Changing education's narrative: PBS' Merrow has plenty
of ideas to fix the system
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Forty-two years after he gave a $50 speech on the state of education to a one-man audience (the man was the second speaker on the docket), PBS NewsHour correspondent and President of Learning Matters John Merrow accepted the Annual Bentley Freedom Award Jan. 16 at the Bentley School.
He also had plenty to say about about the state of American education -- specifically that it places too much emphasis on test scores and too little on elevating expectations.
"I'm in my 40th year of reporting about education and I'm concerned," he warned the approximately 130 parents and educators gathered in the private school's performing arts center. "The narrative about American public education is (that) to reform education we must drive out the bad teachers. The way you tell the bad teachers is test scores. I believe the narrative is false."
In recognizing Merrow's significant contributions to elevating education -- through advocacy and an engaging speaking style peppered with clichés marinated in sage contemplation -- Bentley's Head of School Arlene Hogan said the former English teacher epitomized the school's "I desire to know" motto.
"Taking care of those in our society who are the least entitled is what Bentley is about," Hogan said.
Learning Matters, Merrow's nonprofit educational advocacy company, produces public television documentaries and reports. It grew out of his early years as an education reporter for National Public Radio, and his winning of Peabody Awards, Emmy nominations and the McGraw Prize (sometime referred to as "education's Nobel Prize").
During a one-hour discussion, Merrow outlined six negative consequences of education's current assessment of students and teachers, showing two video documentary clips to illustrate the enormous disparity in the quality of how children are being taught. He also discussed seven "fixes" and four other steps he believes will lead to needed changes.
The system's present-day approach, he said, results in too much testing and a narrow curriculum emphasizing math and English to the exclusion of art, theater, dance, physical education and other "non-essential" classes. Excessive focus on "getting it right," student cynicism about the value of teachers, pervasive cheating and a seventh "bonus bad" -- diminished expectations of students -- are cause for alarm for Merrow.
"We don't expect much. It's so disrespectful of students, to ask them to throw free throws. Rarely in life do we get to just do free throws," he concluded.
Two video excerpts erased any latent doubts about the value of good teaching. In "Renee's Bad Day," an overwhelmed, undertrained teacher's class dissolved into elementary school-age anarchy. Students in the second classroom, under the guidance of a teacher who integrates art and creativity into the curriculum with masterful flair, closed with students' compassionate statements demonstrating understanding of complex, humanitarian values and a courtly bow after their theatrical presentation of the day's lesson.
Merrow's seven "things I believe are true" began with a well-worn phrase: "It takes a village."
Teachers, he said, must be honored. "What we do now is hire people, often not well-trained and throw them into the classroom. We need to make it harder to become a teacher, but easier to be one," he said.
"Trust, but verify," this political sound bite borrowed from Ronald Reagan, who'd learned the Russian-based proverb and used it often during the Cold War, introduced Merrow's comments about a society he said has flipped. "When I was a kid, the teaching force included hundreds of thousands of immensely talented women," he recalled. "We trusted them."
Asking new questions, like "How are you intelligent?" instead of "How intelligent are you?" builds strength, he insisted. And converting information into knowledge by asking questions helps kids separate truth from falsehood. Measure what has value, don't value what you measure; grade schools by teacher turnover, not math scores; and establish habits and patterns of excellence in something more important than how to fill in test sheet bubbles, he advised.
"The job is to help grow adults," Merrow said. "If we want them to become citizens who step up and help others, who take leadership, then that's what they have to do, repeatedly. To ask less is a threat to our democracy."
Improvements will come if people "follow the money" and recognize that testing companies and for-profit charter schools are the beneficiaries of the current narrative, he said. Close to 80 percent percent of American households do not have school-age children and must be made aware and enrolled in the "fight for what matters."