Merrow’s faith in public schoolsHis new book offers hope and solutions
When I first met John Merrow he was in his element, wearing a tuxedo and doing his best imitation of Alex Trebek – if Trebek had a sense of humor, that is – leading a room full of education reporters in a rollicking game of Education Jeopardy. If your table had too many points, he’d give you an impossible, possibly unquestionable, answer. “He was the brother-in-law of the firefighter who lived next to this state’s education secretary.” If your table was low on points, you’d get a no-brainer to get you back in the game. “Its initials are NCLB.”
It wasn’t long before I got to know the other John Merrow. Smart, creative, and indefatigable. Don’t take my word for it; read his bio. The guy is a prolific writer, and his production company, Learning Matters, has produced some of the most important and influential reports in education. First to Worst, which aired seven years ago this month, presented a dramatic indictment of how Proposition 13, California’s anti-tax initiative, began to erode the quality of the state’s schools long before the current recession.
John has interviewed every leading advocate and policy maker in education and never shies away from tough questions. The result is often shocking answers and unprecedented access. His video crew was in Michelle Rhee’s office when the former D.C. School Superintendent fired a principal.
He was in California recently for party launching his latest book, The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership. TOP-Ed snagged him for a few minutes to sit down for a video interview to discuss those reflections as well as his thoughts on what’s happening in education reform today (click here for a transcript of the interview). John, himself a former teacher, said he’s troubled by what he sees as a “war on teachers” in the current education debate. He’s not a defender of the status quo, but says the polarizing debate simplifies a complicated issue in which all sides need to focus on what’s best for students instead of lawmakers pushing to bust collective bargaining or unions focusing on how much advance warning should a teacher get that the principal is coming to watch her teach.
John says that from all his years in the classroom teaching and reporting, that’s not really what teachers want. ”If you ask them about a better job, they say, ‘We’d like to be able to watch each other. We’d like to be able to collaborate. We’d like to help develop [curricula]. We’d like our evaluations to count at least as much as a bubble test.’”
He’s also concerned that education hasn’t caught up with technology. Our ability to be connected 24/7 and to have access to such powerful tools has changed part of the mission of schools. When students have so much information at their fingertips, teachers need to help them understand how to evaluate and use that information, and to be responsible participants in the online community. ”If it’s not used positively, very often it comes out negatively, and that is what’s happening. I mean cyber-bullying is much easier than bullying because you can be anonymous,” he explained.
Don’t get the wrong idea, though, The Influence of Teachers is not another diatribe about how awful public education has become. It’s a hopeful book that offers solutions for getting away from the tedium of test-prep learning and making school exciting again for students and their teachers.