Washington Grabs Power=Dog Bites Man

Big surprise: Washington ain’t letting go of its authority to run public education!  That’s the gist of news about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education that she now runs. Here’s the lede from one story, this one by Tom Chorneau of Cabinet Report:

“(District of Columbia) In a muddled if not contrarian response to a state plan for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, the U.S. Department of Education has suggested, among other things, that student performance can only be measured by math and reading scores. (emphasis added)

The surprise pronouncement, included as part of the department’s review of Delaware’s plan for meeting ESSA requirements, stands in stark contrast to what architects of the law said were two key goals—giving states the freedom and the responsibility for designing their own accountability systems; and removing the federal government as arbiter over school performance.”

Now, remember that Donald Trump promised to give control of education back to local communities, and Secretary DeVos often speaks about her commitment to giving families choices and the importance of freeing states and communities from the heavy hand of Washington.  Now, however, we see that her vision closely resembles those of the test-obsessed folks who ran the Department under the two previous administrations.

George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act” convinced me and many others that the federal government cannot run public education.  Unfortunately, the Democrats serving in Barack Obama’s Administration came to a different conclusion. They decided that NCLB proved that Republicans cannot run public education–but they could! And so Democrats adopted an even harsher, more controlling approach of test-based accountability known as “Race to the Top.”   In a classic display of hubris, Arne Duncan’s Department of Education forced states (nearly broke because of The Great Recession) to compete for federal dollars by requiring them to adopt four policies: 1) judge teachers by student test scores, 2) get on board with higher standards (which just happened to resemble the Common Core), 3) improve data gathering, and 4) open more charter schools.  Even states that did not win, Secretary Duncan told me in an interview for the PBS NewHour, were changing their rules.  And because every state had failed to meet NCLB’s impossible standards, they needed waivers to avoid being out of compliance, which Duncan granted–as long as the states said they’d follow his directives, the four points listed above.  Here’s part of the exchange:

JOHN MERROW: Do you anticipate using some of this stimulus money, this incentive money to help these national standards emerge?

ARNE DUNCAN: Absolutely.

JOHN MERROW: So states will get money if they do this thing that Duncan wants?

ARNE DUNCAN: If you play by these rules, absolutely right. (emphasis added)

Inevitably there came a backlash to excessive power in the Department of Education, in the form of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the law that replaced NCLB. ESSA specifically weakens the Department and gives power back to states and communities. And that’s what Betsy DeVos seems to be ignoring.

The lessons: 1) NO ONE gives up power voluntarily.  2) Even though she talks about parents knowing best, this action suggests that Betsy DeVos believes that she knows better.

There seems to be turmoil everywhere in Washington, but education’s confusion is uniquely widespread. While DeVos favors vouchers and charter schools, many in the charter camp don’t trust her.  They are concerned that the Secretary sees charter schools as simply a way-station on the road to vouchers-for-all.  Her proposed budget has dollars for charter schools, but it makes drastic cuts in other funds that go to all public schools, including charter schools.   Moreover, she seems to love for-profit charter schools, which are anathema to a sizable portion of the charter camp.

Confusion favors DeVos and makes it easier for her to destabilize the system. Now, however, we see that she, like her predecessors, is enjoying having power.  Yes, she wants parents to have power…but not, apparently, at the expense of her own.

We’ve heard this song before.  It is, in Yogi Berra’s immortal phrase, deja vu all over again.



Celebrating Fred Rogers

Fifty years ago this week, Fred Rogers began appearing regularly on PBS, the beginning of a remarkable 34-year run that elevated and improved the lives of countless children, including my own.

(His signature program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” first appeared on national PBS in February, 1968. New episodes appeared until August, 2001, and reruns through 2008. Even today some PBS stations run the series.  The forerunner, “Mister Rogers,” debuted on Canadian television in 1963.)

Twitter has been lighting up this week about Fred, particularly in light of the Manchester terrorist attack.  I think the best story came from @Breznican.  I suggest you search Twitter for his tale of meeting Fred.  Here’s one link.

I met Fred Rogers around 1980 under circumstances that still amaze me.  I had a weekly program on NPR, “Options in Education,” and we had just aired a two-part program about children with mental illness, contrasting what was provided privileged kids with what was offered to the less fortunate.

