Who’s Protecting the Children in the Age of Trump?



President Trump and Public Education

A popular explanation for Donald Trump’s surprising victory has to do with a widespread failure to pay attention to working class whites and their economic dislocation, the result of a changed economy, technology and governmental policies that favored the poor and the non-white.  Campaigning as a populist, he rode that wave of discontent to victory on November 8th.

While that is undoubtedly part of the explanation, I believe we should also be looking at another important cause: The low expectations that schools have had for students since “A Nation at Risk.”  That 1983 report’s dire warnings about “a rising tide of mediocrity” frightened us, and in response, we put all our eggs in the basket of student achievement–as measured by student test scores.  For years now, we have practiced what I call “Regurgitation Education” with the goal of raising test scores.  This approach rewards parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education, and citizenship.

Reducing kids to numbers has produced several generations of graduates whose teachers and curriculum did not help them develop the habit of asking questions, digging deep, or discovering and following their passion.  (Ironically, many of the millions of kids who dropped out without completing the full 12 years of indoctrination may be better off, because they avoided the groupthink of conformist education.)

Because children live up or down to our expectations, many Americans have not grown into curious, socially conscious adults. Mind you, I am not faulting teachers, because decisions about how schools should operate are not made in classrooms.  It was school boards, politicians, policy makers and the general public that created schools that value obedience over just about everything else.

Our schools, and the people who run them, are set up to sort. Essentially, they ask about each child “How intelligent are you?” (using test scores as the measure). They then divide children into groups, essentially ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ with most children falling into the latter category.

Rather than learning how to learn (and learning to love learning), most young people have been expected to give back the right answers and put in the seat time, for which they are rewarded with a piece of paper called a diploma. However, never having participated in the give-and-take of ordinary citizenship, are they graduating from school prepared for life in a democracy?  Or are they likely to follow blindly the siren song of authoritarians?  Can they weigh claims and counter claims and make decisions based on facts and their family’s and their own self-interest, or will they give their support to those who play on their emotions?

The election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land, after a campaign of xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, nativism, anti-intellectualism and denial of science, is proof positive that we are now paying the price for having denied generations of children an education built on inquiry and respect for truth.

The country can survive four years of Donald Trump, but our democracy cannot afford schools that fail to respect and nurture our children. It is within our power to create schools that ask of each child “How are you intelligent?” and then allow and encourage them to follow their passion.  If we fail to change our schools, we will elect a succession of Donald Trumps, and that will be the end of the American experiment.

Three Years Is All It Takes

Every education wonk knows about the research indicating that having a great teacher for three consecutive years makes the difference between achieving academic success and falling further behind.  Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution, Tom Kane of Harvard and others have become famous and prosperous for spreading that message far and wide. They did it so effectively that “Three Great Teachers” became the rallying cry of just about everyone from Arne Duncan on down. That’s all it takes, so (this means you, teachers) shape up and do a better job!

New research, however, indicates an even more surprising finding: Three consecutive years of quality nutrition, medical care, housing, clothing, and emotional support at home and in school does even more than having three great teachers.  In a carefully-controlled study, an independent researcher has found that poor children who were given those advantages for three years turned out to be happier, healthier, more capable academically, better behaved and more likely to contribute to their community than children who were denied those basic needs.

The long-term study was a painful challenge, researcher Pierre DeRien told me in a phone interview.  “We had to create a control group of perfectly matched children, and in at least two dozen cases that meant we had to deny identical twins the decent housing, nutrition, medical care and personal attention that their siblings were receiving.”

“Policing that was tough,” he said with what sounded like a rueful laugh. “We often had to intervene to make sure one twin didn’t share his meal or his warm clothing with his sibling, but research comes first.  Frankly, some parents were angry that they had to choose between children, kind of a Sophie’s Choice, but I guess they realized that having one kid well off was better than none.”

