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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Mission Accomplished:77+ miles=$85,000+

A picture is worth 1,000 words:


So, Mission accomplished.  But, wait, here’s one more photo I want you to see:

2018 (83)

I biked an extra six miles because I got carried away by the beautiful day and a very flat course with a tail wind.  My birthday is tomorrow, but I moved the ride up two days based on weather reports. I began at 7AM and had the old ‘rails to trails’ path pretty much to myself.  Meaning few other humans.  Lots of wildlife: I passed a mother goose and her eight or nine goslings; a yearling deer who stayed motionless on the bike path as I glided by, maybe 3 feet from it; a woodchuck; swans; innumerable chipmunks and rabbits; and this majestic egret.

Heron 2018

One swan is barely visible from this old railroad bridge

Swan 2018

Perhaps 6 miles of the entire 83 mile ride are NOT bucolic, wooded, and peaceful;  occasionally there’s evidence of the old railroad system.

rails2 2018

Here’s what really matters: Based on what folks have reported to me, readers have pledged or donated more than $85,000 to various organizations and political candidates.  Planned Parenthood seems to be a favorite, along with the Network for Public Education.  Joan and I donated to Planned Parenthood, NPE, and Jesse Colvin’s campaign for the Congressional seat in the First District of Maryland (take a look if you have time.)  Some of you reported giving to two or three organizations.  One large donation to Tougaloo College, an HBCU, skewed the results, and I am certain that the donor, a writer friend, would have made his gift anyway, but he said he was linking it to my bike ride and urged me to include it in the total, which I have done.

(I hope those of you who pledged $77 will now round up. May I suggest $100.)

Now, to get into the weeds about my ride: I averaged 12.7 miles per hour, a decent pace for someone about to enter his 78th year of life, I think.

AVG 2018

I started riding at 7AM and finished seven and a half hours later, but that included two snack breaks, lunch, and a trip to the bike store in Yorkville Heights to replace my sunglasses (which broke, the only negative).  My total biking time was 6 hours, 28 minutes, and 23 seconds, according to my odometer.

total time 2018

I barely made it to sunset before crashing; I slept from 9PM until 6:30 this morning.

Thanks for indulging me, for reading, and for donating to a worthy organization (or two or three).  I feel blessed for being alive and healthy, but now let’s back to the serious business of rescuing public education and our children from two distinctly different groups, Betsy DeVos and her supporters and the test-obsessed corporate reformers.





Are 77 Miles On a Bike Worth $77 To You?


On June 14th, my birthday, I will once again attempt to bike my age, and this time I have a question for you: Would my 77 mile ride, if I make it, be worth $77 to you?  If I do manage to make  it, will you make a charitable donation in that amount (or larger, if you prefer)?

This will be my 8th year in a row of attempting to bike my age, and the first seven have turned out well.  

Here’s the back story. I began doing this in 2011, the year I turned 70.  For reasons I cannot recall, I decided to bike a Century to celebrate the occasion. And I made it!


A Century every year?  That was a ridiculous goal, and so I decided on a different and hopefully more manageable goal: Every birthday I would bike my age. Which I did on June 14th, 2012.


The next year, Flag Day, 2013, I managed the required 72 miles…with a smile. (I have two road bikes, which is why you see two different odometers.)2012(72)DSC02826.JPG

The following June 14, I forgot to stop to take a picture at mile 73. I ended up biking an extra 1.66 miles (in the bank, credit for the inevitable tough year?).


On June 14, 2015, I once again forgot to take the photo at the proper mile mark (another 1.49 miles in the bank).  My good friend Mike Joseloff rode with me.


In 2016 Mike rode with me again, this time for 75 miles, and we remembered to take the photo at the right time!


Last June 14th my daughter Elise rode with me–and she did the entire 76 miles on a folding bike!

2017(76)w: Elise 2017

So here’s my question for you, as June 14th, 2018 approaches: will you make a tax-deductible donation to a worthy cause if I manage to bike 77 miles?  Where you donate is up to you, of course, but let me suggest three vitally important organizations, all of which could use your financial support:   Planned Parenthood; BATS, the Badass Teachers Association; and The Network for Public Education (NPE), an organization founded in 2013 by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody.   

Alternatively, you might consider making a contribution to a progressive running for office in the November election.

