Learning from John Merrow's Four Decades of Education Reporting

09/15/2017 09:30 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2017

John Merrow’s Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education featured an all-important question.

Asian American public school students outperform whites by 15 points. So, why didn’t school reformers say, “let’s eliminate recess, physical education, art, and music for middle- and upper-middle-class white kids and substitute drilling and more drilling until they catch up?”

Merrow reviews the way that test and punish “went into high gear during [the] Bush and Obama” administrations. Sadly, these true believers in corporate reform believe that test-driven reform was more than an opportunity to sound tough by saying the word “accountability” over and over again. Clueless, but sincere, advocates claimed that bubble-in reform was “the civil rights movement of the 21st century.” How they can still maintain such an absurdity is harder to explain.

As Merrow describes, output-driven, competition-driven reform was a fundamentally anti-intellectual experiment. But continuing to deny that it has failed isn’t rational. To explain the continuing commitment to test and punish, Merrow astutely borrows from the language of addiction.

The veteran reporter, with four decades of experience at NPR and PBS, recalls the legacies of “blindly worshipping test scores.” Under Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, and Michelle Rhee, et. all and with funding by the “Billionaires Boys Clubs,” test scores became more than “the holy grail.” Merrow concludes, “Test scores are their addiction, the equivalent of crack cocaine, oxycodone, or crystal meth.”

When high stakes testing was ramped up as a stick to be applied to every single educator, the result was predictable; “‘regurgitation education’ became the order of the day.” As Merrow documents, accountability-driven, competition-driven reformers turned schools into dreary places for “parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education and citizenship.”

Merrow does what reformers fail to do when tallying the meager gains produced by test-driven, charter-driven policies, while ignoring the economic and human price of their experiments. Reformers tout dramatic gains in meaningless state test scores, but ignore the reliable NAEP results. After years of incremental gains, NAEP scores have gone flat or declined, as the achievement gap increased. Moreover, NAEP takers who weren’t drilled for state assessments score 9 points higher than those who were prepped.

Merrow dubs the unintended and ignored (by reformers) cost of reforms Edugenesis, or the education version of the medical term for doctor-caused problems. Of course, high stakes testing narrowed the curriculum and encouraged cheating, as well as “juking the stats,” while undermining the trusting relationships that are the key to learning.

When proposing solutions, such as high-quality early education, Merrow warns against repeating the history of accountability-driven policies. We must not let the premature introduction of academics drive guided play out of early education. We must repudiate the mentality that prompted a New York kindergarten to cancel its annual play so five-year-olds could spend more time becoming “college and career ready.” Merrow warns, “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.”

Merrow concludes, “Students have been the losers, sentenced to mind-numbing schooling. Teachers who care about their craft have also lost out.” He strongly supports teachers and unions who opposed the way that “test and punish” predictably “poisoned learning by turning it into a ‘gotcha game.’” He unambiguously states that we will not “get out of the woods” until we “stop belittling and sometimes humiliating” educators. But the real heroes of Addicted to Reform are the patrons and students of the grassroots Opt Out movement.

As a former inner city teacher, I must thank John Merrow for his wisdom, his reporting and research and, above all, his listening. His stories from across the nation explain my classroom experience, as well as my dealings with school systems and reformers.

I saw the way that high stakes testing and the extreme proliferation of charters turned my run-of-the-mill inner city school into the type of institution that defies improvement. Our old, low-performing school had plenty of problems and an abundance of strengths. Reform turned it into a demoralized place for those left behind in the competition. Schools with such a critical mass of suffering kids from generational poverty, who have survived multiple traumas, from neighborhoods that lack trusting relationships largely defy improvement.

It is inconceivable to me that the social engineers who imposed this failed experiment could ignore the suffering imposed on kids like mine unless Merrow is correct, and they are “addicted to reform.”

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