Can the Charter Movement Be Saved?

Can we agree that the charter school ‘movement’ is in big trouble?  Scandals emerge daily, or so it seems.   “Are Charter Schools the New Enron?”, one reputable study asks, for example.  Here’s one awful scandal.   Here’s another.  This is not just smoke; it’s a raging fire that threatens all charter schools, it seems to me.

Everyone knows that charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, supposedly bound by a ‘charter’ that spells out what the school will accomplish.  These licenses, typically for three or five years, are not supposed to be renewed if the school does not deliver. That does happen occasionally, but most often charters are renewed unless and until some awful scandal–usually financial–emerges.  And most charter schools are not financially transparent, meaning that it’s probable that more skullduggery goes unnoticed than is exposed.  That means that public funds–possibly billions of dollars–have been going into private pockets. I write about this at some length in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education” (which is available at good bookstores and on Amazon).

Charter schools were supposed to allow educators to innovate and improve student learning, and the best of them have done so.  However, academically, the overall results are mixed at best, and in some instances have led to more segregation by race and class. 

Those interested in the history of the movement should turn to Ember Reichgott Junge’s book, Zero Chance of Passage, a compelling read.  For critical analysis of the book and the charter story in Minnesota, go here.

I’ve been interested in this story since I moderated the founding meeting at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1988, thirty years ago this October, and I’ve reported on charter schools in Arizona, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, New Orleans, Minnesota, and elsewhere.  Since the first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1992, thousands more have been started, and some bizarre things happened:  1) Entrepreneurs and hustlers saw an opening for money-making; 2) some ideologues saw charter schools as an opportunity to bust teacher unions and maybe get school vouchers too; and 3) some elitists of varying political stripes decided they could open a charter school that would, in effect, be their children’s private school (at public expense).

But it was not all bad, not by a long shot, because lots of decent, idealistic men and women jumped at the opportunity to provide transformative educational experiences for children.

While in theory there are non-profit charter schools and for-profit ones, that’s a distinction without a real difference, because some of the supposed non-profit ones are laughing all the way to the bank.  That said, for-profit schools (usually run by an Education Management Organization, EMO) are, as far as I can tell, almost uniformly bad.  Here’s some good news: Just today California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law legislation banning for-profit charter schools across the state.  Let’s hope more states follow that example!

What’s more, all non-profit charter schools must be required to as financially transparent as their traditional public schools!

Plus we need strong oversight of on-line charter schools, a major scam in too many places.

The best-known charter schools like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First are large networks; these are known as Charter Management Organizations, shortened to CMO’s.  If you are in New York City, you must know about Eva Moskowitz and her CMO/network of Success Academies. Those schools are controversial because of their harsh tactics that cull their classes of students, usually ones who aren’t likely to do well on standardized tests, often using ‘out of school suspensions’ for very young children.  I’ve reported on this for the PBS NewsHour, as has Kate Taylor of The New York Times.  And you can read Eva’s draconian list of 65 offenses for which a child can be suspended here.  (Some fans of Benito Mussolini were upset when I compared the two.)

What you may not know is that most  of the roughly 5,500 charter schools are one-off, independent institutions, sometimes called ‘Mom and Pop’ charter schools.  Within this universe is a wide range of institutions, many of them focused on children and run by idealistic and public-spirited men and women.

But not all!  Some skirt or cross the line.  Two years ago I became curious about the salaries of charter school operators. How much were they paying themselves, on a per-pupil basis?  The winner of my faux award for “Does Least, Earns Most” was the operator of one of those independent charter schools!  

So where are we today? As I argue in “Addicted,” the term charter school today is virtually meaningless. It’s akin to saying ‘restaurant,’ a term that tells you nothing about the type, quality, or cost of the food being served.   That should have the supporters of quality charter schools up in arms….but it doesn’t.

I began by asking whether the charter school movement can be saved.  Well, the supposed ‘good guys’ of the movement don’t seem to be lifting a finger.  The major group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is conspicuously silent about the burgeoning scandals, as are the major Charter Management Organizations like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First.