If you want progress reports, follow me on Twitter: @John_Merrow.  I promise to post the outcome, no matter what…..

Next year I may decide to follow the sensible advice a young nephew gave me: “Uncle John,” he said, “It might be time to switch to kilometers.”

To be honest, there are mornings when I feel like switching to yards!  But just yet, not in 2018 anyway.

Please wish me luck, and thanks for donating………


The Best of Days, The Worst of Days

June 6th, 1968, began as perhaps the best day of my life. The previous afternoon my wife and I had brought our first-born child home from the hospital, and we went to bed awe-struck by the miracle of a new life.  Both political junkies, we had also watched election returns on our small black-and-white TV before falling asleep well before midnight, long before any hard news from California.

We awoke with our son on June 6th, still overwhelmed with joy….until I turned on the television to find out that Robert Kennedy was dead. He had been murdered in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen, just after accepting the cheers of his supporters, just after winning the California Democratic primary, just after taking a giant step toward winning the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.

Two months earlier, another assassin had murdered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee.  That killing had prompted me and some friends to drive through the night from Bloomington, Indiana, to Memphis for the memorial march. The killing of RFK undid me, and many millions like me.

Those two murders poisoned our political process. They paved the way for violence at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the election of Richard Nixon, his escalation and prolonging of a senseless war in Viet Nam, and government’s retreat from efforts to end segregation and racial discrimination.

Have we recovered?  The evidence suggests we have not: The hyper-rich .001%, phony patriotism from a self-focused President, a pliant Congress, a polarized nation, looming trade wars, and a rapidly warming planet.

Where are the voices calling to our better angels? I do not hear any of Trump’s opposition saying anything that even remotely resembles JFK’s, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.

Instead, Trump’s opposition panders to voters with calls  for”Free College” and the like, as if anything in life were free. Bobby Kennedy reminded us that those born with advantages had an obligation to work to improve the lives of others. He made us believe that we could do better and be better, and, because of him, we did and we were.

Bobby Kennedy appealed to our better angels, and we miss him still.

Public Schools and Donald Trump

It’s an open secret that Donald Trump and his administration are not friends of public education.  His choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has scant understanding of, and even less appreciation for, the contributions that public schools, imperfect though they are, have made to our nation.

And while I hope you are registered to vote and are supporting progressive candidates who can take back our country, gaining control of both Houses of Congress won’t be enough to make America respected again.  We must make major changes in the basic structure of our public schools because schools are partially responsible for the fix we are in. Not the changes Secretary DeVos wants, but radical changes nonetheless.

Because, irony of ironies, it was public education’s deeply flawed “sorting” machine that helped Trump get elected.  Let’s start with who would have won the 2016 presidential election.   Approximately 130 million voters went to the polls in 2016. Clinton received 65,844,954 votes to Trump’s 62,979,8790, but more than 100,000,000 Americans of voting age did not cast ballots.  In fact, if “not voting” had been a choice, it would have won the popular vote in every presidential election since at least 1916.  While many thousands of adults have been disenfranchised by virtue of criminal records, Americans generally have a bad habit of not voting.  The turnout in what we like to believe is “the world’s greatest democracy” generally hovers around 53 to 54 percent. It has dipped below 50 percent three times since 1916, most recently in 1996, when only 49.1 percent of the voting age population bothered to vote.

Who are these non-voters? Rather than scorning them for their indifference, I have come to believe that most non-voters are behaving rationally.  Feeling that they have no stake in our government, they don’t vote. And why should they?  Schools taught them that they were insignificant, and so, as adults, they keep their heads down and stay uninvolved.

Yes, I am holding public schools at least partly responsible for low voter turnout, because public education, an efficient sorting machine, is undemocratic to its core. Schools sort young children in two basic groups: a minority of “winners” who are placed on a track leading them to elite colleges, prominence, and financial success–and everyone else. While the majority aren’t labeled “losers” per se, they are largely left to struggle on their own. That experience leaves many angry, frustrated, and resentful, not to mention largely unprepared for life in a complex, rapidly changing society. Why would they become active participants in the political process, an effort that is almost always led by the now grown-up “winners” from their school days?

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

Ironically, A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity,” may have made matters worse. In response, America put its eggs in the basket of student achievement—as measured by student test scores. Believing we were raising academic standards by asking more of students, we were in fact narrowing our expectations. This practice went into high gear with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and continued throughout the Bush and Obama Administrations. What I call “regurgitation education” became the order of the day. This approach rewards parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education, and citizenship.

