The Birthday Bike Ride Challenge

What follows is a diversion from the political madness and (perhaps) an opportunity for you to donate to a favorite cause.   In just a few days I will turn 78, and on or around my birthday I will once again attempt to bike my age.  This will be my 9th consecutive attempt, and, while I was successful the first eight times, as a stock prospectus is required to state, “Past performance is not indicative of future results.”

The ride doesn’t get any easier for two obvious reasons:  Every year the distance increases, and every year I am a year older.  An athletic nephew has suggested that it might be time to consider switching to kilometers; to be honest, there are mornings when yards would be a challenge!

However, last year I managed 83 miles, which I guess means I have 6 miles in the bank, plus 2 miles stored up from the year I was supposed to bike 73 and went 75.

 

 

 

Last year I challenged readers to donate $77 to their preferred cause if I made it, and many of you accepted the challenge.  You reported donating $90,000, an astounding sum!  However, my friend and noted author Jim Loewen (“Lies My Teacher Taught Me,” “Sundown Towns”) generously earmarked $77,000 of his annual donation to Tougaloo College, the HBCU in Mississippi, in my name and said I could count it toward the total, which I did.

Still, $13,000 is a pretty cool number.

Last year I suggested Planned Parenthood as a recipient, and that’s an even better idea this time around.

The Network for Public Education does important work on behalf of teachers and strong public schools (and also for “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”).

I’m impressed by the fledgling Coalition of Independent Public Charter Schools, a group that is trying to get charter schools to behave honorably (which, unfortunately, many do not do.)

As a former education reporter, I’d be happy if you chose to donate to the Education Writers Association,  The Hechinger Report, or Chalkbeat, three organizations that improve the quality of education reporting and contribute mightily to the public’s understanding of the enterprise.

Finally, if you want to give me a birthday present, please send a copy of my book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” to friends of yours who still believe in the faux ‘Education Reforms’ of George W. Bush (“No Child Left Behind”) and Barack Obama (“Race to the Top”).   While it is obvious that the Trump Administration is hostile to public education, his predecessors did incalculable damage with their embrace of ‘test and punish’ accountability and largely unaccountable charter schools.  As I argue in the book, schools have to stop asking, “How Smart Is This Child?” and ask instead, “How Is This Child Smart?”

If you think you might want to ride with me (and one of my daughters, bless her), send me an email at john.merrow@gmail.com.

I will let you know the outcome, one way or another.  If you will tell me about your donation(s), I will keep a running tab….

And thanks for reading this far. Now I have to go stuff myself with pasta!!

“Restaurant” & “Charter School” Are Vague Descriptors

“Charter School” is a vague descriptive term, akin to “Restaurant,”  in that neither term tells you very much. One of them, however, is dangerously vague.

“Restaurant” is vague but not dangerous.  The word tells you only that the establishment serves food of some kind, but nothing else. It might offer great cuisine–or greasy slop.  It might be a fast-food joint or a 3-Star Michelin legend with a 6-month waiting list for a reservation.   And, if you do go there for a meal, that’s the extent of your obligation.  If it’s bad, you can get up from the table and leave….

So, now imagine you are standing outside a building sporting a sign reading “Charter School.”   All you can discern from the term is that it’s one of about 7,000 publicly funded but privately managed charter schools.   And the possibilities of what that charter school might be are dizzying.  Here are just some of them:

  1. It might be part of a national chain of schools or a stand-alone “Mom and Pop” school;
  2. It might have been authorized locally or set up by a distant authority (which may not be keeping its eye on things);
  3. It might have a Board of Directors made up of local parents and other residents, or it could be controlled from afar by a Board with no local representation whatsoever;
  4. It might have an admissions test, even though it is supposedly a public school, or it might be open to all comers;
  5. It might be financially transparent, or it could refuse to reveal how it’s spending the public money that it receives–which means its leader could be making more than $500,000 a year, even if his or her school has only a few hundred students;
  6. It might have a Draconian–and unpublished–discipline code that, unbeknownst to the public, systematically excludes students with special needs and/or children of color, or its code could be published for all to see; and
  7. It could be what’s called a ‘conversion charter,’ a school that is closely connected to its home school district, or it could be fighting its own district for resources.
  8. You won’t see a sign for a ‘Virtual Charter School,’ where education is conducted on line.  According to Education Week,  a study of 163 “virtual” high schools revealed that many fail to graduate even 50% of their students.  From the article: “Online charter schools, which are run mostly by for-profit companies, have long struggled with poor academic outcomes—from test scores, to academic growth, to graduation rates, to attendance rates. The most high-profile study, done by economists at Stanford University in 2015, found that students attending an online charter school made so little progress in math over the course of a year that it was as if they hadn’t attended school at all.”   In 2016 Education Week published “Rewarding Failure,” an exhaustive study of the ‘Cyber Charter School industry, and its findings remain shocking.

