What the Dickens is going on?

From one perspective, these are the worst of times for American public education.  In his inaugural address, President Trump told the nation that we have an “education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” His proposed budget acts on his words, cutting federal education dollars by 13.55, or nearly $9 billion.  His Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has called public education a disgrace and a disaster. Openly hostile to traditional public schools (which serve 90% of children) she plans to use the levers of power available to her to support vouchers, home schooling, on-line for-profit charter schools, and other alternatives.

Basically, it’s open warfare against public education in Washington.

However, it’s also chaotic, because Trump’s White House does not trust any of the Cabinet departments and has installed ‘spies’ in all of them, including Education.  These Trump loyalists, often called ‘Special Assistants to the Secretary,’ report to the White House, not to the Secretary of the department they’re assigned to.  So, things have to be beyond weird at 400 Maryland Avenue SW, the home of the Department of Education.  One can imagine these ‘Special Assistants’ going from office to office, looking over shoulders and grilling confused bureaucrats.  “What do you do?” Why does what you do matter?”  And so on…  I hear that morale is plummeting at the Department.

I just came from Washington, where  some Republicans and Democrats told me that “Lamar Alexander is really in charge.”  Mr. Alexander is the Republican Senator from Tennessee and a former Secretary of Education who, as Chair of the Committee that approved DeVos, pushed through her nomination even though her statements revealed her lack of qualifications and understanding.   They seemed to be expressing the hope that Senator Alexander could and would rein in DeVos if she really got crazy.

So, it’s bad, but it would be worse if Trump’s anti-public school people had their act together, which they do not.

And there’s a brighter side to all this. Congress, which finally got out from under the widely-discredited No Child Left Behind Act when it passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, has now revoked regulations issued in the dying days of the Obama Administration. That gives even more power back to states and districts, who must still file their ESSA accountability plans with the Department….even though it’s not clear that anyone at the Department will read them, let alone approve them.

Trump’s budget cuts federal dollars that have been supporting State Departments of Education, so it’s reasonable to infer that State officials are spending lots of time and energy trying to restore those budget cuts.  That means they don’t have time to manage, let alone micro-manage, what’s going on in school districts.

So, with Washington engaged in in-fighting, and State Departments fighting to keep their feet firmly in the federal trough, who’s paying attention to local school districts?  Could this be a real opportunity for genuine local control?

Something is already happening out there. A few small districts have decided to devote one day a week to project-based learning, a small but significant step.  Other districts are considering cutting back on testing.  Maybe they’re doing it to save money, but so what: they’re doing it.

And speaking of local control, millions of students and parents are considering opting-out of some of the standardized tests that are approaching. When that happens again–for the third consecutive year–more of the rickety structure of federal and state control will topple, and the myth that Washington and State Departments of Education are in control will be exposed as false.

It’s time for progressives to speak up and take action.  Reach out to the 75% of households that do not have school-age children and begin a dialogue about the goals of schooling. Do not hunker down to protect the status quo but talk about what’s possible.  Can we build schools that look at each child and ask ‘How is she intelligent?’  Can we use technology to create learning opportunities for children that build on their strengths and interests?  Can we “Measure What Matters” instead of docilely accepting the standardized tests mandated by the powers-that-be?

Yes, we can.

Here’s another way to look at things. If Hillary Clinton had won the Electoral College, we’d be rehashing the tired old debate between the dominant quasi-Republican ‘reform’ that has been in the saddle for the past 16 years, and the weaker but persistent progressive wing of the Democratic party.  Little in Clinton’s past suggests that she would have turned away from the ‘test and punish’ approach favored by Democrats for Education Reform, Teach for America, much of the charter world, and many politicians.

Had Clinton won, it would be ‘deja vu all over again,’ not a happy thought.

Yes, these are tough times for public education and its supporters, but this genuine crisis is also an opportunity.  If you hear it knocking, answer the call.

Should Progressives Help Secretary DeVos?

These are difficult times for fence-sitters and for those who take a stand.  For example, the leaders of IBM and Tesla are taking a lot of flak because they continue to serve on President Trump’s Economic Advisory Council.  Why serve?  Because, as one said, it’s better to be on the inside where he might be able to be a voice of moderation.  And poor Uber: its founder didn’t resign quickly enough for some former Uber fans, who are now using Lyft or Juno instead, while others Uber users are boycotting precisely because he did jump ship.

Anheuser-Busch is being both praised and pilloried for a  Super Bowl commercial that celebrated the immigration stories of its two founders. It’s widely reported that many businesses have set up ‘war rooms’ to work out how to deal with an unpredictable President.

What about education, where the controversial Betsy DeVos is now serving as Secretary after a grueling confirmation process that required a tie-breaking vote by the Vice President, a first in our nation’s history?  Even with questioning severely limited by Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R, TE), the hearing revealed how little she understands public education, while her own track record in Michigan demonstrates her commitment to vouchers, for-profit and virtual charter schools, and minimal accountability.