The only positive step I am aware of has been taken by a small group of independent charter school operators, led by a human dynamo named Steve Zimmerman.  The group is committed to financial transparency, multiple measures of learning, no admissions tests for students, and local, site-based decision making about everything that goes on in the schools.  I have gotten involved in the start-up process and co-moderated a virtual teleconference of independent charter school operators just last week.   Co-host Chris Norwood of Florida and I had a good time bouncing from coast to coast, talking with students and administrators at independent charter schools in Los Angeles; Queens, NY; Rhode Island; North Carolina; Oregon; St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota; Livingston, Alabama; Lake Wales, Florida; Denver, Colorado; Maine; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Orange County, California over the course of 2 1/2 hours. Legendary educator Debbie Meier stopped by in person.  You can watch all or parts of the event here.

The new organization has a name: the Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools.  Please take a look at what this organization stands for.  So far a few hundred independent charter schools have taken the pledge.  Stay tuned for the next six or eight months to see how many are willing to stand up and be counted, because this group might well be the charter school movement’s best chance for surviving.



Safe Students, Safe Schools

Now that public schools have reopened, school safety is receiving a lot of attention…and promises of money (here and here and here)…..and, while that’s a good thing, what’s not good are the exceptionally narrow parameters of the discussion of the issue of safety–i.e., how those dollars are being spent.

If we want our kids to be safe at school, those schools must be emotionally, intellectually and physically safe.  Three related components, all essential, discussed in some detail below.

However, from what I have learned from news reports, beefing up school security is priority #1, with more (armed) guards and security police and more metal detectors.  Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is on record as approving the spending of federal funds to buy weapons for teachers, perhaps the most idiotic suggestion ever made by a United States Secretary of Education.

Politicians who are enthusiastic about enhanced security measures don’t seem to be willing to address a root cause of school violence, the easy availability of guns.  Doing the latter would upset the NRA, something most politicians won’t do.

Of course, the prospect of more money has attracted a crowd.  Eager tech-savvy capitalists have created programs which, for a fee, will spy on student postings on Facebook and elsewhere and then alert school authorities about any comments that their algorithms find upsetting. (more here.)   (That most kids don’t use Facebook these days is just one of the problems with this approach.)

Other profit-seekers are hyping their ‘bullet proof backpacks’ and such.   Lord only knows what damage these approaches are doing to impressionable young children!

In July I was privileged to spend two days at the annual meeting of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the men and women I spoke with or heard from were very concerned about security.  To a person, their preferred approach was more counseling, not metal detectors, police, or armed teachers. They said that they need Preventive services to identity and provide help for troubled kids.

If we truly want safe schools, we need to focus on the needs of children of all ages.  We need to recognize that, where schools are concerned, “safety” has three components: physical, emotional, and intellectual.  As noted above, today’s focus is just on physical safety, even though the other two are, arguably, more important.

An emotionally safe school in one in which every student is known to at least one caring adult, preferably more than one.  That old cliché, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” is spot on.  Emotionally safe schools are staffed with adults who are trained to deal with the ups and downs that are part of every child’s life. These schools have structures that allow kids to be open, such as extended homeroom periods that create a positive ‘home-like’ atmosphere.  In emotionally safe schools, the adult leaders encourage older students to model positive behavior and to intervene in bullying, saying, in effect, “We don’t do that here.”  (I devote quite a few pages to this important subject in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” and hope you will take a look.)

Next, an intellectually safe school is one in which it’s OK to display your ignorance, to admit “I don’t understand,” and to ask questions.  Intellectually safe schools encourage curiosity, crayoning outside the lines, and other expressions of individuality, and teachers are quick to support the kids who are willing to stick out their necks.  When other kids laugh or mock these students, teachers respond by showing their disapproval of the mockery and their support for the courageous students.

Teachers can model this behavior in order to set the tone.  So, for example, at the end of a presentation the teacher should ask, “What questions do you have?” because that phrasing expects and encourages questions.   Teachers should NOT ask, “Does anyone have any questions?” because that phrasing subtly discourages questions.

Intellectually safe schools challenge kids. They employ technology to create knowledge, not just to compile data on student attendance and achievement.  Students who are challenged are less likely to use technology to harass and bully weaker and younger kids, which makes schools safer.  (I also address this in “Addicted to Reform.”)

Schools that are both intellectually and emotionally safe are staffed with adults who look at each child and ask NOT “How smart is this kid?” but “How is this young person smart?”  Asking that question–and acting on the answer–makes all the difference.