I described what happened in my forthcoming book, Addicted to Reform.

I interviewed Mary, who had been recommitted to a Texas state institution for older children for the third time.

Sometimes I feel so down at heart

I feel like I might fall apart

But then these words come back to me,

‘Just take your time, and you’ll be free.’

Mary wrote that song, which she sang for my tape recorder.  She talked about wanting to escape and hitchhike home to Houston, even though her previous hitchhiking trips had ended badly, one in a multiple rape.

She told me that she had not told her doctor about being raped, but he was aware of her sexual activity. “I know that she has had some–she’s quite flirtatious with some of the guys back on the ward. I don’t have any personal knowledge of her having had sexual activity with anybody around here, while she’s here. But it might have happened,” the doctor said.

At one point in our interview Mary said someone–meaning me–needed to massage her ‘sore’ shoulder. Later she asked me to come closer to tell her if she had ‘sleep in her eyes.’  I declined both invitations.

Music mattered very much to Mary, who broke into song during our conversation, including this song she made up on the spot to end the interview.

This is the last song I’ll ever sing for you.

It’s the last time I’ll tell you

Just how much I really care.

This is the last song–

But I’ll sing more later on.

Right now it’s time for lunch

And I think I’m gonna be gone.

Mary, who was smart and aware, didn’t hold back when talking about the dark side of her life, the drug use and sexual abuse.  She told me what had happened when her allotted few weeks of treatment ran out the last time. “They gave me a few dollars and opened the gate and told me to go,” she said. She had no family members who would take her home, she said.  “I had to hitchhike home. It was a hot day, and a convertible of boys came by and stopped to give me a ride. I got in, but they wouldn’t take me home until I gave them all blow jobs, so I did.”

The program got me thrown off the air in Texas, but Fred, an NPR listener, heard it and wrote me a letter thanking me for bringing the stories of Mary and other children to the public.  Think about that: The famous Fred Rogers wrote ME!   In his letter, he extended an invitation, to get together on his next trip to Washington.  That was quintessential Fred, reaching out with sincerity and generosity.  We took our kids to meet him, of course, and he and I bonded over children’s issues.  Over the years he wrote me five or six little notes, all of which I have kept.

In 1982, when I wanted to try my hand at making television, I asked Fred for advice.  He invited me to visit him on Nantucket, where I also spent part of every summer.  On the appointed day in July, I asked my 5-year-old daughter to accompany me, promising that we would ask Fred to sing his signature song, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”

Fred and Mr. McFeeley, Speedy Delivery and music director Bob Costas (if memory serves) lived in the same neighborhood (!!) on the western end of Nantucket, an area known as Madaket.  We lived in Quidnet, at the opposite end of the small island.

Fred greeted us warmly, and we talked about my hopes for making a documentary series for PBS.  I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, and so, after about 20 minutes, I thanked him and got ready to leave.  Then I remembered what I had promised Kelsey, and so I asked Fred if he would sing his song to her.  We were on a couch, and Fred was sitting opposite us, maybe four feet away.  He leaned forward, smiled and looked at her directly, and began singing in his warm and gentle way: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood….”

And Kelsey?  She jumped up and hid behind me!

She was terrified, I was mortified, but Fred took it in stride.  “That happens a lot, ” he said. “Children are used to seeing me inside a box. It’s too much of a shock when I’m outside the box.”  And he told me about parents who would drag their kids over to him when he was shopping in the supermarket…and the ensuing panic.

The irony is inescapable, because Fred spent so much time on air talking about the difference between reality and make believe.  This is from Wikipedia:

Mister Rogers always made a clear distinction between the realistic world of his television neighborhood and the fantasy world of Make-Believe. He often discussed what was going to happen in Make-Believe before the next fantasy segment was shown (“Let’s pretend that Prince Tuesday has been having scary dreams…”), and sometimes acted out bits of Make-Believe with models on a table before the camera transitioned to the live-action puppet rendition. The miniature motorized trolley which was known in character form as “Trolley”, with its accompanying fast-paced piano theme music, was the only element that appeared regularly in both the realistic world and Make-Believe: it was used to transport viewers from one realm to the other.

From then on, all of Fred’s letters included a message to Kelsey!

We all owe a lot to Fred Rogers.  You may know that Fred pretty much saved public television in 1969, when he testified before a Senate committee.