Wasn’t that a little bit like a TV cameraman filming a drowning person instead of jumping in to save him, I asked Dr. DeRien?  He was silent for a long minute, perhaps embarrassed, but then recovered.  “Science comes first,” he said, “And our findings will end up saving thousands, perhaps millions of children, so sacrificing those few hundred in the control group was necessary…and right.”

I asked Dr. DeRien about the policy implications of his findings.  Specifically, was he now calling for decent housing, medical care, nutrition, clothing for the estimated 25 million U.S. children now growing up in poverty?  After all, child poverty in the US is easily the worst among developed nations and a national embarrassment.  Perhaps he saw this as the spur America needs to take immediate action.

“Oh, no,” he replied. “All we did was study what happened over three years to 2300 children when we gave them what is the birthright of middle class and upper class children.  I’m seeking funding so I can repeat the study for another three years, this time with at least 25,000 children in the study and another 25,000 in the control group.”

But we have 25 million children in poverty now, I said. They can’t wait three more years, can they?

“The whole point of research is to be sure,” he chided.  “Policy has to be grounded in fact, not some do-gooder fantasy,” he said before hanging up.



Pruning Teacher Education

“If half of the 1450 places that train teachers went out of business tomorrow, we’d be better off.” The Harvard professor paused. “And, with very few exceptions, it wouldn’t matter which half.”

His is a widely held view of teacher education: too many institutions doing a lousy job. Most teachers I’ve met over the years weren’t happy with, or proud of, their training, which, they said,  didn’t prepare them for the ‘real world’ of teaching.

And so the question is, HOW to put half of the institutions out of business?  Should we trust ‘the market’ or rely on government regulations?

The federal government thinks that tighter regulation of these institutions is the answer. After all, cars that come out of an automobile plant can be monitored for quality and dependability, thus allowing judgments about the plant.  Why not monitor the teachers who graduate from particular schools of education and draw conclusions about the quality of their training programs?

That’s the heart of the new regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education this week: monitor the standardized test scores of students and analyze the institutions their teachers graduated from.  Over time, the logic goes, we’ll discover that teachers from Teacher Tech or Acme State Teachers College generally don’t move the needle on test scores. Eventually, those institutions will lose access to federal money and be forced out of business. Problem solved!

Education Secretary John B. King, Jr., announced the new regulations in Los Angeles.  “As a nation, there is so much more we can do to help prepare our teachers and create a diverse educator workforce. Prospective teachers need good information to select the right program; school districts need access to the best trained professionals for every opening in every school; and preparation programs need feedback about their graduates’ experiences in schools to refine their programs (emphasis added). These regulations will help strengthen teacher preparation so that prospective teachers get off to the best start they can, and preparation programs can meet the needs of students and schools for great educators.”

Work on the regulations began five years ago and reflect former Secretary Arne Duncan’s views.  “The system we have for training teachers lacks rigor, is out of step with the times, and is given to extreme grade inflation that leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk,” he wrote earlier this month in an ‘open letter’ to the deans of schools of education.  And, naturally, some see the Department’s actions as a continuation of Duncan’s discredited ‘test and punish’ approach with teachers.    “It is, quite simply, ludicrous to propose evaluating teacher preparation programs based on the performance of the students taught by a program’s graduates,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said, adding “It’s stunning that the department would evaluate teaching colleges based on the academic performance of the students of their graduates when ESSA—enacted by large bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate last December—prohibited the department from requiring school districts to do that kind of teacher evaluation.”

It’s a  classic Democratic approach to problem-solving: regulate, regulate, regulate. But the flaw here isn’t regulations per se. Unfortunately, the Administration not attacking the problem, which is not teacher-training but teaching itself!

