Five Truths



On Tuesday I received the highest honor of my professional life, the McGraw Prize in Education. The list of those who have been honored includes men and women I have reported on and admire: Ted Sizer, Jim Comer, Governor Richard Riley, Governor Jim Hunt and many more.

The black tie gala was held at the New York Public Library, and 14 members of my immediate family were on hand to help celebrate. There was a short video profile to open:

After the video, I spoke briefly. My topic was “Five Things I Know to be True about Education” (after 38 years of reporting).

Below is what I said Tuesday night. I apologize for the caps, as I posted from the draft on my computer. I’m told that McGraw-Hill Companies will have video of all the honorees speaking posted online soon; when that happens, we’ll also embed the speech here.

HOW APPROPRIATE THAT WE ARE CELEBRATING TONIGHT IN ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREAT PUBLIC LIBRARIES, BECAUSE I GREW UP IN A LIBRARY FAMILY, IN A SMALL TOWN IN CONNECTICUT. THE PUBLIC LIBRARY WAS PART OF OUR LIVES, AS MY SIBLINGS, MARTY, HATTIE, AND ROB CAN ATTEST. WE MADE LOTS OF VISITS AS KIDS. OUR MOM DEVOURED BOOKS. NO SURPRISE THAT MY SISTER MARTY BECAME A LIBRARIAN IN THAT SAME SMALL TOWN IN CONNECTICUT.

MORE THAN ONCE, MARTY TOLD ME ABOUT A STORY THAT I SHOULD DO FOR NPR OR, LATER, THE NEWSHOUR. THERE WAS THIS ONE MAN, SHE SAID, WHO REGULARLY VISITED HER LIBRARY, A MAN WHO WAS GALLANT, GRACIOUS, GENEROUS AND UNFAILINGLY POLITE. HE WAS, SHE SAID, HER FAVORITE PATRON.

“WHY IS THAT A STORY,” I ASKED HER? “WHAT’S SO NEWSWORTHY ABOUT THAT?”

The 2012 honorees pose together.

WELL, SHE SAID, THIS MAN IS IN A POSITION TO HAVE ANY BOOK HE WANTED BROUGHT TO HIM. HE DIDN’T HAVE TO GO TO A PUBLIC LIBRARY AND TAKE OUT BOOKS, BECAUSE HE HAD HIS OWN PUBLISHING COMPANY, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD. AND YET HE COMES TO THE LIBRARY ALL THE TIME.

I’M SURE YOU’VE FIGURED OUT BY NOW THAT I’M TALKING ABOUT THE PUBLIC LIBRARY IN DARIEN, CONNECTICUT, AND THAT SPECIAL PATRON WAS, OF COURSE, HAROLD W. MCGRAW, JR, THE MAN WHOSE LIFE WE HONOR TONIGHT.

AND I GUESS THE APPLE DOESN’T FALL FAR FROM THE TREE, BECAUSE THE MCGRAW FAMILY HAS CONTINUED HIS TRADITION OF GENEROSITY.

MARTY, YOU WERE RIGHT. I SHOULD HAVE DONE THAT STORY.

CHANGING GEARS: BY RECOGNIZING THE WORK OF THIS PARTICULAR EDUCATION REPORTER, YOU ARE ALSO HONORING EDUCATION REPORTERS AND EDUCATION REPORTING. ACKNOWLEDGING ITS IMPORTANCE IN THE COMPLEX WORLD OF EDUCATION. ON BEHALF OF THE 300 OR SO PRACTICING EDUCATION REPORTERS, THANK YOU.