However, she is our Secretary of Education. As such, should progressives offer to work for her and with her, to help her understand the historic purposes and accomplishments of public schools?  She’s a smart woman, and perhaps she’d appreciate assistance from people whose sense of history and familiarity with Washington could help improve all public education.

Last week a college friend (with whom I have never discussed politics) wrote and urged me to offer my services to Secretary DeVos.  He had read my recent blog, the one in which I said that she was ‘stunningly unqualified’ to serve, and he used that as his jumping off point.

Here’s part of what he wrote:   I have been thinking that you might be one of those best positioned to help her. We all (including Mrs. DeVos) are aware of the criticisms that have been leveled against her about lacking experience in public education. There’s little to debate here; facts are facts. However, I don’t recall even her harshest critics accusing her of being dumb or not wanting to do the best job possible as secretary of education.

What do you bring to the table that she could benefit from? The knowledge you have gained from approximately 50 years of experience – everything from teaching in a public school classroom to interviewing top educators and teachers’ union leaders to analyzing the positives and negatives in U.S. education and commenting on your conclusions. You (and knowledgeable people like you who can be both critical and fair) are exactly who Mrs. DeVos needs to help her do her job.

When I responded skeptically, he wrote back, saying in part:   Abraham Lincoln, arguably our nation’s greatest president, purposely sought advice from those who had previously  vehemently disagreed with him.(Don’t get me wrong; I’m not equating Betsy DeVos to Abraham Lincoln. My point is that former adversaries can provide valuable advice and guidance.) I don’t buy that, by working with DeVos to improve the quality of education in our country so that more students are better prepared to handle their futures, you would become a hypocrite, become a sellout, or “lose credibility.” Far from it, you would gain credibility by turning criticism into positive action.

My friend’s argument, at base, is that Betsy DeVos is America’s Secretary of Education, and that, as Americans, we ought to be working in whatever ways we can to improve public education.  If Secretary DeVos hears only from privatizers, what chance does progressive education have?  I and others like me might be able to get a seat at the table, where we could argue for fewer tests, more social and emotional learning, more project-based learning, and so on.

So here’s the question: Am I selling my friend short by dismissing the notion of volunteering to be of whatever assistance I could?  Should we be making calls, sending resumés, offering our services, and knocking on doors in Washington in order to get close to Secretary DeVos?

Just by chance, I had lunch recently with a veteran Democrat, someone who’d been high up in Secretary Riley’s Education Department during the eight years of the Clinton Administration and who had been an off-and-0n, informal advisor to Secretary Arne Duncan during the Obama Administration.  I asked about serving in the Trump Administration, working for Betsy DeVos.  The response was immediate…and surprising.

“I’d do it,” my friend said, “But only if the position was important enough to guarantee having the Secretary’s attention, and only if it paid well. Position and power are what matter.”

What about volunteering, which is what my college friend had urged me to do?

“Not on your life!”  My friend went on: Volunteers are usually window-dressing. No power and influence, and their names are likely to be used to justify, or to create the appearance of support for, policies that progressives might find anathema.  There’s no upside to volunteering to help an Administration whose ideas are fundamentally opposed to yours, my friend said.

So I am not offering my services to Secretary DeVos, and I don’t think any progressives should.  If she asks for your help, think long and hard before agreeing.

But then, what is the best way for us to improve public education, if it’s not by advising the Secretary?   I think the role of educational progressives is to watch carefully and to speak up loud and clear when (if) the Secretary proposes actions that go against basic principles.

It’s also the duty of progressives to be for certain principles and policies: financial transparency in all dealings, especially charter schools; accountability for all schools (which Ms DeVos declined to support in response to Senator Murphy’s (D, CT) questioning; civil rights protections, and enforcement of IDEA, Title IX and other federal laws.

My own commitment is two-fold: to educational opportunities for all our children, and to public education as the essential glue of our democracy.

Your thoughts?

Is Teaching a Team Sport?

The bitter and contentious debate over Betsy DeVos means she is taking office as Secretary of Education with severely diminished influence. So, what might lie ahead?  Surely there will be charter school wars, because the movement is badly split between supporters of wide-open chartering and those who favor restrictions on for-profit  and virtual charter schools.  I will explore that in a subsequent post.  Today, because the world of teaching seems unified in its opposition to the new Secretary and because I believe that real change will only come from the bottom up, I want to explore what teachers might be FOR, going forward. Thus, I am reprinting “Is Teaching a Team Sport?” (originally posted November 2011).

I had an interesting conversation with Barnett Berry, the lead author of Teaching 2030, earlier this week. We covered the waterfront: how teaching has changed and is changing, whether schools of education were up the the challenges facing them, why so many teachers leave, and so on. You will have to wait for our PBS NewsHour piece — it’s in a quiz format, by the way — and the accompanying podcast to find out what the brilliant Mr. Berry believes, because right now I want to explore his final comment, over coffee after the cameras had been turned off.