Even if half of the 1450 training programs are mediocre or worse, the reason we have that many programs is the excessive churn in the field. Teaching has become a crummy job; teachers leave and have to be replaced; and those replacements have to be trained somewhere. Because about 40 percent of teachers leave the classroom sometime in their first five years of teaching, for an annual ‘churn’ rate of 8 percent, schools are constantly hiring.  Churn creates the market for training institutions. Improve the profession (higher pay at the outset, more opportunities for collegiality and cooperation, a greater say in curriculum, and a serious role in the assessment of students), and the exodus would slow down.

Consider one state, Illinois: In 2012, its institutions of higher education graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers. The largest producer of teachers, Illinois State University, has more than 5000 would-be teachers enrolled, and its website reports that one of four new teachers hired in Illinois between 2008-2011 was an ISU graduate.  Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements.  If 10% opt out, the K-12 schools need 14,500 trained replacements.

But if only 5% of Illinois’ teachers left every year, there would be just 7,250 job openings for the state’s 43,000 graduates who majored in education.  Soon, that training program would shrink, and lesser programs in Illinois would wither and die.

I don’t mean to pick on Illinois. You can find similar evidence in most states.

Strengthen training, increase starting pay and improve working conditions, and teaching might attract more of the so-called ‘best and brightest,’ whereas right now it’s having trouble attracting anyone, according to the Learning Policy Institute, which reported that

“Between 2009 and 2014, the most recent years of data available, teacher education enrollments dropped from 691,000 to 451,000, a 35% reduction. This amounts to a decrease of almost 240,000 professionals on their way to the classroom in the year 2014, as compared to 2009.”

Ironically, that’s ‘the market’ at work, but just not in the way we would like.  Aware of the so-called ‘war on teachers’ conducted by the Administration and the School Reform crowd, young people are making the rational decision to choose other lines of work.

However, if we act to improve the lives of teachers, ‘the market’ will work on our behalf.  And if we allow the market to end the constant churn, the need for 1400 training institutions will evaporate. Programs would have to compete for students, and many–maybe half–would not survive.

An improved profession will draw young people in and keep them. If that happens, substandard training, and the institutions that provide it, are likely to become a thing of the past

What we are doing reminds of the parable of the dangerous cliff:  A town playground abuts a cliff, and children keep falling off and getting seriously hurt. The town leaders gather to find a solution. One proposes building a fence to prevent injuries. Others recommend building a hospital at the base of the cliff, arguing that a hospital will mean more jobs for adults. What’s more, federal and state grants will pay for the building, so it won’t cost taxpayers anything.  In the parable, of course, they ignore the real problem and opt for building the hospital.  That’s what the Administration is doing here, it seems to me.

I am a firm believer in the adage, “Harder to Become, Easier to Be.” We need to raise the bar for entry into the field and at the same time make it easier for teachers to succeed. This approach will do the opposite; it will make teaching more test-centric and less rewarding.

This latest attempt to influence teaching and learning is classic School Reform stuff. It worships at the altar of test scores and grows out of an unwillingness to face the real issues in education (and in society).  While it may be well-meaning, it’s misguided and, at the end of the day, harmful.



It has been nearly a month since I posted on the site, mostly because I have been trying to finish my new book, Addicted to Reform: A Twelve Step Program to Rescue American Education.  (I’ve also been enjoying life, swimming, fishing with grandchildren and biking with my wife on Martha’s Vineyard.)

Well, I am turning in the MS tonight and leaving the country for a while, but I’d like to share a few thoughts before our plane takes off.

First and foremost, the presidential election: This is easily the most important Presidential election since I began voting in 1964.  The Republican nominee, Donald Trump, is a conman who has never shown a scintilla of interest in anyone but himself and his immediate family.  That Trump does well in the polls bears witness to how poorly our politicians have consistently treated middle- and working-class Americans. But to imagine Trump doing them a good turn?  He’s made a career out of stiffing ordinary folks.  That’s what he does, and electing him President would be worse than putting the fox in the henhouse, because he’s not only greedy; he’s shown himself to be an unstable egomaniac.

The Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is flawed, as are we all, but she is the only acceptable alternative…and a damn good one at that.

Once she’s elected, progressives will need to keep the pressure on her, in education and related issues.  Right now, the world of education is divided into two prominent camps, the “School Reform” crowd that has pretty much had its way for the past 16 years, and what I would call the “Progressive Crowd,” smaller but growing in influence.  Clinton’s choice of people from the Center for American Progress for her Education Transition Team suggests that the School Reform people are likely to remain in the driver’s seat.

More “School Reform” would mean more high-stakes testing; more test-based accountability; the expansion of charter schools (despite their lack of financial transparency), and the continued growth of the Opt-Out movement (when students simply say “No Mas!” to tests that are used to punish their teachers).

On the plus side, Clinton is committed to expanding early childhood opportunities, and she has shown herself to be a policy wonk with a great capacity for learning.  She needs to be made aware that during the past 16 years of nonstop “School Reform” scores on the National Assessment of  Educational Progress have flat-lined or declined and schools have grown more segregated.  She needs to know about the exodus of teachers from the profession, the decline in enrollments in teacher preparation programs (and in Teach for America, by the way), and what is possible if we commit to rethinking education.  As I stress in my book, we can build school systems that look at each child and ask “How is she intelligent?”  And NOT “How intelligent is she?”

Also: The charter school wars are heating up, and I think lots of state-level cataclysms are in our future, and probably soon.  California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have increased scrutiny of charter schools; Massachusetts is about to vote whether to expand charter schools; more on-line charter schools are being investigated for fraud; and education reporters everywhere seem to be digging into what’s really happening behind those doors.  It won’t be pretty, but it has to happen.

I’m happy that my old employer, the PBS NewsHours, is committed to providing at least one segment about education every week  (on Tuesdays, in case you haven’t been paying attention). Quality and quantity: No other major news outlets comes close in providing both!

Speaking of the NewsHour, it was just about one year ago that I made my final appearance, in an ‘exit interview’ with Judy Woodruff.  It was in that conversation that I committed to writing the book, a commitment I regretted more than once over the ensuing months.  On the other hand, it has been a wonderful experience, looking back over 41 years of reporting from America’s classrooms.  I like to think I’ve learned a lot, but I will leave that to readers of the book to decide.

But the book is done. The New Press will publish Addicted to Reform next year, probably in August to try to catch the ‘back-to-school’ wave of attention. I hope you will be looking for it.


The A.D.D. Epidemic Returns

A staggering 6,000,000 students are now wearing the label ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder.  That’s about 15% of all children (and 20% of boys). “Shockingly, it’s almost certain that kids misdiagnosed with ADHD outnumber those with the legitimate, clinical problem, leaving the disorder so muddied that no one quite knows what to make of it at all.”  (That sentence is taken from the most important book of the year for anyone who cares about children.)

The book is ADHD Nation: Children, Doctors, Big Pharma, and the Making of an American Epidemic.  Alan Schwarz, a brilliant reporter for The New York Times, has written a highly readable, probing history of the condition and the subsequent epidemic of diagnoses.

He tells the story through three central characters, a doctor who might be called ‘The father of ADD’ and two children, but along the way you will also meet some unsavory characters and a few heroic folks as well.

The naming of the condition is a tale in itself.  “Minimal brain damage,” “minimal brain disfunction,” “hyperkinesis,” and “hyperactivity” were floated and discarded for various reasons until finally (in 1980) “Attention Deficit Disorder” was coined by Dr. Virginia Douglas, one of the few women in the male-dominated club.

