“Bon jour. Zis is ze American Enterprise Institute. How may I be of service?”  

Her voice was young and unmistakably French.  She pronounced the second ‘a’ in American softly, and the ‘i’ as a long ‘e.’  And ‘Service’ came out ‘sair-vees.’ Listening to her, every part of my body sprang to attention, if you get my drift.

I wish to speak to Rick Hess, I said. I don’t know him well enough to have his direct number, which is why I had called the general number of the right-leaning DC think tank. He had recently co-authored a sort of mea culpa for his enthusiastic support of supposed school reforms in Washington, DC.   I say ‘sort of’ because of how Rick buried his own role well down in the 7th paragraph.   “Lots of self-styled “reformers” had good reason to observe DCPS through rose-tinted glasses. A wealth of advocates, funders, consultants, researchers, and friends had a rooting interest in DCPS’s success — and had every incentive to focus on the good news. This includes the senior author of this piece, who counted many DCPS leaders as friends of long standing — and who wrote admiringly about some of their efforts.” (emphasis added)

“I am sorry, but Monsieur Hess has left for a national speaking tour,” she said, almost sadly.

I knew he had a tour scheduled, because he ended his ‘apology’ article by suggesting that he is the guy who can set things right: “It’s time for the reformers, funders, and pundits to ask ourselves how we’ve contributed to a culture that’s heavy on cheerleading and light on skepticism — and how to find a better balance going forward.”   

I told the young woman that I had the press release in my hand and had hoped to talk with him before he left.  I asked her whether he was going to apologize for being wrong about the so-called ‘school reforms’ in Washington, DC?

“Mais non. Monsieur Hess is going to be explaining why everyone of importance got it wrong about Washington. And zen he will explain how to get it right.”

Hearing that upset me. I told her that a lot of us, including USA Today, Guy Brandenburg, Diane Ravitch, Mary Levy, the Washington City Paper, local politician Mark Simon, and me, got it right about DC. I told her that we have been saying for years that Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson were perpetrating a fraud.

“Zen, monsieur,” she said with a provocative giggle, “You must not be of importance, because Monsieur Rick explained it to me very clearly.”

Tell me about the tour, I said. I see from the press release that The Four Seasons is the tour’s official hotel, NetJet the official airline, and Uber the official means of transportation.  Will Rick be visiting schools?

“Oh, I don’t zink so,” she said. “Monsieur Rick, he does not like to be with noisy children. He prefers to talk to old people in auditoriums.”

Will anyone else be appearing with Rick, I wanted to know?  After all, lots of important people were wrong about DC: Arne Duncan, Checker Finn, Richard Whitmire, Campbell Brown, Katherine Bradley, Tom Toch, Andy Rotherham, Mike Petrilli, Whitney Tilson, Kati Haycock, the Washington Post, some major foundations, and others.  

“Mais non. Monsieur Rick likes the stage to himself.”

In my mind’s eye I visualized Rick in the role of the late Reverend Billy Graham, urging Arne and the others to come forward to receive absolution.  With some difficulty I put that image aside and asked the young woman whether she had helped schedule his appearances.

“Oui, oui.  In ze office We call it Monsieur Rick’s ‘Three Rs Tour.’”

Three?  One R must be for ‘Rehabilitation,’ because his cheerleading did some serious damage to his reputation.  If Rick is actually admitting that he was wrong, the second R could stand for ‘Redemption.’  What does the third R stand for, I asked?  

“It’s–how do you say it–near ze end of my tongue.”

I pictured the tip of her tongue.  Rejuvenation?

“No, zat is not it. I don’t know your word, but it has something (which she pronounced as zum zing) to do with Euros, dollars.”


“Ah oui, zat means making money, no?”

I suddenly understood the sentence in small print at the bottom of the press release: ‘No portion of the proceeds of this speaking tour will be donated to local public schools, because Mr. Hess believes they should be locally controlled and funded.’

Au revoir, monsieur.”

And she was gone…..

For a copy of the press release, dated 4/1/18, and complete information about Mr. Hess’s tour, including times, places, and reservations for premium seating and general admission, visit: https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11174



To My Fan Base: I am Physically & Financially Fine

First of all, thanks again to the thousands of you who voiced their concerns over my near-death experience last February.  I am fully recovered and expecting to once again bike my age on June 14th.

Many of my loyal followers have also expressed their worries about my financial health. Come on now.  Just because I spent 45 years working in non-profit public institutions (PBS, NPR, a public high school, a public Black college, and a publicly funded federal penitentiary), please don’t assume that I don’t know how to make money.  Please, do not be concerned.  In the early 1990’s I left the NewsHour and worked for The Discovery Channel for four or five months…. and during that brief period I soaked up all there is to know about capitalism and making big bucks.

Six years ago I got serious about high finance and decided to leave PBS to work in the prison industry.   Are you wondering why prisons? Because I realized that I could make a killing in that business. It’s a world I know first-hand, based on my two years as an instructor in a federal penitentiary in the late 1960’s.  However, my serious flirtation with the world of easy money led to a personal plea from the President of PBS that I remain with the NewsHour.  I did so.

However, I didn’t lose my zeal for making a few more dollars. On this very day in 2015, I joined the Board of Directors of Pearson, a gig that pays handsomely.  I would have been paid far more than the pittance I was earning at the NewsHour, but, after a very brief stay on the Pearson Board, I gave up the position, largely because of a barrage of complaints about so-called “conflicts of interest”  from colleagues at the NewsHour and–disappointingly–from many of you in my fan base.

Retiring from the NewsHour in late 2015 finally set me free from all that pressure. Finally I could act as I wished, impervious to pressure from others.  And so I set up my own for-profit College Admissions Consulting Agency (CACA).  CACA enables me to share with aspiring high school juniors and seniors the strategies and (perfectly legal) ‘tricks’ that will get them into America’s top colleges. On the advice of my lawyers and because of on-going litigation, I cannot release more about CACA. However, I am confident that I will prevail in court once all the facts come out.

I can reveal this much: As I testified in open court, I was merely being facetious (or maybe ironic) when I suggested that getting a ‘Swarthmore’ or ‘Cornell’ tattoo would improve my clients’ chances of getting into those colleges.  I am pretty sure I said ‘temporary tattoo‘ in our conversations, and obviously I wish I had used that adjective in my emails, which have, unfortunately, been entered into evidence.

But what on earth is the matter with kids today?!?  I never expected them to take me seriously.   Unfortunately, the one who got the Cornell tattoo on his back was denied admission.  However, I was able to get him into Grinnell.  Naturally, I paid to have the tattoo altered, and–as long as you don’t look too closely–it’s pretty convincing.  The Swarthmore candidate was also rejected and is now–unfortunately–attending Kenyon, a real challenge for a tattoo artist.

While I have wiped CACA from my resumé and flushed it from my memory bank, I learned a lot from the experience.  Basically, I now understand that I shouldn’t have opened a business that required personal contact with young people, something I never enjoyed or was very good at.

My next profit-making venture (and this time I am hoping to actually make a profit or at least enough to cover my legal fees!) is also in higher education. This brilliant idea takes advantage of the preference in admissions that colleges give to young people who have completed interesting and challenging internships.  But this time my work won’t require contact with young people or their parents, and the young people won’t have to go to work anywhere.  These “Virtual Internships” will be done entirely over the internet, with no face-to-face contact.  I will be the broker, using my rolodex of contacts built up over the years. Students won’t have to spend months applying for internships, because I will arrange everything for them.  They will ‘intern’ from their high school campuses or their homes, doing research if it’s needed….and they will never have to fetch coffee!  Participating organizations receive favorable publicity and a generous tax break under Section 326, Article 34, Paragraph 8 of the Omnibus Tax Bill just passed by Congress.  Ambitious students will be able to complete as many as a dozen ‘Virtual Internships’ at once.  Just imagine how the admissions folks at Cornell, Swarthmore, Harvard and other top colleges will react when they receive an application boasting of internships with (for example) Amazon, the ACLU, the ASPCA, NASA, PEN, MAGA, Planned Parenthood, and UNICEF!