Now let’s follow the money, because our hypothetical “charter school” might have been established as a not-for-profit school or set up to make money.  As it happens, that supposed distinction is now one without a difference, because an awful lot of so-called non-profit charter schools are systematically looting their state treasuries in ways that are perfectly legal, thanks to state laws that were deliberately written to allow the ripoffs.   In “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” I focused on North Carolina.   But here’s information about Arizona.  PennsylvaniaFloridaMichigan. California.  California againTennesseeNew Mexico.  (I could go on and on, but you get the point: the Charter School Industry is rife with scandal.)

If you are on Twitter, just follow #anotherdayanothercharterscandal, for a drumbeat of verified bad news.   Here’s one from earlier today.  And another.

The Network for Public Education, which is vigorously and vigilantly anti-charter, recently summarized the situation in a report entitled “Asleep at the Wheel.”

The most prominent pro-charter school organization, The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, generally ignores any and all bad news, preferring instead to serve as a cheerleader.  It has its own “Hall of Fame” and “Champions for Charters,” for example, and it offers a template for local charter schools so they can fill in the blanks to boast about themselves.  These smart marketing techniques are, I suppose, designed to keep the public from knowing the truth about the chaos that is Charter World.

Could our hypothetical “charter school” be doing great work?  Well, sure, but the evidence suggests that most charter schools do not outperform their traditional counterparts. 

Many of the Democratic hopefuls are weighing in on education generally and charter schools specifically.  Peter Greene, a keen observer, has created a clever way to evaluate what they are saying.  Echoing a standardized test scoring system, the candidates can be deemed to be ‘below basic,’ ‘basic,’ ‘proficient,’ or ‘advanced.’ Here’s part of what it takes to receive an ‘advanced‘ score: The candidate recognizes that “The modern charter school movement is understood as part of a larger wave of privatization that threatens to replace government by the people with ownership by the rich and powerful. Advanced candidates recognize that the teaching profession is suffering not just from low pay, but from shrinking autonomy and a lack of support for public institutions. They recognize that high stakes standardized testing is driving schools in unproductive and toxic directions.”  

I began by saying that ‘Charter School’ is a dangerously vague term.  Unlike restaurants you can walk away from, many parents make extraordinary sacrifices to enroll their children in charter schools–without knowing enough about the school they are committing to.  It’s not so easy to walk away, but that charter school might be one of the awful ones described above.

If you’ve read this far, you know that I am concerned about charter schools, an effort that began with the best of intentions more than 30 years ago.  I served as moderator of the seminal meeting near the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota, back in 1988.  From that meeting came the draft legislation that Minnesota passed in 1990 and the first charter school in Saint Paul in 1992.  The visionaries hoped that all school districts would establish charter schools as learning laboratories, but that has just not happened.

Is there hope?  There might be, because some of the independent public charter schools are banding together in a new organization, The Coalition of Community Charter Schools, which is designed to give a voice to the 3,000-plus independent (‘Mom and Pop) charter schools.  This organization seeks to return to the original vision of charter schools. To that end, it has created a comprehensive Statement of Principles that it expects all members to adopt and adhere to.  The Principles, the equivalent of the old Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, include financial transparency, no admissions test, local control, multiple measures of accomplishment, collaboration, a commitment to diversity, and respect for teachers.

How many independent charter schools will be willing to commit to these principles is an open question.  I’m hoping that at least half will join.   If very few are willing to be open, then the charter movement is in deeper trouble than I feared

Frankly, I think this is the last best hope for charter schools, but I am not neutral on this.  I helped a little bit with the planning for the new organization and have moderated two of their early gatherings.

To sum up, the term “Charter School” tells us almost nothing, which is why I suggest that no one even consider enrolling a child in a charter school unless they have access to its disciplinary code; its graduation, promotion, and retention rate; the diversity of its students and teaching staff; the measures of accomplishment it uses; and the salaries of its leadership.  All that information is the equivalent of a restaurant menu, and just as you read a menu before ordering, so too should you learn this information before entrusting your child to that supposedly wonderful “Charter School.”

