Transforming Public Schools In Just NINE Steps

John Merrow –

I want to make it easier for courageous school boards and superintendents to take on the challenge of transforming their schools.  For them, I have reduced my book’s 12-Step program to just NINE steps.  Here’s my thinking:  Because the country has become addicted to superficial ‘reform,’ it must, like all addicts, own the problem and face up to the costs of addiction.  In my book, those are the first three Steps.  However, school leaders do not need to look backwards and point fingers.  Why not just ask their communities, “Do you think we can improve our schools?”  That (rhetorical) question will elicit a chorus of yes, yes, and yes, which provides a license for moving ahead.

And so, in the interests of encouraging school leaders to grasp the nettle, here are the NINE steps, in brief.  (However, if you are not school leaders, I must insist that you to stop reading right now and go buy the book!)


Our schools and their dominant pedagogy are inappropriate for the twenty-first century and have to be replaced. But what will replace them? The answers become clear when we ask the right question about each and every child.

Remember, today’s schools have evolved into a sorting mechanism to identify and label children from a very young age. Even though tracking has long since fallen out of favor, many (perhaps most) schools have subtle, or not-so-subtle, tracking systems. By third or fourth grade most kids know, deep down, whether the system sees them as “winners” bound for college or “losers” headed somewhere else. Economics reinforces tracking as well. Because school characteristics are nearly always a function of a community’s wealth, some of our schools are decrepit to the point of being unsafe, which has the effect of “tracking” those students downward. Schools in wealthy communities have modern facilities, the most experienced teachers, the latest technology, and perhaps even climbing walls in the gym. That is the track for “winners.”

Essentially, our current system examines each child and demands to know, in a variety of ways, “How intelligent are you?” Standardized, machine-scored tests are the “objective” instruments most commonly used to determine the answer to what is, today, the wrong question.

A new system of schools must ask a different question about each child: “How are you intelligent?” That may strike you as a steep hill to climb, but it’s my version of the questions that caring parents, teachers, and other adults ask about individual children. They phrase it differently: “What is Susan interested in?” “What turns George on?” “What motivates Juan?” or “What does Sharese care about?” Or one can pay attention to young children at play to find out what makes them tick; as Yogi Berra may have said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Every child has interests, and those can be tapped and nurtured in schools that are designed to provide opportunities for children to succeed as they pursue paths of their own choosing. Giving children agency over their own education—with appropriate guidance and supervision—will produce a generation that is better equipped to cope with today’s changing world.

Like most of the changes required to remake public education, this shift—close to a 180-degree change—will not be easy. Some policies, procedures, and attitudes will have to change, and people who refuse to adapt will have to be moved out. The current education system works on a medical model, diagnosing what’s “wrong” with children and then putting them in one ward or another for “treatment.” The approach I put forth in this book is, by contrast, a health model, identifying children’s strengths and interests and then developing a course of action that builds on those assets while also taking care to see that children master basic skills such as literacy and numeracy.


“Only connect,” urges one of E.M. Forster’s central characters in his novel Howard’s End. Forster wasn’t writing about adolescents and children, but he could have been. Because most children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, making connections with them is essential. Children need nurturing and support, and when they don’t feel connected to their school and the adults therein, they will look elsewhere. As Erika Christakis notes in The Importance of Being Little, “It’s really very simple: young children need to know and to be known.” Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, adds, “When adults demonstrate that they care and that they believe in you, much is possible.” Carol Dweck makes similar points in Mindset: The New Psychology of Growth.

As a practical matter, this step calls for schools that are small enough so that every student can be well known to at least a couple of adults in the building. That’s the critical piece often missing in public education, where teachers are sometimes responsible for 150 or more students. As the late educator Ted Sizer said, “That’s not teaching; that’s crowd control.” Those conditions make it extremely difficult for caring adults to connect with all the needy children they come in contact with on a daily basis.

Of course, a small school doesn’t guarantee connecting, because what matters far more is a caring attitude and philosophy. Adults need to learn to see the world from kids’ level, from the ground up and not from the top down. There is good news: lots of schools and communities are embracing this idea. Today, it’s usually under the label of “social and emotional learning.” The modern roots of this approach are in the work of Dr. James Comer, M.D., whose Comer School Development Program pioneered the idea that schools must nurture first and teach second.