YOU MAY NOT KNOW IT, BUT YOU ARE ALSO HONORING DOZENS AND DOZENS OF MY COLLEAGUES AT LEARNING MATTERS AND THE NEWSHOUR. TELEVISION IS A TEAM SPORT, BUT — BECAUSE I AM THE ONE PEOPLE SEE ON THE BROADCAST — I RECEIVE FAR TOO MUCH CREDIT. I HAVE WORKED CLOSELY WITH SOME AMAZINGLY TALENTED MEN AND WOMEN OVER THE PAST 38 YEARS. THEY’VE MADE ME LOOK GOOD, BETTER THAN I DESERVE, AND THEY HAVE ALSO KEPT ME FROM MORE THAN ONE DISASTER. THERE ARE TOO MANY TO THANK BY NAME HERE TONIGHT, BUT I WOULD BE REMISS IF I DID NOT MENTION JIM LEHRER, ROBIN MACNEIL, NEWSHOUR EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS LINDA WINSLOW AND LES CRYSTAL, AND MY LONGTIME COLLEAGUES JOHN TULENKO AND MICHAEL JOSELOFF.

TWO FOUNDATIONS HAVE BEEN WONDERFULLY CONSISTENT AND GENEROUS SUPPORTERS OF LEARNING MATTERS OVER THE YEARS, AND BOTH ARE REPRESENTED HERE TONIGHT. BARBARA CHOW IS THE HEAD OF EDUCATION FOR THE HEWLETT FOUNDATION, AND WILL MILLER IS PRESIDENT OF THE WALLACE FOUNDATION. MY SINCERE THANKS TO THEM BOTH.

MY WIFE, JOAN LONERGAN, HAS BEEN A ROCK AND A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION. THANK YOU, JOAN.

I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT, AFTER 38 YEARS OF REPORTING, I KNOW TO BE TRUE. QUICKLY, HERE ARE FIVE TRUTHS. (THERE ARE MORE, OF COURSE, BUT FOR THAT YOU WILL HAVE TO WAIT FOR MY BOOK, IF I EVER FINISH IT.)

TRUTH #1. “IT TAKES A VILLAGE….” MOST SCHOOL PEOPLE TRY TO DO IT ALL, BUT THEY CANNOT. TEACHERS SEEM TO BE BORN WITH A “PUT ME IN, COACH” ATTITUDE, BUT I THINK IT’S TIME FOR OTHER AGENCIES IN SOCIETY TO PULL THEIR WEIGHT. “IT TAKES A VILLAGE….”

TRUTH #2. “TRUST BUT VERIFY:” TIME WAS, WE TRUSTED TEACHERS. THAT WAS WHEN OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN WERE VERY LIMITED, AND SO THE TEACHING FORCE INCLUDED HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF IMMENSELY TALENTED WOMEN. WE TRUSTED THEM, OCCASIONALLY MORE THAN WE SHOULD HAVE.

THE WORLD HAS CHANGED. TODAY, AND LUCKILY FOR THEM AND US, MANY OF THOSE WOMEN ARE DOCTORS, LAWYERS, BUSINESS LEADERS, POLITICIANS AND MORE. SOME ARE STILL IN THE CLASSROOM, OF COURSE, BUT IT’S DEMONSTRABLY TRUE THAT THE ENTERING QUALIFICATIONS OF TEACHERS ARE NOT AS IMPRESSIVE.

HOWEVER, OUR SOCIETY HAS SWUNG CRAZILY TO A POINT WHERE WE DON’T TRUST TEACHERS AT ALL. NOW IT’S ALL ABOUT VERIFICATION.

RONALD REAGAN WASN’T TALKING ABOUT EDUCATION WHEN HE SAID, ‘TRUST BUT VERIFY.’ HE WAS TALKING ABOUT THE SOVIET UNION. BUT HIS WISDOM APPLIES TO EDUCATION. WE NEED TO FIND BALANCE. WE NEED TO DEVELOP TRUST, FAITH IN THE MEN AND WOMEN WHO TEACH OUR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN. AND WE NEED TO WORK WITH THEM TO DEVELOP SENSIBLE AND RELIABLE MEASURES OF EFFECTIVENESS. ‘TRUST BUT VERIFY.’