When schools are emotionally and intellectually safe, it’s easier for them to be physically safe. However, it’s not automatic, because unacceptable conditions may actually create unsafe schools, most of which are, in my experience,  overcrowded and understaffed.  If we want physically safe schools, we have to provide the resources to hire enough qualified teachers, and we have to attend to the physical condition of the buildings.  Many of America’s public schools are in deplorable condition.)  It should go without saying that physically safe schools have clear rules and procedures for dealing with physical bullying and other violence.

Simply spending more money won’t make our children safe.  Spending it wisely, and spending most of it on human resources–not metal detectors, monitoring programs, armed guards, or guns for teachers–is our best chance to keep children safe.

What questions do you have?



Stopping Brett Kavanaugh

The United States Senate is preparing to do its constitutional duty regarding the current vacancy on the Supreme Court.  It will consider and then vote on Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court. Those who oppose him need to get involved, or double down on their current efforts.

Here are just three of many reasons to oppose Kavanaugh: his anti-labor & pro-business track record, the continued secrecy regarding his role in the George W. Bush administration, and the high probability that he will vote to reverse or severely undercut Roe v. Wade.

There’s also the issue of the legitimacy of the 2016 Presidential election.  Should Donald Trump have the privilege of appointing a second Supreme Court justice when we do not know the extent of his campaign’s collusion with Russia?

But what can liberals, progressives, Democrats, and concerned Republican DO, given the GOP majority in the Senate and the possibility that at least two Democratic senators in Trump-heavy states who are up for re-election may feel that they have to support Kavanaugh?

Here’s a suggestion: Let’s urge certain Senators to vote ‘PRESENT’ when asked to vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination.  They don’t have to vote against him, merely abstain.

Who might do that?  Begin with outgoing Republicans who have expressed their strong concerns about Trump.  Specifically Bob Corker of Tennessee (202-224-3344) and Jeff Flake of Arizona (202-224-4521).  They have done a lot of talking; here’s where they can walk the walk….

At least two Republican Senators, Susan Collins of Maine (202-224-2523) and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (202-224-6665) are on record as being worried about more restrictions on a woman’s right to choose.  Urge them to vote “PRESENT.”

Ben Sasse of Nebraska (202-224-4224) has shown willingness to challenge Trump on ethical issues.  Perhaps he could be persuaded to vote to leave that Court seat vacant until Robert Mueller finishes his investigation of the 2016 election.  He could do that by voting “PRESENT.”

Are there others?  Call or write them now….  (When I called, I spoke to two live human beings who promised to convey the message to their boss and three answering machines.)

Please urge your concerned friends to get involved.

Here is a link for the contact information for all United States Senators:

Now’s a good time to start!!!!

Arne Duncan’s “How Schools Work”

Moderates and liberals concerned about public schools will enjoy “How Schools Work,” the new book by former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  Conservatives and Second Amendment acolytes will not be happy because Duncan cares deeply about our national failure to restrict access to guns.  However, those who care about accuracy and full disclosure will be deeply disturbed by the omissions and distortions that run through the book.  Luckily for Duncan, this last group is probably not large enough to slow down his publicity machine.

Education runs on lies.” As attention-getting opening sentences go, this one from Arne Duncan has to rank near the top. And toward the end of the book, he writes, “The truth is that we not only don’t value our teachers. We don’t value our kids.”   Strong stuff. However, except for passionate, angry, and deeply moving chapters about gun violence, “How Schools Work” is not the ‘inside account’ Duncan promises; instead, it’s notable for what he glosses over or omits entirely. Duncan was by far the most powerful and consequential United States Secretary of Education in the Department’s 42-year history. In 2009, the year he arrived in Washington, Congress gave him $4.35 billion to spend as he saw fit, far more discretionary money than the other 10 Secretaries combined.  How he spent that money changed public education and upended the federal-state relationship.

Duncan is an admirable and likable person. Many children growing up with supportive parents, a private school education, and basketball skills that opened doors to the Ivy League might emerge feeling entitled, but that did not happen in Duncan’s case. He acknowledges that basketball got him into Harvard, and he seized the opportunity. He graduated magna cum laude (sociology) and co-captained the varsity basketball team. When he did not make the NBA, he played professionally in Australia for several years before returning to Chicago to work with underprivileged youth, which he and his sister had done regularly in their mother’s early childhood center in inner city Chicago.

