John Thompson, historian and teacher in Oklahoma, Reviews John Merrow’s ADDICTED TO REFORM:


In “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education”, John Merrow lets it all out. Merrow, the winner of the George Polk Award and two George Foster Peabody Awards, leads us down “Memory Lane,” republishing his astonishing journalism that predates “A Nation at Risk,” and its warning against “a rising tide of mediocrity.” He also recalls successful innovators such as James Comer, E.D. Hirsch, Deborah Meier, and Henry Levin.
ADDICTED TO REFORM by John Merrow | Kirkus Reviews
But Merrow shows how high stakes testing dramatically increased our output of mediocre and even worse lessons for our kids. He tells us how the bubble-in reform “mania” got to a point where a principal told his teachers to “motor down,” to stop teaching 11th grade material to high-performing freshmen in order to prepare for the 9th grade test. Even more despicable was cancelling an annual kindergarten play so five-year-olds could spend more time becoming “college and career ready.”

The veteran reporter, with four decades of experience at NPR and PBS, reviews the way that test and punish “went into high gear during [the] Bush and Obama” administrations, when “‘regurgitation education’ became the order of the day.” Accountability-driven, competition-driven reformers turned schools into dreary places for “parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education and citizenship.”

Merrow recalls the legacies of “blindly worshipping test scores.” Under Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, and Michelle Rhee, et. al and with funding by the “Billionaires Boys Club,” test scores became more than “the holy grail.” Merrow concludes, “Test scores are their addiction, the equivalent of crack cocaine, oxycodone, or crystal meth.”

Given Merrow’s influential coverage of corporate reform abuse in Washington D.C., it is no surprise that his discussion of Rhee is especially important. High stakes testing like the DC-CAS is always a bad idea, Merrow concludes, but in D.C. “it was an open invitation to disaster.” It was a part of a mentality where, for instance, D.C.’s director of professional development said that 80% of the district’s teachers lacked the skills or motivation to be successful in the classroom.

This narrow viewpoint, which was brought nationwide by “Waiting for Superman,” “The 74,” and other corporate-funded public relations assaults on public education, has “poisoned learning by turning it into a ‘gotcha game.’” But, Merrow concludes that our schools won’t “be out of the woods” until we “stop belittling and sometimes humiliating” teachers.

Merrow dissects the “heroic teacher” meme that set educators up to fail in their single-handed fight against the legacies of poverty. He cites teachers’ accounts of how “the testing mania has caused people to lose their minds.” Teachers explain how they “are becoming more like McDonald’s workers.” And, as another teacher explains, “I’m still in the classroom, but I miss teaching. It’s all about testing.”

The result of the lavishly-funded, data-driven mandates to transform “teacher quality” is that only prison guards, child care workers, and secretaries have higher attrition rates. A seemingly conservative estimate is that 81% of teachers believe that schools have too much testing and, that helps explain why about 60% of teachers say they are losing enthusiasm for the job, with nearly half saying they would quit if they could find a higher-paying job.

Merrow offers a 12-Step plan to reverse the harm inflicted by corporate school reform. In doing so, he often reminds us that it wasn’t just a misguided ideology and hubris that led sincere reformers astray. He notes the profit motives that undoubtedly influenced edu-philanthropists and charter providers, motivating them to ignore the overwhelming evidence of the unintended harm they were dumping on children.

For instance, Merrow speculates that if Jesse James would come back, today he’d become a charter operator in North Carolina. Similarly, huge administrative costs richly reward charter operators. The New York City Schools Chancellor is compensated at a rate of 40 cents per student, but charter leader Eva Moskowitz earns $51.35 per student, and Deborah Kenny is compensated at a rate of $375 per student.

The part of Addicted to Reform that taught me the most was Merrow’s account of Big Pharma’s influence on special education practices. I had no idea that it was once claimed that some ADD treatments were “safer than aspirin.” But the lessons that I most needed to learn are included in Merrow’s account of the “Buy Now, Pay Later” economics of Ed Tech. His bottom line isn’t surprising, “harnessing technology, … to raise test scores, makes education worse, not better.”

On one hand, the solutions in the 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education are modest. However, their strengths are rooted in what our democracy already knows how to do. We don’t need a new Common Core, Merrow says, to teach us how to respect the science that calls for high-quality early education, or to bring exploratory learning back into classrooms. By now, there is a widely held understanding that due to reform, “Students have been the losers, sentenced to mind-numbing schooling. Teachers who care about their craft have also lost out.”

The big winners have been the testing companies. But the grassroots Opt Out movement has led the counterattack. The refusal to take these punitive tests has empowered students and patrons, while revealing some of the darkest sides of the reform addiction. For instance, when 90% of students opted out in a Connecticut school, the administration forced opt outers to attend classes where there would be “no new learning” allowed.

And that brings us back to why Merrow was right to use the word “addiction” to diagnose the failure of reform. Merrow shows how corporate reform began as a fundamentally anti-intellectual movement (by admittedly smart people who knew little of the institution they sought to transform) and ended up defending policies that are sometimes irrational and/or cruel. Somehow, they couldn’t see the damage done by shaming poor children of color into increasing their “outputs.” These social engineers imposed the stress of testing to overcome the stress of poverty, and consciously contributed to increased segregation in order to reverse the legacies of segregation.

And many reformers are still convincing themselves that they haven’t created a disaster. It would be hard to explain such a continuing debacle without using Merrow’s language of addiction, as well has his guide to following their money.