“Teaching is a team sport,” he opined before rushing off to a meeting, leaving me wondering.

Is it? Who says so? And if it is, why are so many politicians and state governments rushing to support ways of measuring individual teachers?

And what’s a ‘team sport’ anyway?

Well, baseball is a team sport. We watched the Cardinals perform the near-impossible, and we saw that nearly everyone in a Cardinal uniform contributed to the team’s climb from 10.5 games out in late August to win the wild card spot on the last day of the season, upset two heavily favored teams to win the National League pennant and then overcome impossible odds to win the World Series. No one who saw it will forget Game Six, when the Cards were twice within one strike of losing it all to the Texas Rangers. Twice they rallied to tie, later winning on David Freese’s 11th inning walk-off home run. Freese won the series MVP award, but his teammates put him in the position to succeed.

Case closed: Baseball is a team sport, but with individual statistics and individual honors.

Now, what about teaching? That’s a tougher argument for at least six reasons.

World Series

  1. The “egg crate” architecture of most schools does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport: Individual classrooms resemble cartons, isolated from each other.

2) The typical school schedule does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport. Most American public school teachers spent almost all of their school time in their classrooms, which means they have very little time to work as a team.

3) The language of education does not support the notion. Occasionally a couple of teachers will ‘team teach,’ which implies that the rest of the staff is not team-teaching! That is, you are only on a team when you are actually working in the same classroom with another teacher.

4) Nor does the evaluation of teachers support the notion that teaching is a team sport. It’s all done on an individual basis, with the possible exception of few rating points being given for ‘contribution to the school environment’ or something like that. In my experience, when an administrator praises a teacher for being ‘a team player,’ he means that the teacher doesn’t make waves.

5) The governance of most schools contradicts the notion that teaching is a team sport. Often it’s ‘labor versus management,’ with teachers punching a time clock twice a day. That’s a far cry from the St. Louis Cardinals, where manager Tony LaRussa had such trust in Albert Pujols that he let him call a hit-and-run play on his own. LaRussa was in charge, but he occasionally deferred to his coaches and his players. He left a pitcher in the game, for instance, after consulting with the catcher, who told him the pitcher had another inning in him (turned out to be wrong, but that’s not the point).

6) Finally, the emerging pay structure for teachers flies in the face of the idea that teaching is a team sport. The hot issue is some form of ‘merit pay’ based on the academic performance of the individual teacher, whether it’s ‘value-added’ test scores or good old standardized test scores. The policy makers who are supporting these schemes are paying scant attention to the implications (test all students in all subjects!); the fact that with high student turnover, a kid might have three different teachers in one year; or to the evidence indicating that merit pay doesn’t work.

In some places, if teachers are on a team, it’s probably their local union team, but not the PS 112 team or the Mather Middle School team.

I’m afraid my friend Barnett is letting the wish be the father of the thought. He wants teaching to be widely recognized as a team sport, which it is in the best schools. In those schools, teachers have time to meet and discuss individual students, to plan curriculum, to develop both short- and long-term goals. They have time to breathe. They work as a team and hold each other accountable. Yes, each school has the equivalent of Tony LaRussa, the manager, but he or she is not ‘management’ and the teachers ‘labor.’ They all have their eyes on the prize.

I believe that most teachers want to play a team sport. They prefer to work together and to have big hopes, dreams and goals for their school and all its students. One of my strong memories from my own high school teaching in the late 1960s was the joy of working with other English teachers, even to the point of swapping classes for a few weeks so each of us could teach a play or a poet we felt particularly well-qualified to teach.

So here’s my pitch: Teaching should be recognized as a team sport, and education as a team activity. The ‘team’ is the school, and everyone in the school is on the team, including secretarial staff and custodians. Education’s ‘won-loss’ record is more complicated than baseball’s and should include academic measures, teacher and student attendance, teacher and student turnover, community involvement, and more. (I wrote about this recently in ‘Trust but Verify’ and invite you to revisit that blog post).

And just as the Cardinal team divided the World Series loot into individual shares, so too could merit pay be divvied up when the team achieves its agreed-upon goals. Cardinal players, coaches, equipment managers et cetera shared the rewards. In this system, teachers, administrators, counselors, secretaries and custodians would all share the rewards.

But, going back to the St. Louis Cardinals, here’s the critical point: Notice that in writing about them, I described what the team did over a two-month period, not on one day or in one hour. I showed you the movie, not a snapshot.

Snapshots don’t help much in baseball or in education. In Game 3, Albert Pujols hit three home runs, had five hits for 14 total base and drove in five runs. A great snapshot that is actually very misleading, because he had a disappointing World Series overall.