Business starts tomorrow, April 2!  My first call will be to a fellow Dartmouth College graduate, Laura Ingraham of Fox News.  I want to ask her how she feels about taking on high school students.  While I don’t know her personally, I figure our Big Green connection will be enough to get me in the door.

If you know of any high school students who might want a pile of internships on their application to college, please give them my email address.  No phone calls, please.


What’s the FIRST Step?

“Mr. Merrow, you want us to take 12 steps, but which one comes first? Which one is the most important?”

I have been asked those questions a few times after talking about my new book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education“. In some respects it’s like being asked which of your children you love the most–i.e., unanswerable.  And so I usually respond by answering a different question: “Which step will be the simplest to take?”

And the answer to my own question is “Measure What Matters.”  It is simple because all we have to do is decide what we care about, what we want our children to be able to do–and want to to–as adults.

But I have to add that, while it may be a simple step to take, it will not be easy.  It requires a community dialogue involving not just parents and educators but also community members who do not have kids in schools (and that will be about 75% of households!). And many communities are deeply polarized about Trump, guns, abortion, and other aspects of the culture wars.

Let me suggest starting with an obvious straw man: “We don’t need to change a thing IF everyone is OK with teaching children to fill in bubbles on machine-scored tests and regurgitate the material they’ve been spoon-fed.  However, if we want our kids to be able to read with understanding, speak persuasively, understand numbers and science, appreciate the arts, work well with others, and respect their own bodies, then we need to have a conversation.”

Now you have everyone agreeing that schools can be improved.  Next ask whether we want our kids to die from Diabetes and its complications.  The question is, of course, rhetorical: Nobody wants that. However, the facts are downright scary. Obesity often leads to Diabetes, and an astonishing 18.5% of American youth ages 2-19 are obese (5.6% are severely obese).

Why? Too much fast food and too little exercise.

Not enough exercise?  Schools could address the latter by providing recess, but most do not. Students in Texas, for example, get on average 20 minutes of recess per week, a decline of over an hour since 2001. (2001 was the year No Child Left Behind became law, by the way.)  “According to the World Health Organization, children need 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity, and a daily recess can play an integral part in meeting that goal. Unfortunately, for students who are not given daily recess, achieving this goal can be much more difficult.”

And so one out of five kids is obese, obesity often leads to Type 2 Diabetes, and Diabetes often means other serious health issues like loss of vision, and early death (Diabetes and its complications kill about 200,000 of us every year).  Ergo, preventing obesity will in nearly all cases prevent Type 2 Diabetes.  As the experts put it, “Studies have found that lifestyle changes and small amounts of weight loss in the range of 5-10% can prevent or delay the development of type 2 diabetes among high-risk adults. Lifestyle interventions including diet and moderate to intense physical activity (such as walking for 150 minutes per week) were used in these studies to produce small amounts of weight loss. The development of diabetes was reduced by 40% to 60% during these studies, which lasted three to six years. Preventing weight gain, increasing activity levels and working toward small amounts of weight loss if you are overweight can have a big impact on the likelihood that you will develop diabetes in the future. Thus far, weight management is the best thing you can do to prevent the development of diabetes.”

And so, because we don’t want our kids to become diabetic, schools must have recess. (And you might point out here that many schools eliminated recess in order to devote more time to test-prep.) But recess won’t come back unless we measure it!  So, instead of only asking for test scores, let’s also ask, “How many hours of recess do students have each week, and in how many separate segments?”  Principals are smart; they’ll figure out that ZERO is a bad answer, and that higher numbers are better.

But if we don’t ask, if we don’t demand measurement, it will not happen!

Look to other countries for a better way: As the USPlay Coalition explains, “Japanese children get 10-20 minute breaks between 45-minute lessons or five-minute breaks and a long lunch. Finnish and Turkish children have 15 minutes to play after each 45 minutes of work. Ugandan students have an eight-hour school day, but they have a half hour of play in the morning, one hour for lunch and play, and 1.5 hours of activity time (sports, music, art, free-choice playtime) in the afternoon.”

Congratulations.  You have your first point of agreement, of what must be measured.  Now what else do you value, and how can those be measured?

Are art, music, and drama important?  Then measure the hours of opportunity students have to pursue them.

What about academics?  Are test scores important? Fine, but please remember that the academic health of a school can be determined by testing a well-drawn sample of students. Not all students need to be tested every year, as long as teachers are deeply involved in assessing student progress. (That’s another step in my book, by the way.)

Suppose we decide that schools are better when kids don’t have lots of substitute teachers.  Let’s measure teacher attendance.  Now suppose a particular school scores badly on that metric. I believe the reaction ought to be “Why?” and not “Gotcha!” because the absences could be a symptom of larger problems.

This is not hypothetical, because teacher attendance is a serious problem in many places, particularly in urban schools. As the Chicago Tribune reported in November 2016, “Across Illinois, 23.5 percent of public school teachers are absent more than 10 days in the school year. That’s almost 1 in 4 teachers statewide who aren’t in the classroom, according to data made public by the state for the first time in the annual Illinois Report Card, a compilation of data that paints a broad picture of schools.”  The schools with the best attendance rates had the fewest low-income students and the most white students.

Again, bear in mind that outcomes like this are symptoms, revealing deeper problems that must be addressed. Punishing teachers for their absenteeism won’t solve the problem, but we should be measuring, not waiting for reporters to break the story after the fact.

Does student attendance matter?  Teacher turnover?  Measure them!

We probably can agree that mental agility is as important as physical, and so the curriculum must be challenging. Note that I am not arguing for ‘rigor.’ In fact, I eschew the noun and the adjective ‘rigorous’ when talking about schools, and I don’t trust educators who use those words. If you want to know why, look them up in the dictionary.

Or just do this word association test. “When I say ‘rigor,’ you think of _____?”  Mortis, right?  Rigor Mortis!  That’s not what we want for children.

But students must be challenged, because, citing Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  Unfortunately, for most students the higher up one goes in school, the duller it gets.  Don’t believe me?  Read on.

This sample problem was created by the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh to help high school math teachers “close the math achievement gap.”

Jack shot a deer that weighed 321 pounds. Tom shot a deer that weighed 289 pounds. How much more did Jack’s deer weigh than Tom’s deer?

Basic subtraction for high school students?

A second example comes from TeacherVision, part of Pearson, the giant testing company:

Linda is paddling upstream in a canoe. She can travel 2 miles upstream in 45 minutes. After this strenuous exercise she must rest for 15 minutes. While she is resting, the canoe floats downstream ½ mile. How long will it take Linda to travel 8 miles upstream in this manner?

It’s an awful question.  Some students will be distracted by Linda’s cluelessness and will wonder how long it will take her to figure out that she should grab hold of a branch while she’s resting in order to keep from floating back down the river. What’s the not-so-subtle subtext? That girls don’t belong in canoes? That girls are dumb?

I found my third question–this one multiple choice–on a high school math test in Oregon:

There are 6 snakes in a certain valley. The population doubles every year. In how many years will there be 96 snakes?

  1. 3
  2. 4
  3. 8

These three high school math problems require simple numeracy at most. With enough practice—note I did not say critical thinking—just about anyone can solve undemanding problems like these–and consequently feel confident of their ability.

School is supposed to be preparation for life, but spending time on problems like these is like trying to become an excellent basketball player by shooting free throws all day long. To be good at basketball, players must work on all aspects of the game: jump shots, dribbling, throwing chest and bounce passes, positioning for rebounds, running the pick-and-roll, and, occasionally, practicing free throws.

Both basketball and life are about rhythm and motion, teamwork and individual play, offense and defense. Like life, the pace of the game can slow down or become frenetic. Basketball requires thinking fast, shifting roles, and having your teammates’ backs. Successful players know when to shoot and when to pass. As in life, failure is part of the game. Even the greatest players miss more than half of their shots, and some (even Michael Jordan!) are cut from their high school teams. And life doesn’t give us many free throw opportunities. If school is supposed to be preparation for life, why are American high school students being asked to count on their fingers? This sort of trivial work is the educational equivalent of shooting free throws.

My fourth example, a Common Core National Standards question for eighth graders in New York State, must have been written by an advocate of ‘rigor.’