His wisdom is collected on a number of sites, including Mental Floss.   Here’s one of my favorites, on the subject of heroes:  “When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.”

You and your children can watch a lot of his programs now, on Twitch, which began streaming more than 800 episodes earlier this month.

Fred Rogers died of cancer in 2003.  He was only 74.  We need him today, more than ever.

Famous People Don’t Like My Book

Asking famous people to say something nice about one’s new book is embarrassing and difficult, and so I was happy to leave the responsibility for collecting blurbs in the hands of my editors.  What happened next blindsided me: An ambitious young intern took on the task, looked at the index of “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” and wrote to the people who were mentioned most often.  Someone there slipped me a copy of the responses, which are, quite frankly, pretty disappointing.  I once had high hopes that my book would sell thousands and thousands of copies, but now I’m feeling pretty depressed.  Here’s how they responded:

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: “People made fun of me when I slipped up and asked ‘Is our children learning?’ but I care a lot about education and there’s no way I will say something nice about a book that makes fun of President Obama and I.”

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: “This foundational book belongs in my Presidential Library. In fact, I promise you that I will personally see that it is shredded and mixed in with the wet cement when the foundation is poured.”

FORMER SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN: “When I read what he wrote about my “Race to the Top” program, I created one just for Merrow’s book.  I’m calling it “Race to the Dumpster.”

PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP: “I know that John Merrow is the son of the famous CBS broadcaster Edward R. Merrow, but, even if you put them together, I am more famous than them. If I were going to read a book, it would not be this one, unless maybe Frederick Douglass recommended it to me personally!”

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R, FL):  “I looked in the index. I’m not even mentioned, so why would I buy this book?”

THE WALTON FAMILY: “We respectfully decline to endorse this book. Not only does it criticize our effort to improve education, but the author is known to shop at Costco.”

BILL GATES, co-founder of Microsoft and co-president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “I find it remarkable that Mr. Merrow has the temerity to challenge our reform approach.  The author spent his entire life working in public broadcasting and probably never made more than $50,000 a year.  Ergo, he has minimum credibility.”

MICHELLE A. RHEE, former Chancellor of the public schools in Washington, DC: “WTF?”

EVA MOSKOWITZ, CEO of Success Academies: “Ditto!”

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: “There’s no way that I would allow myself to be alone in a room with this book. For one thing, John Merrow’s wife is attractive.  Very, very attractive, as a matter of fact.  And, come to think of it, Merrow was a good looking guy when he was young.  Temptation, begone.  If you want to risk damnation and read it, do it in a crowded public library…but please pray first.”

BETSY DEVOS, United States Secretary of Education: “Because this is America, I have choice about the books I read, and I choose not to read it. Now we need all children to have school choice.”

JOHN FALLON, CEO of Pearson:  “John Merrow was on our Board of Directors for one day back in April, 2015, so it would be a conflict of interest for me to endorse it. And when he wrote about it, he greatly exaggerated the truth, so why should I trust anything he writes?”  https://themerrowreport.com/2015/04/01/teaming-up-with-pearson/

WILLIAM J. BENNETT, former United States Secretary of Education: “I’m pleased that he left out that story about me peeing in the bushes, but, other than that, I can see no reason for recommending this book.”

The New Press will publish “Addicted to Reform” on August 1, 2017, without any of these blurbs. It will be available in hardcover and as an e-book (which includes links to dozens and dozens of videos from my 41-year career.)

The Canary in the Mine

If you are looking for convincing evidence that “test-based accountability” and test-score obsessions are counter-productive, the ‘Canary in the Mine’ is the Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education.  Without much publicity, the Broad Foundation did not award the $1,000,000 Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education in 2015 or 2016 and has no plans to begin awarding it again in the future.

Here’s why: It turns out that the NAEP scores of most of the Broad Prize winners (public school districts) have been flat for years. These districts have been living and dying by test scores, and it’s not working well enough to impress the Foundation’s judges.

Ben Weider of the blog 538 deconstructed the issue in a well-reasoned piece, “The Most Important Award in Public Education Struggles to Find Winners.”  Not long after, the Foundation decided to ‘pause’ the $1 million award, citing ‘sluggish’ changes in urban schools.   As Howard Blume of the Los Angeles Times has reported, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad has shifted his focus to charter schools.

