Will The Past Be Repeated (Part 2)

Our bus of 40+ “pilgrims” left Mississippi and headed for Selma, Alabama, the site of three historic Civil Rights marches in March, 1965.  As the bus sped along, we watched “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s wonderful film that brings to life the struggle southern Black citizens faced when they attempted to register to vote.  (The narrative and photos regarding our experiences in Mississippi are here.)

Earlier we heard about the obstacles put in way of Black would-be voters from Flonzie Brown Wright, who was inspired to join the Civil Rights revolution after the assassination of Medgar Evers in June, 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi.  Black registrants, she told us, had to correctly answer 21 questions, while Whites had to answer only six. Item 17 was the toughest: The Registrar cut the Alabama Constitution in small slivers, the applicant would pick one sliver and then interpret its meaning…to the Registrar’s satisfaction.   The sliver Flonzie pulled said ‘habeas corpus,’ a phrase she had never heard–and which she suspected the Registrar hadn’t either. She couldn’t explain it, and so the Registrar marked her application ‘denied.’  By the rules, she had to wait at least 30 days before reapplying.

Flonzie told us that she went home and memorized the entire Constitution. 30 days later, she returned to the Courthouse, just happened to pull ‘habeas corpus’ again, and passed. Of course, she now realizes that ‘habeas corpus’ was probably written on every single one of those slivers!


(In time Flonzie would run for office and win, eventually becoming the supervisor of the Registrar of Voters!)

Blacks throughout the South had been agitating and protesting over voter registration for some time.  In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had spent months on a campaign in Albany in his home state of Georgia.  Because Dr. King’s effort to register voters there had not succeeded, he came to Selma. He reasoned that, because Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark (below) was known for his hair-trigger temper and stubbornness, Selma offered a better opportunity to call national attention to the cause.

Dr. King was correct.  Clark ordered his troops to take action against non-violent protesters who were blocking the Selma Courthouse steps.  Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African American teenager, tried to stop a police officer from savagely beating his grandmother. In response, the policeman beat and then shot Jackson, killing him.

While no Civil Rights activists were killed during the actual march from Selma to Montgomery, two others died.


After the successful march to Montgomery, James Reeb, a White Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, inadvertently walked into a segregationist bar. He was savagely beaten and died two days later.

Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a White homemaker from Detroit, was driving several marchers back to Selma when Klansmen drove up alongside and shot her to death.

But it was Jimmy Lee Jackson’s death that catalyzed was the March 7th march, the one we all know as “Bloody Sunday.”  Organized in the Brown Chapel A.M.E Church , the march began in a vacant lot behind the red brick building.  (Joan and I and many of our group each brought home a small pebble from that lot, a reminder of the courage shown by those men and women.)


The Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate General, spans the Alabama River.


The city of Selma basically ends at the river; the other side is under the jurisdiction of Dallas County, and it was there that 200 state troopers, some on horseback carrying whips and cattle prods, were waiting for the approximately 500 marchers on Sunday, March 7th.

Sheriff Clark ordered the marchers to turn around. When they refused, the officers shot teargas and waded into the crowd, beating the nonviolent protesters with billy clubs and sending more than 50 to the hospital. Young John Lewis, now a long-serving Congressman, was among those savagely beaten.

(On the following Tuesday the marchers, now numbering 2000, again began to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge. On the other side, the same force awaited. But as the marchers reached the crest of the bridge, the police withdrew. Dr. King and the others knelt in prayer. When he arose, Dr. King turned around and led the marchers back to Selma in what became known as “Turnaround Tuesday.” He apparently feared a trap, which would have led to greater harm to the marchers.)

The national outcry that followed “Bloody Sunday” changed things. When Alabama Governor George Wallace refused to provide protection, President Lyndon Johnson sent in  2,000 soldiers, mobilized 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard, and ordered the participation of  FBI agents and Federal Marshals.  Marchers began the 54-mile journey on March 21, averaged about 10 miles a day, and slept in Black-owned properties en route. The group–now numbering about 25,000–arrived in Montgomery on March 24, 1965.