Triangle ABC was rotated 90° clockwise. Then it underwent a dilation centered at the origin with a scale factor of 4. Triangle A′B′C′ is the resulting image. What parts of A′B′C′ are congruent to the corresponding parts of the original triangle? Explain your reasoning.

This problem represents the “brave new world” of education’s Common Core, national standards adopted at one point by nearly every state and the District of Columbia.  The hope is that the curriculum will challenge and engage students. Reading that prose, are you feeling engaged? Imagine how eighth graders might feel. If the first three problems are the educational equivalent of practicing free throws, then solving problems like this one is akin to spending basketball practice taking trick shots, like hook shots from the half court line—another way not to become good at the sport.

If schools stick with undemanding curricula and boring questions, our kids will be stuck at the free throw line, practicing something they will rarely be called upon to do in real life. If (under the flag of greater rigor) we ditch those boring questions in favor of triangles and other lifeless questions, schools will turn off the very kids they are trying to reach: the 99 percent who are not destined to become mathematicians.

We’re debating what we value, and it’s clear the people in charge value what is easy for them to test.  We have to keep our focus on children, on challenging them because they will become what they repeatedly do.

Here’s a question that challenges students by respecting their intelligence. This was given to fifteen-year-olds around the world on a test known as PISA (Programme in International Student Assessment):

 Mount Fuji is a famous dormant volcano in Japan. The Gotemba walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometers (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 p.m.

Toshi estimates that he can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometers per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times.

Using Toshi’s estimated speeds, what is the latest time he can begin his walk so that he can return by 8 p.m.?

Note that this is not a multiple-choice question. To get the correct answer, students have to perform a number of calculations. The correct answer (11 a.m.) was provided by 55 percent of the Shanghai fifteen-year-olds but just 9 percent of the U.S. students.

Ironically, the PISA results revealed that American kids score high in confidence in mathematical ability, despite underperforming their peers in most other countries. I wonder if their misplaced confidence is the result of too many problems like the one about the snakes.

If we are determined to measure what matters, we have to make school challenging and interesting.  As I argue in “Addicted to Reform,” it’s time for us to create schools in which students are the workers and knowledge the product.  That means abandoning the factory model in which teachers are the workers and students their products.

“Measure What Matters” fits easily on a bumper sticker. Get yours now–and get the conversation going in your community.

If you would like to know about the other 11 steps or what American Public Education needs to be rescued from, please pick up a copy of Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education (The New Press, 2017).




Secretary DeVos Needs an Education

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos needs to get out of the office more.  Her lack of awareness of American public schools is embarrassing, although apparently not to her.

She made a surprise visit to Marjorie Douglas Stoneman High School in Florida, the scene of the Valentine’s Day slaughter of 17 students and teachers, this week. The Secretary had a quick walking tour of the murder scene, then met briefly with some students.  Student reporters say she took no questions, but her PR people claim that she answered ‘several.’  She then held a press conference for reporters, which she abruptly terminated, walking off in mid-question after taking only 8 questions.

“She wasn’t informative or helpful at all. It’s nice that she came to give us condolences, but we are so done with thoughts and prayers. We want action,” Senior Kyra Parrow said. “She didn’t come to inform us or talk about how we are going to fix this issue; she just came to say that she came. That disappoints me.”

In other words, she bypassed an opportunity to listen, watch and learn.

Even more disturbing are her tweets about public education.  Consider the one below, posted March 6th.

Does this look familiar? Students lined up in rows. A teacher in front of a blackboard. Sit down; don’t talk; eyes up front. Wait for the bell. Walk to the next class. Everything about our lives has moved beyond the industrial era. But American education largely hasn’t.

Apparently the photo on the right is stock footage, not something she has seen herself but merely an image that conforms to her preconceptions and prejudices.

Now, who is willing to try to educate the Secretary?  Well, I wish she had been with me in the schools I visited in southern Ohio and the South Bronx in New York City in the last week or so.  I did not see a single classroom where the kids were sitting in rows, quietly listening to a lecturing teacher.  And two of the four schools were a lovely rainbow of colors, not the racially uniform classrooms in DeVos’s two photos.

Start with PS1 in the South Bronx, a K-5 school  with mostly low income students that we profiled for the PBS NewsHour in 2011  If you watch that piece, you will see most first graders at PS1 reading competently.  At PS1 I asked the first graders to close their eyes while I wrote a nonsensical sentence on the blackboard, something  like “The blue pancake went swimming in the lake and ate a frog.”  Then I asked the kids to read it aloud. If they snickered, that was clear evidence that they were comprehending, not merely decoding.  (Believe me, they laughed.  You’ll get a kick out of their critiques of my ‘story.’)

However, most 4th graders at PS1 cannot pass reading tests. Yes, tough home issues may be partially responsible, but teachers and Principal Jorge Perdomo are convinced that test anxiety paralyzes kids and teachers alike.  The same 4th graders who failed the reading tests were perfectly comfortable reading–and explaining–new passages to me.  I’d like Secretary DeVos to see the impact that tests have on children.

If Secretary DeVos were to visit PS1 today, she would see and feel the joy. She would see up-to-date technology and kids (nearly all of them black and brown) working independently and in groups. Moreover, using her smart phone’s bar code app, the Secretary could watch short videos of PS1 students making very impressive public speeches on a variety of topics.  While standardized test scores have not gone up significantly because test anxiety is still the order of the day, Principal Perdomo and his faculty are working hard to reduce test anxiety.  The tyranny of testing should be part of DeVos’s takeaway.

I’d love for the Secretary to meet the students at Dayton Early College Academy in Dayton, Ohio, which I visited last week.  I believe she would be impressed by their firm handshakes and clear, well-articulated narratives of their own personal stories.  DECA is a pretty close to a ‘last chance’ school, filled with kids who had not been successful elsewhere, and yet here they are earning HS and college credits at the same time.  I asked students why they were at DECA, and every one of them gave full credit to “Mom.”

Not far from Dayton is Yellow Springs, a progressive, integrated oasis in Republican Ohio. In both the combined high school and middle school and in Mills Lawn elementary school, project-based learning (or PBL) is the order of the day, and the projects that I saw will knock your socks off.  I realize now that I should have been taking photos, but I was having too much fun, listening and asking questions.  For example, second graders were writing and recording songs to help them memorize their times tables; they performed the ‘7 Times’ song for me, and I had the tune bouncing around in my head for hours.

To survey the community about its pressing needs, fourth graders first built a portable kiosk, which they set up downtown and proceeded to interview Yellow Springs residents.  When ‘affordable housing’ ranked at or near the top, the students began studying the issue: how many square feet should a home be, how should it be laid out, and how much would it cost to build?  Then they proceeded to design homes. I saw the nearly-finished model and heard some students practicing their presentations–which they will make to the town council.  That’s fourth grade, Secretary DeVos. 

High school art students have also embraced project-based learning.  This semester the students have chosen to try to capture, with empathy, in their sketches and paintings the essence of mental illnesses.  Read that sentence again!  They’ve consulted with local experts and national resources, and they have interviewed adults who suffer from depression, anxiety, et cetera. The work I saw moved me to tears, and I would like to think that Secretary DeVos would also be deeply moved.

If you have read my book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education (reviewed here), you know that I am a supporter of project-based learning because, done well, it entails knowledge creation.  With PBL, students are the workers, and their products are genuine knowledge.

Either Secretary DeVos believes that most public schools are boring, lock-step institutions, or she wants the general public to accept that untruth so she can undermine the institution.

Which is it? Despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary, I hold out that hope that the Secretary is uninformed and willing to learn.  I guarantee that the good folks at PS1, DECA, Mills Lawn Elementary, and Yellow Springs High School would jump at the opportunity to introduce her to the richness and variety of American public education.


What Nearly Dying Taught Me



(Hospital photos by Joan Lonergan)





















Campbell’s Law teaches us that, when too much pressure is placed on a single measurement, that measurement inevitably becomes corrupted to the point of being useless.  A straightforward analogy is to physical health.  An individual who worries only about weight is a strong candidate for anorexia and bulimia. On the other hand, the person who pays attention to muscle and skin tone, flexibility, endurance, a balanced diet, daily exercise, and personal appearance–as well as weight–is NOT a candidate for an eating disorder.