 Even the author’s footnotes are revealing.  Here’s one about Dr. Keith Conners, an early and important ADD researcher and the developer of the “Teacher Rating Scale” that enabled teachers to diagnosis students (which contributed greatly to the epidemic):

“Conners needed no questionnaire to assess the effects of Ritalin on himself. Late one afternoon, following an exhausting day in the lab, he had to attend an eight p.m. lecture by Harry Harlow, a behavioral psychologist famous for locking young monkeys away from their mothers and studying their emotional demise. Knowing he’d never stay conscious for the whole thing, Conners found the tub of Ritalin capsules so generously donated by CIBA and took one. Within thirty minutes he snapped awake and thought to himself, “This is fantastic!” He kept working until eight. He skipped dinner. He zoned in on the lecture, chatted with folks afterward, and stayed up until three in the morning. Just one dose felt so great, so beguiling, that he never tried the stuff again for the rest of his life.”

Reading this wonderful book stirred up memories of our own reporting on ADD, more than 20 years ago.  The result was a 1-hour film, “A.D.D: A Dubious Diagnosis?”

Our year-long  investigation was a surreal experience in many ways.  Many interviews with scared parents hidden in shadow or behind a screen, with voice-altering equipment to make sure they couldn’t be identified.  Angry kids whose parents and teachers forced them to take Ritalin.  Kids who boasted openly about selling their Ritalin to other students looking to get high. And money, lots of it, being funneled to a supposedly neutral organization by the drug manufacturer.  

PBS and my producing station in South Carolina were extremely nervous about taking on a powerful drug company.  They delayed the broadcast for months, made us double our insurance coverage, and insisted that we add a question mark to the program’s title.  We knew we had proved beyond a doubt that A.D.D. was in fact ‘A Dubious Diagnosis’ in many, many cases.  We had proved that the current epidemic was man-made, a product of greed and hubris, but the powers-that-be were just plain scared.

The program stepped on a lot of powerful parental toes, including those of some in my industry.  We reported that many parents actively sought a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder as a way of ‘explaining’ why their child wasn’t on track to get into Harvard or Princeton.  In other words, drugging a child was preferable to raising questions about their own parenting or their child’s abilities and interests.

But the investigative process itself is what I remember best.  When we followed the money trail, we discovered that Ritalin’s manufacturer was secretly funding a supposedly neutral parents group, ChADD.  We also learned that ChADD had secretly infiltrated the US Department of Education and was lobbying to loosen the restrictions on Ritalin to make it even easier to get (at a time when the US was already consuming more than 80% of the world’s supply!).

Ceiba-Geigy knew that we knew what was going on, and, when we went to interview the makers of Ritalin, we were escorted by (seemingly armed) guards into a large room where the drug company had already set up its own cameras to record everything.  Despite their advance warning, the Cieba-Geigy spokesman admitted that the company was getting huge benefits by covertly funding the supposedly neutral non-profit, ChADD, which in turn was endorsing Ritalin.  ChADD was a messenger, he said.

ChADD’s founder, seemingly accustomed to accolades from parents and to the high life, told us that he felt no guilt about endorsing Ritalin or keeping Ceiba-Geigy’s funding secret.  Dr. Harvey Parker told me that Ceiba-Geigy owed ChADD because it was helping so many children by introducing them to Ritalin.  And he had no qualms about his non-profit’s efforts to lobby Congress and the government agency that regulated drugs either, even though non-profits are strictly prohibited from lobbying.

No one at ChADD or Ceiba-Geigy expressed any remorse about duping the U.S. Department of Education either.  USDE funds had paid for a series of glossy public service announcements in which ‘ordinary’ parents sang the praises of Ritalin.  The Department withdrew the PSAs when we reported that all the parents were officials of ChADD.

Katie Couric invited me to debate the issue on the Today Show with the unctuous Dr. Parker and a ‘neutral’ university professor. My colleague John Tulenko had done his homework, however, and discovered that the professor’s work was supported by Ceiba-Geigy, something the Today show did not know.  So when Katie asked the professor to weigh on on whether the A.D.D. epidemic was man-made (as we asserted), she attacked me with a vengeance.  When Katie gave me the opportunity to respond, I had the great pleasure of asking the professor whether she had told the Today show that Ceiba-Geigy was paying for her ‘research.’  Stunned silence…..