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

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

But the end result is millions of graduates who were rewarded with diplomas but have never participated in the give-and-take of ordinary citizenship—like voting.  During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump welcomed support from those he called “the poorly educated,” but that’s the incorrect term. These men and women are not “poorly educated,” “undereducated,” or “uneducated.” They have been miseducated, an important distinction. Schools have treated them as objects, as empty vessels to pour information into so facts and figures can be regurgitated back on tests.

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

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

While the country can survive four—perhaps eight—years of Donald Trump, our democracy must have schools that respect and nurture our children. If we don’t change our schools, we will elect a succession of Donald Trumps, and that will be the end of the American experiment.

(I expand upon these themes at greater length in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.)



John Merrow’s Idea to Rid Schools of Standardized Tests is Compelling and Saves Millions of Dollars!

Network Schools - Wayne Gersen

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday that was click-bait. It was titled “If you could could make one change…“, the titled derived from a question John Merrow asked some dinner guests, which was this:

If YOU had the power to make ONE major change in American public education immediately, what would you choose to do?”

In Mr. Merrow’s post that posed this question his dinner guest gave responses like doubling spending on public schools, making spending more equitable, expanding early childhood programs, and a commitment to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And what was Mr. Merrow’s response?

At that point everyone turned to me, and, even though I am much more comfortable asking questions than answering them, I plunged ahead. “I would eliminate standardized testing.”

Everyone seemed shocked.  Including me.  Never before had I expressed that thought. To the contrary, like most critics of testing…

View original post 289 more words


There are four identifiable groups in the sphere of public education: 1) The “Devosians,” 2) the ‘School Reformers,’ 3) those who aren’t involved at all, and 4) the progressives.

1) In power now are ‘The DeVosians,” supporters of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her campaign to redefine ‘public education’  to include every type of school known to man–plus home schooling.  Her unstated but obvious goal is to undercut the institution of public education and the 100,000 schools that educate over 90% of our children.  The Secretary is in favor of vouchers and ‘choice,’ but, even though she has all sorts of power, the data consistently undercut her belief system. Unfortunately, facts don’t matter to true believers like Secretary DeVos.

2) The ‘School Reform’ crowd ruled the roost during both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations, and their legacy is nothing to be proud of: declining test scores, widespread rigging of both achievement and graduation data, an exodus of teachers from the field, and a dramatic reduction among young people in interest in becoming teachers.  Despite all this, the School Reform crowd continues to offer itself as the best alternative to Betsy DeVos.  These are the folks who have reduced our children to data points.  Keep that in mind when they ask for another opportunity!

Careful readers of my 2017 book, ‘Addicted to Reform,’ may recall footnote 26, which reads in part, “…even when the reform crowd acknowledges past missteps, it asks for just one more chance to get it right. For example, the American Enterprise Institute talks the talk but then proceeds to put forth the same old stuff: more choice, less regulation and so on.”)

3)  Those who are not focused on these struggles are easily the largest group of all. At most, only 25% of households have school-age children, and most of the 75% pay little attention to education issues.  They are the key to real change, in my opinion.

4) And finally, the progressives, a group I belong to.  Like Betsy DeVos, we want real change. Unlike the Secretary, however, we believe in public schools.

How about you?  Deep down, are you a progressive?  Ask yourself these simple questions.

1) Do you want your child or grandchild to be in schools where the adults look at each kid and wonder “How Smart Is This Child?”—and then sort them accordingly?

2) Or would you choose a school where the adults ask a different question, “How Is This Child Smart?”

3) Do you want your children or grandchildren to repeat what they have been told, or would you like them to discover things on their own, guided by the teacher?

If you opted for discovery over sorting, then you are an education progressive.  Welcome!  Now let’s get to work on creating a genuine paradigm shift. For that to occur, at least three things have to happen.  One, we need to reject the language of ‘school reformers’ in favor of a more precise vocabulary.  Two, we need to change the conversation from hackneyed terms like “learning for all” to more dynamic language like “discovery” or “knowledge production.” And, three, we must get outside our own echo chamber and engage with the 75% of the population that does not have a direct stake in schooling.

