A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education
Reviewed by Rita Platt
When John Merrow has something to say I listen. I think of Merrow as one of public education’s wise elders. Merrow has offered an unfailing voice of reason on the increasingly complicated and somewhat crazy state of public education. Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education is a great book.
Addicted to Reform is, in many ways, a summation of the education reporting and thinking Merrow has done over the course of his almost five decade career. Interspersing interesting personal anecdotes, labeled as walks down “Memory Lane,” Merrow weaves a narrative that includes the history of America’s failed school reform efforts and offers a vision for ridding public education of our addiction to more of the same in favor of long-term, meaningful and sustainable change.
It is contentious subject matter and sometimes the book does, as Merrow warns, make the reader’s blood boil. But his tone is warm and empathetic, and often reading it felt like listening to a good lecture from a respected and trusted professor.
I Was a Failed Reformer
A decade ago as a literacy specialist at a “failing” school, I was at the forefront of a reform effort. At that school all of the students were poor, all lived in gang-ridden neighborhoods, and almost all were African American. By the time I entered the scene, the school had been the target of many reforms including being reconstituted twice, meaning the entire staff had been fired and replaced with new teachers.
The lives of students at that school weren’t easy. Tamika, a fourth grader, once came to me crying and in pain. She opened her mouth to show me an abscessed tooth. Another time, when I asked students to write about their rooms at home, Jorge refused and later told me that he, along with three of his siblings, slept in their grandmother’s kitchen. When I organized a walking field trip to the local public library, parents refused to let their kids go because it meant crossing a street into rival gang territory.
My job was to help the school’s reform efforts by increasing student literacy success, in particular as measured on the state tests that kept us labeled as failing. My work at the school wasn’t easy either. The teachers, myself included, were overextended and exhausted. Many weren’t even teachers in any meaningful sense of the word. They were from various recruiting programs that offered “boot camps” in pedagogy and shoved them in our overfilled classrooms with almost no experience or support.
I loved that school, the teachers, the principals, the staff, and most of all, the students. Those children were as filled with love, hope, humor, and desire to learn as any children I have known. But, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to do much to impact school-wide literacy.
Over the years, I’ve often reflected on why efforts to reform the school were largely unsuccessful. The answer, I’ve concluded, is two-fold.
One, the larger ills of poverty and the vast array of unmet physical and social needs of the community made school a secondary concern for families.
Two, we had reform overload. We had programs upon programs that needed to be followed with “fidelity.” We had consultants from the programs, the district, the state, and other outside agencies, all of whom seemed to point fingers and claim that solutions were available, if we’d just do what we were supposed to.
What I remember most from those years is the constant cloud of guilt that hung over all of us. We knew we were our students’ best hope. We knew that reform was necessary, but we also knew that the types of reforms we were being forced to implement were not only not helpful but were likely detrimental.
Reading Addicted to Reform cemented my beliefs about common and largely political responses to the problems faced by American public schools. The bottom line is that the frequently lauded and often applied reform efforts have not and likely will not work. An even tougher truth-bomb? They likely weren’t even meant to work.
There Really is a Problem
The premise of Merrow’s book is simple and illustrated nicely in the title. In America, Merrow asserts, we are addicted to untenable school reform efforts. The addiction wastes money and time and blurs our vision, causing a “never ending cycle, one that keeps us from confronting and addressing public education’s real problem: an outmoded system of schooling that is harming many children and our nation’s future” (p. 2).
Merrow freely admits that American public schools have problems. The problems, however, are not the ones that most reformers point to. Low test scores are not the big issue. Reform is needed, he says. American students are woefully unprepared to participate in the “give-and-take of ordinary citizenship” (p. xi). He wonders if students “graduate from school prepared for life in a democracy” (p. xi).
These are thoughts that have occurred to me as well. Merrow’s concerns resonate with my own. I have always been a staunch supporter of public education and truly believe American schools by and large do a good job. But a question I’ve found myself more frequently grappling with is: How can I claim public education is a success when we live in a nation rife with science deniers, hate mongers, and a populace that seems woefully unaware of the basics tenets of civics and the difference between anecdote and evidence?
Merrow lays the fear at the root of my question bare, writing, “If we don’t change our schools, we will elect a succession of Donald Trumps, and that will be the end of the American experiment” (p. xii). He implores that we break our addiction to meaningless reform in favor of schools that respect and nurture our children because “while the country can survive four –perhaps eight – years of Donald Trump” our democracy likely can’t (p. xii).
It’s Not a Purely Partisan Issue
Clearly, Merrow is not a fan of the President, but he’s not overly partisan either. While big money reform got a kick-start in the presidency of George H.W. Bush, Merrow provides ample evidence that not only didn’t Democratic presidents Clinton or Obama work to derail corporatist reforms, they advanced the cause through increased punitive measures or competitive grants that compelled schools to buy into corporate reforms (p. 7).
One of my favorite anti-”reformster” bloggers, Peter Greene, of Curmuduecation, writes about “real problems” and “fake solutions.” Programs, corporate models, increased testing, labeling and punishing schools, alternative teacher certification programs, hardline teacher evaluation systems, and pushes for school “choice” and charter schools have not been even marginally effective reform efforts.
They continue, however, to be the rallying cry of corrupt (or at the very least wrong-thinking) leaders.Why? Because they have spawned a $620 billion dollar industry (p. 23) and because they “offer what appear to be quick fixes for deep systematic problems” (p. xviii).