Connecting early by creating appealing programs for children of preschool age is the next step in the process of transforming the way our children go to school. Here I suggest we follow the model of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. Ike did not build one set of highways for luxury cars and another for cheap ones but instead made sure that every interstate highway was wide, safe, and well-constructed, suitable for military vehicles and luxury cars like Cadillacs and Lincolns but, of course, open to Volkswagens and other less expensive cars.

The Interstate Highway System was justified and paid for as part of our national defense effort, and we might be wise to take a similar approach to early childhood education and daycare programs. After all, if we believe that our children are the future and that our nation will always require a strong defense, shouldn’t we invest early in protecting our future?

I chose the interstate highway model because the record in social programs, including early childhood programs, is clear: when government creates programs just for poor people, it nearly always results in poor programs. Government-funded programs for the disadvantaged, such as Head Start, seem to be constantly scrounging for funds; to reduce staff costs, they often hire people with minimum qualifications; and the hours spent filling in forms and meeting other requirements leaves little time for meeting the needs of children and families, let alone for staff development and “reflection.” To satisfy their communities, some programs give hiring preference to locals, qualified or not, leading to the common charge that these programs exist to provide jobs for adults, rather than to support the healthy development of children.

What is the right age? Is three too young? That’s up to parents. Effective preschool programs such as the Perry Preschool Project and the Chicago Child Parent Centers enroll both three- and four-year-olds. Some say that’s critical to success because so many low-income children are already significantly behind by age three.

A critical issue is what happens during the day. Is its focus academic? Beware of a pushed-down curriculum, because it is probably not developmentally appropriate. Play always matters, but it’s especially critical in the early years.

It’s also important to figure out who is in charge. Non-educators who are not versed in child development shouldn’t be deciding how three- and four-year-olds spend their days. And under no circumstances should those days involve testing.


Because children become what they repeatedly do, it’s essential that they do different things in school. However, it’s equally important that we do the right thing, which above all means expecting more from them.

In this chapter I am building on a foundation provided by Aristotle and philosopher Will Durant: “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; ‘these virtues are formed in man by his doing his actions’; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Kicking the habit of school reform demands that we look carefully at the routines of school, because children become what they repeatedly do, just as most live up (or down) to expectations.

If schools demand that students fill in bubbles, color inside the lines, fall into line when ordered to do so, and never ask why or question authority, those children are unlikely to become independent thinkers and doers. Going forward, we must expect and encourage students to dig deeply into subjects and ideas they are curious about. Teachers must then use their students’ curiosity—about The Odyssey, skydiving, auto mechanics, the French Revolution, or rap music—to ensure that they also master clear writing and thinking, mathematical concepts, and other essentials.

Habitual behavior at home also matters. Children whose parents allow them to spend their free time on screens playing video games and texting with friends, who aren’t required to pick up their dirty laundry, keep their rooms clean and help around the house, and who aren’t expected to participate in conversations at the dinner table are likely to grow up to be one sort of adult. On the other hand, children whose parents expect them to join on trips to museums, the library, and the grocery store, who participate in family activities, and who are encouraged to think about the needs of others develop very different habits as adults.


Spoiler alert: this chapter has a clear bottom-line message. It is that technology, no matter how powerful, will never completely replace teachers. Wisely used, however, it will make good teachers more effective.

Before the age of the Internet, the schools we need to create for all children could not have existed. No chance! While, in theory, teachers could have asked the essential question about every child—“How is this particular child intelligent?”—the second step, which involves personalized learning pathways for each and every child, was unimaginable. However, that is now possible because the Internet and modern technology enable students to dig deeper and soar higher than ever before. But technology must be embraced with care, and adults will have to learn to give up a large measure of control over children’s learning. Neither is guaranteed, and neither one is a slam dunk.

The cliché about idle hands doing the devil’s work has been rewritten for an age of smartphones and computers, and now it reads “Idle thumbs do the devil’s work.” Cute, but wrong, because it is idle minds that do the work of the devil. Because technology is ubiquitous among the young, their minds must be engaged productively; if not, lots of bad things are likely to occur.

For too long schools have either resisted technology or, more likely, employed it to process data and increase control. This step calls for what amounts to nearly a 180-degree turn, so that technology, with the guidance of skilled teachers, enables students to have significant control over their learning.