Pujols also made a key fielding misplay in the series; suppose instead the snapshot had been taken in that game? It would have been just as misleading, but the movie reveals just how valuable he was to the Cardinals.

Because education now relies on snapshots — one score on one test on that one big day — and because so much of schooling tilts against the team sport concept, we have miles to go before anyone can confidently assert that teaching is a team sport.

I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

Don’t Confirm Betsy DeVos

This is the letter I have sent to about 40 United States Senators, including Senator Deb Fischer, the Nebraska Republican.  If you agree, please communicate with your Senators and with Senator Fischer, whose vote may well determine the immediate future of public education.

“Dear Senator Fischer,

In the 41 years I spent covering education for PBS and NPR, I never encountered anyone less qualified for leadership than Betsy DeVos, the Administration’s nominee for United States Secretary of Education.

I reported for the PBS NewsHour and National Public Radio from early 1974 to late 2015. In fact, I cut my reporter’s teeth on IDEA, the 1975 federal law originally known as The Education of All Handicapped Children Act and followed that story with great interest throughout my career.

The Charter School movement was born in 1988, when many of education’s original thinkers met at the headwaters of the Mississippi River to develop the notion. I moderated that historic 3-day meeting, which led to the first state charter legislation (Minnesota, 1991) and the first charter school in Saint Paul in 1992.  From that day forward I reported on charter schools, covering post-Katrina schooling in New Orleans for six years (12 reports for the NewsHour and a 1-hour film for Netflix, “Rebirth: New Orleans”), as well as reports about charter schools in Los Angeles, Arizona, Texas, Washington, DC and elsewhere.

In 1989 I was invited to interview for the position of Education Advisor on George H. W. Bush’s Domestic Policy Council.  Although I was told the job was mine for the asking, I chose to remain a reporter.

During my career I covered progressive ‘open classrooms’ and back to basics “No Excuses” elementary schools where children marched silently to their classes.  I spent time with education’s radicals like John Holt and Jonathan Kozol and ideologues like Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC.  

I covered the seminal 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” Secretary Ted Bell’s “Wall Charts, and the rise and fall of No Child Left Behind, the law that set off our current obsession with standardized testing.

While the federal government’s track record in public education is mixed, the past 16 years have demonstrated quite clearly that a micro-managing Washington, no matter the political party, cannot run public education.  Perhaps it’s time to return to basics. In education that would mean the collection and dissemination of information and renewed support for two classes of children: those with special needs and those who are economically disadvantaged.  

During my 41 years as a reporter, I interviewed every sitting U.S. Secretary of Education, from Shirley Hufstedler to Arne Duncan.  Although now retired, I watched with keen interest the testimony of the current nominee, Betsy DeVos, before the Senate’s HELP Committee and have read much of the reporting about her involvement in education in Michigan and elsewhere. (Not incidentally, discussions of the nation’s least effective and most corruption-prone charter schools seem to begin with Michigan, where for-profit charter school operators have been making out like bandits, and where all charter schools are subject to minimal scrutiny.)

I have concluded that Ms. DeVos is stunningly unqualified to serve as United States Secretary of Education.  In her testimony and her subsequent letter, she demonstrated her unfamiliarity with IDEA and the federal commitment to special needs children.  Moreover, both her testimony and her track record demonstrate an ideologue’s zeal for a single-minded approach to education. Neither her words nor her deeds show a commitment to the concept of public education for all children or any understanding of the importance of well-educated citizenry to our economic security and our democratic society.

I strongly urge you to vote against her confirmation on the floor of the U.S. Senate.


John Merrow

former Education Correspondent,

PBS NewsHour, and founding  President,

Learning Matters, Inc.”

What’s Happened to American Journalism?

I got out just in time!  I retired from journalism in the fall of 2015 when the profession was doing well.  But I have learned from our new President that American journalists are a sleazy, low-class mob, or, in his exact words, “the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”

How did this happen? How did so many good people turn corrupt, almost overnight? Honestly, I am baffled, because when I retired the field was chock full of outstanding reporters.  Here are just a few whose work comes to mind:

1) Alissa Rubin of the New York Times, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the plight of Afghan women;

2) the Associated Press team of Robin McDowell, Margie Mason, Esther Htusan and Martha Mendoza, which reported on widespread slavery at sea, making us aware that the fish we eat may well have been caught and processed by men held in virtual slavery on fishing boats. That work also was rewarded with a Pulitzer.

3) Nearly 30 reporters worked together to cover the tragic mass killing in San Bernadino, for which they also received the Pulitzer Prize.

When I retired, Heather Vogell was doing outstanding work for Pro Publica, Jack Gillum was lighting it up for the Associated Press, Steven ErlangerSarah Maslin Nir and Michael Winerip were producing distinguished work for the New York Times, and Paul Solman was telling great stories for my alma mater, the PBS NewsHour.  On the air, Chuck Todd at NBC and Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour were conducting probing interviews that produced valuable insights.

