By James Harvey
By the time he retired last October, John Merrow had had a 41-year bird’s eye view of American schools as a journalist with NPR and PBS NewsHour. Armed with a doctorate in education from Harvard, he’d served as a critical school friend throughout his career, pointing out the flaws in the thinking of defenders and critics of public education alike.
In just a single example of his doggedness in pursuing a story, Merrow once spent six years following superintendent David Hornbeck around Philadelphia for the raw material on a documentary about life as an urban school superintendent, titled, appropriately enough, “The Toughest Job in America.” Merrow, who founded the production company, Learning Matters and won numerous awards in journalism including Emmy nominations, prestigious Peabody Awards, and the Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education, was once hailed by Jim Lehrer, former host of PBS NewsHour, as “quite simply, the leading education journalist in America.”
He was in a reflective mood when he met with the National Superintendents Roundtable late last year, engagingly putting on a PBS hat to play the role of his successor interviewing him about what he’d learned over four decades — and then removing the hat to respond.
Q) What’s your big takeaway after 41 years?
A) Parents used to send kids to school because that’s where the knowledge was. They were also interested in socialization and custodial care. That’s all changed. And it’s not clear schools have responded as briskly as they should have. Today knowledge is everywhere with the internet. We have apps for socialization. And custodial care is a shaky justification for schools. Educators need to find their way in this new world.
Q.You have interviewed every U.S. Secretary of Education, from Shirley Hufstedler, President Carter’s appointee, to Arne Duncan, President Obama’s. Who was the most effective?
A) Richard Riley, President Clinton’s appointee, by a landslide.
Q) The least effective?
A) Lauro Cavazos. He was in over his head. He served from the tail end of the Reagan administration through the first two years of the first President Bush’s term, a period when education was being run out of the White House.
Q) The meanest?
A) I’ll take the Fifth on that, but William Bennett was capable of saying very harsh things.
Q) What are the biggest changes you’ve seen since 1974, when you first got into this line of work?
A) P.L. 94-142 brought children with disabilities fully into our schools.
Q) If you had a favorite bumper sticker about schools, what would it be?
A) We need a system that asks each child, “How are you intelligent?” not “How intelligent are you?”
Q) What lesson do you draw from No Child Left Behind, the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act pushed through by the second President Bush?
A) I thought the lesson was clear: Washington can’t run public education, but Democrats concluded, ‘Republicans can’t, but WE can.”
Q) What lies ahead?
A) I think we’ll see Common Core will remain embedded in the states, even if under different names in different states. The opt-out movement is significant. It’s not going to go away unless national and state leaders change their approach. Tying teacher evaluations to testing was a mistake, probably Arne Duncan’s biggest mistake.
Q) What’s your biggest regret?
A) I regret my inability to pry loose the document that demonstrated that Michelle Rhee failed to investigate cheating in Washington, D.C. in time to include it in my Frontline film. We got the secret memo about two weeks after the broadcast.
Q) And your biggest fear?
A) I worry that schools will remain isolated from the larger society and be expected to solve problems for which they are not equipped. We need to stop blathering about the “achievement gap” while isolating children by race and economics. Community schools and the like are essential.
During question time with participating superintendents, Merrow said he thought that education journalism had improved but acknowledged room for improvement. He argued that we can’t fix our education problems with cheap tests that cost 15 cents per 100. “Hartz,” he said, “spends 10 times as much to test flea powder.” And he said that part of Duncan’s legacy will be to see Congress clip the wings of his successors.
This award-winning journalist concluded his impressive reflections by noting that his final broadcast for PBS Newshour in October had set off a contretemps with Eva Moskovitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy charters in New York City, a network of 34 charter schools. In the broadcast, Merrow pointed out that the chain’s Code of Conduct for students prohibited 65 infractions ranging from bullying and gambling to littering and failing to be in a “Ready to Succeed” posture. Suspension rates at Success Academies, he reported, are three times higher than the city’s K-12 public schools, even though 70 percent of Success Academies are elementary schools.
As he looked to the not-too-distant future, Merrow said he anticipated that a major scandal would erupt around charter schools.