Your comments welcome at themerrowreport.com, and thanks….

Let’s Hear it FOR Betsy DeVos!

Full disclosure: Although I have never met or interviewed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, I am a huge fan.  In fact, the closest I have been to her was at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference in Baltimore recently.  Sitting maybe 75 feet from her, I was dazzled as I watched her hold off some tough questions from education reporters, a notoriously aggressive bunch. That stellar performance gave the lie to those who mock her intelligence.

In Baltimore she proved that she is smart.   Sure, she made a lot of gaffes early in her tenure, but now–after just 27 or 28 months on the job–she doesn’t get flustered.  She has learned to avoid  answering direct questions; instead, she ignores whatever she is asked and pivots back to her talking point: “Students and parents need ‘freedom’ to choose.”  Ask her anything, and she will–with a smile–talk about ‘freedom.’   She couldn’t do that if she weren’t a smart cookie.

Moreover, Secretary DeVos is a gutsy defender of minority positions.  Here’s an example: A less courageous person would fold under pressure and take the popular position that public schools are vital to our future because they enroll about 90% of students.  But, showing a backbone of steel, DeVos swims against the tide.  She is not afraid to criticize public education.  And she hasn’t just shown courage once or twice; no, she’s out there regularly–every day–taking on public education, essentially saying “Damn the consequences!”

I also admire her because she is a great friend of the American teacher, something her critics never acknowledge. In Baltimore, for example, she came out strongly in favor of paying teachers about $250,000 a year!  She cleverly suggested pegging teachers salaries to the salary of the President of the American Federation of Teachers.  Since the average teacher salary today is under $60,000 and the AFT President makes nearly $500,000, the Secretary is proposing a salary INCREASE of about $190,000 for the average teacher.   So, the next time someone says DeVos doesn’t like public school teachers, wave that in their face and tell them to zip it!

Sadly, not a single education reporter led with that news in their stories about DeVos at the EWA annual meeting.  I was embarrassed for my profession, frankly.  Quadrupling teacher salaries, for crying out loud!  Why wasn’t that their lead story?

I also admire the Secretary’s neutrality on the question of pedagogy.  Although she is the nation’s leading educator, she refuses to get drawn into arguments about which approaches to teaching and learning are most effective.  Phonics and phonemic awareness versus whole language?  No comment!  Project-based learning versus rote memorization?  No comment!  Social and emotional learning versus a strong focus on academics?  No comment!   So neutral is she that I don’t believe DeVos has ever said anything about teaching and learning, focusing instead on ‘freedom.’  When it comes to the central issues of teaching and learning, she is religiously opinion-free.

And finally, DeVos has shown that she’s in it for the long haul. She doesn’t get thrown off course by an occasional stumble or a temporary setback but hunkers down and works harder toward the goals she has set.  Let me give you an example, more evidence for you to use should you hear anyone criticizing our Secretary of Education.  DeVos is from Michigan, where she and her billionaire husband have strongly supported school choice, virtual charter schools and for-profit charter schools.  On her watch, 80% of Michigan’s charter schools began as or became for-profit schools, and the overall education system has declined in what some have called ‘A Race to the Bottom.’   Even when evidence emerged that for-profit charter schools generally have disappointing academic results, low graduation rates, and frequent financial scandals, DeVos has not wavered in her support.

Now that she is our nation’s top educator, she is promoting what she supported in Michigan, arguing that these approaches, when free from picky regulations and serious oversight, will give students the ‘freedom’ that is a vital part of the American dream.

Some other leaders might have looked at the evidence and wavered in their commitment, but Secretary DeVos has the courage of her convictions.  She’s in it for the long haul.

Call me a fanboy, but, as I see it, Education Secretary Betsy Devos has it all: brains, the courage to defend minorities,  pedagogical neutrality, a deep commitment to higher salaries for America’s teachers, and the strength to stay the course despite the evidence.

Convinced?

 

Want to ‘Fix’ Public Education? Then Fix the Economy!

I was raised to believe in public schools.  My parents taught me that good public schools both improve and unite their communities.**  Moreover, they said, great teachers transform children’s lives by unlocking their potential, which allows them to cast off whatever shackles they had been born into and rise into the middle class and beyond.  Education was liberation, they said, and I embraced the view that schools did not simply ratify the social status a child was born into.

