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Thoughts From The Author On "Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education"

By John Merrow
"The more things change, the more they remain the same" is certainly applies to public education.  Today's headlines are about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her 'Rethink School' tour.  Apparently we have forgotten that in 2015 and 2016 Education Secretaries Arne Duncan and John King took their own bus tours around the country right about now. Last year's theme was 'Opportunity Across America.'  

What my new book offers is a long-range perspective: we have been 'reforming' schools for many, many years, generally without any real change...even though headlines suggest otherwise.  

A good example of a recent faux reform is the effort to raise the high school graduation rate, a signature campaign of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. During his tenure, the rate climbed from about 70% to 83%. In some cases, struggling students graduated because of tutoring and other compassionate attention, and that's a good thing. However, many other struggling students achieved passing grades because of 'Credit Recovery,' the dubious practice of putting students in front of computers for a week or so of pushing buttons, for which they could earn a full semester's credit in basic courses. Other students got diplomas because adults cheated by either helping them on standardized tests or by changing their answers post-test.  The graduation rate was also manipulated when some schools 'persuaded' struggling students to leave school to enroll in GED programs--but failed to ensure that the students actually enrolled. (We reported on this twice for the NewsHour; the first piece was nominated for the Emmy for Investigative Reporting.) When the rate jumped, reformers celebrated this accomplishment, while of course taking pains to say things like, 'The struggle isn't over and won't be over until every student graduates.'  
 
After a while, the system returns to where it was when the 'reform' effort began, and then politicians and others begin assigning blame. "It's the families," or "it's the teachers," or "it's the kids themselves...."

At the macro-level, the cumulative effect of years and years of faux 'reform' is decidedly negative: 1) a damaging pessimism about public education, 2) waves of criticism of teachers and their unions, and 3) increased national and state regulation.  However, at the local level, parents remain satisfied with the schools their children attend, even as they give the overall system a bad grade.  And just today a poll from GenForward reveals that "Majorities of Millennials give their own education an "A" or "B" grade, but the nation's public schools score lower."

This cognitive dissonance is more than a paradox.  It's problematic because only 37% of adults can name ONE basic right guaranteed by the US Constitution. Given that many Americans seem not to grasp the uniqueness of our nation, one has to wonder how strong the fabric of our democracy is today.

The solution is not more faux 'school reform' but real change.  As with all addictions, the process must begin by acknowledging our addiction to superficial (and easy) change.  There are 12 steps in all, most of which are familiar to followers of Maria Montessori, John Dewey and others.  But it's time for words, not deeds. 
For example, most Americans support pre-school, but only 43% of our 3-year-olds are enrolled, a huge contrast to the OECD average of 73%. That has to change.
Another example: we need to 'measure what we value,' instead of valuing what we can measure cheaply.  Most countries use tests to determine how students are doing. The US seems to be alone in using test scores as a way of punishing teachers.
Example: As Aristotle teaches us, 'We are what we repeatedly do.' For that simple reason, students should spend their time in school doing work that matters. Project-based learning, when students learn, fail, and learn from their mistakes together, is essential preparation for adult life.  Test-prep is not preparation for anything except taking tests.

I'm arguing that we must create schools which consider each child individually by asking, in effect, "How are you intelligent?" and not "How smart are you?"

We simply don't have enough children to go sorting them into 'winners' and 'losers' when they are 6, 7, or 8 years old.  As Willie Nelson might have sung, "There's time enough for sorting when the game is done."

During my 41 years of reporting, I've seen three major changes, only one of which is positive: 1) the inclusion and acceptance of children with special needs;  2) the resegregation of public schools after long and concerted efforts at desegregation; and 3) the rise of high-stakes testing with all of its unfortunate consequences, including widespread cheating by adults and the dumbing down of the curriculum.

(If you are wondering about technology, it is--so far--not on my list because many schools are using its unprecedented powers to attempt to stuff more facts into students' heads, instead of giving them more agency over their own education.)

On the other hand, there is hope, because, in some high schools in the last two years, 80% and even 90% of students have 'opted out' of mandated standardized tests.  Perhaps real change does begin at the bottom...
(John Merrow reported on public education for the PBS NewsHour and NPR for 41 years before retiring in late 2015.  During his career he received two George Foster Peabody Awards, the George Polk Award, and the McGraw Prize.  Addicted to Reform is his fourth book.)

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