagine for a moment that you don’t have a captive audience (because right now you don’t).  IE, think like a librarian. Public libraries are different from schools in one important way: they do not have required attendance. But even though no one is forced to attend the library, library usage continues to climb.  To survive and prosper, librarians have had to identify their audiences and find ways to draw them into their buildings and electronic networks.  For the most part, they’ve succeeded without pandering.  That’s what’s called for in education at this moment.

With school buildings shuttered, students do not have to ‘attend’ anything.  They can log on to classes to get credit for ‘being there,’ but there’s no way for the teachers to know who’s paying attention and who’s FaceTiming friends.  More than 25% of students in Los Angeles, for example, aren’t even bothering to log on, and even parents who are monitoring their children’s efforts cannot be certain that they’re paying attention.  

So the parents and teachers might consider asking questions, instead of simply giving assignments: 

          What would make this material appealing to you? 

          What would persuade you to invest your energies in this subject? 

          What else are you interested in?  

For example, perhaps focusing on one subject at a time might be more appealing than trying to study five subjects every day.  The block schedule of 50-minute periods may work inside school buildings, but that doesn’t mean it can transfer to the home.  What if we compressed the semester of American history or American Literature into the month of May? Would a series of deep dives be more engaging?  For openers, try asking the students.

However, students shouldn’t get to make all the decisions about what they’re studying.  After all, a central purpose of the early years of school is the transmission of knowledge, and so the basics are also part of the deal.  Children need to learn spelling rules (“I before E, except after C”), the multiplication tables, how to divide and carry, and other basics. They need to know that letters have sounds associated with them (i.e., Phonics and Phonemic Awareness).  Someone has to teach them that, if you put an E at the end of words like ‘ton,’ the O sound changes from ‘short’ to ‘long.’ While that may seem like heavy lifting for parents who haven’t trained to teach, they can relax.  Free resources like the Khan Academy, ReadWorks, and Zearn are available to help children and parents with basic skills. Resources are plentiful: PBS is making all of Ken Burns’ documentaries available for screening, and former first lady Michelle Obama is on line, reading stories to young children, to cite just two examples.

Young people must be deeply involved in setting the learning goals and in figuring out how results will be measured.  It makes no sense to wait for bubble test results.  Teachers, parents, and students should assess progress frequently, take a clear-headed look at the results, and adapt accordingly. That also means that leadership must abandon the all-too-prevalent “Gotcha” attitude toward teachers. The new thinking has to be Assess to improve,” and not “Test to punish.”

Plan teaching with that in mind. Don’t take it personally when the student/your child doesn’t get it the first time, or the fifth. Explore the reasoning behind the error, but not punitively. Celebrate wherever possible.  Parents can teach their children valuable skills through family activities like cooking, playing board games, and planting a spring garden.  Above all, parents should recognize that they are learners too, because that makes it perfectly OK to say, “I don’t know, so let’s find out together.”   And leave plenty of time for play……

Accept that it’s a journey.  Be comfortable making mistakes. Teach children that failure is a huge part of learning–and learn along with the kids. 

Projects, done alone or with other children, are an important part of learning, but in May 2020 projects are essential, because they give working parents extended time away from the kids.  While creating the projects will take some time, once underway, the children can work alone, or with their friends and classmates on Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts.   For some suggestions about worthwhile projects, go here, here, here, here, and here

If they are connected to the internet, that is.  The huge gap in material resources that existed before this crisis is now front-and-center.  By some estimates, more than one million California students do not have connectivity.  While some tech companies are stepping up to provide broadband access to low income communities, more needs to be done because all students have to be able to connect with the world beyond their homes.  

While traditional school involves a lot of consumption of information–like memorizing state capitals, the Periodic Table, or the formula for the volume of a cube–the suspension of standardized testing has created a tabula rasa for the rest of the school year.  It’s an opportunity to turn young learners into producers of knowledge. Not video game players, but creators of Apps. Not watchers of films, but producers of their own documentaries.  Not drudges, but dreamers.