The same principle applies to education: When a system values (and measures) many aspects of schooling, such as the amount of art and music, the time devoted to recess, student attendance, teacher attendance, teacher turnover, and academic achievement, the school and its students, teachers and staff are likely to be ‘balanced.’   When only test scores or graduation rates matter, bad things are guaranteed to happen.

Evidence of educational anorexia and bulimia isn’t hard to find.  The absence of art, music, science, and recess is one clear sign. Lots of test-prep is another clear indicator. Rallies for ‘higher test scores’ is strong evidence.  At home, check on your child’s anxiety level. Stomach aches before the days of standardized testing?  Trouble sleeping? It’s all right there in front of us.

Under Washington DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (2007-2010), all that counted was test scores, and before long adults began cheating, knowing that their jobs depended on raising scores.  Under her successor, Kaya Henderson (2010-2016), raising graduation rates became the Holy Grail, and we now know what transpired: hundreds of seniors–one third of the graduating class–were given diplomas even though they had been skipping school regularly or had otherwise not followed the rules.  Her successor as Chancellor, Antwan Wilson, not only failed to monitor and correct that situation; he also broke his own rules and illegally transferred his daughter into a selective high school, bypassing the lottery. 

It’s impossible not to conclude that Washington has been sold a bill of goods by ‘reformers’ like Rhee, Henderson and others. That narrative has been widely accepted and spread by the pundit class and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  The evidence, presented here, only proves that ‘more of the same’ is akin to adding ponies to the pony express team. More speed perhaps, but the stagecoach is still going to arrive days later than the planes, trucks, and trains.

The reaction to the DC fiasco has been revealing.  Those on the far right, including current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, have expressed outrage. DeVos has called for an FBI investigation and for more ‘school choice.’  That’s also been the call from The Manhattan Institute, which claims “The only thing that’s actually worked in Washington, D.C., has been school choice.”  Frankly, these guys and gals will do anything they can to undermine public education.

The defenders of the status quo of ‘school reform,’ notably former reporter-turned-pundit Thomas Toch, have issued a familiar warning: “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water” and attacking–apparently without irony–pundits.  Tom and I exchanged views last year in The Washington Monthly, and in his current piece he continues to sidestep or ignore the bad stuff, such as the revolving door for principals, the swollen central office bureaucracy, and the widening racial and economic achievement gaps. Toch is not alone: Democrats for Education Reform, another cheerleader for what I call ‘test-and-punish’ education, is worried.  These guys and gals refuse to consider the possibility that a ‘school reform’ which reduces students and teachers to data points simply cannot produce significant numbers of capable, well-rounded, well-adjusted young people.

However, with the forced resignation of Chancellor Wilson, Mayor Muriel Bowser and the City Council can demonstrate they are serious about opportunities for all children. The First Step, I suggest, should be a citywide dialogue about the purposes of schooling.  What do the citizens (and not just parents) of Washington value?  


          The ability to read, reason, argue persuasively,  and compute?

          The ability and willingness to work with others?  

          Familiarity with democratic values?  

         The ability to pose questions and search for answers?

         Good physical health and nutrition habits?  

         An understanding of art and music?  

         Intellectual curiosity and a high tolerance for ambiguity?

Whatever the answers, those are what must be measured.  So that’s Step One: measure what we value, instead of just valuing what we now (cheaply) measure.  Creating programs that emphasize and teach these concepts and values will cure the ‘educational anorexia’ that now characterizes the DC schools.

Step Two, in my opinion, is to allow and encourage educators to ask a different question about each child.  Right now school systems look at every student and ask ‘How Smart Is She/He?’ (and formulate their answer based on test scores, appearance, economic status, race, and bias).  Students are then sorted in two basic groups, winners and losers.

Educators need to ask a very different question, “How Is This Child Intelligent?”  Every child has strengths, and today’s technologies allow educators to assess and then build on those strengths and interests.  That’s what most parents–and a few hundred public schools–do.

I have some knowledge of the Washington public school system…and a deep concern for DC’s students. I write this as a former DC resident whose three children attended Washington public schools (Oyster, Alice Deal, and Woodrow Wilson) and as a long-time Education Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; in the latter capacity, I chronicled Michelle Rhee’s time as Chancellor (12 reports over 3 years) and later produced “The Education of Michelle Rhee” for the PBS series, “Frontline.”  Unfortunately, it was only AFTER the Frontline broadcast that I obtained the memo that reveals the extent of Rhee’s and Henderson’s knowledge of the widespread erasures.  And because Rhee and Henderson effectively controlled the investigations of the cheating (and hired Cavern, infamous for stumbling over clues without seeing them), nothing came of those efforts either.  I also produced two long-form documentaries about the teaching of reading in several DC elementary schools.   

With Wilson’s resignation, Washington has a genuine opportunity to rethink and ‘reset.’ In Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” I argue that superficial reform efforts have been doing serious damage to children, to the teaching profession, and to public support for schools. Ironically, my two central examples of superficial reform, the push to raise standardized test scores and the drive to raise graduation rates, have played out—with disastrous results—in Washington.  I talked about this with Jeffrey Brown of the NewsHour in October.

Anorexia and Bulimia are literal killers, plain and simple.  While Educational anorexia and bulimia do not literally kill our children, they snuff out curiosity and the desire to learn.  Kids graduate in a weakened condition, ill-prepared for life in a complex society, easy prey for charlatans at every level from the White House on down.






Graduation Rates & “School Reform” Fraud

The emperor has no clothes, and it’s high time that everyone acknowledged that. Proof positive is Washington, DC, long the favorite of the ‘school reform’ crowd, which offered it as evidence that test-based reforms that rewarded teachers for high student scores (and fired those with low scores) was the magic bullet for turning around troubled urban school districts.

But now we know that about one-third of recent DC high school graduates–900 students– had no business receiving diplomas, and that they marched across the stage last Spring because some adults changed their grades or pushed them through the farce known as ‘credit recovery,’ in which students can receive credit for a semester by spending a few hours over a week’s time in front of a computer.

The reliable Catherine Gewertz of Education Week provides a through (and thoroughly depressing) account of the DC story, which she expands to include data from DC teachers:  “In a survey of 616 District of Columbia teachers conducted after the scandal broke, 47 percent said they’d felt pressured or coerced into giving grades that didn’t accurately reflect what students had learned. Among high school teachers, that number rose to 60 percent. More than 2 in 10 said that their student grades or attendance data had been changed by someone else after teachers submitted them.”

The DC story was initially reported by Kate McGee of WAMU for NPR. That led to an investigation by the DC City Council and action by Mayor Muriel Bowser.

If you have read “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” you have read about Arne Duncan’s “Raise the Graduation Rate” effort, which is prime example of phony reform (along with W’s earlier “Raise the Test Scores” campaign).  Both superficial reforms proved to be malignant in their impact upon students, teachers, and schools.  Students were lied to about their proficiency, administrators and teachers cheated, school curricula were debased, standards were lowered, and confidence in public schools dropped.

The response to the graduation scandal from members of the ‘school reform’ establishment (which includes Republicans and Democrats) has been to blame “a few bad apples” for misbehaving. Wrong, wrong, wrong! This outcome was inevitable and entirely predictable, because this always happens when a system puts all its eggs in one basket.  Too much pressure on a single metric renders that metric unreliable and untrustworthy.  But Education Establishment figures from the (right leaning) American Enterprise Institute and the (left leaning) Center for American Progress call for greater accountability, more early intervention for kids who do poorly on tests, and so forth. No one questions the wisdom of the test-based system, as far as I can see.

By the way, if you think I feel strongly about this, check out this opinion piece, also from Education Week.

How did the graduation scam continue for so long under the leadership of Chancellor Kaya Henderson? You will recall that Henderson succeeded the controversial Michelle Rhee, who came to DC in 2007 and left in 2010.  Henderson, Rhee’s deputy and closest friend, was routinely described in the media as “A kinder, gentler Rhee.”  Unfortunately, people focused on the adjectives, “kinder” and “gentler”and felt relieved to be free of Rhee’s sturm und drang.  Suffering from “Rhee fatigue,” everyone apparently ignored the central point of the description:  Henderson=Rhee.