This photo–the curb outside the Alabama State Capitol–requires some explanation.


Governor Wallace refused to allow Dr. King to speak from the Capitol grounds, including the marble sidewalk. In fact, we were told that he ordered troopers to shoot anyone who set foot on the sidewalk. (Our guide said ‘shoot to kill,’ but no one has corroborated that.)

So the March organizers brought in a flatbed truck and parked it about a foot away from the sidewalk. From that flatbed and using hay bales as his lectern, Dr. King gave one of his most memorable speeches, “How long? Not long.”

Unfortunately, no plaque marks the spot or the occasion, one of the turning points in the African American struggle for equal rights.  (There is, however, a star marking the spot on the Capitol steps where Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, spoke to his supporters during the Civil War.)

“Bloody Sunday” and the Selma-to-Montgomery March changed American history. Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Right Act of 1965 that same March, and the Congress passed it. No more trumped-up tests for voters and other phony barriers.


Dr. King, who delivered that memorable speech, was only 25 when he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954 (above).  Dexter Avenue Baptist is the only church that he ever pastored, although he delivered many memorable sermons at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church his father pastored. This Church, since renamed to acknowledge King’s role, is just one block from the State Capitol, and it was here that many of the meetings that sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott were held.


Local Civil Rights activists–not including Dr. King–had been planning for some time to challenge Montgomery’s segregated (but allegedly ‘separate but equal’) bus system. All ‘colored’ riders were required to sit in the back of the bus and to give up their seats if a White passenger couldn’t find a seat. Moreover, ‘colored’ passengers had to enter the front of the bus to pay their fare but get off the bus and board through the rear door.

When 42-year-old Rosa Parks boarded a bus to go home from an exhausting day at work on December 1, 1955, she sat in the first row of the “colored” section in the middle of the bus.  When the bus filled up and the driver noticed that several white men were standing, he demanded that Parks and several other African Americans give up their seats. Three other African American passengers reluctantly gave up their places, but Parks remained seated. The driver asked her again, once again she refused, and she was arrested and booked for violating the Montgomery City Code. At her trial a week later, in a 30-minute hearing, Parks was found guilty and fined $10 and assessed $4 court fee.

At the marvelous Rosa Parks Library and Museum, visitors virtually experience what Mrs. Parks did. You stand alongside a real city bus and watch the entire drama unfold inside. Not to be missed!

We learned that the boycott might never have come off had it not been for another unsung hero, Jo Ann Robinson of the Women’s Political Council.  She mimeographed thousands of circulars and had them distributed.  It said in part, “This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday.”

Somehow the local newspaper got a copy of the circular and turned it into the lead story, which actually had the unintended effect of publicizing the nascent boycott!  The world moves in mysterious ways.

And notice that Jo Ann Robinson’s circular called for a one day boycott!  It lasted for well over a year, 382 days to be exact.


When 40,000 African Americans stopping riding the buses, the economic pain for the city and the company was immediate: about $3,000 per day in fares.  It was a difficult struggle for the boycotters, who had to find alternate ways to get to work, if in fact they did not lose their jobs.

civil-rights-bus-tour-nov-2016-280As the Museum’s exhibits relate, the bus boycott meant 382 days of walking to work (for some, 20 miles), seemingly impromptu ‘car-pooling’ (because scheduling would have been illegal), harassment, intimidation, and violence for the Montgomery’s African-American community. Dr. King, who had been chosen to lead the movement because he was young and new to the city,  and his family were in personal danger.  His home was attacked.

Dr. King and nearly 100 others were charged with ‘interfering with a local business.’ Rather than waiting to be arrested, they turned themselves in, crowding the jail and eventually the court.  He was fined $500 and served two weeks in jail.

