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Topics / Improving Schools & Systems

Education Intervention

Drawing on four decades of reporting experience, one of the biggest names in education journalism prescribes a recovery plan for America’s schools

Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education
John Merrow
The New Press. 277 pp. 2017.

In television news, journalists gravitate toward soundbite machines — experts with a gift for distilling a lot of information into clear and preferably pithy commentary. After 41 years as a public radio and TV reporter, John Merrow has perfected the skill. This is key when you consider that his area of expertise, K–12 education, is notoriously fraught.

Merrow’s latest book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education, takes its name from the Alcoholics Anonymous guide for recovery. It’s about everyone hooked on “quick fixes for deep systemic problems,” and it offers many memorable observations and suggested alternatives. For example:

K–12 Education: Let’s stop asking (each young child), “How intelligent are you?” Let’s ask instead, “How are you intelligent?”

Students: They suffer from ADD — an acronym for “affection deficit disorder” — caused by failure to “show students that you care deeply about them personally and academically.”

Teachers: “Our current education system makes it too easy for just about anyone to become a teacher ... and far too difficult for most teachers to excel at the task.”

Testing: “regurgitation education” that leads to “miseducated” students.

Technology: “Young people may be digital natives, but it remains the responsibility of adults to see that they become digital citizens” in regards to cyberbullying and online learning.

The substance of Merrow’s 12-step program is a plan to help redesign and rescue our public schools. He offers guideposts in chapters with titles such as “Own the Problem,” “Start Early,” and “Embrace Teachers (Respectfully).” In the chapter “Embrace ‘Outsiders’ (Enthusiastically)” he urges schools to treat parents as essential assets instead of as outsiders. Among the problems, one stands out as Merrow’s top culprit: the obsession with testing and test scores, a practice that he blames for all sorts of damage and, perhaps worst of all, for facilitating inequality: “Schools sort young children in two basic groups: a minority of ‘winners’ who are placed on a track leading them to elite colleges, prominence, and financial success, and everyone else. While the rest aren’t labeled ‘losers’ per se, they are largely left to struggle on their own.”

The irony here is that inequality was also the primary concern of the reformers who took on the education establishment starting in the 1980s to help lead the standards and assessments movement — work that was supported by numerous education organizations and philanthropic foundations, including Carnegie Corporation of New York. The goal was to provide greater opportunity for all children by employing a more data-driven model that could improve accountability, which was a relatively new concept in education at the time. With reliable test scores, educators and parents would know which schools were failing (especially the ones that served disadvantaged and minority children in urban areas), leading them to advocate for remediation programs, as well as for the additional funding that these programs were likely to require.

What happened next — Common Core State Standards, the flawed rollout, and subsequent parent revolt — were problems of implementation, not of intention. This is an all-important distinction the author does not make. Merrow never fully explains why reformers believed that the tests were needed and the conditions that existed prior to the standards and assessments. He does not address the ways in which schools were allowed to languish because there was little proof that students were not learning and no mechanism for holding teachers, schools, and even parents more accountable.

Only near the end of Addicted to Reform does Merrow concede that there is a place for testing as long as it can “measure what matters.” He advocates for grading students differently through alternatives such as portfolios and on factors such as an “ethical character.” He also suggests that communities put the emphasis on the quality of the school, and establish their own criteria, including points for offering significant art or music programs, daily recess, regular assessments developed by teachers, and project-based learning, among others.

Merrow’s analysis of the nation’s education issues is supported throughout by anecdotes and research, including a series of semi-autobiographical sidebars called “Memory Lane,” drawn mostly from his reporting career. Both amusing and horrifying, these recollections demonstrate why the author earned many prestigious journalism awards and a reputation as one of the great storytellers in education news.

Learning how his career began, his success is all the more endearing. In one amusing anecdote Merrow reveals that he was fired from his first reporting job for lying about his qualifications — he had none, except for the “reporting bug.” A far more distressing account tells of a nine-year- old girl at a mental health institution, whose sexually provocative behavior reflected a history of abuse. And an inspiring story from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, features a military veteran who became an elementary school teacher. “If you take care of my country, I’ll take care of your son,” he tells a father shipping out to Iraq.

In 2015 Merrow retired from PBS NewsHour and Learning Matters, the video production company he founded and sold to the parent company of Education Week — each of them either current or past grantees of the Corporation (along with many other education nonprofits). Funder status does not insulate education programs from Merrow’s critiques, and perhaps retirement has made him even more candid. He fires away at a range of targets with considerable irreverence, not sparing boldface names in K–12 education, philanthropic funders, charter school operators, testing and test prep companies, and Big Pharma.

That candor plus decades of high-level access make Merrow’s 12-step program a powerful read for just about anyone who cares about education — from parents to school superintendents. And while Addicted to Reform is unlikely to trigger the “spiritual awakening” called for in AA’s 12th step, without authors who scrutinize the health of the public education system, our nation’s schools will remain, as Merrow puts it, mired in the past and unable to meet the needs of the 21st century.