But that’s not really new news, as the Foundation’s own pie chart reveals. Since 1999, the Foundation has made $589,500,000 in education-related grants, and 24 percent of the money, $144,000,000, has gone directly to public charter schools.  No doubt some of the ‘leadership’ and ‘governance’ dollars have gone to public charter schools, which make up 5 percent of all schools.  Over that same time period, 3 percent of the money, $16,000,000, went to winners of the Urban Education Broad Prize ( mostly for college scholarships).

Mr. Broad hoped that urban districts could improve “if given the right models or if political roadblocks” (such as those he believes are presented by teachers unions) “could be overcome,” said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. The suspension of the prize for urban education could signal a “highly public step” toward the view that traditional districts “are incapable of reform,” Henig said.  Mr. Broad seems to have already taken that step in his home city of Los Angeles, where he has been backing a concerted and expensive effort to greatly expand the charter sector.

Apparently it’s pretty simple for the folks administering the Broad Prize in Urban Education: Successful School Reform boils down to higher test scores.  There is no public sign that anyone at the Foundation is questioning whether living and dying by test scores is a sensible pedagogy that benefits students.  There is no public evidence that anyone at the Foundation has considered what might happen if poor urban students were exposed to a rich curriculum and veteran teachers, which is essentially the birthright of students in wealthy districts.  Just the dismal conclusion that traditional districts are incapable of reform, followed by its decision to double down on charter management organizations, despite the truly offensive record of some of them of excluding special needs children and driving away students who seem likely to do poorly on standardized tests.

How sad…..

(This is excerpted from my forthcoming book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” which will be published by The New Press on August 1. It will be available in hardcover and as an e-book (the latter includes many videos from my long career).

(During my time at the PBS NewsHour, my non-profit production company, Learning Matters, received several grants from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to enable us to cover Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC, and Paul Vallas in New Orleans. At no point did anyone from the Foundation ever attempt to influence our reporting, and I have the highest respect for our program officers there.)

Defeating the DeVos Agenda

Progressives everywhere are in agreement that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is no friend of public education. Her agenda is straightforward: 1) educational vouchers that can be ‘cashed in’ at any school, including religious ones; 2) for-profit charter schools, including on-line ones; and 3) minimal oversight by government.  She is pushing this agenda despite overwhelming evidence that vouchers have failed, that the public does not want vouchers, and that the for-profit education world is full of crooks and charlatans.

However, it’s not enough for progressives to simply be against DeVos’s radical agenda. They must stand strongly and clearly FOR an agenda that makes sense…and not just to parents but also–most importantly–to the general public.

Because, while most parents, year after year, give their children’s schools a grade of either A or B, according to the Phi Delta Kappan poll, parents are a small fraction of the voting population.   Progressives need to connect positively with those without a direct connection to public education, the group I call ‘the outsiders.’

You see, the problem with the truism “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child” is that most villagers have no direct connection to children or to the schools they go to. Only about 25 percent of homes have school age children, and in some communities that number drops into the teens. Even if you include households with grandparents, the percentage probably won’t reach 40.

And it is the people in those households with no strong connection to public education who hold the future of public schools in their hands.  They vote on school budgets, and so their opinions of schools, teachers and students matter.  Not only do older folks vote in greater numbers than young voters, but the gap is increasing. According to the Census Bureau, “the turnout rate among 18-to 24-year olds fell to 41.2 percent in 2012 from 48.5 percent in 2008.  The turnout rates of adults ages 65 and older rose—to 71.9 percent in 2012 from 70.3 percent in 2008.”

For these reasons, educators and those connected to schools must develop and adopt strategies to win the support of those without a direct connection to schools.  It’s not enough for good things to be happening in schools; ‘the outsiders’ need to be supportive, and the best way to make that happen is to get them involved in the good things that are happening.

I am afraid that many educators will have trouble taking this step because they have grown accustomed to a system that says, in effect, “Leave the children and the money at the schoolhouse door, and leave the rest to us.”  That approach won’t work any more, if it ever did.  The ‘outside world,’ meaning ordinary taxpayers and the business community, may also have trouble adjusting, because they’ve grown accustomed to being kept at arm’s length. 

But that’s what has to change…and determined educators can do this by meeting ‘the outsiders’ where they are and involving them in the ‘curriculum’ of a modern world. Here are a few ways, taken from my forthcoming book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.