Right now, the group I and others refer to as “School Reformers” are controlling the dialogue, with most of the education press following along.  When they talk about ‘Closing the Achievement Gap,’ the value of ‘standardized tests,’ and the importance of a ‘rigorous curriculum,’ the misleading and dangerous assumptions behind their assertions are rarely scrutinized.

Time for scrutiny:  Let’s start with ‘rigorous’ and ‘rigor,’ favorite words used by ‘reformers’ and their ilk.  Progressives must never use those two words.  And I mean never!  Here’s a quick word association test.  Please complete this phrase: ‘Rigor…..’   The word you came up with was ‘mortis,’ right?

Rigorous means strictseveresternstringenttoughharshrigidrelentlessunsparing, inflexibledraconianintransigentuncompromisingexacting, and stiff.   Why would anyone who cares about children want that for them?   Progressives want a curriculum that is challenging, not ‘rigorous.’  End of story.

Now consider standardized tests, which ‘reformers’ insist are essential.  That term is shorthand for machine-scored, multiple-choice tests, the ones whose results arrive at schools in the summer, many months after the kids have taken them and far too late for teachers to be able to use the results to help their students.

These tests are fundamentally useless!  We want children to develop skills and abilities like speaking persuasively and working with others, and these cannot be measured by a multiple-choice test.  In most schools today, students spend lots of time on test prep–time they could spend working together, debating issues, researching and rewriting papers, et cetera.

Most teachers know how destructive these tests and all that surrounds them can be. Teachers across New York state are cited at length in a new report, The Tyranny of Testing.  Here’s what one elementary grade teacher wrote: “After working for a month with the students to practice test-taking skills, they had to put into action everything they have learned. Well, it was a flop. The passages were very difficult and the questions were difficult for many to understand. I had to dry tears, and honestly lie to them that everything would be ok. It wasn’t ok. They all worked from 9 am until 2:15. Some were not even done then. Talk about making a struggling reader feel worthless. Students were upset and angry — angry to think that they might get in trouble for not doing well. Day two was much too long at each grade level. My third graders who struggle typing just quit working.”

Note that she had spent one month–about 15% of the school year–practicing ‘test-taking skills,’ no doubt mandated by her system.

By the way, these machine-scored, multiple choice tests are actually NOT standardized, a term which means that all students take them under the same (I.E., standardized) conditions.  Children with special needs get extra time, as they should, but so do many thousands of other children because their parents have used their influence and money to buy extra time for their children.   All they need is a doctor’s written recommendation and, presto, an extra hour or two.

I say that we should support standardized tests only when all children take them under these two standardized conditions: with a full stomach and in a comfortable, well-lighted room.

As for machine-scored, multiple-choice tests, let’s support only those whose results are available within a week or two!  That would eliminate most of these tests–and save school districts millions of dollars.

Next, the Achievement Gap.  Those who are obsessed with ‘school reform’ go on and on about the “achievement gap” and are ignoring (perhaps deliberately) the real truth: Most schools have four education gaps: opportunity, expectations, leadership, and outcomes.

  1. Ours is a land of unequal educational opportunity. The opportunity gap in education is a sad fact.
  2. Too many adults have low expectations for some students, particularly students of color or those from low-income families.
  3. We also have a leadership gap, born of trivial quarrels among leaders who should be encouraging public dialogue about the purposes of schooling: what we want our children to be able to do, how they can learn those skills, and how those skills can be measured fairly and accurately.
  4. The widely publicized outcomes gap—that is, the notorious achievement gap—is the inevitable consequence of the first three gaps in opportunity, expectations, and leadership. Focusing almost exclusively on outcomes is counterproductive and is largely responsible for the intimidating task now before us.

Suppose we discussed the achievement gap this way: “In math, Asian Americans outperform whites by more than 15 points. We have to something about that to close the Asian-white achievement gap. So let’s eliminate recess, physical education, art, and music for middle- and upper-middle-class white kids and substitute drilling and more drilling until they catch up.”

Just imagine the reaction in suburban white America! But replacing recess with drill, eliminating “frills” such as the arts, and turning kindergarten into teaching and testing time is what ‘school reformers’ have been and are doing to poor kids.

There’s also an “affection gap,” which you can read about in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education (The New Press, 2017.