In education, the field I covered for 41 years, the team of Michael LaForgia, Cara Fitzpatrick, and Lisa Gartner of the Tampa Bay Times uncovered the role public officials played in turning local high schools in ‘failure factories.’  For their exposé, they received a Pulitzer Prize.

Oh, and David A Farenthold of the Washington Post was doing extensive reporting on candidate Donald J. Trump’s murky financial dealing, his foundation’s self-dealing, and Mr. Trump’s own checkered sexual past.

I can only come up with two possible explanations for my profession’s fall from grace.

1) It’s possible that all of these reporters have entered into covert alliances with a foreign power, perhaps Russia. Are they really patriotic Americans, or do they have divided loyalties? That needs to be investigated.

2) Another frightening possibility: Journalists may have massive conflicts of interest that is skewing their reporting. Perhaps they have been taking the big bucks they’re making as reporters and secretly investing the money, then doing slanted reporting that benefits them financially.

The only way to find out about possible conflicts of interest is for the American public to see their tax returns. It’s unconscionable for people in positions of public trust, which reporters certainly are, not to release their tax returns.

If you agree, let’s start a petition, calling on all practicing journalists to immediately release their tax returns, so we can find out why our President has informed us about journalism’s corrupt condition.

While I am certainly happy that I am not one of “the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” I want to do my part to help our new President get to the bottom of this, and perhaps help my profession regain its stature.  So, come clean, journalists. Show us  your tax returns now!

A Poem for the Inauguration

Stopping by Washington on a Snowy Evening


Whose swamp this is, I think I know:

Hails from Kenya, name starts with ‘O.’

He’s been dumped. I’m President Trump

It’s time for that loser to go.


He came to Washington talking about ‘hope.’

Nobel Prize or not, that makes him a dope.

To that mope, I say ‘nope.’

Let’s go find us some chicks to grope.


That house he lives in, historic and old

Not my style. I like bold

And I like huge, and (trust me) I’m huge.

I’ll fill it with women, cover it in gold.


‘Cause this swamp’s mine, it’s for sale.

This is my moment. No way I’ll fail.

Billionaires welcome, no Mexicans please.

Just say ‘Heil Donald’ (but pronounce it ‘hail’).


I’ll fill this swamp, call it ‘Trump Lake.’

Say I’m doing it for America’s sake.

Let’s move. I have promises to break…

And lots and lots of money to make.

(Lots and lots of money to make!)


(Who wrote this poem, you think you know:

Old man with glasses, hair like snow.

You’re thinking Frost, but you are lost.

Author’s a guy with weak sense of humor, poor rhyming skills and absolutely no sense of meter)

The Anti-Trump

Billionaire Charles Feeney has finally completed what he set out to do: He has given away his fortune.  In all, he’s donated $8 billion, keeping only about $2 million for himself and his wife, Helga, who now live in San Francisco.  Jim Dwyer of the New York Times wrote a glorious profile of Mr. Feeney early this month, and I urge everyone to read it.  You will discover how he made his money and why he decided to give it away.  Unlike Donald Trump, he did not insist upon having his name on buildings (and his money has helped build more than 1,000 of them!).  He hasn’t wanted his name in lights, unlike a certain New Yorker.  Moreover, Mr. Feeney gave away money that he himself had earned, in sharp contrast to Mr. Trump, who solicited donations from others and then donated the money in his own name.

Most of Mr. Feeney’s gifts have gone to to higher education (especially Cornell, his alma mater), public health, human rights, and scientific research).

For most of his time as a philanthropist, Mr. Feeney insisted on anonymity (unlike another New Yorker we know). Recipients either did not know where the money was coming from, or, if they did, they were sworn to secrecy.

I’m one of the beneficiaries. His gift saved my career.

It was 1994, and I was basically broke, with two films nearing completion but no money to finish them.  I was employed by a small non-profit in South Carolina but working in New York City. That organization managed our grants, took care of payroll for the three of us, and filed final reports to foundations (although I wrote them).  For these small tasks, the organization took 20% of every grant, off the top.  I thought that was way too much, and I was able to persuade one foundation to write a 15% cap into its grant.  I used that as leverage to get the rate down for other grants, but only after a protracted and nasty battle.

Winning that battle was a mistake, because I soon lost the war, one that I hadn’t even known he had declared.  Early in 1994 the boss called me to announce (with glee) that he was shutting down my operation in New York City because we were out of money.  I explained that I had two sizable grants in the pipeline and that all we needed was an advance to cover a few months.  Sorry, he said, no advances.

I was panicked.  I lay awake most nights, in a cold sweat. We had spent three years filming in a Cincinnatti high school, watching a small band of reformers put Ted Sizer’s “Less is More” Essential Schools philosophy into operation. We had wonderful characters and a great story of the resistance to change from within a school. But we didn’t have the dollars necessary to finish editing, mixing, color-correcting, et cetera.   And we were well into filming another story.