Meanwhile, the local NAACP, under the leadership of E.D. Nixon, argued in court that the city ordinance mandating segregated seating was unconstitutional, based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. After being defeated in several lower court rulings and suffering large financial losses, the city of Montgomery finally conceded defeat and lifted the law mandating segregated public transportation. The bus boycott was over!

The white backlash was strong.  In March 1957 the city of Montgomery passed an ordinance making it “unlawful for white and colored persons to play together, or, in company with each other . . . in any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, pool, billiards, softball, basketball, baseball, football, golf, track, and at swimming pools, beaches, lakes or ponds or any other game or games or athletic contests, either indoors or outdoors.”  And violence erupted. Five Black churches were burned, and two buses were fired upon by snipers, wounding several Black passengers, including one pregnant woman.

Rosa Parks eventually moved to Detroit, because neither she nor her husband could find work in Montgomery and because of death threats.  She remained active in the battle for Civil Rights throughout her life.


Not far from Dexter Avenue Church and the State Capitol is the Civil Rights Memorial Center, a living monument to the Movement’s ‘foot soldiers,’ the many unsung heroes who died during the struggle.  This deeply moving memorial was designed by Vietnam Veterans Memorial architect Maya Lin.



The Memorial, a project of the invaluable Southern Poverty Law Center, invites quiet contemplation and a renewed commitment to racial justice and tolerance.


So many brave men, women and children, dead at the hands of violent racists. Most of those memorialized here were unknown to me, but look carefully at the photo below to find the names of the four little girls who died when their Church in Birmingham was bombed in 1963.



Visiting Montgomery was a deeply emotional experience on many levels, but nothing was more moving for me, and many others, than being in the King family home, a modest dwelling owned by the Church.

civil-rights-bus-tour-nov-2016-337Entering the King family living room, which we have all seen in photographs and on television, was a powerful moment.

img_3212And I was not prepared for the waves of emotion that swept over me when I touched the dining room table where Dr. King, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, E. D. Nixon, Harry Belafonte, and others planned their next moves.  (No photos because by then their small home was filled with all 40+ of us.)

Visitors are free to walk into Dr. King’s small study, even to touch his books and his collection of LP record albums. To pick up the rotary phone and imagine hate-filled voices threatening the King family.  Or sit at the kitchen table where Dr. King prayed for guidance late on January 27, 1956, when he was plagued by doubts.

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.

The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

Three days later his home was fire-bombed, the family barely escaping serious harm. When an angry crowd gathered outside on the streets, Dr. King emerged and spoke to the people gathered there:

If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword”. We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you”. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement. Go home with this glowing faith and this radiant assurance.”

As we all know, in 1968 Dr. King was ‘stopped,’ murdered by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee. The Civil Rights movement stuttered and stumbled on occasion, but, as Dr. King foretold, it has not been stopped, although, arguably, the drive for equality, tolerance and freedom faces its greatest challenges in 2017 and the years ahead.

The final stop on our memorable Civil Rights tour was Birmingham, often called “Bombingham” in the 1960s.  If you have read Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name, you know that industrial Birmingham played a central role in the South’s deliberate–and largely successful–strategy for keeping many Blacks from achieving financial and other success, from Reconstruction to the beginning of the Second World War.

(If you haven’t read Slavery by Another Name, I urge you to do so.  Quite honestly, it’s an experience that demarcates my life into before I read the book and after I read it.)

In the 1960s, Birmingham had one of the strongest and most violent chapters of the Ku Klux Klan.  Homemade bombs were the weapon of choice for white racists (thus the city’s nickname). Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s police commissioner, was notorious for–and apparently proud of–using brutality in combating demonstrators, union members, and Blacks.  Birmingham was also the focus of Civil Rights demonstrations, some led by Dr. King.  He had been arrested in the Spring of 1963, and it was after that arrest that he wrote the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

And many of the Civil Rights demonstrations and marches began here, at the 16th Street Baptist Church, making it an obvious target.image1-6


Bombers struck on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963.  The bomb went off just outside the room where five teenage girls were  getting ready to sing. Four died.  A fifth young girl, Sarah Collins, age 10 and the younger sister of Addie May Collins, was blinded in one eye.image2-17

Across the street from the Church is this majestic memorial to the four girls.  Note the dancing shoes.