Though education has been Duncan’s career, guns and gun violence are central to understanding the man. Children at his Mom’s center lost family members to gun violence, and as CEO of Chicago’s schools he went to a student’s funeral every two or three weeks for seven years. Early in his career, the National Rifle Association singled him out for disapprobation, a badge he continues to wear with honor. In fact, the most eloquent and moving chapters of “How Schools Work” are those about gun violence, the seemingly intractable problem that the passionately optimistic Duncan is now tackling back in Chicago.

“How Schools Work” includes many engaging stories. One concerns a Chicago rising senior, Calvin Williams, an African American who was ‘twice the player I was.’  As Calvin’s tutor, Duncan asked him to take a language arts test, to establish the skills he needed to work on.  Looking over Calvin’s shoulder, “I plainly saw that Calvin struggled to read and could barely form a proper sentence. His letters were fine but his spelling was dismal. His ability to craft a cohesive thought using written language was nonexistent. I wasn’t an expert, but if I had to guess, Calvin Williams, a rising high school senior on the B honor roll, could read and write at a second- or third-grade level.”

His conclusion: Chicago schools had systematically lied to Calvin and his parents about his progress.  How many more Calvins were there, and what could he do about it?  He would get his chance in 2001 when Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed him CEO of the public schools. He closed many schools and opened charter schools, and, although test scores and graduation rates improved, many other cities made greater gains. He served until 2009, when another Chicagoan, Barack Obama, asked him to come to Washington.

Throughout this century, two school reform strategies have competed for domination. The top down ‘Better people’ approach identifies and rewards ‘good’ teachers and drives out ‘bad’ ones, with good and bad determined largely by students’ standardized test scores. By contrast, the ‘better job’ approach gives teachers more responsibility for what is taught and how success is measured.  In Chicago Duncan kept one foot in each camp; in Washington, however, he embraced the ‘better people’ approach.

In Chicago Duncan chafed under No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal law that required that all students achieve proficiency by 2008; he writes about traveling to Washington to beg Secretary Margaret Spellings for a waiver from a federal ruling telling him who he could hire for his summer school program (She eventually granted the waiver). Although Congress hated NCLB, it couldn’t agree on a revision when it expired in 2008, and so the law, which Duncan called “fundamentally broken and obsolete,” remained in force.

When he became Secretary, every state needed a waiver to avoid being in violation. Given his strong feelings about NCLB and federal overreach, Duncan could have said, “Of course. Now let’s work together to improve schools.” He did not do that. Instead, he granted conditional waiversWhen I interviewed him for the PBS NewsHour, I posed this question: “So, states will get more money if they do this thing that Mr. Duncan wants?” His response: “If you play by these rules, absolutely right.”

In other words, although Duncan had railed against federal “micromanagement,” he embraced the opportunity. Readers looking for some acknowledgment of the irony will be disappointed.

Then Duncan announced his plan for allocating the discretionary money. A former professional basketball player, the new secretary decided to make states compete for the money.  Independent reviewers would judge states according to their commitment to 1) improving their data collection, 2) raising their academic standards; 3) ‘turning around’ high schools with high dropout rates and poor academic scores; and 4) overhauling teacher evaluation.

(A quick aside: When Duncan announced ‘Race to the Top,’ we saw a great opportunity for a compelling NewsHour series. I called Peter Cunningham, Duncan’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, to propose we be given access to the application process, the judging, and everything else behind the scenes. Peter invited me to pitch the idea to Duncan, which I did. Declaring that openness was essential to show the public that the process was not ‘political,’ Duncan agreed. We were thrilled at the prospect of a gripping ‘serial’ that would run for several months, but at the eleventh hour the Department’s General Counsel nixed the idea, on the grounds that setting that precedent would make it difficult to turn down other journalists who wanted to report on the department’s inner workings. However, Duncan did have the process recorded, and the judging’s integrity was not questioned.)

Two of Duncan’s targets, teacher evaluation and higher academic standards, were genuinely controversial.  Most states set their own academic standards, but, as Duncan writes, “Wouldn’t it be nice if what a kid learned in El Paso was equivalent to what a kid learned in Nashville or Boston?”  An effort—led by the National Governors Association, not the federal government–to raise standards was well underway, but when Duncan’s Race to the Top required higher standards, accusations of ‘national curriculum’ and ‘federal takeover’ filled the airwaves, and before long Duncan was accused of acting like ‘the nation’s school superintendent.’  In the end, however, nearly every state adopted what the NGA called the Common Core. Although over time some states dropped the name for political reasons, nearly all have remained committed to the goal.  Chalk that up as a win for Duncan.

