John Merrow Is Back (at Least Part-Time) and His Wisdom Is Just as Timely

John Merrow retired from PBS after 41 years of stellar reporting. But, he's posted a couple of timely pieces demonstrating that Merrow, even as a part-time blogger, offers a full plate of wisdom. I'll start with his second reality-based piece.

As Merrow notes, Washington D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson "has taken pains to separate herself and her approach from her best friend, but they were joined at the hip during Rhee's tenure." Although Henderson claimed to have never read the confidential memo exposing the "Erasergate" cheating scandal, it's inconceivable that Henderson didn't help in the "orchestrated" coverup of the scandal.

Reformers promote Kaya Henderson as a "'kinder, gentler version' of Michelle Rhee, but she's still an acolyte and enthusiast for policies that damage learning opportunities for children." Even the American Institute's Rick Hess, who is usually good at punching holes in the pretentions of his fellow reformers, contributes to the spin in a report to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Hess makes it sound like Henderson's policies have done more good than harm to poor children of color. However, a close reading of his own data provides evidence to the contrary and supports Merrow's analysis.

Hess cites overall gains in NAEP growth under Rhee and Henderson, but those same NAEP studies actually support the common sense conclusion that the numbers reflect gentrification. Hess's charts show that from 2005 to 2013, the percentage of D.C. students who are low-income dropped from 66% to 61.6%. (In my world, a 61.6% low-income urban school seems danged-near rich.) Per student spending increased by 40% during that time. (The new spending, alone, comes close to the total per student spending in my 90% low-income system.)

According to Hess's chart, the percentage of the D.C. students who are black dropped by 1/8th from 2005 to 2013, and the percentage of students with disabilities dropped by 1/7th. And, the 2015 NAEP excluded as many as 44% of D.C.'s English Language Learners. The conservative reformer RiShawn Biddle calls that exclusion "massive and unacceptable test-cheating."

Even so, as Merrow reminds us, the performance gap between low-income and more affluent students has grown even wider; for instance, from 2002 to 2015, the 8th grade reading performance gap grew from 17 to 48 points.

Before Rhee/Henderson, the growth in D.C. test scores was spread much more widely. Because I believe that 8th grade reading is the most important NAEP metric in terms of evaluating school performance, I will cite some of those metrics in support of Merrow. From 1998 to 2002, black 8th grade reading scores increased from an average of 233 to 238. By 2015, they were down to 236. From 1998 to 2002, average 8th grade reading scores for low-income students increased from 229 to 233. In 2015, they remained at 233.

And, that brings us back to Merrow's refutation of the latest misrepresentations of the Rhee/Henderson record. The district's Common Core test results are "disastrous." Merrow notes, "And at fourteen of the District's high schools not one student reached that (college readiness) level in mathematics; at four high schools no students achieved that level in English. This is a catastrophic failure, strong evidence that something is seriously wrong in Washington's schools."

It's great when a reporter with Merrow's proven record fact-checks the pro-Rhee/Henderson falsehoods, but that is just the second most valuable aspect of Merrow's recent contributions. We need continued reminders that D.C.'s test, sort, reward, and punish approach was an expensive mistake, but it is more important to offer solutions. Merrow seems to be foreshadowing his next contribution to understanding school improvement.

Merrow takes a long view and reminds us of a hard truth, the education system "was designed to look at each child and ask, 'How intelligent is he/she?' Or, more bluntly, 'What's he/she good for?'" But, he challenges us to reject the unworthy Rhee/Henderson tactics of putting that behaviorist mentality on steroids. Merrow calls us to do the opposite, "What if the adults in charge looked at each child and asked 'How are you intelligent?'" Instead of asking, "What are you good for?" we should follow Merrow and ask of each child, "What about you is good?"

Postscript: Coincidently, Merrow's reality check on D.C. schools is followed by a detailed account by Jeffrey Anderson about the power behind the District's education throne. Anderson chronicles the way that venture philanthropist Katherine Bradley and members of the Billionaires Boys Club choreographed competition-driven edu-politics. Missing from his journalism is any indication that these corporate reformers have an awareness of the facts on the ground in urban schools - the facts that Merrow has documented in an unparalleled manner.

Just as important, the adults in charge of our nation's economy are great at orchestrating the assets of the elites in order to social re-engineer our schools, but they are utterly disconnected from the children inside those buildings. They should listen to Merrow and understand that poor children of color have the same strengths as the kids they know and deserve the same respectful, holistic education.