That image remains in the forefront of my memory.  Four young lives snuffed out by white racists.

After the bombing, Alabama Governor George Wallace sent police and state troopers to quell protests. Two protestors were killed.  However, outrage over the killings led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965.  As noted in Part One, the case was reopened after Jerry Mitchell’s investigative reports.  Two of the bombers were eventually brought to justice.  The case was directed by former United States Attorney Doug Jones, who told the full story to our group one evening.  J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI Director, had sealed the files after the bombing, thus effectively preventing prosecution of suspects.  That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Jones told us, because, if a case had been brought to trial in the 1960’s, an all-white jury would have acquitted the defendants.  Mr. Jones in now in private practice in Birmingham.

Where are we as a country today, as Barack Obama prepares to leave office?  Will we allow the past to repeat itself?   Will our President-elect, seemingly unburdened by an understanding of history or by intellectual curiosity, unleash the forces of hatred? Has he already done so?

Even if Mr. Trump surprises us, it is still difficult to be optimistic after reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which lays out in excruciating detail how the Reagan Administration’s War on Drugs has racialized our justice system and populated our prisons and parole systems with millions of African American men, thus marking them as ‘second class citizens’ who are unable to vote, serve on a jury, or qualify for valued jobs.

But, as our Civil Rights tour made manifest, America has been in the depths before, and we have emerged triumphant.  The pendulum swings, and it clearly has swung in a direction that many of us find frightening and depressing.

We must continue to believe, with Dr. King, that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”   And we must work together toward that end.


Thank you for taking this journey with me.  Please share this 2-part journal with others, particularly your younger friends and acquaintances.


(Photos by Joan Lonergan, Leslie Worthington and Julia Parker; historical photos courtesy of the Associated Press.)

(For more information about the tour, contact the talented and energetic Tyson Elbert of Mississippi State University at tyson@sig.msstate.edu.  I can be reached at john.merrow@gmail.com)


Will the Past Be Repeated?

What follows is a journal of response and reflection after a remarkable 4-day journey along what might be called the Civil Rights Trail, from Jackson, Meridian and Philadelphia in Mississippi, and Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama. My wife and I and about 40 others made this trip at a time of rising anxiety among minorities and many whites about the increase in hate-related behavior following our recent presidential election.  The question hanging over us: will we allow the past to repeat itself?

image4-6JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI:  (Our first stop) The Greyhound bus station in downtown Jackson has been restored since the days of the Freedom Riders, who were seeking to desegregate public accommodations (as required by the Supreme Court). It takes a powerful imagination to visualize busloads of Freedom Riders arriving May 24th, 1961, guarded by tight security. In other cities the Freedom Riders had been viciously attacked, their buses burned, and the city of Jackson was determined to avoid violence (fearing for its reputation, not the Civil Rights activists.) And so, on arriving at the Greyhound station, the activists got off the buses and walked into the ‘White Only’ waiting room, where they were immediately arrested, marched into other buses, and taken to jail or directly to Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s notorious maximum security state prison. At their trial (and before convicting them), the judge actually turned his back whenever their defense attorney was speaking. He sentenced 161 Freedom Riders to 60 days in Parchman, although the convictions were eventually overturned. While at Parchman, most were held in isolation. Mississippi’s Governor, Ross Barnett, is supposed to have told prison officials, “Break their spirits, not their bones.”


Medgar Evers, a college-educated World War II veteran and a prominent civil rights activist, lived and died here.  Died on June 12, 1963, shot in the back by Byron De La Beckwith, a prominent member of the White Citizens’ Council. Mr. Evers had survived two earlier assassination attempts; a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the carport of his home and, one week before his murder, someone tried to run him down as he was crossing the street outside the local NAACP office.