Now, however, I realize that our economic system is so sharply tilted in favor of the privileged that even the best efforts of teachers are not enough to open the doors of opportunity to significant numbers of poor and underprivileged students.

What’s to be done?   Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, politicians in Florida and elsewhere, many Republicans, and ‘Corporate Democrats’ like Cory Booker want to change the way we go to school–by providing vouchers or opening more charter schools.  This approach, which they call ‘choice,’ will not even begin to touch the inequity that pervades education. In fact, I believe these changes would weaken an already endangered system.

It may be helpful to look back to how things were just over a half century ago. As it happens, things have not always been so unfair.

After finishing college in 1964, I taught for two years in a public high school just outside New York City.  I came to admire the energy and commitment of many of my colleagues,  women and men who were in the business of transforming lives and unlocking potential.

After more teaching and two graduate degrees, I began covering education for NPR in 1974, the start of a 41-year career, most of it spent in public school classrooms.  I met countless women and men who dedicated their lives to helping kids grow and move up. I told as many of their stories as I could, in order to make the point that race, class, economic status, parental education, and neighborhood were not destiny.  Public education at its best was a liberating force.

But gradually it dawned on me that my stories were all too exceptional, and that the real story was that far too many hard working young people were not catching a break, not being rewarded for their effort and their accomplishments. For them, The American Dream that they believed in was a hoax.

Make no mistake about it. These are special kids, high-achieving students from the bottom economic quartile who have triumphed against great odds. Just consider the money that is spent on the schools they attended for 12 years.  Sometimes the dollar gap is racial:  School districts where the majority of students enrolled are students of color receive $23 billion less in education funding than predominantly white school districts, despite serving the same number of students – a dramatic discrepancy that underscores the depth of K-12 funding inequities in the U.S.” 

But education’s dollar divide cuts across racial lines.  Basically, the poorest districts–Latino, White, and Black–also have the least-experienced teachers, the worst facilities, the highest rates of teacher turnover and teacher shortages, the most time given over to drill and practice, the fewest Advanced Placement opportunities, and on and on.

Despite this, these students–no doubt inspired and pushed to succeed by their teachers–achieved enough to warrant acceptance into highly selective colleges…..IF those highly desirable colleges were willing to open their doors to students in need of financial aid.

Whoops, that’s a BIG ‘if,’ because most are not.  While more than one-third of all college students qualify for Pell Grants (a reliable proxy for family income), only about 10-15% of the students at our most selective colleges are receiving Pell Grants.  Pell recipients are likely to attend colleges that accept most applicants.  For example, at Cal State University at Merced, about 61% of students are on Pell Grants, and it’s 58% at the University of New Mexico and 44% at Montclair (NJ) State University.   But Pell Grant recipients make up only 15% of the students at Yale, 13% at Duke, and 11% at the University of Chicago.

Poor kids, no matter how qualified, just are not likely to show up in The Ivy League.  Here are some harsh facts from the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce.

“Today’s higher education system is divided into two unequal tracks stratified by race and funding. White students are overrepresented at selective public colleges that are well-funded with high graduation rates, while Blacks and Latinos are funneled into overcrowded and underfunded open-access public colleges with low graduation rates. The gap in funding for instructional and academic support between selective and open-access public colleges has also been growing, which makes the system even more separate and unequal.”

AND:  “Students at selective colleges have an 85 percent chance of graduating, while students at open-access colleges have only a 51 percent chance of graduating.”

AND:  “Selective public colleges spend, on average, almost three times as much per full-time equivalent student on instructional and academic support as open-access public colleges.”

AND: “The combination of racial segregation and widening disparities in spending between public selective and public open-access colleges has exacerbated race-based gaps in educational and economic outcomes. Not all students can access the best public colleges and the benefits they confer. The result is that the public higher education system is another factor that is disproportionately keeping Blacks and Latinos from fulfilling their potential, entering the middle class, and living fully in their time—the basic commitments of a democratic capitalist society.” (emphasis added)

Those who do persist are almost guaranteed to graduate deeply in debt, a circumstance that shapes their life choices.   It’s not just the Pell Grant recipients who are in debt.  Collectively, 44 million men and women–not all of them graduates–owe more than $1.5 trillion, which works out to about $35,000 per debtor.   But chances are that it’s those who started out disadvantaged are still in the same boat, deeper in debt than their privileged counterparts.

