Feb 23, 2018 by

John Merrow –

Campbell’s Law teaches us that, when too much pressure is placed on a single measurement, that measurement inevitably becomes corrupted to the point of being useless.  A straightforward analogy is to physical health.  An individual who worries only about weight is a strong candidate for anorexia and bulimia. On the other hand, the person who pays attention to muscle and skin tone, flexibility, endurance, a balanced diet, daily exercise, and personal appearance–as well as weight–is NOT a candidate for an eating disorder.

The same principle applies to education: When a system values (and measures) many aspects of schooling, such as the amount of art and music, the time devoted to recess, student attendance, teacher attendance, teacher turnover, and academic achievement, the school and its students, teachers and staff are likely to be ‘balanced.’   When only test scores or graduation rates matter, bad things are guaranteed to happen.

Evidence of educational anorexia and bulimia isn’t hard to find.  The absence of art, music, science, and recess is one clear sign. Lots of test-prep is another clear indicator. Rallies for ‘higher test scores’ is strong evidence.  At home, check on your child’s anxiety level. Stomach aches before the days of standardized testing?  Trouble sleeping? It’s all right there in front of us.

Under Washington DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (2007-2010), all that counted was test scores, and before long adults began cheating, knowing that their jobs depended on raising scores.  Under her successor, Kaya Henderson (2010-2016), raising graduation rates became the Holy Grail, and we now know what transpired: hundreds of seniors–one third of the graduating class–were given diplomas even though they had been skipping school regularly or had otherwise not followed the rules.  Her successor as Chancellor, Antwan Wilson, not only failed to monitor and correct that situation; he also broke his own rules and illegally transferred his daughter into a selective high school, bypassing the lottery.

It’s impossible not to conclude that Washington has been sold a bill of goods by ‘reformers’ like Rhee, Henderson and others. That narrative has been widely accepted and spread by the pundit class and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  The evidence, presented here, only proves that ‘more of the same’ is akin to adding ponies to the pony express team. More speed perhaps, but the stagecoach is still going to arrive days later than the planes, trucks, and trains.

The reaction to the DC fiasco has been revealing.  Those on the far right, including current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, have expressed outrage. DeVos has called for an FBI investigation and for more ‘school choice.’  That’s also been the call from The Manhattan Institute, which claims “The only thing that’s actually worked in Washington, D.C., has been school choice.”  Frankly, these guys and gals will do anything they can to undermine public education.

The defenders of the status quo of ‘school reform,’ notably former reporter-turned-pundit Thomas Toch, have issued a familiar warning: “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water” and attacking–apparently without irony–pundits.  Tom and I exchanged views last year in The Washington Monthly, and in his current piece he continues to sidestep or ignore the bad stuff, such as the revolving door for principals, the swollen central office bureaucracy, and the widening racial and economic achievement gaps. Toch is not alone: Democrats for Education Reform, another cheerleader for what I call ‘test-and-punish’ education, is worried.  These guys and gals refuse to consider the possibility that a ‘school reform’ which reduces students and teachers to data points simply cannot produce significant numbers of capable, well-rounded, well-adjusted young people.

However, with the forced resignation of Chancellor Wilson, Mayor Muriel Bowser and the City Council can demonstrate they are serious about opportunities for all children. The First Step, I suggest, should be a citywide dialogue about the purposes of schooling.  What do the citizens (and not just parents) of Washington value?


The ability to read, reason, argue persuasively,  and compute?

The ability and willingness to work with others?

Familiarity with democratic values?

The ability to pose questions and search for answers?

Good physical health and nutrition habits?

An understanding of art and music?

Intellectual curiosity and a high tolerance for ambiguity?

Whatever the answers, those are what must be measured.  So that’s Step One: measure what we value, instead of just valuing what we now (cheaply) measure.  Creating programs that emphasize and teach these concepts and values will cure the ‘educational anorexia’ that now characterizes the DC schools.

Step Two, in my opinion, is to allow and encourage educators to ask a different question about each child.  Right now school systems look at every student and ask ‘How Smart Is She/He?’ (and formulate their answer based on test scores, appearance, economic status, race, and bias).  Students are then sorted in two basic groups, winners and losers.

Educators need to ask a very different question, “How Is This Child Intelligent?”  Every child has strengths, and today’s technologies allow educators to assess and then build on those strengths and interests.  That’s what most parents–and a few hundred public schools–do.

I have some knowledge of the Washington public school system…and a deep concern for DC’s students. I write this as a former DC resident whose three children attended Washington public schools (Oyster, Alice Deal, and Woodrow Wilson) and as a long-time Education Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; in the latter capacity, I chronicled Michelle Rhee’s time as Chancellor (12 reports over 3 years) and later produced “The Education of Michelle Rhee” for the PBS series, “Frontline.”  Unfortunately, it was only AFTER the Frontline broadcast that I obtained the memo that reveals the extent of Rhee’s and Henderson’s knowledge of the widespread erasures.  And because Rhee and Henderson effectively controlled the investigations of the cheating (and hired Cavern, infamous for stumbling over clues without seeing them), nothing came of those efforts either.  I also produced two long-form documentaries about the teaching of reading in several DC elementary schools.

With Wilson’s resignation, Washington has a genuine opportunity to rethink and ‘reset.’ In Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” I argue that superficial reform efforts have been doing serious damage to children, to the teaching profession, and to public support for schools. Ironically, my two central examples of superficial reform, the push to raise standardized test scores and the drive to raise graduation rates, have played out—with disastrous results—in Washington.  I talked about this with Jeffrey Brown of the NewsHour in October.

Anorexia and Bulimia are literal killers, plain and simple.  While Educational anorexia and bulimia do not literally kill our children, they snuff out curiosity and the desire to learn.  Kids graduate in a weakened condition, ill-prepared for life in a complex society, easy prey for charlatans at every level from the White House on down.


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