Journalist Merrow Probes "Myths" at CREO Seminar

Many of the judgments Americans commonly accept about our educational system are myths, according to an award-winning education journalist who addressed an Institute for Educational Initiatives (IEI) audience on April 30.

Veteran reporter John Merrow, whose stories appear on the PBS NewsHour and a range of other media, critiqued a list of myths—and spotlighted numerous problems in schooling—during his lecture, which capped the 2011-2012 Center for Research on Educational Opportunity (CREO) Seminar series.

"I wish, after 37 years of reporting, I could be optimistic [about the future of education],” he said, but little real progress will be made unless the nation and strong leaders engage in a sweeping “conversation about what we want for our kids” and the best ways to achieve those goals.

On the subject of today’s educational myths, Merrow rejected the notion that the biggest challenge in schooling is an “achievement gap” between rich and poor students as defined by test results.

Focusing a school’s efforts on raising those test scores ignores the fact that the problem grows out of less-recognized phenomena in society, he said—an “opportunity gap” reflected in schools of differing quality, an “expectations gap” derived from asking little of students, a “leadership gap” fed by a lack of the courage to solve more systemic problems, and an “outcomes gap” that is measured and addressed statistically and simplistically.

Among other points he made:

  • Charter schools are not a big part of the solution for America’s education problems, although they could offer some answers—“I’m not so sure about profit-making charter schools.”
  • Over the past 40 years, the average teacher salary, adjusted for inflation, has risen less than 1% annually.
  • “America’s children are the most tested in the world…. Oftentimes, we’re testing our kids because we’re trying to keep track of the teachers.” Americans spend too little of the education dollar to see if their expenditure of $12,000 a year per student has worked well, he said.
  • Schools must realize their purpose is to prepare students for their careers and for life, not just college, Merrow said. He noted that Notre Dame ACE Academies speak of preparing students for college and heaven. “That’s cool,” he said. “It’s not how I would phrase it, but it’s a wonderful construct” because it reflects a deep, long-term purpose.

Merrow added that his audience shouldn’t go away from the talk feeling too distressed. After his visit to Notre Dame, including meetings with University President-Emeritus Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C, and leaders of IEI units such as CREO and the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) who are working to change things, “I’m going to go back feeling a lot better.”

CREO director Mark Berends, a distinguished sociologist of education at Notre Dame and a Fellow of the Institute for Educational initiatives (IEI), called Merrow "the premier influential, thorough, thoughtful education reporter in the United States."