Sadly, the reality is that there are no quick fixes. Merrow reports that even when reforms such as those listed above occasionally give the illusion of success, they generally don’t work. Beginning on page 6, Merrow shows how various “success” stories are marred by nefarious practices including lowered expectations, cheating, and blatantly excluding students from reform efforts through dropping them from the rolls.
Merrow illustrates many terrifying examples of what can happen when the pressure to increase test scores collides with the realities of the complex lives of students and their communities.
The 12 Steps
Merrow likens America’s reform efforts to addiction. He lays the solution out as a 12-step program. Taking a page from Alcoholics Anonymous, he writes, “I mean no disrespect to those struggling from addiction or to AA itself, in fact, I think AA has it right. After many years of covering education and educators, I am convinced that we as a nation are ‘hooked’” (p. xviii).
Frankly, Merrow does a better job of laying bare the problems of reform efforts than of offering real solutions. That is likely because, as the book reminds again and again, there are no easier answers. Still, calling out the problems of current reform initiatives is important in and of itself, and there are nuggets of insight that illuminate the path to meaningful change.
To break the addiction, Merrow lays out the twelve steps in chapters. Each chapter funnels into Merrow’s belief that schools must turn away from easy-to-compile data, surface-level metrics for success, and fact-based learning goals. Rather, he exhorts, they must turn toward more student-centric methods that encourage real world problem-solving and creativity.
He says schools must focus their work with students on the idea that each child is uniquely intelligent, and that if we are to use schools as a conduit for developing a populace prepared for maintaining a healthy democracy, we must harness student strengths and feed their interests while helping them “master basic skills such as literacy and numeracy” (p. 68).
Following the 12-step path below will, he believes, “allow us to create the public schools we need and our children deserve” (p. xix).
Steps one through three are more about naming, describing and debunking common school reform measures.
- Own the Problem: A discussion of the history of school reform as well as an overview of many of the mechanisms of perpetuating the cycle of failed reforms.
- Calculate the Cost of Reform: This chapter helps the reader follow the money trail left by reform movements. From for-profit schools to the big business of testing, this chapter is bound to raise hackles.
- Don’t Pay the Price: Here, Merrow discusses the human cost of reform. Humiliation of students and educators, debasing of labor unions, and demoralizing teachers are all tactics used to undermine public education.
Steps four through eleven are more solution focused.
- Ask the Right Question: The author insists that an important way to truly reform public education is to change the foundational question from “How intelligent are students” to “How are students intelligent.” A seemingly subtle shift that packs the powerful punch of reframing the role of schools from places that transmit a given set of knowledge to places that nurture individual students’ strengths.
- Make Connections: It is all about relationships. Merrow takes a deep look at what that means for all stakeholders.
- Start Early: Free quality early education is a must. Every state must provide full-day kindergarten, options for even earlier education, and a focus on creative learning.
- Expect More: Rather than programs, schools should offer a core-knowledge based curriculum in connection with creative inquiry, real-world problem-solving, and project-based learning.
- Embrace Technology (Carefully): Merrow believes in the power of blended learning but warns schools away from thinking that technology alone is a problem-solver.
- Embrace Outsiders (Enthusiastically): Similar in theme to the chapter on making connections, this step advises schools to work with parents and the community as a whole.
- Embrace Teachers (Respectfully): This chapter spells out Merrow’s belief that if schools are to become more effective, teachers must be trusted as professionals, supported, and encouraged to collaborate.
- Measure What Matters: Standardized tests are not a good enough measure of school success. Instead, we must determine more meaningful measures of success and in the meantime, support the Opt-Out Movement.
- Choose a New Path: Step 12 is in essence a summation of the previous eleven steps and a call to action to work toward enacting them.
Merrow ends the book with a Final Walk Down Memory Lane. He shares regrets about the stories he didn’t tell, which, he feels, in at least a small way, allowed some unethical practices to flourish with little opposition. He closes with this beautiful comment that made my teacher-heart sing:
What I will never regret is a life spent with teachers and children. Teachers represent, in my view, the best America has to offer, women and men who have chosen to work to shape the future. And children, bless them, are the future: yours, mine, ours (p. 279).
A Gap Closed
At the beginning of this review, I wrote about my experiences with failed reform efforts at an impoverished school. Now I want to share a successful attempt. I am a teacher-leader at a rural elementary school in a community that is increasingly plagued with the ills of poverty. We are a Title One school, but there is no achievement gap between our students who live in poverty and their more affluent peers. At least none that are measured on standardized tests.
We closed the gap and raised the overall achievement of students over the last decade through simple, teacher-designed measures informed by student needs. They amounted to a home-grown reform effort that works for our community. I wrote about the details of our efforts in Educational Leadership’s 2015 Improving Schools From Within issue.
What is particularly relevant to this review and to Merrow’s thesis is the list of things we didn’t do on our road to success. We didn’t buy new programs. We didn’t focus on test prep. We didn’t hire consultants. Instead, we grappled with our mission, we collaboratively developed a vision, we focused on students’ needs, and we relentlessly worked to help each child grow and learn.
My school is not addicted to reform. We are, however, interested in continuously refining our practices such that all students are well served. The question we ask ourselves daily is: How can we help our students grow up to be productive and happy citizens?
In asking this question, we’ve embraced a commitment to learning as a welcome alternative to addiction to reform. Merrow’s book both supported what we already do and helped me to think about how we can do even more, and do it even better.
Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a National Board Certified teacher with master’s degrees in reading, library, and leadership. Her experience includes teaching learners in remote Alaskan villages, inner cities, and rural communities. She currently is a teacher-librarian, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, writes for We Teach We Learn and blogs at MiddleWeb’s Heart of the School.