However, even if we managed to equalize education spending in public schools and even if all colleges agreed to have a minimum of 20% of their student body be Pell Grant recipients, that would not begin to touch what has gone wrong with our basic economic structure.

Some history: “Up until the early 1980s, an annual minimum-wage income—after adjusting for inflation—was enough to keep a family of two above the poverty line. At its high point in 1968, the minimum wage was high enough for a family of three to be above the poverty line with the earnings of a full-time minimum-wage worker, although it still fell short for a family of four. The falling minimum wage has led to poverty and inequality. Today, at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, working 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year yields an annual income of only $15,080.”

Is that clear?  Back then, One worker earned enough to support a family, meaning that the other adult could choose to be at home with the children.   Today, a worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and putting in a 40-hour week earns $15,000 a year…..and 21 states still use the federal wage as their guide.

I have a friend about my age whose first job–in New York City!–paid enough so he could afford his own apartment in Manhattan.  Contrast that with today’s young graduates, often sharing space with two, three, or four others.

Today the working poor bear the brunt of our unequal system.  “The promise of work is part of the American Dream. Most Americans believe that people who work, especially those working full-time year round, should be earning enough to provide for their families….And the experience of working poverty for most racial/ethnic groups in the U.S., including Whites, has increased since 2000, signifying a disturbing trend in the labor force and a need for policy that ensures all work pays a fair wage.”

While a higher minimum wage would help, the real issue is income/wealth inequality and not education spending, how schools are structured, or the minimum wage.  Since 1969 the number of people in poverty hasn’t changed much, but the share of wealth going to the top one percent has doubled.  And the super-rich, the nation’s highest 0.01 percent and 0.1 percent of income-earners have seen their incomes rise much faster than the rest of the top 1 percent in recent decades.  Right now the richest 0.1% take in 188 times as much as the bottom 90%, a situation that the Trump tax cut only exacerbated.

“In the 1950s, a typical CEO made 20 times the salary of his or her average worker. Last year, CEO pay at an S&P 500 Index firm soared to an average of 361 times more than the average rank-and-file worker, or pay of $13,940,000 a year,” according to recent reports.

Happily, I’m not the only slow learner now catching on.  According to a new Washington Post/NBC poll,  60% of registered voters say the economic system benefits those in power, not all people.  They’re understanding that today’s young generation is all but guaranteed to be the first in our history to earn less than their parents, unless we make some drastic changes.

Of course schools need to change.  Right now, schools are asking the wrong question–“How Smart Are You?”–and then using test scores to provide most of the answer.  And so, despite legions of talented and dedicated teachers, our education system ends up ratifying the social and economic status  that their students entered with.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

We need to allow teachers to ask the more important question about every child–“How Is He or She Smart?”  Asking that question changes the game….as I write about in “Addicted to Reform.”

We do NOT need vouchers, private school choice, or for-profit charter schools.  These are schemes to draw attention away from efforts to defund public education.  That ‘noise’ keeps us from looking at the big picture, the fundamental unfairness of our economy.

But make no mistake about it: We cannot solve public education’s problems without attending to the fundamental unfairness of the American economy.

I say forget “Make America Great Again” (or any other slogan that involves ‘Again.’)  Why not “Make America Play Fair” or “Make America PAY Fair” instead?

Your comments are welcome at themerrowreport.com

 

** Full disclosure: My parents’ belief in public education did not prevent them from sending me off to boarding school in 9th grade.  In their defense, that’s what their parents had done with them; they had six children living in a 3 1/2 bedroom home; and I was a genuine pain-in-the-neck.

 

“Fake News” and Fascism

Those who shout about “Fake News” and assert that journalists are “The Enemy of the People” are either demagogues and wanna-be dictators, crooks who are trying to cover up their crimes, or people who have been duped.  While the demagogues and crooks are probably beyond redemption, many of those who have been fooled might be open to evidence.  So in that spirit, let’s show them what good journalism looks like; let’s show them how strong independent journalism makes our society function more honestly and more effectively.

With that in mind, I want to ask you to dig into at least some of the following  examples of remarkable reporting in the education space, finalists in the 2018 Education Writers Association annual journalism contest.  I had the distinct privilege of being one of the judges.  Below are examples of the very opposite of “Fake News.”  Real news that matters….