Let’s begin with the basics. Both the common #2 pencil and the most tricked-out smartphone are technological tools. Both have commonsense age restrictions. No three- or four-year-old should be handling a sharpened #2 pencil; the appropriate age for a smartphone is arguable, but it exists. Both tools are value-free, meaning that how they are used depends on the user. The individual wielding a pencil can write a love sonnet, a grocery list, or a threatening anonymous letter. The user of a smartphone (which has more computing power than the computers that sent the first man to the moon in 1969) can do all these things, and far more. However, the essential fact remains: how technology is used depends on the values of the user.


The problem with the truism “It takes a village to raise a child” is that most villagers have no direct connection to children or to the schools they go to. Only about 25 percent of homes have school-age children, and in some communities that percentage drops into the teens. Even if you include households with grandparents, the percentage probably won’t reach 40.

Never forget that people in households with no strong connection to public education hold the future of public schools in their hands. They vote on school budgets, and so their opinions of schools, teachers, and students matter. Not only do older folks vote in greater numbers than younger people, but the gap is increasing. According to the Census Bureau, “the turnout rate among 18- to 24-year olds fell to 41.2 percent in 2012 from 48.5 percent in 2008. The turnout rates of adults ages 65 and older rose—to 71.9 percent in 2012 from 70.3 percent in 2008.”

For these reasons, educators and those connected to schools must develop and adopt strategies to win the support of those without a direct connection to schools. It’s not enough for good things to be happening in schools; the “outsiders” need to be supportive. And the best way to make that happen is to get them involved.

It will be difficult for many educators to take this step because they have grown accustomed to a system that says, in effect, “Drop the children and the money at the schoolhouse door, and leave the rest to us.” That approach won’t work anymore, if it ever did. The outside world, meaning ordinary taxpayers and the business community, may also have trouble adjusting, because they’ve grown comfortable with being kept at arm’s length. But that’s what has to change . . . and determined educators can do this pretty easily by meeting the outsiders where they are and involving them in the curriculum of a modern world. Here are a few ways.

  • Students can create a photo gallery of the residents of their apartment building or their street and then post portraits on the Web for all to see and talk about.
  • Art students can sketch portraits of business storefronts, or workers and bosses, also to be posted on the Web.
  • Utilizing Skype, the school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers simultaneously with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county.
  • A video team can interview adults in a senior citizen center around a chosen theme (best job, favorite trip, et cetera), to be edited into a short video for the Web. Producing short biographies of ordinary citizens will teach all sorts of valuable skills, including clear writing, teamwork, and meeting deadlines.
  • Music and drama students can rehearse and then present their productions at retirement homes and senior centers—but with a twist: involve some of the adults in the process (a small part in the play, a role in selecting the music, and so on).


Most of the 3.3 million teachers now in classrooms will probably be teaching in the new schools we are determined to create, but with new challenges and opportunities. These experiences will change them and the way they teach. If we do this right, millions of teachers will rediscover why they entered the field in the first place. When they see their students grow and soar, they will become again who they once were, idealistic and socially conscious individuals.

However, embracing teachers is also going to disrupt some institutions and people who work in them. It requires major changes, but since you’ve come this far in the program, why stop now?

First, let’s insist on collaboration. Right now teaching is a closed-door profession, just as it was when I taught high school in the mid-1960s. Most teachers can close their doors and operate as they see fit, with rare visits by colleagues or supervisors. Teachers ought to be able to visit each other’s classrooms to learn from each other. That means reducing the number of hours of teaching so that collaboration (including watching each other teach) is possible. At the present time most American teachers teach for about twenty-seven hours a week. Contrast that with Finland, where ten to twelve hours is the norm. This sort of observational learning will require hiring more adults, but we can pay for that by scrapping so-called professional development entirely. It’s almost universally conceded to be useless, and it’s costing as much as $ 15,000 per teacher per year.

In these new schools, teachers will rarely be asking “what” questions, as in “What is the capital of Missouri?” or “What branch of government originates legislation?” Instead, they will be asking their students “why” and “how” questions. These are big changes.

Our current education system makes it too easy for just about anyone to become a teacher . . . and far too difficult for most teachers to excel at the task. It’s estimated that about 40 percent of teachers leave the field within their first five years on the job. What’s not clear is how many of them leave because they failed at the task, how many depart for personal reasons, and how many quit because teaching is frustrating work. Among the problems: low pay, low status, poor preparation, not much hope of advancement, lack of professional atmosphere, and (especially but not only for bright women) benighted male administrators.