Sadly, the current DC Chancellor, Antwan Wilson, has not moved quickly to take control. Perhaps this is because he–just like Rhee, Henderson, and many other school leaders–is on record as a supporter of what I call the ‘test-and-punish’ approach to education.

So, end of the day, it’s not really about the people but about a school system that is inadequate for the 21st Century.  We simply don’t have enough kids to sort them into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ at an early age.  Our schools now look at each kid and ask, “How smart is this child?” (often getting their answer from tests, but also from appearance, income level, and race).  Instead, schools should be asking an ethically, morally and socially appropriate question, “How is this child intelligent?”  Building on strengths and interests is the right starting place.

When administrators and teachers change student scores so they can pass, the adults are lying to the students, telling them they are proficient and denying them the remedial help they were entitled to. We will never know how many lives were blighted, and those kids may never catch up.  In Atlanta educators went to jail, but in most other cheating scandals, no adults suffered.

The DC system can identify the 900+ students who received phony diplomas, but what comes next? Should those diplomas be recalled, and the students compensated with additional instruction?  Surely the kids shouldn’t be punished, but neither should they be allowed to keep their diplomas.  The principal of one DC high school has been reassigned, but that doesn’t begin to get to the heart of the problem.

The rot starts at the top, but Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson are long gone from Washington.  And, more importantly, they are not the top.  They were just opportunistically riding the wave.

It doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of energy looking back and casting blame.  We ought to reject test-based reform as the harmful fraud that it is.  That’s the right starting place.

(Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education is available at your local bookseller and on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)

A Bit More on the Fraudulent Grades and Promotions in DC Schools

Please read this carefully

GFBrandenburg's Blog

Anybody interested in reading the official OSSE/Alvarez & Marsal report on grade inflation and phony graduations in many DC high schools, both public and charter, canread it here.

You might be wondering, how did the Ballou administration get teachers to give passing grades to students who were not present and did no work?


Any teacher who had a student failing their class for any reason had to fill out numerous, complicated, and time-consuming documents showing that the teacher had given the student all sorts of interventions to save them from failing. This might sound like a good idea, but think about it: A high school teacher typically has 100 students or more; if half or more of them are chronically absent (and hence failing), the teacher (not the student) who intended to give all those students the F grades they deserved would have to actually perform hundreds of…

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Transforming Public Schools In Just NINE Steps

I want to make it easier for courageous school boards and superintendents to take on the challenge of transforming their schools.  For them, I have reduced my book’s 12-Step program to just NINE steps.  Here’s my thinking:  Because the country has become addicted to superficial ‘reform,’ it must, like all addicts, own the problem and face up to the costs of addiction.  In my book, those are the first three Steps.  However, school leaders do not need to look backwards and point fingers.  Why not just ask their communities, “Do you think we can improve our schools?”  That (rhetorical) question will elicit a chorus of yes, yes, and yes, which provides a license for moving ahead.

And so, in the interests of encouraging school leaders to grasp the nettle, here are the NINE steps, in brief.  (However, if you are not school leaders, I must insist that you to stop reading right now and go buy the book!)


Our schools and their dominant pedagogy are inappropriate for the twenty-first century and have to be replaced. But what will replace them? The answers become clear when we ask the right question about each and every child.

Remember, today’s schools have evolved into a sorting mechanism to identify and label children from a very young age. Even though tracking has long since fallen out of favor, many (perhaps most) schools have subtle, or not-so-subtle, tracking systems. By third or fourth grade most kids know, deep down, whether the system sees them as “winners” bound for college or “losers” headed somewhere else. Economics reinforces tracking as well. Because school characteristics are nearly always a function of a community’s wealth, some of our schools are decrepit to the point of being unsafe, which has the effect of “tracking” those students downward. Schools in wealthy communities have modern facilities, the most experienced teachers, the latest technology, and perhaps even climbing walls in the gym. That is the track for “winners.”

Essentially, our current system examines each child and demands to know, in a variety of ways, “How intelligent are you?” Standardized, machine-scored tests are the “objective” instruments most commonly used to determine the answer to what is, today, the wrong question.

A new system of schools must ask a different question about each child: “How are you intelligent?” That may strike you as a steep hill to climb, but it’s my version of the questions that caring parents, teachers, and other adults ask about individual children. They phrase it differently: “What is Susan interested in?” “What turns George on?” “What motivates Juan?” or “What does Sharese care about?” Or one can pay attention to young children at play to find out what makes them tick; as Yogi Berra may have said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Every child has interests, and those can be tapped and nurtured in schools that are designed to provide opportunities for children to succeed as they pursue paths of their own choosing. Giving children agency over their own education—with appropriate guidance and supervision—will produce a generation that is better equipped to cope with today’s changing world.

Like most of the changes required to remake public education, this shift—close to a 180-degree change—will not be easy. Some policies, procedures, and attitudes will have to change, and people who refuse to adapt will have to be moved out. The current education system works on a medical model, diagnosing what’s “wrong” with children and then putting them in one ward or another for “treatment.” The approach I put forth in this book is, by contrast, a health model, identifying children’s strengths and interests and then developing a course of action that builds on those assets while also taking care to see that children master basic skills such as literacy and numeracy.


“Only connect,” urges one of E.M. Forster’s central characters in his novel Howard’s End. Forster wasn’t writing about adolescents and children, but he could have been. Because most children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, making connections with them is essential. Children need nurturing and support, and when they don’t feel connected to their school and the adults therein, they will look elsewhere. As Erika Christakis notes in The Importance of Being Little, “It’s really very simple: young children need to know and to be known.” Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, adds, “When adults demonstrate that they care and that they believe in you, much is possible.” Carol Dweck makes similar points in Mindset: The New Psychology of Growth.

As a practical matter, this step calls for schools that are small enough so that every student can be well known to at least a couple of adults in the building. That’s the critical piece often missing in public education, where teachers are sometimes responsible for 150 or more students. As the late educator Ted Sizer said, “That’s not teaching; that’s crowd control.” Those conditions make it extremely difficult for caring adults to connect with all the needy children they come in contact with on a daily basis.

Of course, a small school doesn’t guarantee connecting, because what matters far more is a caring attitude and philosophy. Adults need to learn to see the world from kids’ level, from the ground up and not from the top down. There is good news: lots of schools and communities are embracing this idea. Today, it’s usually under the label of “social and emotional learning.” The modern roots of this approach are in the work of Dr. James Comer, M.D., whose Comer School Development Program pioneered the idea that schools must nurture first and teach second.


Connecting early by creating appealing programs for children of preschool age is the next step in the process of transforming the way our children go to school. Here I suggest we follow the model of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. Ike did not build one set of highways for luxury cars and another for cheap ones but instead made sure that every interstate highway was wide, safe, and well-constructed, suitable for military vehicles and luxury cars like Cadillacs and Lincolns but, of course, open to Volkswagens and other less expensive cars.

The Interstate Highway System was justified and paid for as part of our national defense effort, and we might be wise to take a similar approach to early childhood education and daycare programs. After all, if we believe that our children are the future and that our nation will always require a strong defense, shouldn’t we invest early in protecting our future?

I chose the interstate highway model because the record in social programs, including early childhood programs, is clear: when government creates programs just for poor people, it nearly always results in poor programs. Government-funded programs for the disadvantaged, such as Head Start, seem to be constantly scrounging for funds; to reduce staff costs, they often hire people with minimum qualifications; and the hours spent filling in forms and meeting other requirements leaves little time for meeting the needs of children and families, let alone for staff development and “reflection.” To satisfy their communities, some programs give hiring preference to locals, qualified or not, leading to the common charge that these programs exist to provide jobs for adults, rather than to support the healthy development of children.

What is the right age? Is three too young? That’s up to parents. Effective preschool programs such as the Perry Preschool Project and the Chicago Child Parent Centers enroll both three- and four-year-olds. Some say that’s critical to success because so many low-income children are already significantly behind by age three.

