How to beat reform ‘addiction’

John Merrow spent 41 years reporting on education for NPR and PBS “Newshour,” long enough to develop a clear-eyed view of what’s right and wrong with America’s schools. He argues that our obsession with “reform” is an addiction that’s harming students and teachers.

But he insists we can beat it, if we just work the steps. And yes, there are 12 of them.

Book cover“The process of school reform is unquestionably addictive,” he writes in his book “Addicted to Reform.” “Its goals always feel good and sound right. … Unfortunately, as with drug addicts, the high is temporary, lasting only until reality intervenes and it becomes clear that the problem persists.”

Merrow diagnoses the illness in detail. He laments the way schools sort students into winners and losers at an early age. He criticizes overuse and misuse of standardized tests, segregation of schools by race and socioeconomic status, and inequalities in school funding. He calls out schools of education for failing to effectively prepare teachers.

But embedded in the criticism is a vision of dynamic, democratic schools, with a rich and varied curriculum, where students are challenged to do their best and achieve their potential.

“A new approach to schooling must ask a different question about each young child,” he writes. “Let’s stop asking, ‘How intelligent are you?’ Let’s ask instead, ‘How are you intelligent?’”

Key arguments include:

  • Instead of viewing schools on a “factory model” where teachers are the workers and students are the product, we should see students as workers who produce knowledge with guidance from teachers.
  • Overreliance on standardized tests has produced a system of “regurgitation education” that rewards memorizing facts and persuades some children that they aren’t smart. Using test scores to evaluate teachers punishes creativity and drives away talented educators.
  • School should be a place where all students make connections with caring adults. A lack of connection is to blame for bullying, boredom, acting out and mental health problems.
  • Technology has great promise for enabling students to engage in powerful learning activities but is too often misused by teachers and administrators who don’t understand its potential.
  • States should provide universal, high-quality pre-K education. To pay for it, they might shift money from the last year of high school, which is a waste of time for many students.
  • Teachers should be treated as professionals and given the skills and working conditions to create and deliver effective lessons. If that happened, there would be less teacher turnover, and fewer teacher prep programs would be needed to churn out new recruits.

The book has its villains: charter-school operators that pay themselves high salaries for meager results; testing companies that promote and profit from the misuse of their products; drug companies that helped create a virtual epidemic of attention-deficit diagnoses.

But Merrow covered a lot of positive and inspiring stories in his decades of reporting, and this is ultimately a hopeful book that looks to a better future – as the author’s inscription says, “For my grandchildren, and yours.”

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