*Students can create a photo gallery of the residents of their apartment building or their street and then post portraits on the web for all to see and talk about.

*Art students can sketch portraits of business storefronts, or workers and bosses, also to be posted on the web.

*The school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county — simultaneously on Skype — which is no problem as long as the schools are within 750 or so miles of each other, roughly the speed of sound (any farther can create a sound lag).

*A video team can interview adults in a senior citizen center or an apartment building around a chosen theme (best job, favorite trip, et cetera), to be edited into a short video for the web. Producing short biographies of ordinary citizens will teach all sorts of valuable skills like clear writing, teamwork and meeting deadlines.  

*Music and drama students can rehearse and then present their productions at retirement homes and senior centers — but with a twist: involve some of the adults in the process (a small part in the play, a role in selecting the music, and so on).

Here’s a real world example from Milpitas, California, courtesy of the San Jose Mercury News:

“Students at John Sinnott Elementary School have been putting what they’ve learned in the classroom to good use over the last few months as they worked to design and build a tiny home on campus with the help of parents and local businesses.

Wearing hard hats and with staple guns in hand, Sinnott students were joined by parents, teachers and San Jose-based Blach Construction’s contractors, carpenters and engineers during a barn raising on April 1.

The tiny home, a 200-square-foot residence located at 2025 Yellowstone Ave., is deemed to be Project Based Learning, or PBL, in action, in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a question, problem or challenge.”

Let’s hope that once the kids have finished installing the solar panels and other finishing touches, they invite lots of ‘outsiders’ to the ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 19th!

Careful readers will have noticed some commonalities among these activities:  Many are (so-called) extra-curricular, and all of them are group projects.   All of them involve work outside the school building and direct connections to the group I have called ‘the outsiders.’

After all, the best messengers for strong public education are students engaged in the productive activity of project-based learning.   ‘Outsiders’ will be drawn into the tent and will, over time, become supporters of public education.

However, if public school boards and administrators stick with the ‘test and punish’ agenda of the Bush and Obama administrations, then public education doesn’t stand much of a chance, and Secretary DeVos’s radical agenda is likely to prevail.

Sticking with the status quo plays into DeVos’s hands, and protest marches, editorials, walkouts and other forms of ‘cursing the darkness’ will not slow her down.

Put it this way: Only when ‘outsiders’ become convinced that what’s happening in our public schools is not just test-prep and rote learning pushed on sullen teenagers by demoralized instructors, only then will Betsy DeVos and her militant Christian army of ideologues and profiteers lose this war.


(PS: My book will be published by The New Press in August. Please consider asking your independent book seller to order copies.  The electronic version, which includes videos from my 41-year career, will be available on Amazon.)

Secretary DeVos Contacts the Department of Justice about Diane Ravitch

Although I have now been retired from journalism for 18 months, I haven’t lost touch completely. Happily, some of my former contacts continue to reach out.  Yesterday I received this alarming memo in the mail in a plain white envelope.  While I have not been able to get a second source to confirm its authenticity, one source swears that it’s genuine.  Its contents are disturbing, to say the least.

Here’s the memo in its entirety



950 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20530-0001

“Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur”


Memo Re Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Diane Ravitch

To Anthony B. Susan, Acting Assistant Attorney General for Community Understanding (AAAGCU)

From James B Kelly II, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Fundamental Understanding and Communication (ADAAGFUC)

As per your directive, I met privately with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a meeting held at her request.  Her stated goal was to find ways to muffle, counteract and otherwise minimize what she referred to as “the constant drumbeat of negativity” about her agenda to improve educational opportunities for all children.  The meeting lasted 2 hours and 35 minutes.

The Secretary is particularly upset with Diane Ravitch, the historian turned activist blogger who apparently has an audience of 30,000,000.  The Secretary insisted on exploring several strategies for curtailing Ravitch, which I will summarize below.