Although almost everyone in education acknowledges that teacher evaluation is embarrassingly inadequate, changing it proved to be problematic.  Generally, ratings were based on how well prepared teachers appeared to be, not on how their students performed; in some districts principals needed a teacher’s permission before they could sit in the back of the room to observe.  In hopes of rewarding the ‘best’ teachers with extra pay and identifying the ‘worst’ teachers, Duncan wanted them to be judged largely based on their students’ academic achievement, something that was prohibited by law in California, Wisconsin, and a few other states.  When Duncan announced that states with those laws could not enter the competition, legislatures were quick to get rid of the offending legislation.  Another win for Duncan.

However, using test scores as the primary measure of teacher effectiveness created serious problems. All teachers were to be evaluated by test scores, but students were tested only in math and English language arts. How should teachers of science, social studies, art, music, and physical education be judged? Because those tests did not exist, some of those teachers found themselves being judged based on the English and math scores of students who weren’t in their classes–and in some cases not even in their schools.

That test-centric policy has meant more tests, more test-prep, and, sadly, cheating by adults fearful of losing their jobs. Googling ‘cheating by teachers on their students’ standardized tests’ produces 2,400,000 hits with stories about Atlanta, Columbus Ohio, Austin, Texas, and Duncan’s favorite reform ‘success,’ Washington, DC. Even that approach’s strongest supporter, billionaire Bill Gates, has concluded that teaching is too complex to be measured so narrowly, but Duncan makes no reference to the controversies, except for what amounts to an aside: “(M)aybe we had screwed up on the amount of testing districts were subjecting their kids to, but not the importance of testing in general,” he writes.

Duncan’s other two ‘pillars’ were not controversial.  School district data systems were notoriously unreliable; some made their own rules for counting dropouts, for example, making district-to-district comparisons virtually impossible, and Race to the Top forced the states that entered the competition to improve their systems.  That’s a win for Duncan.

Duncan’s fourth ‘pillar,’ the effort to ‘turn around’ failing schools, was both reasonable and ambitious.  In 2009, about 12 percent of the nation’s 27,000 high schools were producing a disproportionate number of the nation’s dropouts—if those schools could be ‘turned around,’ the overall graduation rate would soar.  Calling this effort his ‘biggest bet,’ Duncan doubled down on ‘school improvement,’ using both Race to the Top money and additional billions from another program.

That failed spectacularly. As the Washington Post reported in January 2017, “One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.”  Its failure is not mentioned in “How Schools Work.”

Although the 3-year Race to the Top competition produced only 19 winners, Duncan notes that the 46 states (plus DC) that applied changed their rules in order to be eligible.  While that’s a clear win for Duncan, the more important question has to do with educational outcomes.  At one point, Duncan writes, ”As I look back I wonder, Have we succeeded?”   And, while he asserts that we won’t know until today’s 4th and 5th graders are in college, the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress.(NAEP) results reveal that most scores have remained flat since 2007. In a particularly offensive attempt at deception, Duncan celebrates the increase in scores since 1971 but makes no reference to the ‘lost decade’ that occurred largely on his watch.

Duncan the author wants to have it both ways. For example, his closing chapter is about a school whose faculty and staff worked as one to support one troubled child; Duncan presents this as the ideal situation, but his own Race to the Top policies pitted teachers against each other (those test scores).  Is he unaware, hypocritical, or late to understand?

In the end, “How Schools Work” is mostly the memoir of a decent, unassuming, and genuinely nice man who insists that everyone “Call me Arne.” Duncan highlights what went well on his watch, ignores what didn’t, and uses old NAEP data to try to make it look as if his approach worked.   While he should be taken to task for this, he probably won’t be.

I hope I am not the first reviewer to suggest that his story (unintentionally) demonstrates that Washington cannot run public education, a lesson we ought to have learned from No Child Left Behind.

A final omission: Duncan never addresses the Congressional rebellion against federal domination of public education that he inadvertently brought about. When Congress enacted the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, it took pains to limit the power of future secretaries of education.  The current secretary, Betsy DeVos, has an estimated $10 million in discretionary money, not even one quarter of one percent of what Duncan had at his disposal. Moreover, one suspects it will be a cold day in hell before Congress gives future secretaries of education piles of money to spend however they choose.



