On Tue, Feb 13, 2018 at 8:01 AM, John Merrow wrote:

The emperor has no clothes, and I believe 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.

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.)



John Merrow
former Education Correspondent,
PBS NewsHour, and founding President,
Learning Matters, Inc.

My blog:

The Influence of Teachers:

And here’s what I wrote back:

Hi John,

Thanks for this important piece. What a depressing (yet totally predictable) story it’s been to follow. Is anyone surprised by it? Really? Our emperor needs real and honest clothes! Who will be the designer?

I write about these issues in the special education arena, and in my book, Special Education 2.0– Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law, that you mentioned in yours. It’s all a long slog… and so important to our nation.

When will we stop setting impossible targets that don’t help (and actually hurt) teaching and learning in our nation’s classrooms and then blame teachers for not meeting them. Really?

Here’s one of my recent posts. http://schoollawpro.com/koretz-book-about-the-testing-charade-and-my-comment-posted/

All the best. Keep up the good work!


Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA
Author of Special Education 2.0–
–Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law
617 510 0248 (cell)

Here are my thoughts in response to this excellent Education Week piece by Matt Miles.


Thank you, Matt, for this vital piece. It’s about time! As a teacher, you clearly set out the downsides of tech addiction, research funded by technology that drives efforts for 1:1 technology, so-called “personalized instruction,” and other efforts. Thank you for that!

I will check out your blog, PaleoEducation.

I wish you, your book, and your efforts much success. The fact that they called you a “resister” is scary and shocking.

Please let us know how we can help get the word out. Of course, we are all well aware of the fact that many Silicon Valley gurus send their own children to schools, like Waldorf, that don’t use technology. HMMM. Really? Yes, really.

Well, too much technology–as public schools are being urged to provide– is not good for other people’s children, either.

Children’s addiction should be to learning, not to technology or social media.

Thank you!

Thank you, Diane, for highlighting this 2011 story. It was also one of my favorites when I first read it.


The hypocrisy in public education is rich. Too often, policies and “great ideas” are for other people’s children–not our own.

Please visit her blog at dianeravitch.net to see this post and my comment.

If we’re not careful, the rich and powerful will continue to pull their children out of public schools and that will leave those schools ever more for the have-nots. Whither the common good?

These stories matter!

Of course, I mean the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach and the way to improve public education is through special education.

If we want strong robust public schools, we need to understand what’s happening in those schools. And then, believe it or not, it’s vital to understand special education. That’s right, special education.

And that’s because special education, which was created in 1975 to mandate public education for children with special needs, has evolved & expanded to the point that it has become one of the principal drivers of public education policy & finances. Even so, it’s largely ignored. Often, it’s the elephant in the room. If you look at end-of-year lists of top education priorities, you’ll not see it. That’s really too bad.

As I see it, we can’t improve schools for all students without understanding the role and effects of the special education law & delivery system for special education.

Especially with today’s challenge from Washington that if public schools don’t serve all children, the feds will help them opt out through choice and vouchers.

So, the way to fix public education is through special education. As for a man’s heart, I’ll leave that as it’s always been.

Please read this review, as posted on Diane Ravitch’s blog. It raises all sorts of excellent issues. So, I was moved to comment. Enjoy!


Here’s my comment:

Diane, Happy New Year and thanks for posting this interesting and unsettling book review about the negative (and, HMMM, unpredicted?) effects of testing policies set by experts and our government.

As I read it, I realized that these concerns go far beyond testing. Policy makers and experts “set unreasonable targets” in many, many arenas of public education. Take, for example, my area of concern and expertise–special education–and the policies that affect all students and all schools–often, with unintended (unpredicted?) and absurd consequences. Yet we carry on. Who will stop this maddening train?

Too often, targets created by policy makers in Washington and beyond– in the testing and other arenas–don’t hit the mark and damage the very schools we are trying to improve.

When will WE ever learn?

HMMM… whose children are these computers for? Theirs or other people’s. You decide….


And see an earlier story, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html.

When Silicon Valley execs embrace technology in schools for their own children, then let’s talk.

Check out the little program in East Palo Alto (10 Books a Home) where I volunteer as a “role model.” I visit a 4 year old boy (we started when he was 3) in his HOME–role modeling for the PARENTS–the help prevent (not close) that “30-million-word-gap.”

Here’s a great link to the cleats that will be worn by the 49ers’ Solomon Thomas!!


Of course I agree that this IS THE HUGE challenge…. developed in early early early childhood. As I see it, we need to enroll parents when children are babies–IN THE HOME. Parents are a student’s first teachers. Let’s help them be as good as they can be.

Thank you 10booksahome.org! Together, we’re on the right path.


Here’s a story about 10 Books a Home– a small, in-home learning program. It provides an hour a week of games, toys, and books for little kids and helps their parents work with their own children. I know, because I’m as volunteer role model with 10BH–as we call it.

A good read. I do believe in home-based education! Let’s help 10BH and other programs thrive.

It’s about time! No pun intended.

Thank you, Education Week, for this long overdue front page–top story. We need to study how inclusion affects classrooms–teachers and students.

While the story focused on an international study looking at general educators’ time on task and the effect of behavior issues in classrooms, this is but a good first step. We need many more studies need to look at all other aspects of this vital question: How inclusion affects general education–teachers and students (and even parent perception).

As many of you, my loyal readers, know, I’ve focused on this issue for years. See my 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed on Mainstreaming; see my 2017 book, Special Education 2.0 (in the Store on this website as well as on Amazon).

So, a great first step. Thank you, Education Week, for its front page top story placement!

Special education still in “deep trouble” and needs reform–according to California’s President of the State Board of Education, Michael Kirst. Here are the article about his comments (that includes some from me) and the podcast–again, Mike Kirst, followed by me.

I do believe we’re getting the word out…slowly, slowly.

The podcast is about 17 minutes long. The special education segment with Mike Kirst starts around minute 8 and mine starts around minute 11. Enjoy!

Let me know what you think! Onward and upward!