I also wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, “Reading, Writing and Ritalin,” and appeared on Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, and other cable and NPR shows. We managed to derail the A.D.D. express for a while, but it’s back with a vengeance, as ADHD Nation demonstrates.  

Alan Schwarz’s important book, ADHD Nation, is available at your local bookstore and on line.  Please seek it out.

Vivian Connell, RIP

Vivian Connell, a teacher turned education lawyer, died this week after a long struggle with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. I met Vivian just once, but it was an encounter I have not forgotten. She was one of 6 teachers on that a panel I moderated in North Carolina in February, 2014, on the subject of teachers leaving the profession.  Before the session, I explained the ground rules: no opening remarks, all Q&A, and no off-topic speeches. Vivian immediately piped up. “I tend to get carried away,” she said, “because I feel passionately about what North Carolina and the Obama Administration are doing to public education.”  If that happens, I said, I will interrupt, but I will be nice about it.  

Well, as she warned me, she did get carried away a couple of times. As promised, I interrupted (nicely, I think). But if you listen to what she has to say about the increasing lack of trust of teachers, the Administration’s embrace of ‘Test and punish’ strategies, and the system’s over-reliance on test scores, you will begin to understand her strength of character, passion and commitment.  She told the audience that she came to believe that her chosen profession was being denigrated by powerful forces bent on destroying public schools, and so she went to UNC Law, graduated with honors, and was admitted to the bar at age 49.  She declined a clerkship opportunity in order to spend her energy advocating for public education.

I thought to myself how lucky public education was that Vivian took the leap. Yes, a school lost a terrific teacher, but the public interest was much better served by Vivian’s being an education lawyer.

(The audience clearly understood. The crowd of about 800-900 people gave Vivian and her five colleagues a standing ovation at the end of the panel.  How often does a panel get a standing O?  Maybe just that one time!)

Life is unfair. A month later, Vivian went to her doctor to find out why one leg was giving her trouble.  She wrote about it on her blog:  On March 12th, 2014, I learned that I have ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and that over the next 2-10 years – most likely 3-5 years – my motor neurons will gradually stop working and I will lose the use of my limbs, then become unable to breathe and swallow, and then cease to be.  (That’s an excerpt; please read the entire post.)

Vivian never asked for sympathy, just that we do the right thing.

As my students have heard me say, regardless of what we each believe about our ability to “Change the World,” we all DO change it: we each make it a little better or a little worse. I have tried to live with a determination to be on the right side of history and, when I could muster the strength, the generous side of kindness. I certainly have won some and lost some – I am not the gentlest or most patient soul – but I hope I have made the world a bit better, and I have a very short bucket list. I wish you all the courage to aspire to your highest ideals and the blessing of facing the end of your days with as few regrets as I have.

And as she said elsewhere, “People have said that I’m inspirational, but it’s not me. It’s inspiring that we live in a democracy that invites our participation.”

Here is Vivian’s final post.

The indefatigable Diane Ravitch has paid tribute to Vivian a number of times and will, I know, continue to see that her good works are not forgotten.

My deepest sympathy to Vivian’s husband and children and to her many friends and colleagues.


“Eat Your Dinner…Or Else”

“Finish your dinner, or no dessert.”

“But I’m not hungry.”

“You’re not leaving the table until that plate is clean. Do you hear me?”

“But I don’t like succotash.”

“That’s what’s for dinner, young man, so stop complaining and eat your meal.”

Does dialogue like that ring a bell?  Maybe it doesn’t happen today when family meals are infrequent, but it did in our house and in the homes of my friends when I was a kid. We tried pushing the unwanted food around the plate and dividing it into small pieces, in hopes that our parents wouldn’t notice.  That never worked, of course.