Our guides on the trip were former ‘foot soldiers’ in the struggle for Civil Rights. One told us how Mr. Evers had been taken to the local hospital, where he was denied treatment because of his race and only admitted when hospital officials realized that he was ‘important.’ It was too late. He died..and was later buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

De La Beckwith got away with murder…for  31 years.  Finally, in 1994 he was brought to justice and sentenced to life imprisonment (Two previous trials in 1964 had resulted in hung juries).  De La Beckwith died at age 80 in 2001, seven years after being convicted. We heard this gripping story, and others, from a remarkable reporter, Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson.img_3124Jerry, whose numerous awards include a MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant, is a fearless reporter whose work has put at least four notorious race-baiting Klansmen behind bars…including one of the men who bombed the Birmingham church in 1963 and one of the Klansmen who murdered James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in 1964. Jerry is also a warm, generous, engaging story-teller as well as a credit to the profession I recently retired from.

Our trip was organized by  the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University and the Education Policy Center at The University of Alabama. Most participants worked at Community Colleges in Alabama and Mississippi and were serving as Educational Policy Fellows in a program run by the Institute for Educational Leadership. My wife and I gained (paid) admission because I serve on the IEL Board.

This was our next stop, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, which is in rural Mississippi but near both Philadelphia and Meridian.


This church has been burned twice, in 1964 and again in 1971.  The first burning occurred in June of 1964 when two groups of Klansmen surrounded the church, expecting to find Michael ‘Mickey’ Schwerner inside.  The Church’s leaders had agreed to allow a Freedom School to operate there, and someone had shared that news with the wrong people.  We learned that the Klansmen fought among themselves about the ‘appropriate’ punishment for the Church and parishioners. They savagely beat some churchgoers and then left, but one of the two Klan groups later returned and torched the church, destroying it.

We were privileged to hear from parishioners and church officials everywhere we visited, and what remains most striking, unforgettably so, is the forgiving attitude of those who were victimized by white racists.  When I expressed amazement, one woman said simply, “If you let hate fester, it will kill you.”  She paused and added, “And then they win.”

When word that Mt. Zion Church had been burned to the ground reached Mickey Schwerner in Oxford, Ohio, where he and his wife were helping train the Freedom Summer volunteers, he packed his bag and left for Mississippi.  Accompanying him were his close associate James Chaney, a native of Mississippi and an African American, and one bright volunteer, Andrew Goodman of New York City.

Arriving in Meridian, they went to their headquarters to tell the two young people at the office of their plans. One of them was Roscoe Jones, then 18 years old, who was one of our guides on this remarkable tour.  Roscoe told us that James Chaney asked him to come along, but Mickey said Roscoe couldn’t come without his mother’s permission, which he did not have.  Because he stayed behind, he is alive today.  Roscoe, now 69 years old, is pictured below at James Chaney’s gravesite.


On the drive from Mt. Zion back to Meridian, their station wagon got a flat tire. While they were changing the tire, local law enforcement noticed two whites and one black and stopped to question them. When a cop recognized Schwerner (known to them as ‘The Goatee’), the police waited until the three drove away and then arrested them.  The charge was ‘speeding.’  They were held in the Philadelphia jail (below) until well after dark–long enough for the law officers to inform the Klan and for members to gather near the jail.


As Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman left town late that night they were followed by law enforcement and others. Before they reached the Neshoba County line (and perhaps safety), their car was pulled over after a high speed chase, and all three were abducted, driven to another location, and murdered. Schwerner and Goodman were shot on the spot, but Chaney was savagely beaten before being killed.  Andy Goodman, a New York college student, had been in Mississippi less than 30 hours.  They were murdered close to this spot below.  Buried in an earthen dam, their bodies were not discovered for 44 days…and then only after a substantial reward was offered.