1) First, here are three pieces from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, whose coverage area includes Parkland and Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School.  The first provides a time line that reveals how many adults failed to do their jobs, which meant that more kids died.

http://projects.sun-sentinel.com/2018/sfl-parkland-school-shooting-critical-moments

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/parkland/florida-school-shooting/fl-florida-school-shooting-discipline-20180510-story.html

https://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/parkland/florida-school-shooting/fl-ne-florida-school-crime-reporting-20181127-story.html

2) I have no doubt that you have heard of MS-13, the notorious gang known for its brutality. President Trump has spoken about it many times.  What you may not know is how some schools have responded to the threat.  Pro Publica, working with The New York Times and New York Magazine, did some digging and produced these two chilling stories that you will not quickly forget.

https://features.propublica.org/ms-13/a-betrayal-ms13-gang-police-fbi-ice-deportation/

https://features.propublica.org/ms-13-immigrant-students/huntington-school-deportations-ice-honduras/

3) Journalists perform a public service whenever they dig deeply into an issue that most of us wonder or worry about.  Here’s an example: reading problems.  No doubt you have children, grandchildren (or friends and neighbors with either) who struggle with reading.  Want to know why?  So did Emily Hanford, with this remarkable result: https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read   Prepare to be shocked when you learn that most teachers are not taught how to teach reading.  There is established science, but it turns out that a lot of education professors either ignore it or are unaware of it.

4) Great education journalism makes our children and our schools safer and better.  That’s a huge generalization, but I stand by it.  Here’s a wonderful example, this 4-part series from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Part 1: Learn at your own risk
http://www.philly.com/philly/news/lead-paint-poison-children-asbestos-mold-schools-philadelphia-toxic-city.html

Part 2: Hidden peril
http://www.philly.com/philly/news/asbestos-testing-mesothelioma-cancer-philadelphia-schools-toxic-city.html

Part 3: Botched jobs
http://www.philly.com/philly/news/lead-carbon-monoxide-silica-poisoning-construction-students-teachers-philadelphia-schools-toxic-city.html

Part 4 is an invaluable “School Checkup tool” that allows parents and others to see what’s going on in their school.
http://data.philly.com/toxic-city/lead-poisoning-paint-asbestos-mold-asthma-philadelphia-schools-map-search-tool.html#/

By the way, interactive features like Part 4 of the Inquirer’s series are becoming standard operating procedure in journalism today.  Here’s a wonderful one about lead in the water in public schools in California, created by Ed Source.  https://edsource.org/2018/interactive-map-lead-levels-found-in-california-schools-drinking-water/602769  I urge you to share it with all your California friends and family members.

And here’s another, created by Alvin Chang for Vox, that reveals how school districts can deliberately segregate schools: https://www.vox.com/2018/1/8/16822374/school-segregation-gerrymander-map

(To see all the 2018 finalists, go to the home page of the Education Writers Association: https://www.ewa.org/awards/2018-finalists-reporting-awards)

Clearly, great journalism isn’t just about writing but about telling stories that matter.  So here’s one final example that should put the “Fake News” screed to rest, the faces and voices of people affected by the Parkland murders.  http://interactive.sun-sentinel.com/voices-of-change/  It was also produced by reporters at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a newspaper that I have just subscribed to.

One request: Share These Stories…

Just as important, please support your local journalism.  This endangered profession will not survive unless we act.  Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Thank you…..

No Glove Left Behind: A Cure for Retirement Blues

(I originally titled this piece “Retirement Sucks,’ but a careful reader, the education wonk Joe Williams, sent a note using the phrase “No Glove Left Behind,’ and I have shamelessly stolen it from him….because it’s far more clever than my effort.)

To be completely honest, I’ve been at loose ends ever since retiring from the PBS NewsHour a few years ago.  Reporting about public education gave me a sense of purpose, and suddenly that was gone.  I tried my hand at business, hoping to finally make some decent money, but, sadly, my college admissions consulting business went belly-up, I was no longer serving on the Board of Directors of Pearson, whose board I had joined in hopes of reforming that controversial organization from within, and I couldn’t interest a publisher in the book I wanted to write, “101 Reasons Manhattan’s Upper East Side is NYC’s Most Exciting Place to Live.” 

Basically, I had nothing but time…and nothing to do.  So I spent hours every day on long meandering walks, trying to come up with an activity that would give my live a real sense of purpose.   One day in early December, it clicked.  Everywhere I looked, or so it seemed, I saw a lost glove or a misplaced mitten. It happened so often that I finally decided to do something about it. 