But, lucky for us, our Mom was savvy enough to ask us what we liked and then to invite us to help with the cooking. Family meals became more interesting when we had an investment in them…and they were probably more nutritious as well.

Why can’t most educators make that leap?  The data are staring them in the face: low attendance rates among students and teachers; higher percentages of students “opting out” of state-mandated standardized tests; more teachers leaving the profession; and more parents saying they’d like the option of sending their children to charter schools.

Instead, educators from Secretary John King on down seem to be doubling down, searching for ways to penalize students who choose not to take standardized tests, their schools, and their school districts.

The ‘meal’ that School Reformers have been serving up for the past nearly 12 years of the Bush and Obama Administrations is neither delicious nor nutritious.

In fact, the only cooking that I can discern has been ‘cooking the books‘ by artificially inflating graduation rates with ‘Credit Recovery’ schemes; countless hours of Test Prep to get more kids over the bar; and widespread cheating by adults.

With a new Administration approaching, some School Reformers are asking for one more chance to get things right because so many promising reforms are either “on the horizon” or are just now “beginning to show results.”

Are we dumb enough to fall for that?


Ch*ckenshit Education

When I was 8 years old, my morning chores including collecting the eggs of the 30-40 chickens on our farm. I’d bring them to the kitchen, wash my hands, and walk to school with my older sister.   It was a simple 4-step process: collect the eggs, deliver them to the kitchen, wash up, and head off to school.

Unfortunately, I sometimes forgot Step 3, washing my hands, meaning that I might have had some ch*ckenshit in my fingernails when I entered my 3rd grade classroom. Unfortunately for me, my 3rd grade teacher was a hygiene fanatic who required each of us line up and approach her desk, breathe into her face (had we brushed?) and show her our hands (had we washed?).  I always brushed my teeth after breakfast, so I never failed the halitosis test, but she got me on the “clean hands” exam quite a few times.

Each time the punishment was a BLACK STAR next to my name on the wall chart that was prominently displayed near the classroom door.  She started the chart on Day One, and I got quite a few of those unforgettable BLACK STARS during the year. It was humiliating, but I still made the mistake of not washing up quite a few times.  I was only 8, or we were running late, or whatever….

What brings this to mind is the practice in some benighted school systems of posting students’ scores on state exams on a so-called “data wall” in each classroom, so that every kid can see how he or she did…and how everyone else did.  That’s supposed to make kids work harder….

Teacher Launa Hall has written a thoughtful essay about this trend, which I urge you to read.  She writes that she resisted the requirement at first but eventually gave in and created her own “data wall,” a decision she regretted as soon as she saw her students looking at the scores.

“My third-graders tumbled into the classroom, and one child I’d especially been watching for — I need to protect her privacy, so I’ll call her Janie — immediately noticed the two poster-size charts I’d hung low on the wall. Still wearing her jacket, she let her backpack drop to the floor and raised one finger to touch her name on the math achievement chart. Slowly, she traced the row of dots representing her scores for each state standard on the latest practice test. Red, red, yellow, red, green, red, red. Janie is a child capable of much drama, but that morning she just lowered her gaze to the floor and shuffled to her chair.    ……

I regretted those data walls immediately. Even an adult faced with a row of red dots after her name for all her peers to see would have to dig deep into her hard-won sense of self to put into context what those red dots meant in her life and what she would do about them. An 8-year-old just feels shame.”

Like her students, I was 8, and I felt ashamed whenever I received BLACK STARS and whenever I looked at the wall chart. I got teased, of course, and my dominant memory of 3rd grade is that morning exam, not projects I may have worked on or books we read.  I survived my literal “ch*ckenshit education,” probably because only one misguided teacher who just wanted to teach hygiene was embarrassing me, not official policy across a school district.

(Some districts use numbers in place of names on their mandatory “Data Walls,” but of course it doesn’t take long for kids to figure out who is who.)