A critical issue is what happens during the day. Is its focus academic? Beware of a pushed-down curriculum, because it is probably not developmentally appropriate. Play always matters, but it’s especially critical in the early years. It makes sense to me to think of Recess as ‘The 4th R,’ along with reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.’

It’s also important to figure out who is in charge. Non-educators who are not versed in child development shouldn’t be deciding how three- and four-year-olds spend their days. And under no circumstances should those days involve testing.


Because children become what they repeatedly do, it’s essential that they do different things in school. However, it’s equally important that we do the right thing, which above all means expecting more from them.

Here I am building on a foundation provided by Aristotle and philosopher Will Durant: “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; ‘these virtues are formed in man by his doing his actions’; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Kicking the habit of school reform demands that we look carefully at the routines of school.  If schools demand that students fill in bubbles, color inside the lines, fall into line when ordered to do so, and never ask why or question authority, those children are unlikely to become independent thinkers and doers. Going forward, we must expect and encourage students to dig deeply into subjects and ideas they are curious about. Teachers must then use their students’ curiosity—about The Odyssey, skydiving, auto mechanics, the French Revolution, or rap music—to ensure that they also master clear writing and thinking, mathematical concepts, and other essentials.

This is a fundamental shift. In our current system, teachers are seen as the workers, students as the product.  No longer. In tomorrow’s schools, students are the workers, and knowledge is the product.  For that to happen, the work must be genuine, not regurgitating state capitals or the periodic table of elements.  My book provides examples of real work, often taken from classrooms I have visited, and others are described in Step 6, below.

(Habitual behavior at home also matters. Children whose parents allow them to spend their free time on screens playing video games and texting with friends, who aren’t required to pick up their dirty laundry, keep their rooms clean and help around the house, and who aren’t expected to participate in conversations at the dinner table are likely to grow up to be one sort of adult. On the other hand, children whose parents expect them to join on trips to museums, the library, and the grocery store, who participate in family activities, and who are encouraged to think about the needs of others develop very different habits as adults.)


Spoiler alert: this chapter has a clear bottom-line message. It is that technology, no matter how powerful, will never completely replace teachers. Wisely used, however, it will make good teachers more effective.

Before the age of the Internet, the schools we need to create for all children could not have existed. No chance! While, in theory, teachers could have asked the essential question about every child—“How is this particular child intelligent?”—the second step, which involves personalized learning pathways for each and every child, was unimaginable. However, that is now possible because the Internet and modern technology enable students to dig deeper and soar higher than ever before. But technology must be embraced with care, and adults will have to learn to give up a large measure of control over children’s learning. Neither is guaranteed, and neither one is a slam dunk.

The cliché about idle hands doing the devil’s work has been rewritten for an age of smartphones and computers, and now it reads “Idle thumbs do the devil’s work.” Cute, but wrong, because it is idle minds that do the work of the devil. Because technology is ubiquitous among the young, their minds must be engaged productively; if not, lots of bad things are likely to occur.

For too long schools have either resisted technology or, more likely, employed it to process data and increase control. This step calls for what amounts to nearly a 180-degree turn, so that technology, with the guidance of skilled teachers, enables students to have significant control over their learning.

Let’s begin with the basics. Both the common #2 pencil and the most tricked-out smartphone are technological tools. Both have common sense age restrictions. No three- or four-year-old should be handling a sharpened #2 pencil; the appropriate age for a smartphone is arguable, but it exists. Both tools are value-free, meaning that how they are used depends on the user. The individual wielding a pencil can write a love sonnet, a grocery list, or a threatening anonymous letter. The user of a smartphone (which has more computing power than the computers that sent the first man to the moon in 1969) can do all these things, and far more. However, the essential fact remains: how technology is used depends on the values of the user.


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 percentage drops into the teens. Even if you include households with grandparents, the percentage probably won’t reach 40.

Never forget that people in households with no strong connection to public education 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 younger people, 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.

It will be difficult for many educators to take this step because they have grown accustomed to a system that says, in effect, “Drop the children and the money at the schoolhouse door, and leave the rest to us.” That approach won’t work anymore, if it ever did. The outside world, meaning ordinary taxpayers and the business community, may also have trouble adjusting, because they’ve grown comfortable with being kept at arm’s length. But that’s what has to change . . . and determined educators can do this pretty easily by meeting the outsiders where they are and involving them in the curriculum of a modern world. Here are a few ways.

  • 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.
  • Utilizing Skype, the school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers simultaneously with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county.
  • A video team can interview adults in a senior citizen center 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, including 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).


Most of the 3.3 million teachers now in classrooms will probably be teaching in the new schools we are determined to create, but with new challenges and opportunities. These experiences will change them and the way they teach. If we do this right, millions of teachers will rediscover why they entered the field in the first place. When they see their students grow and soar, they will become again who they once were, idealistic and socially conscious individuals.

However, embracing teachers is also going to disrupt some institutions and people who work in them. It requires major changes, but since you’ve come this far in the program, why stop now?

First, let’s insist on collaboration. Right now teaching is a closed-door profession, just as it was when I taught high school in the mid-1960s. Most teachers can close their doors and operate as they see fit, with rare visits by colleagues or supervisors. Teachers ought to be able to visit each other’s classrooms to learn from each other. That means reducing the number of hours of teaching so that collaboration (including watching each other teach) is possible. At the present time most American teachers teach for about twenty-seven hours a week. Contrast that with Finland, where ten to twelve hours is the norm. This sort of observational learning will require hiring more adults, but we can pay for that by scrapping so-called professional development entirely. It’s almost universally conceded to be useless, and it’s costing as much as $15,000 per teacher per year.

In these new schools, teachers will rarely be asking “what” questions, as in “What is the capital of Missouri?” or “What branch of government originates legislation?” Instead, they will be asking their students “why” and “how” questions. These are big changes.

In our current education system, it’s far too easy for just about anyone to become a teacher . . . and far too difficult for most teachers to excel at the task. It’s estimated that about 40 percent of teachers leave the field within their first five years on the job. What’s not clear is how many of them leave because they failed at the task, how many depart for personal reasons, and how many quit because teaching is frustrating work. Among the problems: low pay, low status, poor preparation, not much hope of advancement, lack of professional atmosphere, and (especially but not only for bright women) benighted male administrators.

The basic idea of changing teaching can be reduced to a bumper sticker: “Harder to Become, Easier to Be.” But making the needed changes will be neither simple nor easy, because some many people and systems actually benefit from today’s inefficient approach of weak preparation, inadequate orientation of new employees, an out-of-whack pay structure, a poor rewards system, and excessive (but often unsupportive) supervision. Teacher training institutions, their home universities, school districts, state budgets and budget directors, and others stand to lose something, or at a minimum be significantly changed. Even teachers, accustomed to a certain way of instruction, will face challenges in reinventing themselves.

However, it is important to remember that other changes will also be taking place because educators, policy makers, and school systems have committed to taking the other steps outlined in this book. They will be assessing students differently, they will be engaging their communities, they will be harnessing technology productively, and they will have embraced a vision in which students are the workers and knowledge their product. Changes such as these will make it easier for rookie and veteran teachers alike to remake themselves and to succeed. Making the field of teaching more attractive is essential. These changes should reverse the decline in interest noted earlier and slow the rate of attrition.


Predictably, our addiction to school reform is most visible every spring, during testing season. That’s when learning and teaching stop in most schools and test prep begins in earnest. In some schools, it’s test prep pretty much all year long. School reform’s supporters are obsessed with measurement and testing rules. Districts spend tens of billions of dollars a year buying, preparing for, administering, and grading standardized tests.

It’s disgraceful but true that children in high- and medium-poverty schools are likely to spend more than a month learning how to take tests, despite clear evidence that test prep does not work. The gap in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was exacerbated by excessive practice taking tests: the more test prep, the larger the drop in scores.

That obsessive focus must be overthrown. But even if you are convinced that our current system of measuring achievement is doing far more harm than good, we still have to find better ways of measuring learning. Assessments are necessary to evaluate students and help them learn, as well as to help make judgments about schools and the adults in them.

