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Of School Mediocrity and the Still-Rising Tide

In his new book, TC Trustee John Merrow gets mad as hell about schools, tells us why we shouldn't take it anymore.

Of School Mediocrity and the Still-Rising Tide

When we last left TC Trustee John Merrow in print, the veteran education journalist was arguing that  “change was possible, even probable,” in America’s education system, so long as “enough educators, politicians and parents believed in excellence and opportunities and were willing to work smart and hard to improve our country’s education system.”

But no more.

“I was wrong,” Merrow states bluntly at the beginning of his new book, Below C Level: How American Education Encourages Mediocrity and What We Can Do About It (2010, self-published).  “I now understand that improving education must also confront and defeat those who benefit from the failure, inefficiency, waste, selfishness and corruption that seem endemic to our education system.”  

In a world where technology and the Internet have made knowledge broadly accessible, “I am asking the question, “Is school obsolete?”, Merrow writes in Below C Level, a title that alludes to the landmark 1983 federal report A Nation at Risk, which warned of a rising tide of mediocrity in American education . “And my answer, essentially, “No, but…”

Merrow traces much of the current dysfunction of American schools to the passage in 1965 of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which created a massive federal program to aid the education of disadvantaged children.

“Apparently chicanery and deception began almost immediately,” he writes. “School districts were supposed to use the new money to supplement programs for poor kids, but many used it to supplant, that is, to replace their own dollars. Others used the money for selfish ends: a new swimming pool, perhaps, or programs for the already well-off.

“In hindsight, that was the beginning of a pattern that continues today: Washington trying and failing to get local districts and states to behave as Washington believes they should, and schools and districts putting their own (adult and financial) interests ahead of learning opportunities for students.”

The solutions require hard work, commitment, money and time, Merrow says, “but not patience. I think it’s time to be impatient, to be mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore.”

In five vividly written sections, Below C Level offers a scathing assessment of the current school system and lays out Merrow’s vision for creating effective schools that can “slow the world down and enable students to dig deeply into issues while learning basic skills and truths, so that they will be able to function easily in the fast-changing world outside.”

In “Follow the Money,” Merrow argues that when it comes to education spending in America, “we’re aiming too low and we’re succeeding.” On the broadest level, he asserts that “the conventional wisdom, that education spending has been going up for years, is wrong.” While school spending climbed from $100 billion in 1985 to about $500 billion in 2001, it has significantly declined as a portion of GDP, from 9 percent in 1980 to less than 5 percent in 2001.  

America underpays its teachers, too, Merrow finds, noting that in 1991, the average U.S. teacher made slightly more than the average college graduate, while in 2008, the median annual wage for K-12 teachers was between $47,100 and $51,180, while the average starting salary for a 2010 graduate with a bachelor’s degree is $48,351. American teachers fare even worse in terms of compensation when compared with those in other OECD countries.

However, according to Merrow, “nothing illustrates our parsimony as powerfully as our spending on testing.” In 2006, the United States spent “just 15 cents of every $100 on NCLB tests,” while in the same year the Hartz pet product company spent at least 10 times more testing bird seed, flea powder and cat litter.

“Cheap tests, the tail wagging the dog, are the principal cause of education’s decline into rote tedium,” Merrow writes.

In a section titled “Follow the Leader,” Merrow highlights the strengths of two big-city school chiefs he admires, Michelle Rhee, superintendent of Washington, D.C. schools, and Paul Vallas, head of the public school system in New Orleans. Merrow tells how Rhee, faced with a system clogged with unqualified employees who’d been hired through patronage, invited two colleagues from his production company, Learning Matters, to film her firing someone and air it on TV. Of Vallas, Merrow writes, “my impression is that he is willing to try just about anything – and everything – if there’s even the slightest chance it will make a difference,” including creating alternative schools for kids in New Orleans who were falling behind and hiring a private company to run them.

In the section “Follow the Teacher,” which focuses on what goes on inside classrooms and schools, Merrow calls America’s national goal of enabling all children to read by the end of third grade “a ludicrously low floor that I suspect has become a ceiling.” He argues that every city should adopt the strategy Vallas has instituted in New Orleans, of assigning the best teachers to kindergarten and first grade to ensure that  children master reading at a an early age.

In “Wheat from Chaff,” Merrow focuses on the need to help children make sense of available information and sort the good from the bad. “As kids we all make ‘commonsense’ assumptions about how the world works,” he writes. “All too often we never unlearn our assumptions.” For example, Merrow found that many students commonly believe that humans, as more evolved organisms, must have more chromosomes than potatoes or goldfish (not true), or that it’s warmer in the summer because the earth is orbiting closer to the sun (wrong;  it’s the tilt of the earth’s axis that determines climate).

Below C Level concludes with a 12-step “Program to Fix American Education,” which urges, among other things, that we “stop obsessing about the Achievement gap and face up to the fact that our society has multiple gaps in opportunity, expectations, affection and outcomes”; that our schools “elevate art, music, physical education and science in the curriculum”; that the government create “high-quality, universal, free preschool”; and, above all, that we practice democracy.

“It requires diligence and work,” Merrow writes, “but the old saw ‘Use it or lose it’ applies here.”

To learn more about Below C Level, check out Merrow’s blog at http://learningmatters.tv/blog/op-ed/

Published Tuesday, Jul. 13, 2010


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