Changing the language is the first step.  Next, we must adopt and project a dynamic vision of schooling.  The language of ‘school reform’ generally suggests that knowledge is poured into the heads of students by their teachers. That passive model simply does not describe the ways in which humans acquire knowledge.  Instead of talking about ‘a year of learning,’ let’s talk about “A Year of Producing Knowledge” or “A Year of Discovery.”  When the focus is on a child’s interests and abilities, the teacher is no longer the dispenser of knowledge and fount of wisdom but an enabler, a coach, and a guide.  Now the student becomes the worker, and the product is knowledge.  That overturns the current paradigm, in which teachers are the workers, and students their product.

And the all-important third step: 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. However, these villagers–people in households without a 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, progressives 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.

(I’ll wager many readers can remember when a firefighter came to class and talked about the job, or maybe it was a police officer. In younger grades, teachers often ask parents to come and talk about their jobs. That’s a common way of “connecting with the community,” in edu-speak. In many school districts, businesses are invited to “adopt” a school and donate stuff they don’t need. My children’s elementary school had lots of pretty useless crap lying around, the largess of some neighborhood businesses. Do those strategies work? In a word, no!

The outside world, meaning ordinary taxpayers and the business community, may have grown comfortable with being kept at arm’s length.  But that’s what has to change . . . and determined educators can do this by meeting the outsiders where they are.  Here are a few ways:

** Students can create a photo gallery of local residents and then post portraits on the Web for all to see and talk about.

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

**The school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers and then post the video on the Web.

**A video team can interview adults in senior citizen centers and workplaces, focusing on common themes: First movie they remember seeing, best job, favorite foods, most memorable trip, et cetera). These can be edited into short videos and posted on the web.  Just one criterion for interviews: the subjects must not be connected to schools.

Producing these works will teach students all sorts of valuable skills, including clear writing, teamwork, and meeting deadlines.   For students, school will be more valuable and interesting, and their enthusiasm will rub off and carry over into other aspects of their school experience. They will be become better and more discerning consumers of education precisely because they are now producers.

The fun—and the rewards—begin when these productions are posted on the school’s YouTube channel (and perhaps broadcast on local news). That’s when all of these adults—chosen because they do not have kids in school—start talking about the film, sharing the link, and pulling out their smartphones and showing it to friends and customers. They’ll be saying, “Did you know what they’re doing in school these days? Sure makes me wish I could go to school all over again.”

That’s how to turn outsiders into eager insiders.

It’s a safe bet that neither ‘The DeVosians’ nor the ‘School Reformers’ are going to embrace what I am suggesting, but progressives should.

How Strong Is Education Reporting?

I had the distinct honor and privilege of serving as a judge for the Education Writers Association’s annual reporting awards contest, and I want to tell you that I was blown away by the quality of the reporting.  The awards will be presented at EWA’s 71st annual National Conference in Los Angeles in a few days, but you can find the names of the finalists here.  Look at the list and pick a few at random to read, watch, or listen to. I predict you will be impressed.

Alexander Russo, who has established himself as a roving gadfly/critic/analyst of education reporting, has criticized the awards for pieces that are not found on the list, apparently because they were not entered in the first place.   While that approach may be of value, I think it’s far more important to consider the stories that, as far as I can tell, education reporters are not telling, chief among them being the faux retreat from ‘school reform’ by its staunch supporters.

Here’s the story that shouldn’t be ignored: The proponents of disastrous ‘school reform,’ which has given us 20+ years of ‘test and punish’ & such, are now positioning themselves as voices of common sense.  Exhibit A is this recent Washington Post column by two former Secretaries of Education, Arne Duncan and Margaret Spellings.  One guided the Department under George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” and other created the infamous “Race to the Top” program.

Their breath-taking chutzpah begins with the title of the piece: What ails education? ‘An absence of vision, a failure of will and politics.’   But their opening sentence actually tops it: “We have long benefited from a broad coalition that has advanced bold action to improve America’s education system.”

Just exactly who are the WE that have benefited from the ‘bold action’ that the Secretaries refer to?  It’s far easier to identify those who have NOT benefited from “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top.”  Let’s start with students, because their performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which everyone agrees is education’s ‘gold standard,’ has basically been flat for the 20+ years of Bush and Obama.  Next on the list are teachers, whose salaries and morale have declined over the years of increasing reliance on multiple-choice testing and ‘test-and-punish’ policies.  Collateral damage has been done to the occupation of teaching, which has lost prestige and now fails to attract enough candidates to fill our classrooms with qualified instructors.