Education is much more than knowledge transmission. Much of what goes on in the teenage years in particular is the development and creation of the individual.  What Jacques Barzun called “Building a Self” involves discovery and trial-and-error, and that journey becomes much more interesting when kids are creating knowledge, not just giving back the right answers in order to get good grades.  

So, how should learning be assessed while schools remain closed? California flirted with the notion of giving all students A’s but abandoned that when its higher education system objected.  “Pass/Fail” may end up being the popular option, although hard-working students and dedicated teachers will object, because that ‘one size fits all’ approach discounts their efforts.  Randi Weingarten, the sensible President of the American Federation of Teachers, believes teachers and students should design ‘capstone projects.’  “We’ve got to trust educators and students to come up with meaningful projects that demonstrate student learning, and to do so in ways that minimize the inequalities of the digital divide,” she wrote in an email. “Before the pandemic, most students had seven months of learning, so let’s end the year with meaningful projects.” 

Will we resume our obsession with standardized testing once the Covid-19 pandemic begins to fade? Certainly there will be pressure to return to “business as usual” from entrenched economic interests and the powerful ‘school reform’ lobby, but it should be obvious that ‘business as usual’ just ain’t gonna happen in education or in a lot of other activities.  I hope we come together to reject the current ‘test to punish’ approach and replace it with systems that ‘assess to improve.’  Schooling cannot be a ‘gotcha game’ or a sorting system.  We need all hands on deck to rebuild our shaken economy.

As we plan for a better future, let’s stop spending billions of dollars buying, administering, and grading bubble tests and use the money instead to lower class size, improve access to technology, and raise teacher salaries.  

I believe that education’s “New Normal” has a good chance to become child-centric. This is our opportunity to create schools that pose a new question–”How Is This Child Smart?”–and then ensure that the answers determine how she/he is taught.  

This isn’t a pipe-dream of a feverish mind going bonkers in isolation.  The brilliant Andy Hargreaves has also been speculating about education’s post-Covid 19 future:

“Well-being will no longer be dismissed as a fad. Before this crisis, there were murmurings that student well-being was a distraction from proper learning basics. No more.  It’s now clear that without their teachers’ care and support it’s hard for many young people to stay well and focused. Being well, we’ll appreciate, isn’t an alternative to being successful. It’s an essential precondition for achievement, especially among our most vulnerable children.”

Before Covid-19, parents might ask their children, “What did you learn in school today?”  Going forward let’s ask, “What good questions did you come up with?  How’s the search for answers going?”

The goal of education, wherever it’s occurring, is not to get correct answers. The end game is life-long curiosity.

To Succeed in Teaching, Think Like a …..

Because the pandemic has exposed the fundamental inequities in our education system, there’s lots of ‘Big Picture’ thinking going on about American public education.  For example, Paul Reville, the former Massachusetts Secretary of Education who now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, hopes that this pandemic will be education’s “Sputnik moment.” 

I hope that he and others who are looking ahead are right and that we will fundamentally overhaul our approach. Because I have written about this in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education, I want to focus here on succeeding RIGHT NOW.  Not next year when schools have reopened, but tomorrow and next week, when teachers and parents are struggling to achieve ‘home learning.’

Four pathways to success: 

  1. Think like a librarian
  2. Think like a swimming instructor
  3. Think like a highway engineer
  4. Think like a gardener

Librarians do not have a captive audience. After all, no one is required to attend the library.  To survive and prosper, librarians have had to identify their audiences and find ways to appeal to them, to draw them into their buildings or electronic networks.  For the most part, they’ve succeeded, and without pandering.  

With school buildings shuttered, students do not have to ‘attend’ anything.  They can log on to classes to get credit for ‘being there,’ but there’s no way for the teachers to know who’s paying attention and who’s FaceTiming friends.  And we know that more than 25% of students in Los Angeles, for example, aren’t even bothering to log on. Even parents who are monitoring their children’s efforts cannot be certain that the kids are paying attention.  

So the adults must ask students the librarian’s questions: 

          What can I do to make material this appealing to you? 

          How can I persuade you to invest your energies in this subject? 