  1. Could Ravitch be turned?  As is well known, she was for many years a traditional Republican but is now a very left-leaning Democrat.  She once was straight but is now gay. She used to hate dogs but now is reputed to be an extreme dog lover who has invested thousands of dollars in psychiatric counseling for her dog. Given that “pillar to post” pattern, the Secretary wondered aloud what it would take to bring Ravitch back into the Republican camp.  She implied that money might do the trick because, she said, in her experience “everyone has a price.”  However, subsequent research reveals that Ravitch often donates her speaking fees, suggesting that she does not need money and therefore might not be able to be bought.
  2. I suggested a media campaign to paint Ravitch as a wacko who shouldn’t be listened to, based on her taking her dog for intensive counseling. I mean, who does that? Bad idea, I learned, because apparently the Secretary’s four cats and two parakeets have been in psychiatric counseling for years.  Who knew!
  3. The Secretary suggested invoking the Alien and Sedition Acts against Ravitch.  She feels strongly that the Sedition Act of 1798, which criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government, applies to Ravitch.  The Secretary expressed pride in her knowledge of history, pointing out that the Sedition Act resulted in the prosecution and conviction of many Jeffersonian newspaper owners who disagreed with the government.  She expressed the view that Attorney General Sessions ought to invoke the Sedition Act against Ravitch, and perhaps other leftist bloggers as well.  It fell to me to tell her that the Sedition Act was allowed to expire in 1800 and has not been law of the land for 117 years.   At that point, she muttered something (which I probably wasn’t supposed to hear) about “going back to the good old days,”
  4. I will say this, the Secretary doesn’t give up easily.  She brought up another old law, The Alien Enemies Act of 1798, which was designed to protect our young country from alien enemies in a time of severe danger. That particular act was never repealed and was codified into US law at the outset of the first World War.  It was used to lock up German-Americans during both World Wars and to justify incarcerating Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.  Why not use that to shut down Ravitch, the Secretary demanded?  Unfortunately for the Secretary, Ravitch is an American citizen, born in Texas in 1938.  Her parents, or perhaps it was her grandparents, were immigrants, but Ravitch herself cannot be touched under the Alien Enemies Act or its successors.
  5. What about her audience, the Secretary asked? Surely some of them are aliens and, now that the Trump Administration has relaxed the rules about internet privacy, can’t the Justice Department monitor her readers and threaten them about possible dire consequences?  That’s uncharted territory that might raise First Amendment issues, I told the Secretary. However, I was left with the distinct impression that she hopes to discuss this with POTUS or Steve Bannon at some point in the near future.
  6. At that point Secretary DeVos changed gears, asking if Ravitch’s platform for distributing her material could be shut down.  I said that the First Amendment protected Ravitch. The Secretary muttered something (and this I am rock-solid certain I was not supposed to hear) about contacting her brother. Erik Prince is a former Navy Seal and the founder of Blackwater, is a notorious black-ops guy.

While I don’t think this meeting’s outcomes warrant the attention of the AG at this point, I strongly suggest that we step up our monitoring of Secretary DeVos and Diane Ravitch, but particularly of the former.


April 1, 2017


To Bubble, or Not to Bubble….

That is the question this week and next, as schools administer rafts of mandated bubble tests and parents ponder whether to opt-out their children.  As we know, American students are the most tested in the world…because our system uses tests primarily to punish and reward teachers, not to assess and improve student learning.  My views, with apologies to Robert Frost, are below


Something there is that doesn’t love more bubble tests

And students bubbling and learning how to bubble

When they might be making robots or reading Frost.

They take test upon test in dead classrooms,

Mixing memory and guesswork, stirring

Dull anger and gnawing fears of failure.

The work of test-makers is another thing:

Teachers come after them and make repair

Where they have ground down creativity.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill,

And on a day we meet to walk and talk

Of learning, testing and hopes for children.

But we keep a wall between us as we go.

To him, this is just another kind of mental game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

Now is when we do not need more tests, I tell him.

He only says, ‘More testing makes good education.’

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

‘Why do they make good education? Isn’t it

Where they are timely and used to help?

But here the tests punish takers and givers alike.

Before I gave more bubble tests, I’d ask to know

What I was I testing for, and why,

And to whom I was like to do harm.

Something there is that doesn’t love bubble tests,

That wants them stopped.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,

But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself.  I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, ‘More testing makes good education.’

What the Dickens is going on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, we can.

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

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

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

Should Progressives Help Secretary DeVos?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

Is Teaching a Team Sport?

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

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

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

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

And what’s a ‘team sport’ anyway?

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

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

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

World Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m interested in your thoughts on this.