So that’s–literally–millions of students and teachers who have NOT benefited from the ‘broad coalition’ that Duncan and Spellings are so proud of.

So let’s try to figure out who benefited. Here are five:  Testing companies (whose profits have climbed an estimated 5000%), those ideologues intent on fracturing public education to satisfy their political agenda, profiteers who are riding the charter school bandwagon (whether for-profit or not-for-profit, because that’s become a distinction without a difference), and–surprise–the two former United States Secretaries of Education. One now leads the University of North Carolina higher education system, and the other is one of three Managing Partners of The Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’ very wealthy and active education venture.

By the way, the financial costs of standardized testing are difficult to compute.  A 2012 study of 44 states came up with $1.7 billion, or about $65 per child, but that number leaves out teacher time devoted to test-prep and administration, as well as the money spent on processing, transfer, and reporting. What’s more, the study covered only grades 3-9, and high school students take lots of those tests.  We do know that testing companies’ profits have skyrocketed over the past several decades–during which time teacher salaries have declined, as noted above.

But it’s not just Duncan and Spellings who are intent on reinventing themselves. The 74, Campbell Brown’s faux-journalistic web-based enterprise, the ever-present Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (whose ‘reinvention’ I poked fun at recently), Tom Toch and his DC-based think tank (whose shoddy analysis of Washington DC schools I dissected not long ago) , and the right-leaning Fordham Foundation.

The latter has published a few articles about the failure of ‘school reform’–without taking any responsibility for its role in encouraging those disastrous policies over more than two decades.   Here’s an interesting bit from one of them, “Reformer, Heal Thyself,” by Max Eden: “Why is it that “accountability”-minded technocratic reforms can’t practice what they preach?  Perhaps it has something to do with the sociological structure of the reform movement, which is largely defined by a series of circular, self-congratulatory confabulations. Reformers create hero narratives and invest their own social capital and status in the status of their supposed heroes. A threat to the reputation of “transformational” leaders is a threat to the reputation of the entire movement. It’s far easier to look the other way and keep doing the same old thing.”

I write about the ‘reformers’ at some length in my new book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”  It will come as no surprise that Arne Duncan, Margaret Spellings, Rick Hess, Tom Toch, Campbell Brown, Checker Finn, Mike Petrilli, and others in the ‘school reform’ cabal are high on the list of people we need to be rescued from.

Using the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, as a bete noire, which is what Duncan and Spellings are doing, is a convenient cover for not taking responsibility for the damage done by the past 20+ years of ‘school reform.’  Their call for a new coalition–which they seem willing to lead–deserves analysis by thoughtful reporters.

And, to end where I began, we are blessed to have a ton of really good reporters out there today.  Congratulations to all those being honored by EWA.

Now, don’t stop.

If You Could Make ONE change….

“If YOU had the power to make ONE major change in American public education immediately, what would you choose to do?”

I posed the question to my dinner companions, three authors and one editor.  But before I tell you how they answered the question, please take a minute to decide what you would do.  (and I urge you to post your answer below.)

OK, time’s up.

Let me set the scene: five adults, three white men and two African-American women, all of us left-leaning. Four writers and one editor.  Late in the evening, after good food and several bottles of wine, I posed the question.

The man I would describe as the group’s traditional liberal was the first to respond: ‘I would double our spending on education.”  Pressed to explain, he pointed out that most states had either cut spending or had failed to bring it back to pre-‘Great Recession’ levels, which has led to huge class sizes and cuts in programs that used to be considered essential, such as art and music, as well as the elimination of field trips and other opportunities.

One of the women ran with that idea, saying that she would increase spending selectively to achieve equity. “Not equal spending,” she said, “but equitable spending, so that we spend what’s necessary for each child to have a fair chance at succeeding.”  (The public–and some reporters–often equate the two terms, equity and equality, but they mean very different things.  An equitable system levels the playing field, which by definition will require spending more on some children.

Here’s a quick explanation from the Education Trust: “Yes, making sure all students have equal access to resources is an important goal. All students should have the resources necessary for a high-quality education. But the truth remains that some students need more to get there.Here’s where equity comes in. The students who are furthest behind — most often low-income students and students of color — require more of those resources to catch up…”


With that explanation is this helpful graphic: three boys of differing heights are trying to peer over a fence that’s too tall for any of them to see over.  Treat them equally, and all get the same size box to stand on, even though that doesn’t guarantee that all three can see over the fence.  An equitable solution gives each kid whatever size box is necessary to allow him to see over the fence.  With equity, all kids  are standing on different size boxes but have the same view.