The basic idea of changing teaching can be reduced to a bumper sticker: “Harder to Become, Easier to Be.” But making the needed changes will be neither simple nor easy, because some many people and systems actually benefit from today’s inefficient approach of weak preparation, inadequate orientation of new employees, an out-of-whack pay structure, a poor rewards system, and excessive (but often unsupportive) supervision. Teacher training institutions, their home universities, school districts, state budgets and budget directors, and others stand to lose something, or at a minimum be significantly changed. Even teachers, accustomed to a certain way of instruction, will face challenges in reinventing themselves.

However, it is important to remember that other changes will also be taking place because educators, policy makers, and school systems have committed to taking the other steps outlined in this book. They will be assessing students differently, they will be engaging their communities, they will be harnessing technology productively, and they will have embraced a vision in which students are the workers and knowledge their product. Changes such as these will make it easier for rookie and veteran teachers alike to remake themselves and to succeed. Making the field of teaching more attractive is essential. These changes should reverse the decline in interest noted earlier and slow the rate of attrition.


Predictably, our addiction to school reform is most visible every spring, during testing season. That’s when learning and teaching stop in most schools and test prep begins in earnest. In some schools, it’s test prep pretty much all year long. School reform’s supporters are obsessed with measurement and testing rules. Districts spend tens of billions of dollars a year buying, preparing for, administering, and grading standardized tests.

That obsessive focus must be overthrown. But even if you are convinced that our current system of measuring achievement is doing far more harm than good, we still have to find better ways of measuring learning. Assessments are necessary to evaluate students and help them learn, as well as to help make judgments about schools and the adults in them.

The maxim “Measure What Matters,” which could easily be added to my developing line of bumper stickers, is unambiguous: figure out what we care about in education, and develop ways of measuring those skills. Right now most school systems do pretty much the opposite, valuing what’s easy (and inexpensive) to measure. A more cynical but defensible interpretation holds that because the school reform crowd endorses and supports “test and punish,” with teachers as the target, cheap tests are just fine for that purpose. This policy has poisoned learning by turning it into a “gotcha” game.

A healthier approach calls for “assess to improve,” with assessment as a tool to help both students and teachers get better. The contrast between “assess to improve” and “test and punish” could not be more stark.

Whenever anyone talks seriously about changing schools, the elephant in the room is academic achievement: how will we measure academic progress if we abandon these tests, which almost everyone hates? Academic learning must not be understood as the only goal, but its importance cannot be overlooked or dismissed. Yes, the unwarranted emphasis most schools put on costly and time-consuming standardized testing distorts the process of teaching and learning in schools, but the public and parents have the right to know what students are learning. We must have measures of learning—that is, tests—but they must be valid, reliable measures of genuine learning.

The multiple-choice questions on standardized, machine-scored tests are not designed to measure diligence, honesty, tolerance, fairness, and compassion, which are the values and attitudes that parents repeatedly say they want their children to possess. Parents want their kids to be well rounded; to develop the skills they need to continue learning on their own; and to become good citizens, productive workers, and fulfilled human beings. Most employers would probably agree. But how do schools assess those skills and abilities?

The argument of this chapter is that a new system that asks how each child is intelligent must determine what matters most and then—and only then—develop measures to assess progress toward those outcomes. Or, as some advocates express it, measure what we value, instead of valuing what we measure.


Now the bottom-line question: Do those of us who are frustrated with the addiction to school reform have the will and the courage to follow this path? That’s hard to say. After all, it will be far easier to keep on doing what we’ve been doing, even when we know we ought to change. It’s more comfortable to work hard on small changes, what David Tyack and Larry Cuban famously called “tinkering toward utopia” in their book of that title—but fiddling and patching, rather than repairing our broken system, is how we became addicted to reform in the first place.

Even though we know in our gut that today’s schools are obsolete, the question is whether states, school districts, and individuals will have the courage to do the right thing. Schools are no longer the repository of knowledge they were in the days before the Internet. Today’s children swim in a sea of information 24/7. However, information is not knowledge. So in this new paradigm schools have new duties and challenges: they must help teach young people how to sift through the flood of information and give them the skills to determine what is true. Teachers have to stop asking so many “What?” questions and instead ask “Why?” and “How?” Formulating more questions and searching creatively for answers is the work that students—knowledge workers—must be doing. We have to build “knowledge factories” for our children, not more schools in the current mold.