The maxim “Measure What Matters” (which is part of my developing line of bumper stickers) is unambiguous:  first figure out what we care about in education, and then develop ways of measuring those skills. Right now most school systems do pretty much the opposite, valuing what’s easy (and inexpensive) to measure. A more cynical but defensible interpretation holds that because the school reform crowd endorses and supports “test and punish,” with teachers as the target, cheap tests are just fine for that purpose. This policy has poisoned learning by turning it into a “gotcha” game.

A healthier approach calls for “assess to improve,” with assessment as a tool to help both students and teachers get better. The contrast between “assess to improve” and “test and punish” could not be more stark.

Whenever anyone talks seriously about changing schools, the elephant in the room is academic achievement: how will we measure academic progress if we abandon these tests, which almost everyone hates? Academic learning must not be understood as the only goal, but its importance cannot be overlooked or dismissed. Yes, the unwarranted emphasis most schools put on costly and time-consuming standardized testing distorts the process of teaching and learning in schools, but the public and parents have the right to know what students are learning. We must have measures of learning—that is, tests—but they must be valid, reliable measures of genuine learning.

The multiple-choice questions on standardized, machine-scored tests are not designed to measure diligence, honesty, tolerance, fairness, and compassion, which are the values and attitudes that parents repeatedly say they want their children to possess. Parents want their kids to be well rounded; to develop the skills they need to continue learning on their own; and to become good citizens, productive workers, and fulfilled human beings. Most employers would probably agree. But how do schools assess those skills and abilities?

My argument is that a new system that asks how each child is intelligent must determine what matters most and then—and only then—develop measures to assess progress toward those outcomes. Or, as some advocates express it, measure what we value, instead of valuing what we measure.


Now the bottom-line question: Do those who are frustrated with the addiction to school reform have the will and the courage to follow this path? That’s hard to say. After all, it will be far easier to keep on doing what we’ve been doing, even when we know we ought to change. It’s more comfortable to work hard on small changes, what David Tyack and Larry Cuban famously called “tinkering toward utopia” in their book of that title—but fiddling and patching, rather than repairing our broken system, is how we became addicted to reform in the first place.

Even though we know in our gut that today’s schools are obsolete, the question is whether states, school districts, and individuals will have the courage to do the right thing. Schools are no longer the repository of knowledge they were in the days before the Internet. Today’s children swim in a sea of information 24/7. However, information is not knowledge. So in this new paradigm schools have new duties and challenges: they must help teach young people how to sift through the flood of information and give them the skills to determine what is true. Teachers have to stop asking so many “What?” questions and instead ask “Why?” and “How?” Formulating more questions and searching creatively for answers is the work that students—knowledge workers—must be doing. We have to build “knowledge factories” for our children, not more schools in the current mold.

We know that, because of technology, the school’s long-standing task of socialization has taken on new meaning with our children, digital natives who socialize via hundreds of apps. Schools need educators who understand that their job is to transform these digital natives into digital citizens. These young digital citizens must use technology to create knowledge, because if they are not encouraged and allowed to do this, many will—out of boredom or malice—use the dazzling variety of tools we call social media to harass and abuse the most vulnerable among them.

If we allow schools to continue as regurgitation factories where students are “products,” if we persist in judging teachers based on the test scores of those products, and if we fail to insist that schools harness the awesome potential of technology, then we will always have schools where the brightest students are bored and the most vulnerable are bullied.

Because we are what we repeatedly do and because we do not want to produce generations of adults who are minimal participants in our democracy, students must spend their days developing the skills and capabilities that we want them to have as adults. It’s a tall order: students must master the basic skills of numeracy, reading, and writing and the new basics of speaking persuasively, listening carefully and critically, working collaboratively, and being reflective, all while mastering modern technology.

It bears repeating that we have to do the work. Experience has taught us that Washington cannot run public education, we know that the well-organized and well-funded school reform crowd cannot be trusted, and the Trump administration has promised to return power to parents, communities and states. DIY, America!

This approach can cure American business’s persistent headache, transform public education, make school much more challenging and relevant for students, and reverse the supposed “rising tide of mediocrity.” Perhaps the best way for a school district to start is with a few pilot schools, built on the basic principles outlined above. Creating a system of schools that measures what matters and takes care to ask of each child “How are you intelligent?” will require strong leadership at every level. The larger community must be invested in what happens to other people’s children, and that won’t happen on its own.

“Freedom to fail” is a new idea for most students, who are used to being spoon-fed information that they then regurgitate. Telling them that those days are over is one thing; getting them accustomed to this new world of greater responsibility and opportunity won’t be easy. School boards and administrators must stick to their guns, because change will be difficult and messy, particularly because every adult grew up in, and was educated by, the old system, the one that sorted them into “winners” and “losers.”

The education press will have to get out of the habit of elevating newcomers to heroic status—for a while—and then tearing them down. They must learn to be skeptical from day one. Not cynical, but questioning.

Schools of education and their universities will be challenged as never before, because when teaching becomes an appealing profession that does not lose 40 percent of new teachers within four or five years, ed schools will lose what has been a cash cow for them. Ending churn will dramatically affect the landscape in teacher education—half of the schools of education currently in existence might go out of business. Let’s hope that only those that provide value survive.

Giant testing companies such as Pearson will lose their huge contracts, as well they should.

There will be other losers:

  1. Those who have been benefitting from failure and mediocrity, that chattering class of critics and scholars who regularly dine out on tales of educational woe or get grants to study trivialities, will discover that their free lunch is over.
  2. Jettisoning the medical model that diagnoses weaknesses and claims it can “cure” our children of their “deficits” with drugs, expensive testing and tutoring, or expensive technology will mean pink slips for all those specialists. Instead we are adopting a health model of schooling that builds on children’s strengths—because all children have strengths.
  3. The biggest and most deserving losers will be the for-profit charter school chains, including the virtual charters. And any non-profit charter school that refuses to be transparent about its spending will lose its right to operate.

But what if we ignore the evidence that is right in front of us and do nothing? What if we continue to isolate children by race and economic status, all while blathering about the “achievement gap”, “no excuses” schools, and the importance of “school choice”? What if we tolerate the continued isolation of schools from the larger society, all the while expecting them to solve myriad problems?

If we do nothing to radically change a system that identifies “winners” and “losers” at an early age; if we do nothing about a system that tests children excessively, labels them permanently, and then uses their test scores to punish educators; if we do nothing about schools that ignore technology’s potential but use it instead to control; if we do nothing to transform a system that expects teachers and schools to “do it all,” thereby setting them up to fail; then we are dooming generations of children to second-class status.

That is not something I can live with or stand for, and I suspect most caring people in the United States feel similarly. Our dangerous, destructive habits have to be kicked.

(Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education is available at local booksellers and on Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites.)


I want to suggest another New Year’s Resolution: Speak up for teachers!  The bashing and the budget cuts continue, the new tax bill undercuts public education in a major way, children and teachers in Baltimore City are forced to spend their days in unheated public school buildings, and teaching is–understandably–losing quality women and men.  We can fight back in lots of ways, starting with organizing to see that schools are adequately supported.

Please take a moment to think about the teachers who helped make you who you are today.  I’m sharing memories of two teachers who changed the way I think about education and (I hope) the way I conduct myself.   I hope you will share your own stories in the comment section

Good leaders keep good teachers in the field, and bad leaders drive them out. It’s almost that simple. In forty-one years of reporting about education, I must have visited at least five thousand classrooms and observed an awful lot of really good teaching. My all-time favorite teacher is George from Maine. To me, George embodies the best in the business, because of what he stood for and how he stood his ground when the going got tough. We met at his public high school in the late 1970s. At the principal’s recommendation, I sat in on George’s ethics class, which was lively and interesting. Afterward we had a cup of coffee at my request, because I wanted to hear his story. Ethics, he told me, was one of a bunch of elective courses that seniors could choose from for their final semester of high school. He had taught it for the first time one year earlier.

Although the principal had already told me the basic outline of George’s story, I asked him to tell me what had happened in his class. He agreed. “I set the bar high because it’s an ethics class,” he said. “I tell the students that I accept only A or B work. Anything else, they get a grade of incomplete. I make it crystal clear to them that they cannot flunk the class—or even pass with a D or a C.” He told me that he did this because he wanted them to approach their lives and careers that way.