The other woman in the group then spoke up.  “High quality free universal pre-school for all three- and four-year-olds.  That’s what I would do if I had the power to make one change,” she said.  “Early education sets the stage,” she added, “but not lots of instruction, because that would kill it.”

The writer I would describe as the most radical in the group then chimed in.  “More money is a great idea, and so are equity and universal pre-school,” he said, “But I would want to do something that would make society commit to quality education.”  He paused. “If I had the power, I would require every state to pledge to support the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because it states that education is a fundamental human right.  That would move the needle.”

Later that evening I looked up the 1948 document, which has been translated into more than 500 languages.  Sure enough, Article 26 states:

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
At that point everyone turned to me, and, even though I am much more comfortable asking questions than answering them, I plunged ahead. “I would eliminate standardized testing.”

Everyone seemed shocked.  Including me.  Never before had I expressed that thought. To the contrary, like most critics of testing, I have always argued for ‘multiple measures’ that included–but minimized the importance of–standardized, machine-scored ‘bubble’ tests.

“Get rid of them completely,” one asked?  “Yes,” I said, “because about 75% of what they do is destructive: dumbing down the curriculum, making school a pressure-cooker, equating a person’s worth with his or her scores, falsely evaluating teacher quality based on a single number, and so on.”

I continued.  “Maybe about 25% of what they do is worth-while, but, if we got rid of them completely, we would be forced to develop alternative ways of assessing learning, and we could come up with approaches that weren’t inherently destructive.”

Some of you reading this are thinking that I am throwing the baby out with the bath water, as the cliché goes.  I disagree.  I am throwing out the dirty bath water and the bar of soap, and we can always buy some more soap to clean the baby with. I am actually saving the baby!!

For the rest of the evening we went back and forth. Yes, it was an exercise in fantasy, because none of our five proposals has a chance of being adopted tomorrow.

But at least two of these bold ideas–more money and ending standardized testing–are actually alive and well. Because of the ‘wildfire’ teacher walkouts in at least five states, public spending at the state level is increasing in Arizona, West Virginia, Colorado, and elsewhere.  And the push to limit standardized testing continues, as the continuing success of the Opt-Out movement testifies. Ironically, as I was writing this, Diane Ravitch’s wonderful blog came across my screen. In today’s edition she posts a powerful column by Chris Churchill of the Albany Times Union, in which he argues for eliminating standardized testing.  Here’s part of what he has to say:

As far as I can tell, the only beneficiaries are the big bureaucracies that want more control over classrooms and the big corporations that provide the tests.

The tests certainly haven’t benefited our kids, who, in many districts, are getting shorter recesses so teachers can spend more time in service to the looming tests. Or who, as many parents can attest, view testing days with anxiety and dread.

If the tests were just tests, they might be relatively harmless. But they epitomize something bigger: The madness that applies a production mentality to education. Everything can be neatly quantified, yes siree, not to mention automated, regulated and homogenized!

But children aren’t widgets and schools aren’t factories. You can’t measure the success of a classroom with data points. Standardized testing tells us nothing important about how children experience school.

You may read the rest of his piece here.

So, what is your dream?  If you were granted the power, what big change would you make?

“The air is humming, and something great is coming”

Walking home by myself a few nights ago, I felt like singing.  Because it was late and the sidewalks were deserted, I wasn’t risking embarrassment. So, what the heck, I broke into song.  The song pretty much chose me.

“Could be
Who knows
There’s something due any day
I will know right away, soon as it shows”

My exuberance was triggered by the eloquent high school students I had met at the 25th Anniversary celebration of EL Education, which you may know as Expeditionary Learning. More than 150 schools have embraced EL, and its open source curriculum is being used in thousands more schools. Detroit, arguably the nation’s worst school system, has just embraced EL, and that could be its first step upward.  But, for me, that evening was representative of something that is happening in schools and statehouses and public squares across America.