          What else are you interested in?  (Because knowing that might allow you to teach this important material at the same time,)

For example, perhaps focusing on one subject for a month at a time might be more appealing than trying to study five subjects every day.  The block schedule of 50-minute periods may work inside school buildings, but that doesn’t mean it can simply transfer to the home.  What if we compressed the semester of American history into one month, American literature into another month, and so on? Would a series of deep dives be more engaging?  For openers, try asking the students.

Swimming instructors are measured by results. If wannabe swimmers don’t learn to swim, the instructor cannot claim, “I taught them effectively, so it’s not my fault that they cannot swim.”  No, he or she has to find new ways to teach swimming, because the instructor owns the failure.  In my experience, many teachers already think the way competent swimming instructors do. But not enough!  Every teacher and parent has to live by the mantra, “If they’re not learning, then I am not teaching.”   

And I don’t mean waiting around for bubble test results at the end of the year (or later).  Teachers need to assess frequently, take a clear-headed look at the results, and adapt accordingly. That means asking for help.  That also means that leadership must abandon the all-too-prevalent “Gotcha” attitude toward teachers. The new thinking has to be: “Assess to improve,” and not “Test to punish.”

Highway engineers–the men and women who design our roads and streets–have one important goal in mind: to get us safely from Point A to Point B.  Because their data and their own life experience tells them that drivers’ attention wanders and cars sometimes stray and weave, highway engineers build roads whose lanes are about one-third wider than the cars that travel on them.  Without that extra room for predictable error, we’d have many more highway accidents. Instead, nearly all of us arrive at our destinations safely.

Apply that to teaching and learning, and we will have an education system that treats failure as nothing more than an opportunity to try again.  Let me trot out the story of WD-40 one more time. If the chemical engineers who developed that ubiquitous product had been penalized for failing, work would have stopped after their first try, which they conveniently labelled “WD-1.”  Instead, they tried and failed 38 more times before hitting on a formula that worked!

Plan your teaching with that in mind. Don’t take it personally when a student doesn’t get it the first time, or the fifth. Explore the reasoning behind the error, but not punitively. Celebrate wherever possible.

Gardeners understand that what they are involved in is a work in progress.  And works in progress take time, faith, work, and love. The last thing a gardener would ever do is pull up the emerging plant or flower by the roots to see if it’s growing.  Nurturing is essential. That’s true whether or not schools are open.  

Gardeners know that roses demand one kind of attention, which is different from what green beans, tomatoes, and hydrangeas require.  “One size fits all’ doesn’t apply to gardening or to teaching and learning. The educational equivalent of the gardener’s mind are the questions, “How is this child smart, what is she interested in, and what can I do to nurture her interests?”  

What’s more, gardeners don’t hover over their seedlings; they pay the appropriate amount of attention and then walk away, leaving nature, the sun, the earth, and the seeds to do the work of growing.  

To be like gardeners, teachers and parents cannot hover; they cannot expect students to be ‘on task’ all the time.  In fact, in these awful times, play and free time have never been more important.

Those are suggestions for successful teaching and learning now.  Looking down the road, here are three thoughts about how the system must be changed:

  1. Most likely to succeed are those school districts that have been encouraging teachers to work together and have given them the time to watch each other teach and to grow professionally in other ways.  Districts that have empowered teachers to use technology for exploration and production are better suited to today’s new reality.
  2. Least likely to succeed are districts that either are technology-poor or habitually use technology for control (counting and measuring) rather than exploration and production.
  3. The current model of teaching in most American public schools is one of ‘Crowd Control,’ and not teaching and learning.  Simply put, many teachers are assigned too many students for them to be able to help more than a handful. Sadly, things haven’t changed all that much from when I taught high school English in the mid-60’s. Back then, I was responsible for five classes of roughly 25 students each, a total of 125 high school 10th, 11th, and 12th graders.  Because I believed that students needed to write and rewrite regularly, I was reading and correcting 250 short (1 page, written in class) papers every week. I could handle this because I was 22 and fresh out of college. However, I know now that I couldn’t have kept that up for long. In fact, I left teaching for graduate school after two years–two wonderful but exhausting years.



