Who Are Schools For?

Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education. By John Merrow. The New Press, 224 pp, August 2017

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Not everyone watched John Merrow’s compelling news stories about education on the PBS News Hour prior to his recent retirement. According to Merrow’s 2017 book, Addicted to Reform, only 25 percent of American households have school-age children today. The other 75 percent are prone to ignore policy issues about education. Ironically, though, that 75 percent vote on school budgets and ultimately will depend on today’s young people when the latter become adult citizens economically supporting the retirement and health care benefits enjoyed by seniors.

For anyone unfamiliar with the current debates concerning American education, Merrow’s book is a fine place to start. His expertise is solid. He was a teacher himself, prior to a journalistic career covering the education beat. But brace yourself: reading about kindergarten through secondary public schooling is disturbing to anyone who cares about learning. Education in the United States, beginning with George W. Bush’s program No Child Left Behind, is a story of corporate influence being favored over control and guidance by educators and citizens. America is “addicted” to hiring corporate school reformers and services in an endless cycle, Merrow maintains.

No Child Left Behind whittled class time in favor of standardized testing, a pattern that has been hard to reverse. Overtesting children so alienated educators that cheating and deception to meet the standards has become common. Many parents also resent standardized testing and have decided not to have their children tested, leading to large numbers of idle students on test days. Standardized testing, though, has enriched the coffers of companies that make the tests, whose lobbyists press for the practice in the halls of power. American students are the most tested in the world, though they are near the bottom of rankings in academic excellence among major countries.

Other examples abound of educational practices that seem to benefit corporations more than children. The use of Ritalin to treat young folks diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) became common because the Department of Education fell under the influence of a supposed parents’ organization lobbying for help (CHADD); in fact, CHADD was a public relations ploy funded by manufacturers of stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall. The impact? Merrow tells us that 1 out of 5 high school boys is diagnosed with ADD and 1 out of 10 is taking medication for it.

In the year since Addicted to Reform appeared, there has been a mass uprising by teachers from New York to West Virginia and beyond. Teachers have lost out both in pay and in their freedom to teach as they think best. The media dubbed the 2018 teacher uprising “Education Spring.”

Education Spring surely was not a surprise to Merrow. He is a strong supporter of teachers, feeling that their knowledge of how to educate has been ignored by school reformers. Merrow argues that the professionalization of teachers is desirable, including giving them higher salaries and more time to confer with each other on what works and doesn’t work in the classroom. He believes that professionalization, higher pay, and more selectivity by teacher-training programs would counter today’s high teacher turnover, which is detrimental to education, as teaching is a profession where accrual of experience is crucial. Universities have profited by providing a steady stream of new blood to replace the established teachers leaving the field; about 40 percent of teachers depart within the first five years of employment.

Merrow reminds us that we can all point to teachers we appreciate for the difference they made in our lives. (Shout out to my Mount Lebanon High School English teacher Judith Calgaro Weddell!) A caring educator is a crucial catalyst of students’ engagement and striving. Yet the process of teaching has been underemphasized in the drive to support for-profit charter schools and test manufacturers. This has made some capitalists financially successful but has failed to help children become educationally successful.


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By (author): John Merrow

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