In all, I calculated that we needed about $90,000 to finish both films and deliver them to PBS.  That number didn’t include salaries, which all three of us had decided to forgo just to get the work done.

I spent days on the phone, calling in whatever chits I imagined I might have.  Not many, as it turned out, but I did get promises of $10,000 from one foundation, $5,000 from another, and (perhaps) $7,500 from a third.  Then I called Sophie Sa of the Panasonic Foundation. She said her foundation couldn’t make grants, unfortunately. I was crestfallen and was about to sign off when she said, “Do you know about the anonymous foundation?”

No, I said, tell me.

“I can’t. It’s a secret.  No publicity.”

Gee thanks, I thought to myself.

“But if you will send me a letter explaining what you’re looking for, I will see they get it.”

The fax went out within the hour, and the next morning my phone rang.

“John, this is Angela. I work for an anonymous donor, and we’d like to meet with you.  Can you come by this afternoon?”

When I got there, I discovered that Angela’s last name was Covert, perfect for a top-secret organization. She and her colleague, Joel Fleishmann, spoke highly of our work and said they’d like to help, under the condition of absolute secrecy.  After I agreed, they asked me how much I needed.

I think we can finish both films for about $75,000, I said, hoping that I wasn’t aiming too high.  “That’s a ridiculous amount,” Joel said, and I’m sure my face fell.  Then he added, “You will need at least twice that amount.”

He went on to talk about unexpected expenses, our salaries, some money for publicity, and a financial cushion to give me time to raise more money to keep the organization afloat.

And then one of them added, “And you ought to think about setting up your own non-profit so you don’t find yourself in this situation again. That means hiring a lawyer, which means more money.”

In the end, the anonymous foundation wrote a check for $200,000 or maybe $225,000, to be paid to a new non-profit organization.  That’s how Learning Matters came into being.

We finished the film, which earned high praise.  Judy Woodruff, then at CNN, called it “Riveting reporting….that powerfully demonstrates at once how hard reform will be and how absolutely necessary it is, if we are to save this and future generations of American youngsters.”

When the cover of anonymity was stripped away some years later, we learned that man who saved us from going broke was Charles Feeney, a public-spirited New Jersey native who served as a radio operator in the Air Force, attended Cornell on the GI Bill, and in 1960 co-founded Duty Free, the shops that cater to international air travelers.

Thanks to Charles Feeney’s generosity and the hands-on work of Angela Covert and Joel Fleishmann, Learning Matters had a good run of 20 years. We earned two Peabody Awards, produced hundreds of reports for the PBS NewsHour and three programs for Frontline, and served as a training ground for dozens of skilled producers who continue to focus on education and children’s issues.

(We did one other thing when Mr. Feeney went public: From that point on as far as we were concerned, Angela Covert was now Angela Overt!)

May Charles Feeney, now 85, and his wife enjoy many years of health and joy.  What a marvelous role model he has been, and is.

Thank you, sir….

Educators Have to Step Up

As schools reopen in the New Year and Donald Trump’s inauguration draws near, the reality of dramatic increases in hate speech and hate behavior cannot be ignored. Educators need to know that merely reacting to offenses will not be adequate. The adults in charge need to step up and be proactive. They must draw some very clear lines about what behavior will not be tolerated.  It’s not enough to offer counseling and sympathetic hugs after the fact!

Why? Not just for the right reason–to support vulnerable students–but also to cover their own butts, because ‘after the fact’ actions, no matter how warm and supportive, are insufficient, inappropriate and almost certainly illegal.

The law is very much on the side of the victims, and school authorities ought to know that they are obligated under federal law to protect young people. I am not referring to anti-bullying legislation, which differs to state to state, but to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, sometimes known as ‘That damned sports law.’  Title IX clearly prohibits sexual harassment, and, even when bullying is ostensibly directed against an individual’s race, ethnicity or religion, it almost invariably includes sexual references.  Girls are called “sluts” and “hos,” boys are called “fags’ and other names.  Sexual rumors and comments are frequent.  And the above behavior violates the granddaddy of all laws in this area, Title IX.

Title IX also prohibits these behaviors outside the school, such as when personal computers are used, when the behavior is disruptive to learning or affects a student’s ability to partake of the opportunities for learning and in other opportunities provided by the school.  In short, schools and school administrator, under Title IX, are obligated to stop sexual cyber-bullying. Moreover, they stand to lose federal funding if they do not.  Some school districts have paid 6-figure settlements for their demonstrated failure to protect students from harassment and cyber-bullying.

Money talks. Understanding the legal and financial ramifications of all forms of bullying is one of the best incentives to get schools involved in developing specific programs for students, families, administrators, teachers, staff, including the janitors. Self-interest is a powerful incentive, as are the threats of federal involvement and individual lawsuits. Together, these should motivate schools to proactively develop strong prevention programs—to let everyone know, “We don’t tolerate bullying here, because we’re better than that.”

