April 21st, 2011

LISTEN: John Merrow On HGSE 'EdCast'

( Click here to download the podcast )

Our president, John Merrow, appeared on the ‘EdCast’ series created by Matt Weber of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. (Merrow is a 1973 alumnus.) The podcast was in conjunction with an event at the Gutman Library, where John gave a speech last week. Listen above to ‘On The Education Beat,’ where John discusses education reporting, how the field has evolved in his long career, and his book The Influence of Teachers , among other topics. To access all Harvard ‘EdCast’ programs — including talks with Davis Guggenheim, Wendy Kopp, Randi Weingarten and more — click here.

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An interesting but ultimately disappointing interview. Based on my 40 years in public education, John oversimplifies a number of things. Two examples “there are two camps.” It’s more complicated. One camp argues, “if we could just replace those bad teachers, everything would be fine.” WOW! That’s about as oversimplified as I can imagine. Finally, “charter schools have never turned out the way the founders/dreamers wanted.” Again, major oversimplification. John is using his huge national opportunity to do things he accuses others of doing. Very disappointing.

Joe Nathan, It’s a 16-minute interview. You say “oversimplified.” Others might say “boiled down.” Please explain concisely the reality that you believe Merrow has over simplified.

Scott, John told the interviewer that there are “two camps.” That’s oversimplified. There are a vast array of groups. John asserted that one camp argues “if we could just replace those bad teachers, everything would be fine.” That’s a serious misrepresentation and oversimplification of what many “reformers” are saying, including Waiting for Superman, Michelle Rhee, and a lot of people working to help create excellent district and charter public schools. Finally, while naming me as one of the people who helped start the charter movement, he asserts, “charter schools have never turned out the way the founders/dreamers wanted.” Never? I’ve seen some fabulous charters all over the nation (also some fabulous district public schools). So assert that charter schools have NEVER turned out the way founders dreamed is to do the kind of oversimplification that Merrow accuses others of.

I told Joe in a personal note that I have been careful to say ‘almost never’ and that I misspoke in that interview. Nonetheless, the aspirations of the charter movement-that successful practices incubated in charter schools would be transferred over to regular public schools by their ‘incubating’ district–has rarely happened. The norms have been out-and-out conflict with Boards, Unions and legislatures, insufficient funding, inadequate or non-existent resources for facilities, and efforts to co-opt the charter idea to support vouchers or boutique-like (and essentially) private schools for elite parents. Joe has pointed out in a second email that many charters are successful, and I agree. But my point remains: the term ‘charter school’ tells you as much about the education it offers as the word ‘restaurant’ tells you about the quality of the food served therein.

John says there are 2 camps and misses a third. For him, the two camps are those who think the job of teaching needs to be fixed, and those who think “if we could just replace those bad teachers, everything would be fine.” (The latter, a direct quote from the Harvard interview.

There’s a third camp that he does not mention in the Harvard review - a group that based on my experience over 40 years, has many members. It’s the group that denies schools can have much impact on students from low income students. Here are sample quotes from those people, responding to a column on wrote posted on education news:
“We can go back as far as Coleman or every study in between and see that 80% of school results are due to the social-economic environment of the student. I have been an inner city teacher, union official university instructor and education writer for 40 years.

Smell the coffee. The difference between Finland (#1 in PISA) and the USA (#19) is the 4% child poverty rate in Finland and the 20% child poverty rate in the USA. The rest of the argument is window dressing. “ Doug Little

“You want to fix america’s education? then focus on improving the socioeconomic status of at risk youth. I mean we keep trying to change education with no results, why don’t we try changing that and see what happens? (Tired teacher)

“Until we return to some reason, and provide resources to poor communities, we won’t get large scale improvements.” Concerned teacher

John wrote in his latest book that “people who throw up their hands and say they can’t do anything (or anything much) because of attendant social issues and problems that exist outside the school ought to find other work.” He and I agree about that. But there are a lot of such people. I don’t think he acknowledged this group in his Harvard interview. If you want to discuss a drag on improving schools, this group has a huge impact.

My friend Joe has a point. There is a third group, those who question the power of schools to change lives. They are not in the ‘war’ that I have been writing and talking about, but they are a factor in public attitudes toward and support of public education. In the future, I will take them into account when I talk about the future of public education. I hold with my original point, however, about the combatants in the war, but the very presence of the nay-sayers is a factor and makes it harder to transform schools. So, Joe, thanks for pointing this out.

Thanks for being willing to reconsider things, John. We also agree that the word “charter” does not tell you more about the quality of the school than the word restaurant tells you about the quality of the food or the word magazine tells you about the reliability of writing in the publication.
Sorry to change the subject, but yesterday our older daughter and I went to an amazing show/concert with an Irish group named “Celtic Woman (yes “woman, not women although there are several women in the group). A wonderful reminder of the power/value of the arts. Happy Easter/Passover.

I would like to add that there is also another group, which I am working hard to organize, who believe that public schools are fundamentally detrimental to children and society at large. We view the efforts to reform school as being analogous to trying to reform slavery. Both institutions are immoral at their core and the actions of reformers are tragically misguided. All public schools are founded on the principal that in order to educate students, you must first deprive them of their civil rights, dignity, and independent will under threat of violence. The primary lessons are obedience to authority and apathy. Improving the community or teachers or physical plant does not alter this basic fundamental.

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