We know that, because of technology, the school’s long-standing task of socialization has taken on new meaning with our children, digital natives who socialize via hundreds of apps. Schools need educators who understand that their job is to transform these digital natives into digital citizens. These young digital citizens must use technology to create knowledge, because if they are not encouraged and allowed to do this, many will—out of boredom or malice—use the dazzling variety of tools we call social media to harass and abuse the most vulnerable among them.

If we allow schools to continue as regurgitation factories where students are “products,” if we persist in judging teachers based on the test scores of those products, and if we don’t insist that schools harness the awesome potential of technology, then we will always have schools where the brightest students are bored and the most vulnerable are bullied.

Because we are what we repeatedly do and because we do not want to produce generations of adults who are minimal participants in our democracy, students must spend their days developing the skills and capabilities that we want them to have as adults. It’s a tall order: students must master the basic skills of numeracy, reading, and writing and the new basics of speaking persuasively, listening carefully and critically, working collaboratively, and being reflective, all while mastering modern technology.

It bears repeating that we have to do the work. Experience has taught us that Washington cannot run public education, we know that the well-organized and well-funded school reform crowd cannot be trusted, and the Trump administration has promised to return power to parents, communities and states. DIY, America!

This approach can cure American business’s persistent headache, transform public education, make school much more challenging and relevant for students, and reverse the supposed “rising tide of mediocrity.” Perhaps the best way for a school district to start is with a few pilot schools, built on the basic principles outlined above. Creating a system of schools that measures what matters and takes care to ask of each child “How are you intelligent?” will require strong leadership at every level. The larger community must be invested in what happens to other people’s children, and that won’t happen on its own.

“Freedom to fail” is a new idea for students, who are used to being spoon-fed information that they then regurgitate. Telling them that those days are over is one thing; getting them accustomed to this new world of greater responsibility and opportunity won’t be easy. School boards and administrators must stick to their guns, because change will be difficult and messy, particularly because every adult grew up in, and was educated by, the old system, the one that sorted them into “winners” and “losers.”

The education press will have to get out of the habit of elevating newcomers to heroic status—for a while—and then tearing them down. They must learn to be skeptical from day one. Not cynical, but questioning.

Schools of education and their universities will be challenged as never before, because when teaching becomes an appealing profession that does not lose 40 percent of new teachers within four or five years, ed schools will lose what has been a cash cow for them. Ending churn will dramatically affect the landscape in teacher education—half of the schools of education currently in existence might go out of business. Let’s hope that only those that provide value survive.

Giant testing companies such as Pearson will lose their huge contracts, as well they should.

There will be other losers:

  1. Those who have been benefitting from failure and mediocrity, that chattering class of critics and scholars who regularly dine out on tales of educational woe or get grants to study trivialities, will discover that their free lunch is over.
  2. Jettisoning the medical model that diagnoses weaknesses and claims it can “cure” our children of their “deficits” with drugs, expensive testing and tutoring, or expensive technology will mean pink slips for all those specialists. Instead we are adopting a health model of schooling that builds on children’s strengths—because all children have strengths.
  3. The biggest and most deserving losers will be the for-profit charter school chains, including the virtual charters. Nonprofit charter schools that refuse to be transparent about their spending will lose their right to operate.

But what if we ignore the evidence that is right in front of us and do nothing? What if we continue to isolate children by race and economic status, all while blathering about the “achievement gap” and “no excuses” schools? What if we tolerate the continued isolation of schools from the larger society, all the while expecting them to solve myriad problems?

If we do nothing to radically change a system that identifies “winners” and “losers” at an early age; if we do nothing about a system that tests children excessively, labels them permanently, and then uses their test scores to punish educators; if we do nothing about schools that ignore technology’s potential but use it instead to control; if we do nothing to transform a system that expects teachers and schools to “do it all,” thereby setting them up to fail; then we are dooming generations of children to second-class status.

That is not something I can live with or stand for, and I suspect most caring people in the United States feel similarly. Our dangerous, destructive habits have to be kicked.

(Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education is available at local booksellers and on Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites.)

Source: Transforming Public Schools In Just NINE Steps | The Merrow Report