But defensive behavior is not sufficient. Schools today must provide opportunities for all young people, haters included, to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7. You and I were sent to schools because that’s where the knowledge was stored–but that was yesterday. Today’s young people need guidance in learning how to sift through the flood of information (much of it ‘fake news’) and turn it into knowledge. Because websites have what purport to be the answers, students need to be able to formulate good questions that will enable them to discern the difference between wheat and chaff. And don’t forget that good questions, projects, and team-activities will keep young people involved;  they’ll be too busy to spend their time hating.





Thoughtful Gifts


At year’s end many of us make gifts to worthy organizations. It helps them and also gives us a tax deduction or two.  Below are seven organizations that I hope you will consider supporting, non-profit organizations that I have come to admire during my career:

*** FAIRTEST:  The ongoing “Opt Out” movement was one of the most remarkable developments I observed during my 41-year reporting career. Suddenly—and without support of any established organizations, including teacher unions—true grassroots opposition emerged when students, parents and some teachers said “No Mas!” to high stakes testing.  Only one organization tracked the spread of this movement, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, widely known as FAIRTEST.  For decades FAIRTEST has been a reliable and honorable advocate in the battle to get beyond the ’test and punish’ mentality that dominates schools today.  FAIRTEST works with activists across the nation, testifies to legislatures, and advises colleges considering test-optional admissions. http://www.fairtest.org/

*** MARA-A-PULA is widely considered to be one of the top independent schools in Africa, and the best in Botswana. Its mission is to prepare leaders who will serve their communities. Nearly two-thirds of Maru-a-Pula’s 765 students are citizens of Botswana. Maru-a-Pula students have gone on to attend schools like Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, MIT, Williams, the London School of Economics, and Oxford, where two former students were Rhodes Scholars. Because of the AIDS pandemic, many are orphans attending on full scholarship, and that’s where your gift can help. http://www.afmap.org

*** URBAN ASSEMBLY:  The easy way to improve educational opportunities is to start in kindergarten and add a grade every year. Want tough? Then start high schools with kids who’ve already spent 8 years in traditional schools.  Because Richard Kahan likes a challenge, he decided to tackle high schools when he transitioned from a successful career in real estate and urban planning. Today Urban Assembly includes 21 high performing, themed public schools in New York City, including seven Career & Technical Education (CTE) schools and three all-girls schools, serving over 9,000 students from low-income neighborhoods.  The themed schools like the Academy for Government and Law and the Gateway School for Technology are open to all students. https://urbanassembly.org/

*** NETWORK FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION: Only a few years old, NPE already has more than 100,000 individual members as well as dozens of grassroots local groups. Started by veteran teacher Anthony Cody and historian Diane Ravitch, NPE opposes high-stakes testing; privatization of public education; mass school closures to save money or to facilitate privatization; demonization of teachers; lowering of standards for the education profession; and for-profit management of schools. While that’s a mouthful, the list of what NPE supports is much, much longer, including schools that offer a full and rich curriculum for all children, including the arts, physical education, history, civics, foreign languages, literature, mathematics, and the sciences; early childhood education; high standards of professionalism; and assessments that are used to support children and teachers, not to punish or stigmatize them or to hand out monetary rewards. http://networkforpubliceducation.org/

***NEW VISIONS FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS has been providing vital support to NYC schools for 26 years.  Today it’s working with 50,000 students in 70 traditional public schools and 7 charter high schools. Students in NEW VISIONS schools are more likely to attend school regularly (92%), earn academic credits and Regents diplomas, and be ready for college than their peers in regular high schools. http://www.newvisions.org/

*** WHAT KIDS CAN DO was years ahead of its time when, 20 years ago, it began celebrating young people’s accomplishments. You may already know WKCD from “Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students,” but WKCD now uses digital, print, and broadcast media to demonstrate what kids can accomplish when given the opportunities and supports they need. WKCD helps thousands of marginalized kids discover the best in themselves. http://whatkidscando.org/index8.html

*** YOUTHBUILD, which I reported on in the late 1980’s, is dedicated to giving marginalized youth 2nd, 3rd and perhaps 4th chances. Today it’s stronger than ever, and its dynamic founder, Dorothy Stoneman, remains one of my heroes.  Once just Boston-based, YouthBuild now reaches many corners of the globe. Clearly there’s a need: 2.3 million low-income US 16-24 year-olds are not in education, employment, or training. Globally, over 200 million youth need education, jobs, entrepreneurship, and other opportunities. YouthBuild provides pathways. https://www.youthbuild.org/

Oh, and don’t forget your local NPR and PBS stations!

Thank you, and Happy New Year….