(During the search, which included dredging canals and ponds, searchers discovered NINE additional bodies, victims of earlier violence.)

Civil Rights Bus Tour Nov 2016 201.JPG

That was in 1964, and, sadly, the race hatred remains.  Plaques commemorating their deaths are ‘routinely’ trashed. Notice in the photo below the TWO plaques near Mt. Zion Church, the vandalized one on the ground, its new replacement recently installed. img_5589

And James Chaney’s grave has been vandalized so many times that some local citizens have welded bars to keep it from being toppled over. The bars are clearly visible behind the tombstone.


civil-rights-bus-tour-nov-2016-209On James Chaney’s tombstone are these words: “There are those who are alive yet who will never live. There are those who are dead yet who will live forever. Great deeds inspire and encourage the living.”

When the state of Mississippi refused to prosecute, the US Government charged 18 men with civil rights violations. Seven were convicted in 1967 but served only minor sentences.

However, the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman changed history. One consequence was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after which minority registration soared from about 6% in Mississippi to over 60% today, for example.

And to come full circle, 41 years after the murders and after extensive investigations by reporter Jerry Mitchell, one perpetrator, Edgar Ray Killen, was charged. Killen, an ordained Baptist minister and active Klan member, was convicted in 2005 on three counts of manslaughter and is serving a 60-year sentence.  Killen was known to all as “Preacher.”

With that, our bus left Mississippi and headed for Alabama, which I will write about next. Meantime, I urge you to watch “Freedom Summer,” a superb PBS film from WGBH and American Experience.

(The photos were taken by Julia Parker, Leslie Worthington and Joan Lonergan.)

I am Thankful for….

Although I am very concerned about our future, Thanksgiving Week is a time to reflect on how much I am thankful for.  Here’s my list of some of the people and organizations that make our lives life better.  Because some of them are non-profits relying on individual generosity, I am including their contact information.

FAIRTEST:  This organization (full name: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing) has been an honest and honorable advocate for reducing our reliance on standardized bubble tests.  It’s also a solid source of information about the growing ‘Opt Out’ movement, where students simply say ‘No Mas’ to excessive testing.  A non-profit, FAIRTEST is an organization to be both thankful for and worthy of your financial support.

WHAT KIDS CAN DO was years ahead of its time when it began spotlighting the accomplishment of young people in 2001. You may know WKCD from “Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students” (The New Press 2005), but WKCD uses digital, print, and broadcast media to send a dual message: 1) What young people can accomplish when given the opportunities and supports they need, and 2) what they can contribute when we take their voices and ideas seriously. The youth who concern WKCD most are those marginalized by poverty, race, and language. WKCD was founded an educator and a journalist with more than 60 years combined experience supporting adolescent learning in and out of school.

READWORKS  If you believe as I do, that reading is the essential gateway to success, then Readworks is a group you should be thankful for. Readworks is a free and easy-to-use that helps teachers do a better job.  In its own words, “ReadWorks is committed to solving America’s reading comprehension crisis and student achievement gap. Driven by cognitive science research,the non-profit ReadWorks creates world-class content, teacher guidance, and integrated tools that improve teacher effectiveness and student achievement.   Lean and mean group that spends its money helping teachers helping kids.

THE URBAN ASSEMBLY  While improving educational opportunities is never easy, the smoothest path to success is to start in kindergarten and first grade, then add a grade or two every year.  The tough job is starting in high school, after the kids you want to help have spent eight or more years in traditional schools.  So that’s what Richard Kahan decided to do when he transitioned from a hugely successful career in real estate and urban planning. Today The Urban Assembly supports a group of 21 high performing, small public schools in New York City, including seven Career & Technical Education (CTE) schools and three all-girls schools, serving over 9,000 students from low-income neighborhoods.  These themed schools (EG, Academy for Government and Law; Gateway School for Technology; Institute of Math and Science for Young Women) are open to all students.