How did the kids react? “They’re seniors, and so a lot of them blow it off, of course,” he told me, “but I make them sign a letter of agreement up front. If they won’t sign, they can’t take the course.” He had cleared this approach with the principal, who agreed to support him. Midway through the semester not even half of the kids were doing A or B work, and so he reminded them of the contract they’d signed. He told me he could see their eyes roll.

With a few weeks left, many were still well under the A/B bar. And that’s when it got really interesting, he said. When the guidance counselor spotted all those incompletes on the interim reports, she called those students to her office and told them their diplomas were in jeopardy because no one with an incomplete was allowed to graduate.

Panic ensued, he told me. The students came clamoring to his classroom. “Please just flunk me,” some kids begged. They told him that they had enough credits to graduate, so an F wouldn’t hurt. “Remember the contract,” he responded. “No grade of F, D, or C allowed. Go back and do the work,” he advised. Now, remember that George had obtained the principal’s approval in advance, probably because he anticipated some problems. But he couldn’t have imagined what happened next. One student with an incomplete went home and complained to his father, who just happened to be the chair of the school board. That gentleman made an appointment to see George.

He came in, George recalled, with a mix of bluster and unctuousness. “I’m so proud of my son,” George remembers him saying. “My boy has been accepted at Colgate, he was voted most likely to succeed, he’s interning this summer at the local bank, and he’s spending all his time working on his speech for graduation—he was chosen to be class speaker. He’s on track to graduate, so why don’t you just give him a D? Or even an F, if that would make you feel better?”

“This is an ethics class,” George told the father. “And are you certain that’s the ethical lesson you want me to teach your son: that contracts don’t matter, that his word doesn’t matter, and that all that really matters is who you know?” Chastened, the father went home. The son did the work.

For me, George and his principal became models for the profession: high standards and expectations; clear rules; choices for students; academic performance as the constant, with time the variable; intellectual courage on George’s part; and solid leadership from the principal.

The best teacher I had outside of school and home was a coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. I’ve been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember, but I’ve been only a fan, not a player. In my case fan is short for fantasy, not fanatic. As a kid in the 1950s I spent hours being the hero of imaginary baseball games, throwing an old tennis ball against the barn wall and pretending to be Johnny Logan or Red Schoendienst in the field, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, or Stan Musial at bat. In real life, unfortunately, I was pretty awful, invariably one of the last chosen for pickup games and almost always the right fielder. But I had one glorious moment when I was twenty: an accidental invitation to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals, and a brief—very brief—chance to sit in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dugout during a game.

In 1961, during my year off from Dartmouth, I was working in Kansas as a reporter-photographer for the Leavenworth Times. I was restless, enthusiastic, and energetic, and I managed to get myself fired in February 1962, largely for being a pain in the neck.

Jobless, I was free to do whatever I wanted, so I decided to hitchhike around the country. I took to the road, intending to wend my way south, toward warm weather and, more important, spring training.

I had read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road at least twice and was ready for adventures. Carrying only a sleeping bag and a dark blue flight bag with a Pan Am logo on it, I headed for St. Petersburg, Florida, where I knew I’d find the Cardinals, and Bradenton, where the Braves trained. Along the way I found places to sleep where I could: in fraternity houses, in the jail in West Memphis, Arkansas (my choice, not theirs), and under the stars, snug in my sleeping bag.

Coming into St. Petersburg toward the end of one afternoon, I asked the driver I had hitched a ride with to drop me as close as he could to Al Lang Field. He did so, and I still remember feeling awestruck, standing outside the park.

I walked right in—no guards, no passes, no questions. My awe turned to confusion because dozens of ballplayers were walking off the field, clad in nondescript, ragtag uniforms that looked more high school than major league. Still on the field standing around home plate, however, were several men in full Cardinal uniforms. Later it occurred to me that they must have been comparing notes on the hopefuls who had just tried out, would-be ballplayers who had paid their own way to St. Pete. That explained their uniforms, as well as what happened next.

Suddenly one of the Cardinals, seemingly one of the coaches, spotted me at the edge of the field. At six feet two inches and 185 pounds, I must have looked like another young hopeful. He walked over and said, “You’re too late, kid. I’m sorry.”

I had no idea what he was talking about and was too intimidated to ask. He must have taken my silence for shyness, and so he put his hand on my shoulder.

“Where’d you come from, kid?” he asked.

“Kansas,” I answered truthfully.

His expression grew sadder. “Jeez, I’m real sorry, but we just finished. It’s all over.”

I didn’t say anything, and after another minute he asked me how I’d gotten to St. Pete. I’d hitched, I told him.

“What position you play?”

“Right field,” I answered truthfully, “and third base,” I added, not so truthfully—my favorite player, Eddie Mathews, was a third baseman.

“You look like you can hit the long ball,” he said. That didn’t seem to be a question but an assumption suggested by my athletic build. I wasn’t about to tell him the truth.

After another silence, he smiled. “Tell you what, kid,” he said. “We’ve got a game tomorrow with the Pirates. You come here a couple of hours early, and I’ll let you hit a few. See what you can do. Whaddya say?”

I was stunned. He was mistaking me for a ballplayer, and he thought I had major league potential! I thanked him and left in a daze. I had just been invited, sort of, to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals. A genuine major league coach had looked at me and concluded that I might be a long-ball hitter! For a few minutes I was eleven or twelve again, in a coiled batting stance like Stan the Man, hitting against Lou Burdette or Warren Spahn.

Slowly I came back down to earth. Not only was I not a major league prospect, I was in a strange city. It was dusk, and I had no place to sleep.

I hitchhiked to Florida Presbyterian (now Eckerd College) and met some guys who agreed to let me crash on the couch in their apartment. At dinner we all laughed at the prospect of my actually trying out the next day—wouldn’t it be funny if I held the bat by the wrong end or threw the ball underhand? In fact, I had no intention of embarrassing myself by going through with the charade. But we all decided to watch the Cardinals-Pirates game anyway.

Spring training was relaxed and informal in 1962, not the cash cow it is today. The elderly man taking tickets glanced at my old press card and let me in. He didn’t seem to notice when I handed the card back to the next guy, who used it and handed it back to the next guy, until all six of us were in. We sat in the sun for a few innings, but I was feeling cocky and wanted more excitement. I went back to the field entrance and stood near the Pirates’ dugout, watching the game and stealing glances into the dugout at more of my heroes. While I was there one of the Pirates left the dugout, crossed in front of me, and went under the stands. He lit a cigarette, and when he took off his cap I saw his nearly bald head and realized that he was Dick Groat, one of the best shortstops in baseball.

I walked over to him and asked for a cigarette. He gave me one, and I told him about my invitation to try out for the Cardinals. Groat was amused, probably because I made fun of that Cardinal coach for having been taken in by my appearance. When he had finished his cigarette, he asked me to tell the story to some of the guys in the dugout. A minute later I found myself sitting on the bench. Bill Mazeroski was there, and so was Roberto Clemente, and I hoped my new college friends could see me. Groat told me to tell the guys my story. I started to, but I never got the chance to finish.

“Who the fuck is that?” a loud, gravelly voice demanded. “Get him the fuck out of here!” It was the tough-talking, cigar-smoking manager of the Pirates, Danny Murtaugh.

I waited for Groat or someone else to speak on my behalf, but no one did. Murtaugh advanced, glowering at me, but then dismissed me with a derisive wave. “Get your ass out of here. This is the big leagues.”

I left, but not before hearing Murtaugh say, “What are you clowns up to? If you guys want to win, then pay attention. That kid doesn’t even look like a ball player.”

Every story should have a hero, the person who teaches an indispensable lesson. It took me a long time to figure out who the hero was. It wasn’t Groat, Mazeroski, or any of the other Pirates I’d sat with during my brief major league career. No, the hero was that Cardinal coach. I doubt that he’d seen major league potential in me; instead, he saw a kid with big dreams, and he wasn’t going to break my heart simply because I was a few hours late.

I wish now that I knew who he was . . . and that it hadn’t taken me so long to appreciate his gesture.

Excerpted from “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education” (The New Press, 2017)