For entire school systems to endorse public shaming of its students is a disgrace. This excess, the offspring of our misguided obsession with test scores, rarely if ever works.  It’s a ch*ckenshit policy that will further turn people against public education, at least the 50% who are below average.  Will pleasant memories of school overshadow their shame at being publicly humiliated?  How supportive are they likely to be as adults, when asked to vote for school funding or to defend teachers against unwarranted attacks?

As Launa Hall writes, “When policymakers mandate tests and buy endlessly looping practice exams to go with them, their image of education is from 30,000 feet. They see populations and sweeping strategies. From up there, it seems reasonable enough to write a list of 32 discrete standards and mandate that every 8-year-old in the state meet them. How else will we know for sure that teaching and learning are happening down there?

Our antiquated school model is used to sort children. Essentially, it asks of each child “How Intelligent Are You?” and then posts standardized test scores for all to see.  We need to demand and help build schools that ask of each child “How Are You Intelligent?” and figure out ways to build on their strengths and interests.

Anything else is pure Ch*ckenshit……





Alison Bernstein (1947-2016)

The worlds of education, the arts and humanities, international relations, gender equity and all things progressive have lost a great friend.  Alison Bernstein passed away on June 30th from endometrial cancer. Her death was reported in the East Hampton Star on July 7th and in the New York Times on the following day.

Alison was as special as they come, forward-thinking, courageous, tireless, positive, and as honest as the days are long. I met her when I was hosting a weekly radio series on NPR, “Options in Education,” and she was at the Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE) in the Department of Education.  Led by Alison, Russ Edgerton, Chuck Bunting and others, FIPSE was a hotbed of innovation, eager to push the inside of the envelope (not an easy task, especially in the federal government).

Earlier she had been a community college teacher and had earned her Master’s and Doctor’s Degrees in History from Columbia University.

Alison went on to become Vice President of the Ford Foundation, in which capacity she awarded millions of dollars in grants to programs for culture, the arts and the media, and for education from kindergarten through graduate school.

By then I had switched to television, and my program received some support from the Ford Foundation, though not directly from Alison’s shop.

A personal story that captures Alison’s qualities: One evening in the mid- or late-1990’s I went to an education reception honoring Early College High Schools, an innovation that Ford was supporting. I saw Alison and went over to say hello.  When she asked how I was doing, I probably gave some bland response.  “OK,” she said, not willing to accept my empty response but zeroing in. “Now tell me what your biggest problem is.”

Not a question, “Do you have any problems?” It was a directive, “Tell me….”  Because she had neither time nor tolerance for bland responses, I told her the truth: I was spending at least half of my time fund-raising when I should be reporting, and, worse yet, I was striking out pretty much everywhere. Things were looking grim for my new non-profit production company, I admitted.

“I can help with that,” she said.  “Here’s what I’m going to do,”she said, after asking me for the names of the half dozen or so foundations that I was trying to get support from.   “I am going to invite all of them to a meeting.  I will tell them that Ford will give Learning Matters (my new non-profit) ONE MILLION DOLLARS (emphasis added!) on the condition that the rest of them, collectively, give Learning Matters the same amount. All I had to do, Alison told me, was to show up prepared to impress everyone with a terrific presentation, including video.

Less than a month or two later I went to the Ford Foundation for a morning meeting, gave my presentation, and answered questions….until Alison dismissed me.

Later that same day Alison called me with the news that the group had agreed to match Ford’s donation.

Those grants put my company in the black and gave us legitimacy.  That turn of events allowed me to do what I did best….and began a string of about 15 years of success in both journalism and fund-raising that lasted until the Great Recession hit us hard.

And it was all because of Alison, who invariably cut to the chase and knew how to make things happen.

I know that her many friends have similar stories to tell, and I hope we can all share them at the memorial service, which I understand will be in September.

Rest in peace, Alison.  Your legacy lives on, in your words and deeds and in the lives of those your courage and generosity changed for the better.