Last week in this space I posted an almost entirely fabricated** article about faux “research’ I claimed to have done by hitchhiking while posing as a retired teacher, CPA, doctor, et cetera. Although the piece was posted on April Fools Day, a fair number of readers took what I wrote at face value.

Why would smart people take me at face value? I think it’s because my phony research supported their core belief–teachers matter–and they simply couldn’t wrap their brains around the notion of anyone poking fun at that.

Teachers Matter” is a core belief of mine as well, so let me be serious for a moment, because what many teachers are doing during this awful pandemic again demonstrates their value.  

Our teachers are stepping up big time, judging from news reports and from the stories I’m hearing from family and friends.  In some communities teachers have organized ‘drive throughs’ of the neighborhoods where their students live, so the kids can come outside and wave hello–from a safe distance–to their teachers.  Here’s one TV report about how teachers in California are staying connected with their elementary school students.  

A high school teacher I know well is working with some of his students–at a distance–making PPE for three local hospitals.  He bought sheets of plexiglass, and they are cutting and bending it, then attaching straps, to produce the face shields that protect First Responders from the virus. 

Many educators are delivering meals or handing them out at schools because they understand that, for many low income students, meals at school might be the only food they got that day.  In fact, the nutritional needs of children is the reason politicians like New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio delayed in closing their schools (a decision that has cost New York City dearly). 

Here’s an excerpt from a report from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (a newspaper I urge you to consider subscribing to): The New Kensington-Arnold School District, where all 1,975 students qualify, is handing out to-go bags with breakfast and lunch items from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays at seven locations for all students 18 and younger. The district asked parents and older students to fill out a survey to indicate continued participation in the meal program to improve efficiency and waste as little food as possible.

And the Oil City Area School District in Venango County, where more than 90% of the students are eligible, said anyone from 1 to 18 years old could receive a bagged meal that would include lunch for that day as well as breakfast for the next day. The meals are available from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Seventh Street Elementary School or at the high school.

Steel Valley, one of the school districts with 100% reduced lunch eligibility, gave students backpacks of free food on a Friday to get them through the weekend and said it will continue to serve meals to students on weekdays during the shutdown.

Since 11,000,000 American children–one out of every seven–live in ‘food-insecure’ households, what teachers and school districts in Pittsburgh and elsewhere are doing qualifies as ‘life-saving’ work.

Equally important, some teachers are making ‘house calls’ via phone or Skype and other apps or they’re sharing their email addresses, making themselves available for questions. That’s an experience our grandchildren and the grandchildren of friends are having. 

Stepping up for their students during this pandemic has taken a toll, including the ultimate sacrifice, as the newspaper Education Week is reporting.

The pandemic has also revealed the fault lines in our education system and society at large, including pervasive economic inequality.  Online learning is literally impossible when students cannot get online because their homes don’t have wifi or because they don’t have the devices. “Nearly one in five students between kindergarten and 12th grade do not have computers or speedy Web connections, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center in 2018, the latest available, which said this “homework gap” disproportionately plagues low-income families and people of color,” The Washington Post reported recently.

Two weeks ago in this space I wrote, “(A) lot of school systems seem to be reflexively behaving as if they could simply transplant school’s routines to the home.  Some are emailing or posting lesson plans that they expect students (and parents) to follow.”  It may be worse than I thought. Apparently most school districts hadn’t thought through how to respond, and so they’re simply trying to impose school’s routines on American homes, with class periods and worksheets, the whole nine yards. 

“Same old, same old” isn’t working, as The Los Angeles Times reported recently.  Profiling senior Emilio Hernandez, an honors student taking AP calculus, physics, design, English, engineering and government, The Times writes, Now, with a borrowed laptop from school and family crowded in the living room, he’s struggling to make school feel like, well, school. He has trouble falling asleep and finds himself going to bed later and later — sometimes as late as 3 a.m. “Assignments that would normally take me two hours or 30 minutes are now taking me days to complete. I just … can’t focus,” he said. “I don’t have anyone giving me direction. It’s just me reading and having to give myself the incentive to do the work.”