8 Great Ideas (7 of Them Save Schools $$)

My friend Mike Petrilli, the tireless pusher of ‘school reform,’ has just published his recommendations for going forward, calling it ‘Where Education Reform Goes From Here.”  He acknowledges that things haven’t gone swimmingly for the past dozen or more years–a classic understatement if ever there was one–but then asks that we trust him and keep on doing what we’ve been doing: More charter schools, more choice, tougher tenure rules, and so on.

Ever the phrasemaker, Mike writes, “The question is not whether schools can do it all — but whether they are doing all they can.”  It’s actually a false choice designed to help us agree with his premise, that it’s time to double down on the ‘school reforms’ that he, Arne Duncan, the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and others have been pushing.

This blog, unsupported by major foundations and others with vested interested in testing, charter schools, and other corporate reforms, will not reach a fraction of the readers who will see Mike’s piece. Rather than argue with Mike’s recipe, I would like to offer a different path, one that will, I believe, lead us away from the disaster of ‘school reform.’   Below are eight suggestions, only one of which will cost a school district money.  And the other seven will produce real savings—and make schools more interesting and productive places for children and adults.  Here goes:

  1. Pool all the district’s professional development dollars and cancel contracts and plans for spending that money.  Instead invite teachers and other educators to develop plans for their professional growth.  I will bet that your system will end up spending less on what will prove to be better PD, more effective because your teachers will own it.
  2. Declare a 3-year moratorium on all machine-scored bubble tests, during which time invite the entire community to debate what matters in schooling.  The goal is to ‘Measure What You Value,’ instead of continuing the foolishness of merely valuing what you measure.  I suggest one criterion when deciding which tests to keep: Keep only those tests whose results come back in time to be useful.  That will get rid of a lot of tests, the ones whose results come back in late August!  The goal ought to be ‘assess to improve,’ not ‘test to punish.’  You won’t be writing those big checks to the testing companies….
  3. Create as many ‘Early College’ opportunities as possible for your ambitious high school juniors and seniors (and perhaps even some sophomores).  Here’s a look at a successful program in Texas that we reported on for the PBS NewsHour.  This district actually lured high school dropouts back to school with the promise of a more engaging curriculum that included opportunities to take college courses. At the high school graduation we attended, most seniors also had college credits, and quite a few members of the class also received their 2-year college degrees with their diplomas!   Fewer high school dropouts, a clear and strong bridge to higher education, a better reputation, and cost savings…..what’s not to like?
  4. Do not buy ANY canned technology programs. None! Nada! Zippo!  Instead, identify the early adopters among your staff and figure out why the district wants technology in the first place.  Please read the chapter about technology in my book, “Addicted to Reform.”  This field is full of hucksters and aggressive salespeople, eager to take advantage of naive educators.  It’s mostly BS….but too many school districts have wasted millions and millions of dollars on crap.
  5. Create cross-age tutoring opportunities, enlisting older students to help struggling younger ones.  This actually benefits BOTH age groups, and it’s effective.  It teaches other lessons as well, including the importance of community and of sharing what you know with others.  It will keep some kids from being held back and others out of special education.  That’s better for them, and it saves your district money.
  6. Use technology to link with other schools on projects.  Just because kids have to come to a building, there’s no reason on God’s green earth for them not to be working with students around the state or nation (or globe).  Find interesting ways to connect with other schools: About 25 communities are linked by name to Christopher Columbus–what a great way to connect on a project. The dozen or so Brooklyns or the 15 or so towns connected to Lafayette–they could work together.  If you believe that students are the workers in a school, and knowledge is their product, then encourage your teachers to make those connections.  “Addicted to Reform” includes a bunch of projects that your teachers might find appealing.
  7. Trust teachers more than you do right now, because, like you, teachers are management. Remember, the kids are the workers, doing real work.  If you enable teachers to do what they signed up to do–which is help children grow toward their full potential– your best teachers will stay longer, your recruitment costs will go down, and your administrators will spend less time ‘breaking in’ the rookies every year.
  8. Expand early childhood programs!   It’s time to spend the money you’ve saved by following steps 1-7.  And, please, no testing of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. These programs should be enjoyable learning and play time.  Stress-free.  Staffed by professionals who enjoy the same status as your K-12 teachers.

