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Wisdom from four decades of education reporting

October 15, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Special correspondent John Merrow has reported on education for more than four decades, and for the PBS NewsHour since the 1980s. Now retiring, he joins Judy Woodruff to talk about what he’s observed over the years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight: a career of covering education and some of the observations learned along the way.

John Merrow has been a special correspondent for education for the NewsHour for more than three decades now, covering everything from the importance of reading to young children, to battles over reform, to the rising price of higher education.

He’s now retiring.

And Judy Woodruff sat down with him recently to discuss his career.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Merrow, welcome.

JOHN MERROW: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you have had quite a career. Take us back. How did it all begin? You were a teacher.

JOHN MERROW: I was a high school teacher. I went off to graduate school.

I got hired by a think tank in Washington. I don’t have the capability of sitting around thinking. My boss said, start a forum, told me I could spend $10,000. I knocked on the door of National Public Radio, which was brand-new, said, I had 10 — they said, come on in.

And I stayed for eight years, and then ended up coming over here, and stayed here for a long, long time as well, 41 years altogether, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s an amazing journey, John Merrow. You have done so many extraordinary reports for the NewsHour.

As I think about, if there’s been any kind of a common theme over that time what, would you say it is? I mean, I think of reform. It’s just something…

JOHN MERROW: Reform is it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … that keeps coming back.


JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you think about that?

JOHN MERROW: I think you’re absolutely right.

We started — the first real wave of education reform was 1983, with the publication of “A nation at Risk” that warned we were drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity. We have been reforming ever since. Here it is 2015.

In fact, I’m writing a book called “Addicted to Reform,” a 12-step program that — get us out of it. But — and we have made some great improvements. Public Law 94-142, Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 changed things for millions of children.

We’re not — got a long we way to go yet, but that’s a great improvement. People forget we have made a lot of improvements.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back when the term was handicapped.

JOHN MERROW: Handicapped, exactly, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Handicapped children. Of course, it’s changed since then.

But there are so many milestones along the way. I mean, I think of No Child Left Behind, 14 — what, 14 years ago, under President Bush.

JOHN MERROW: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think about when you think about milestones?

JOHN MERROW: Well, that law expired a long time ago, but the Congress is so divided, it has been unable to create new legislation. They’re still trying.

But that law has been — done a lot of damage, because it said everybody is going to be proficient by 2014. Well, nowhere near, but then it started imposing penalties. The current secretary of education has been granting waivers, saying, you don’t have to follow that, but he has said, you have to do these things, which has created a whole new thing called Race to the Top, which, with the Common Core — I mean, and we’re so polarized now, that these are stories that reporters are going to keep on telling.

But I don’t think they’re really helping schools in a lot of ways.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We do seem to be talking about education more, though, today as a country. I mean, we don’t — we don’t seem to take it for granted, the way we used to.

JOHN MERROW: We talk a lot about it.

We — I think, Judy, that we ask the wrong question, fundamentally. And this is sort of a bumper sticker way of thinking about it. But I think the system looks at each child and says, how intelligent are you, how intelligent are you, and then tests, whereas the question we really — it seems like we ought to be asking is, how are you intelligent, how are you intelligent, and then figure out a way to build on what — the strengths that kid has, which you can do with technology today.

I mean, we have the potential to transform public education. Whether we do it is an open question.

OK, you ready to read this story?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have been in so many classrooms around this country. Is there a moment or moments you think more about than any other?

JOHN MERROW: I think back on — we followed — for the NewsHour back in 2000, followed five first-year teachers for a whole year. Jim Lehrer used to call it the PBS version of “Survivor.”


JOHN MERROW: And then there were some remarkable times then, as those young people did their best without much training.

WOMAN: I want everyone to raise their hands now. You guys don’t want to learn much of anything, do you?

JOHN MERROW: We followed New Orleans since Katrina for — actually for six years, followed Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., for three years.

So, there were some memorable moments there.

MICHELLE RHEE, Former Chancellor, District Of Columbia Public Schools: I’m terminating your principalship now.

I think that, when you’re doing the kind of work I’m doing in public education, where the lives and futures of children hang in the balance, you cannot — you can’t — you can’t play with that.

JOHN MERROW: She became the face of a kind of what you would call test-based accountability, which was using test scores to judge teachers. Most countries use test scores to judge students, and tests are designed to measure what students are doing. But we, I think, alone among advanced countries use them to fire or hire or evaluate teachers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think the question a lot of people would like to ask you, John Merrow, given all the time you have spent looking at our schools, is — is, are they as bad as the worst critics say they are?


JUDY WOODRUFF: Or are they as good as some of their fierce defenders say they are?

JOHN MERROW: Judy, I would say that probably a third of our schools are better than schools have ever been in this country.

But that creates a real problem. We tend to focus on the achievement gap, and we say, well, you know, there’s this big difference between whites and non-whites and so on. It would be useful if we talked about an opportunity gap, and maybe even an expectations gap, because if you close the opportunity gap and the expectations gap, I have a hunch the outcomes would take care of themselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What should the focus be for the future? I mean, as you go off to do other projects, what should parents, what should schools — what should the priority be now?

JOHN MERROW: I think there are two terms that are floating around. One is called blended learning, which is excellent teachers using technology. And the other is what they call deeper learning, which is really digging deeply into things.

Kids — you and I, even our own children, went to school, you had to go to school because that’s where they kept the knowledge. Today’s kids are growing up in a sea of 24/7. But it’s information, not knowledge.

So, schools need to be teaching kids how to ask questions. How do you figure out what’s true? Instead, too many of our schools get kids regurgitating. So what we have to do is get away from regurgitation. It’s Aristotle. We are what we repeatedly do.

If we repeatedly fill in bubbles, that is not much of a preparation for the future. Kids need to be taught to — not to be cynical, but to be skeptical, to look for evidence. They need to be taught to be good journalists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Merrow, you have taught us so much about education.

Thank you. It doesn’t do it justice, but we thank you.

JOHN MERROW: This has been a great ride, Judy. The NewsHour is the best. Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re going to miss you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Although John is retiring, the NewsHour’s coverage of education issues continues, of course.

And that includes a new partnership with Education Week. John’s colleagues at Learning Matters have joined Education Week and will bring regular reports from the nation’s classrooms and communities on important issues from kindergarten up through higher education.