Think about that: An honor student who is taking an incredibly demanding schedule hasn’t learned–or been expected–to strike out on his own.  To me, that’s the bitter fruit of the top-down, standards-based, test-centric approach to ‘education’ that so many politicians and so-called ‘school reformers’ have embraced.

Superimposing school on the home is not working for students at all levels.  LA reports that on some days half of students don’t bother to log on–IE, they’re skipping school. New York City is having trouble getting kids to participate, and, of course, no one knows whether kids who do sign in are actually paying attention.  Basically, given the opportunity “to vote with their feet,” kids are (electronically) walking away from school as they know it.

That’s precisely why this is the perfect time to rethink public education.  State standardized tests (given to meet federal rules) won’t be required this year.  Many states have already relaxed their rules requiring 180 days of classroom-based instruction, but now it’s time to go further.  Randi Weingarten, the wise leader of the American Federation of Teachers, has some suggestions for evaluating the work that students are doing at home, including a ‘capstone project.’  She writes, in part: There are many ways outside of state accountability systems to show student learning, as teachers can attest. They just need the freedom to use their professional judgment. Teachers do this throughout the year — administering tests and guiding students on projects and portfolios. We know that students love to show what they know to people who matter to them. We need to trust teachers, in consultation with their principals and colleagues, to design meaningful, educationally appropriate tasks.

However, this will be harder than it sounds, because for at least the past 30 years teachers have not been trusted with student evaluation and curriculum development.  Instead, those at the top have devoted years and millions of dollars to creating “teacher-proof” materials, a concept that should boggle the minds of everyone who cares about learning.

Teachers who have gotten accustomed to being told what to do may have trouble adjusting to new freedoms and responsibilities–not to mention adapting to the new experience of teaching on-line. 

When Edutopia brought about 500 teachers together (electronically), much was learned, including “Less is More.”  Here’s an excerpt: If your district allows it, you should plan to do less. Students won’t be able to work as productively, anyway—so if you can’t scale back you’ll be sending them work they cannot do—and your own life and family need added care.  “Feedback from students and families over the last 10 days in Italy is ‘less is more,’” commented Jo Gillespie. “Consider that parents are trying to work from home, and siblings are vying for computer and Wi-Fi time. … And (Stacy) Keevan, the teacher in Hong Kong with weeks of experience, confirmed that time and distance play funny games during a crisis: “What would normally take you one class period to teach in the classroom will probably take you twice as long.”

The AFT’s Weingarten suggests a “capstone project” for all students, giving each the opportunity to shine.  I think the goal should be ‘knowledge production,’ and not the spitting back of information. Project-based learning is a good way to encourage knowledge production because when children explore their interests, they acquire and create knowledge. When children DO, they learn.

Interestingly, some commercial interests are responding to the pandemic by doing things that will make it harder for students to become producers. For example, Google is opening up its gaming venues for free–as if today’s kids needed to spend even more time playing video games.  The goal here is to set the hook even deeper, to keep everyone consuming.  

As I wrote last week, In the age of Covid-19, we ought to be encouraging children to ask good questions.  Home Learning entails the search for answers.  Before Covid-19, parents might ask their children at dinner, “What did you learn in school today?”  Now, let’s ask, “What good questions did you come up with? How’s the search for answers going?” The goal of education, the goal of Home Learning, is not the right answer. The end game is perpetual, life-long curiosity.

What changes should be made in public education once the pandemic passes? What are the lessons of this pandemic for public education?  Kiah Duncan has some suggestions

  • Remote learning days should be embedded throughout the school year once or twice a month.  School Improvement days should become remote learning half days. That would help teachers improve their digital teaching skills by working together and give students regular practice so that it is easier for them to do on their own at home.
  • Each state should ensure that all students have a device that they can use and replace any devices that are not returned.  If any state is willing to implement remote learning, they should be accountable for ensuring that each school has the necessary amount of access.
  • All teachers should be required to have a technology element integrated into a lesson that is formally or informally observed each school year.  The only way to effectively assist teachers that may require more help is by knowing what they are doing and giving them the opportunity to improve before it becomes mandatory.