YOUTHBUILD  I got to know YouthBuild during my first go-round at the NewsHour sometime between 1985-1990. I’m happy to report that this organization, dedicated to giving marginalized youth a second, third and perhaps fourth chance, is stronger than ever. Its dynamic founder, Dorothy Stoneman, remains one of my heroes.  Once just Boston-based, YouthBuild now reaches many corners of the globe.  From its website: “There are at least 2.3 million low-income 16-24 year-olds in the United States who are not in education, employment, or training. Globally, over 200 million youth are working poor and earning less than $2.00 a day. All are in urgent need of pathways to education, jobs, entrepreneurship, and other opportunities leading to productive livelihoods and community leadership. YouthBuild programs provide those pathways. All over the world they unleash the positive energy of low-income young people to rebuild their communities and their lives, breaking the cycle of poverty with a commitment to work, education, family, and community.”

In case you are wondering, YouthBuild is a non-profit that accepts contributions from readers like you!

THE CHILDREN’S DEFENSE FUND Perhaps all you need to know about CDF is its slogan, Leave No Child Behind.  Yep, George W. Bush ripped it off but–significantly–changed the voice from active to passive.  CDF is activist and has been since Marian Wright Edelman founded it in 1973. I have fond memories of coffee klatches in her kitchen in Washington, DC, in the late 1970’s, listening to and learning from one of America’s great contributors. It’s needed more than ever today.

COMMUNITY SCHOOLS These are one of our brightest hopes for the future, schools that celebrate and embrace their communities.  While a few organizations push this concept, the go-to organization is the Coalition for Community Schools, headquartered in Washington but serving hundreds of communities.  Take a look, please, and share this with your educator friends.

CORE KNOWLEDGE  I am a huge fan of this approach to curriculum and of its founder, the great E. D. Hirsch, Jr.  Don Hirsch is a small-d democrat who believes that the more people know, the better off we all are. I’ve been in a bunch of Core Knowledge schools, and every one has made me want to be a kid again.  Nearly 1300 schools from preschool through 8th grade in 46 states and Washington, DC, uses the Core Knowledge curriculum. From its website: “The idea behind Core Knowledge is simple and powerful: knowledge builds on knowledge. The more you know, the more you are able to learn. This insight, well-established by cognitive science, has profound implications for teaching and learning. Nearly all of our most important goals for education–greater reading comprehension, the ability to think critically and solve problems, even higher test scores–are a function of the depth and breadth of our knowledge.”

MAKERSPACE  This is an idea whose time has come. If you are not on this train, climb aboard now because it’s a great way to energize kids and channel their creative energy. Want to see students eager to come to school? Visit one with a thriving Maker Space.   From one website: “Makerspaces are community centers with tools. Makerspaces combine manufacturing equipment, community, and education for the purposes of enabling community members to design, prototype and create manufactured works that wouldn’t be possible to create with the resources available to individuals working alone. These spaces can take the form of loosely-organized individuals sharing space and tools, for-profit companies, non-profit corporations, organizations affiliated with or hosted within schools, universities or libraries, and more. All are united in the purpose of providing access to equipment, community, and education, and all are unique in exactly how they are arranged to fit the purposes of the community they serve.

Makerspaces represent the democratization of design, engineering, fabrication and education. They are a fairly new phenomenon, but are beginning to produce projects with significant national impacts.”

My son started and runs a Makerspace at his school, but I’d be a fan regardless.

PROJECT-BASED LEARNING  My favorite approach–but far from the only one–is that taken by Expeditionary Learning, but the general idea is that kids should be working together on projects that create knowledge. In schools that embrace projects, the hallmarks are discovery, inquiry, critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration. And as its supporters like to point out, “Teachers talk less. Students talk and think more.”

GWEN IFILL  I am thankful for the life, career and friendship of Gwen, who died on November 14th at age 61.  The tributes have been well-deserved, endless and eloquent, because Gwen made a huge difference to so many.  She will not be forgotten, and her mark on journalism is permanent.


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.