“Could it be? yes it could
something’ s coming, something good”

Something is definitely coming. It feels like a great awakening of what it means to be an American, the recognition of what it will take for our country to live up to its promises, and a surprising determination to take control, to act.  I believe this started with Black Lives Matter, and was followed by the Women’s March one day after the inauguration of Donald Trump. Then came #MeToo, followed by #Never Again, led by students from Parkland High School.  Recently, we have seen teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Minnesota, and elsewhere say, in effect, “No Mas!”  What all of these phenomena have in common is their insistence upon RESPECTAnd if these powerful movements join forces, they will become unstoppable…..and our country will be the better for it.

Let’s not forget the latest NAEP results, showing more flat-lining and a widening achievement gap. This news seems to be convincing a growing number of people that ‘test-and-punish’ was stupid and dangerous policy.

“I got a feeling there’s a miracle due, gonna come true coming to me”

I felt it when I visited several Urban Assembly High Schools.  This network of 21 schools in New York City (and now in LA) is another occasion for hope.

“There’s something due any day
I will know right away, soon as it shows”

Good things are happening in other places too, like Barnett Berry’s network of teacher-run schools, the Coalition for Community Schools (meeting in Baltimore in early May), and the important work being done by Ted Kolderie, Curtis Johnson, and Joe Graba and their Education/Evolving project.

“It may come cannonballing down from the sky, gleaming its eye bright as a rose
Who knows, it’s only just out of reach, down the block on a beach under a tree”

Of course there’s plenty of depressing stuff going in on public education: A US Secretary of Education who is hostile to public education, the proliferation of profiteers in the ‘Charter World’ and on-line education, the resegregation of public education, and the intentional underfunding of schools in dozens of states.  But if we continue to work together, those obstacles can be thrown aside.  

“The air is humming and something great is coming
Who knows
It’s only just out of reach, down the block on a beach, maybe tonight”

The song is, of course, Something’s Coming, from West Side Story.  You can listen to it here. 

That’s really all I have to say.  Whether you agree or disagree, please post your thoughts below.

And if you would like to know more about EL Education and Urban Assemblies, please keep reading:

This passage about EL Education is taken from my new book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education:

Paul Tough, the author of How Children Succeed, is a fan of Expeditionary Learning.  “The central premise of EL Schools is that character is built not through lectures or direct instruction from teachers but through the experience of persevering as students confront challenging academic work.”  In his article in The Atlantic, he described the inner workings:

Classrooms at EL schools are by design much more engaging and interactive than classrooms in most other American public schools. They are full of student discussions and group activities large and small; teachers guide the conversation, but they spend considerably less time lecturing than most other public-school teachers do.

EL students complete a lot of rigorous and demanding long-term projects, often going through extensive and repeated revisions based on critiques from teachers and peers. They frequently work on these projects in collaborative groups, and many projects conclude with students giving a presentation in front of the class, the school, or even a community group. In addition, students are responsible, whenever possible, for assessing themselves; two or three times a year, at report-card time, parents or other family members come to the school for meetings known as student-led conferences, in which students as young as 5 narrate for their parents and teachers their achievements and struggles over the past semester.

However, the best way to fully grasp what Expeditionary Learning entails is to go on an expedition, which is what my former colleague at the PBS NewsHour, John Tulenko, did. John followed a group of 8th graders in Portland, Maine, over four months as they worked to invent a labor-saving device for the home. It remains one of my favorite NewsHour pieces, and I urge you to click and watch. It may be the best 8 minutes and 51 seconds you’ll ever spend.

Now, about my second reason for singing:  Richard Kahan, the founder of Urban Assemblies, spent 35 years in public service and private real estate; then in 1990 he decided that he hadn’t made enough of a difference, and so he turned to education.  Most people who take this road do what is logical and easy: they start with kindergarten and first grade!  Not Richard! He started HIGH SCHOOLS, meaning that he would be working with kids who had already experienced 8-10 years of traditional public schools.  

Urban Assembly High Schools focus on professions, are open enrollment with no admissions criteria, are traditional public schools (not charter schools), and embrace Social and Emotional Learning.  A few examples: The School for Law, Government, and Justice, The Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, The Bronx Academy of Letters, the Gateway School for Technology, The Maker Academy, the Media High School, and the Harbor School.  I have recently visited three of them and have been impressed by the students and the teachers.  


“Could it be? yes it could
something’ s coming something good
if I can wait
Something’s coming I don’t know what it is but it is gonna be great”