Just as important, we need to reimagine public schools and teachers must be deeply involved in this process.  I write about what schools could be in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.  We simply don’t have enough young people to continue with the current “sorting” approach to education that picks out winners and losers. Instead, we have to ask of each child, “How is she smart?” instead of “How smart is she?” and proceed accordingly.

Ironically, schools need to become more like most American homes, instead of trying to superimpose their tired routines on our households.


**  It wasn’t entirely fabricated. When, at age 21, I hitch-hiked around the country, a lot of drivers (men and women) accosted me; however, I am not writing an autobiography called “In the Car Where (Might Have) It Happened.”



I began hitch-hiking out of necessity, but before long it became an obsession, and then a serious research project.  It all began last fall when I took a job as an unpaid Media Advisor (really a PR person) for “No Nails Left Behind,” a small non-profit in the upper reaches of the Bronx that provides jobs for formerly incarcerated residents of the Borough. 

(The organization’s name was a play on the wildly successful, much admired education program, “No Child Left Behind.”)

Basically NNLB’s workers scour construction sites for damaged nails, which they collect and then straighten out for resale. I thought it was a great story that more people should know about–and perhaps contribute to (because the income from the sales of one-used nails alone, we feared, might not be enough to keep the program operating).

The public transportation from our apartment in the upper east side of Manhattan to the northern edge of the Bronx was inadequate and time-consuming, and so I ended up taking a Lyft or Uber twice a day, five days a week. I couldn’t justify that expense, and so I decided to hitch-hike.

Standing on the corner of 79th and 3rd–for what seemed like hours–was beyond frustrating, and so, in desperation, one morning I made myself this sign:


Within minutes I had a ride!  I think on that first day it took three separate rides to get to NNLB’s office with only about 10 minutes of waiting.  Getting home was equally easy.  So that’s how I traveled to work for the next few weeks, saving big bucks and working on schemes to publicize NNLB.

Unfortunately, that all came to a screeching halt when one morning the organization’s Director called us all together to say that she had to close the operation.  It wasn’t the nails sales, she said. It was the fact that seven nail gatherers had been arrested the previous day; it turns out that going on construction sites at night was illegal, something no one had thought of.

So I was out of a job, but the effectiveness of hitch-hiking intrigued me. I always asked the drivers why they had picked me up. What was it about my being a retired teacher that led them to stop?  I heard great stories and began taking copious notes, not sure of what I might do with the information.

It was my wife who suggested a comparative study, a way to measure the status of teaching versus other professions.  Viola! I began making signs:

IMG_1964That’s just one.  I also posed as a Retired CPA, Doctor, Lawyer, and Politician.  The results were stunning. Whenever I displayed the “Retired Teacher” sign, I got a ride within minutes.  By contrast, most drivers ignored me when I self-identified as a retired lawyer or dentist.  

Posing as a retired dentist got me a mouthful of nasty criticism of my profession. 

EVERY driver who saw my “Retired Politician” sign seemed to speed up; a few gave me the finger. In 40+ days of trying, I didn’t get a single ride!  

This complex chart shows the average number of cars passing me by, per occupation. 

     25-100+                    X
        21-24       X     X
        13-16   X
        9-12   X
        2-4     X

I also kept track of time, devoting one hour of hitching to each profession every day. I went “off the clock” while in a car, and I limited the rides to about 10 minutes.  I carried both a stopwatch and a clicker to keep count of passing cars. I used the audio recording app on my smartphone to keep track of results.

A sophisticated Chi Square analysis of my research results shows statistical significance to the 99th percentile, meaning that if one repeated this experiment 100 times, it would produce the same results 99 times.  A longer and more formal version of my peer-reviewed work will appear in the highly regarded quarterly Annals of Digital Mobility (ADM) this October. 

I have no doubt that, had I pursued a career in academia, this research would have resulted in my being awarded tenure.    

That’s why, when the pandemic passes, I will continue my research project, which I’m calling ‘Thumbs Across America.’  This research involved only New York City, but I plan on doing field research in the entire Lower 48, if my wife will allow me to hitch-hike around the country.

I am certain that I will discover that all of America cares about public school teachers as much as New Yorkers do.