Your improvements to this list are more than welcomed….

Learning from a Talented Grifter

Late one summer evening in 1988 or 1989 as I was leaving the New York office of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, someone called out to me, “John. Mr. Merrow.”  I turned to see a well-dressed young Black man coming toward me, hand outstretched.  He introduced himself with a first name I have forgotten and added, “I’m Kwame’s son. We met a while back in Washington.”   NewsHour watchers will remember Kwame Holman, our distinguished Capitol Hill correspondent.  Kwame and I had shared an office in Washington for about four years and had gotten to know and like each other.  My youngest, Kelsey, sometimes came to work with me, and Kwame, a gentle man with an easy laugh, was just super with her. We brought drawing paper and colored pencils, and one time she did a memorable sketch of Kwame’s ficus tree in our office that I still have somewhere.   We talked about our children, sharing pictures and stories, but when the young man greeted me, I couldn’t remember the number or genders of Kwame’s children.
But something was odd: Could Kwame have a son this old?  Then the young man went into a spiel about having run out of gas: his car was a few blocks away and could he borrow a few bucks to get some gas?  That set of an alarm bell, but I didn’t question him, which I am sure was partially race-related. As a white man, I just wouldn’t have been comfortable questioning him. What if he actually were Kwame’s son? How would I explain that, or live with that? Later I tried to figure out how I might have expressed my doubts, but to this day I haven’t figured it out.
I gave him $10 and the next morning I called Kwame.  He got a huge kick out of it, as well he should have. As I remember, he told me that his son was nowhere near that old.  We had a good laugh, even though I was embarrassed at my having been taken in.
Later, however, I had a very different reaction….I found myself admiring that young man.  Consider what he had done:  He had somehow learned who I was, perhaps by gaining access to the NewsHour lobby where all our photos were displayed.  He must have memorized all our names and faces, positioned himself to watch people leaving.  I happened to come out, and he acted.  That effort took ingenuity, determination, intelligence, and courage.  Skills and assets that our society could use, talents that could have propelled him to a successful life in mainstream America. But he he was, basically, a grifter, a con man, getting $10 for all that effort when he could have been, well, working for the NewsHour for starters.
In the late ’60’s I spent two years teaching English at night in a federal penitentiary in Virginia.  There I taught some of the brightest and most focused kids I ever encountered (and I also taught in a NY High school, at Virginia State College, and at Harvard).  I often lamented that those men had taken wrong turns and wondered how that happened, and why.
I had the same reaction to my encounter with Kwame’s ‘son.’  Such a waste…
Thomas Grey’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard includes the memorable lines, ‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, to waste its sweetness on the desert air,’ but, powerful as that image is, it misses a larger point.  In our society, ‘flowers’ don’t waste their sweetness on the desert air; instead their talents are too often misdirected into negative and anti-social channels.  A just society would be outraged by this waste of talent and would address the wide opportunity gaps that exist.  To his credit, President Clinton’s Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, tried and failed to persuade Congress to focus on ‘the opportunity gap,’ but everyone else was–and is–fixated on ‘the achievement gap.’)
Those two experiences, teaching in a penitentiary and being duped by Kwame’s ‘son,’ had a powerful effect on my own thinking and on my reporting for the NewsHour and my subsequent writing.  Our current public education system is a well-oiled ‘sorting machine’ that examines every child, seeking to know ‘How Smart Are You?’, using testing, income, parental education, race, and social class as measuring sticks.  All the ‘education reforms’ of the past 20 or so years have failed to address the nature of the system; instead reformers have tinkered at the margins.
It’s within our reach to create schools that ask a different question about each child, not ‘How Smart Are You?’ but “HOW ARE YOU SMART?”  That’s what most parents ask about their own children, and it’s also what the best private and public schools do.  I believe it’s within our reach to create schools that ask that question about most children and then act accordingly to allow kids to develop their talents, but only if we can develop the will to do so.  I think we owe it to Kwame’s ‘son’ and all the other talented young people in our society…and it’s also in our own best interests to do so.
What do you say?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

A picture is worth 1,000 words:


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

2018 (83)

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

Heron 2018

One swan is barely visible from this old railroad bridge

Swan 2018

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

rails2 2018

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

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

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

AVG 2018

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

total time 2018

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

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





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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

2017(76)w: Elise 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Best of Days, The Worst of Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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