A Dark Day

(It seems appropriate to mark the longest night of the year and a dark time in our political  history by reprinting this tongue-in-cheek paean to greed.  Hundreds of readers took me seriously the first time around, nearly four years ago. I guess I should have published it on April 1.)

After 37 years with NPR and PBS, I’ve finally come to my senses. I have had it with the non-profit world. It’s my turn to make the big bucks.

Because education is what I know, that’s where I intend to set up shop. I am going into the business of remedial education, and I know it’s going to be a gold mine. All I need are failing kids, and I don’t see any signs that the supply is drying up.

What has prompted this 180-degree turn? This sudden change of heart?

It was a recent news report, the key paragraph quoted below:

Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest operator of for-profit prisons, has sent letters recently to 48 states offering to buy up their prisons as a remedy for ‘challenging corrections budgets.’ In exchange, the company is asking for a 20-year management contract, plus an assurance that the prison would remain at least 90 percent full.

(The emphasis was added.)

You may be wondering what a report on prisons has to do with education, but this is deja vu all over again, in Yogi’s memorable phrase, because back in 1982 I spent six months in juvenile institutions in several states, including Minnesota, South Carolina and Texas, for an NPR documentary “Juvenile Justice, Juvenile Crime” (which won the George Polk Award that year).

Here’s what I learned: Juvenile institutions remained at-capacity or near-capacity no matter what the juvenile crime rate happened to be. For example, when juvenile offenses declined precipitously in Minnesota, the authorities simply changed the rules about what got you locked up. They criminalized behavior that previously led to a slap on the wrist. One particular example sticks in my mind: Until the crime rate went down, girls who ran away from home had been classified as PINS, persons in need of supervision, which requires no jail time. Then, rather than have the juvenile facilities empty, running away became an offense that warranted incarceration.


What a revelation: the needs of the institution — for bodies to watch over — took precedence over the needs of youth. ‘We’ve got the facility, the guards, the payroll; we need youthful offenders,’ the logic went. Because the dominant value system favored adults and jobs over kids, they didn’t even need a guarantee.

So you can see the brilliance of Corrections Corporation of America, asking for an iron-clad guarantee from the 48 states that they will keep the prisons 90 percent full! Who cares what the crime rate is. Just keep the convicts coming.

Now, let’s talk about my business plan.

What I am going to offer states and school districts is this: I will take over their remedial education in return for their guarantee that they will keep giving high school diplomas to students who aren’t ready to function.

Come to think of it, I may not need a written guarantee. Just look at the track record of school reform since in began in earnest with the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983, and since that time governments and foundations have spent billions of dollars. The dropout rate hasn’t changed much, and the number of graduates needing remedial work when they go to college has climbed dramatically.

Who have been the primary beneficiaries of ‘school reform,’ I ask you?

Duh, the for-profit companies! While consultants and think tanks have done OK, and reporters have been kept busy, the real money has been in testing and textbooks and technology and construction.

Frankly, ‘school reform’ is too expensive for states to continue with, especially since it hasn’t worked. They can cut back on reform, sign with me, and save a bundle.

I have some definite advantages over schools: (1) the technology to diagnose deficiencies and create specific programs that address those shortcomings and measure accomplishment; (2) a population of (finally) motivated young people who realize they need certain skills if they want to find decent jobs; and (3) powerful financial incentives that encourage me to teach them quickly.

Regarding No. 1: schools have semesters, but I will have self-paced modules. Learn it, prove you’ve learned it, and you’re done.

No. 2: While schools have lots of students who are bored and fed up with being treated like numbers, my clients — those former students — will be eager to learn and get on with their lives.

No. 3 is the key. Unlike today’s educators, I will get paid only when the students succeed. Should I fail, I get hurt where it matters: in the pocketbook. In most education systems, failure is blamed on the students. And then their failure is usually ‘punished’ by promotion to the next grade.

So my approach is revolutionary.

Is there competition? I am not the least bit worried about the Departments of Remediation that some colleges have created, because they function exactly like those juvenile institutions back in the 1980s — they need remedial students to stay open. So if they are successful in helping some kids, they will inevitably lower the bar for ‘remediation,’ in order to keep the warm bodies coming. Their financial incentives are screwed up.

Mind, you, I am smarter than that. I will not be calling what I do ‘remediation’ or anything that sounds remotely like failure. What I am going to offer to do is ‘certify’ the skill levels of high school graduates; it’s the same way that the mechanic ‘certifies’ your wreck of a car by banging out all the dents, changing the oil, points and plugs and installing new shock absorbers so it is ready for the road!

The only possible threat to my business would be an education system that focused on the needs of individual children; a system that taught and encouraged thinking instead of teaching (and testing) things. In that approach, time would be the variable, performance the constant. Students would be empowered to dig deeply into issues and…. (Why bother going on about this — it’s not going to happen!)

I’m looking for investors. Act now, to get in early.

(if you’re interested in the comments from 2012: http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/?p=5587)