 

 

IMG_20190119_161422.jpg (2434×2287)I began picking them up, taking them home, cleaning them, and putting them in a pile in our second bedroom.  Because I got so focused on searching for strays, I walked into lampposts and more than a few pedestrians.  But the thrill of the hunt was worth a few bumps.

I enlisted my wife and a few friends and neighbors, and before long we had more than 100 mismatched gloves and mittens, the stash pretty much taking over our second bedroom.

IMG_20190214_152744.jpg (2234×1935)

 

You might think that collecting lost gloves is a fool’s errand.  I disagree.  The needy receive coats and hats from Operation Warm and One Warm CoatSolefulCaring and Shoes for the Homeless provide winter boots for the needy, but no one has been paying attention to their hands.  We could fill that niche and meet that need!

IMG_20190209_111101.jpg (2430×2433)I suggested calling our effort “gLOVEs” or maybe “Mitten Smitten,” but those names didn’t fly with my family.  Then a grandchild who’s been helping out composed this haiku:

          Lost gloves, lone mittens

          searching for a mate. Please help

          warm shivering hands.  

And her last line struck a chord, and that’s how our organization to collect, clean, match, and donate gloves and mittens got its name, WARM HANDS.

 

My son, a computer whiz, is building a data base and an app that will allow us to make easy matches. 

 

 

Matching gloves turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined.  The two (one left, one right) have to be the same color, type, and size.  And in pretty much the same condition.

IMG_20190315_173655.jpg (2448×1981)Gloves and mittens are actually pretty interesting.  Turns out that until fairly recently most of those sold here in the United States were made in China or somewhere else in Asia, but there’s been a resurgence, and most gloves sold here in America are also made in America.  That was a pleasant surprise.  Glove factories can be found on Native American reservations, in Orthodox and Amish communities, and in several state prisons.  Not sure where this fancy suede driving glove was made, but it’s a beauty.

purple

Much of what I learned about gloves and mittens came from the glovemakers trade association, Making American Gloves Again.  I have a connection to the organization and am hoping that it will endorse WARM HANDS.  While I don’t know its President, a Mr. José Loff, personally, my sister-in-law has a second cousin who lives just four or five blocks from Mr. Loff and has seen him walking his dog.  I hope that connection will be enough to get an endorsement from Mr. Loff’s organization, MAGA.

 

 

By the way, that fancy suede driving glove turned out to be our first matched pair.  I found the first one near our apartment, and three or four days later my wife came across its mate not far from where I found the first.  We’re surmising that the owner either dropped both the same day or perhaps came back to search for #1, failed to find it, and threw away #2. 

pair It’s now April, and I am pleased to report that we have donated three dozen pairs of clean gloves and mittens to a homeless shelter not far from our home in New York City. 

We now have close to 250 unmatched gloves and mittens in our apartment, and it turns out, the more gloves and mittens we have, the easier it is to find matches. That’s why I am hoping you will send any stray gloves and mittens you find to the address below.  After all, WARM HANDS is filling a need, and we want it to grow.

WARM HANDS helps in another important way.  It’s an antidote to despair. If you are feeling powerless in an age when Presidential lying and Congressional cowardice are rampant, WARM HANDS will restore your sense of purpose!  You are significant, you are making a difference, you are saving the world, one glove at a time! 

Right we’re delivering clean pairs of gloves and mittens to needy organizations here in New York City, but–if this takes off–I see no reason why we cannot help needy people in Chicago, Indianapolis, Lincoln, Nebraska, and elsewhere.  I came across these two yesterday morning, the last day of March, but I think that has to be the end, for now, because glove/mitten weather is a thing of the past here in New York City.

 

Please send the gloves and mittens–but clean them first!–to WARM HANDS, 1148 Fifth Avenue, Apartment 9D, New York, NY 10128.  

To be honest, I still miss reporting on Betsy DeVos.  However, I am continuing to work on  my book for tourists, tentatively called “The 101 Most Exciting Things to Do and See on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.”  I could use some help with the list because so far I have found only six or seven.

Thank you, and bless you…..

Eight Fixes for the College Admissions Scandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“I Was Just Following Orders”

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

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

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

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

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

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

still more 'class rules'

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

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

Or she might lead the conversation in certain directions:

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

Or:

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

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

homemade poster

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

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

homemade 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, your comments and reactions are welcome.

My Personal Edition of “The Lives They Lived”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did “Sesame Street” Create Twitter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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