John Merrow on His Making the Grade Series About New York City Schools
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JIM LEHRER: And John Merrow is here with me now. Well done, John.
JOHN MERROW: Thank you very much.
JIM LEHRER: What kind of experience was it for you?
JOHN MERROW: I was a… I feel a little bit like Dayna. I don’t know if I could do it again, go back again, but I don’t know what to do now that I’m not going back. It was, you know, for me and my colleagues it was immensely rewarding to watch these teachers change.
That optimism at the beginning became tempered. They adjusted and realized that they couldn’t save each kid with all their energy and they had to take care of themselves. They did. They adapted in different ways. But it was a remarkably gratifying experience. I mean they’re real survivors. It was sort of the PBS version of “Survivor.”
JIM LEHRER: Right. How did you get on to this story and this particular school?
JOHN MERROW: Well, a bit of good luck, I think. I was intrigued when Harold Levy said he was going to start this program. There is a teacher shortage in New York City. And they were under orders, they had to have certified teachers in these tough schools — schools under registration review. Harold Levy and his people basically set up a kind of Teach for America Peace Corps program appealing to idealistic people. I believe they had about 1300 applicants, maybe more. They picked the 323 or so and I called up and said I’d like to follow this. He said sure, fine.
JIM LEHRER: You had full access.
JOHN MERROW: Full access. Absolutely. Wonderful access. We then went to training. They were trained at three different places during the summer. We just picked one randomly — actually went to that Brooklyn College and just started walking around going into classrooms looking at the group, watching the teacher and basically sitting in there for a while and saying that seems like a good class.
I mean, it was not scientific. We sat in that class, started watching and then said who wants to be part of this. And about 15 or so did. We interviewed all of them, picked about eight and then, Jim, we got lucky. You know.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, sure.
JOHN MERROW: We got lucky. It turned out that four of the five we picked were… happened to be assigned to one school. We said let’s find a fifth one in the same school. A lot of good luck involved.
JIM LEHRER: Then you had it. This was the sixth report and we’ve gotten… you know, a lot of viewer reaction to this. One was… one question that was asked by several people. There was one of your segments on standardized testing.
JOHN MERROW: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: You interviewed the teachers and some of these teaching fellows were really complaining about standardized testing. And you interviewed them in front of the kids. A lot of people objected to that. Why did you do that?
JOHN MERROW: We did it to do something new, do something a little bit fresher than sitting them down. In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t a good idea. Although it was a nice litmus test in terms of the teachers’ willingness to talk easily with the kids.
I mean, Sarah Costelloe, in the interview, actually, Sarah took it and turned it into her interview with the kids. How important are these tests, kids? This wonderful, natural ease — but in a way perhaps it was unfair.
JIM LEHRER: Another question that people asked was the… one person put it: The total lack of discipline that seemed to be rampant in these classrooms. What was your impression when you went into these classrooms?
JOHN MERROW: Maybe the people are talking about noise. I’ve always tried to distinguish between good noise and bad noise. And I think it’s an important distinction. When a teacher is doing his or her job and has the kids engaged, not just standing up there talking, and actually engages the kids there’s going to be a lot of noise.
Again, you go into Sarah’s class or Janice’s class or Dayna’s class there was a lot of noise but it was most often focused. What Jim Flannery said about Renee’s class, she did lose control.
JIM LEHRER: The assistant principal.
JOHN MERROW: The assistant principal. And Renee did lose control. That’s a hard thing. I don’t want to be too harsh on her because if the program suffered in some way it was that there weren’t enough mentors. After all these people had one month of training.
JIM LEHRER: That was that Brooklyn College scene you were talking about. Just one month.
JOHN MERROW: One month in the summer. They went one night a week during the year for a couple of hours. In a way it would be better to have the Brooklyn College people come to the school.
JIM LEHRER: Was there any surprises for you, John, in terms of these people? In other words, after you first met them and talked to them and seen them and thought, this one isn’t going to make it or this one is going to make it or whatever — what were your impressions of them and your expectations met or not met?
JOHN MERROW: I was thrilled and delighted to see how well most of them did. I mean, it’s a very tough job being a teacher. I was a first-year teacher. I remember vividly.
JIM LEHRER: You have been a teacher yourself. Absolutely.
JOHN MERROW: It’s hard work. I really grew to love all of them. To see how hard they worked, how much they cared and what surprised me was that the system wasn’t more sensitive to the fact that they actually had 12 of these teaching fellows in that one building. Somehow it seemed to me the system would say, wow, we have 12 new people here; we better change the system in some way, so that maybe once a week all 12 of them can talk to each other. They bonded and helped each other survive. But….
JIM LEHRER: They were put into an existing system and the system didn’t change to accommodate their situation.
JOHN MERROW: That’s right. I think one of the issues for this program would be, how do you change the system so that these people will stay? They made it through one year, yeah. But you want people like Sarah to stay five years.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. Well, I look forward to your doing something like this again.
JOHN MERROW: I look forward to it, too. It’s a great pleasure.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you very much, John.
JOHN MERROW: Thank you.