TRUTH #3. THE QUESTION THAT I LISTEN FOR WHEN TALKING WITH EDUCATORS (THE QUESTION I WANT TO HEAR THEM ASK) IS, “HOW ARE YOU INTELLIGENT?” TOO OFTEN, HOWEVER, I HEAR THE PEOPLE IN CHARGE ASKING, IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, “HOW INTELLIGENT ARE YOU?” THOSE WHO ASK “HOW ARE YOU INTELLIGENT?” ARE PROCEEDING FROM A HEALTH MODEL, BUILDING ON STRENGTHS. “HOW ARE YOU INTELLIGENT?”

TRUTH #4: “MEASURE WHAT COUNTS,” INSTEAD OF BEING SATISFIED WITH SIMPLY COUNTING WHAT’S EASY TO MEASURE. THE MCGRAW PRIZE AND ALL THAT IT STANDS FOR IS A PLATFORM AND AN OPPORTUNITY FOR US, AS A PEOPLE, TO TALK ABOUT WHAT MATTERS. WHAT DO WE WANT OUR CHILDREN TO BE, AND TO BE ABLE TO DO? THE BUSINESS OF SCHOOLS AND TEACHERS IS NOT LIMITED TO TEACHING READING AND WRITING AND ‘RITHMETIC. THE SCHOOL’S PRIMARY FUNCTION IS TO HELP GROW ADULTS. “MEASURE WHAT COUNTS.”

FINALLY, TRUTH #5. “WE ARE WHAT WE REPEATEDLY DO.” THAT IS THE WISDOM OF ARISTOTLE, WHO ADDED: “EXCELLENCE, THEN, IS NOT AN ACT BUT A HABIT.”

LET ME PUT THAT IN THE VERNACULAR OF YOUTH. “WE ARE, YOU KNOW, LIKE WHAT WE, LIKE, REPEATEDLY DO. SO, YOU KNOW, EXCELLENCE IS NOT LIKE AN ACT, BUT, LIKE, A HABIT. YOU KNOW?”

I PUT ARISTOTLE IN THE VERNACULAR NOT TO MOCK YOUNG PEOPLE, EVEN THOUGH I HAVE, LIKE A LOT OF YOU, COMPLAINED ABOUT HOW CASUALLY, EVEN INARTICULATELY THEY SPEAK. MANY DON’T WRITE WELL, MANY DON’T SEEM TO READ AT ALL. AND A LOT OF US HAVE HAD THAT AWFUL ENCOUNTER WITH A KID AT A CHECKOUT COUNTER WHO CANNOT MAKE CHANGE.

BUT, REMEMBER THIS: ARISTOTLE’S WISDOM — WE ARE WHAT WE REPEATEDLY DO — APPLIES TO OUR CHILDREN. SO LET’S ASK THE CENTRAL QUESTION: WHAT DO THEY REPEATEDLY DO IN OUR SCHOOLS?

YOU MAY WANT TO GO LOOK FOR YOURSELVES, BUT I CAN TELL YOU WHAT YOU’LL SEE. YOU WILL SEE THREE ACTIVITIES, OVER AND OVER AND OVER:

1. INANE REGURGITATION OF ANSWERS. TOO MANY OF OUR SCHOOLS ARE ‘ANSWER FACTORIES,’ BUT THIS FAST CHANGING WORLD NEEDS CITIZENS WHO CAN FORMULATE QUESTIONS, CAN SIFT THROUGH THE FLOOD OF INFORMATION THAT ENGULFS THEM, 24/7. FORMULATE QUESTIONS THAT HELP THEM DISTINGUISH BETWEEN WHEAT AND CHAFF.

2. TEST PREPARATION.
A. PRACTICING FILLING IN BUBBLES,
B. STRATEGIES FOR ELIMINATING OBVIOUSLY WRONG ANSWERS AS A PRELUDE TO GUESSING THE BEST FROM THOSE THAT REMAIN.
C. WRITING THREE-SENTENCE ANSWERS TO A ‘PROMPT’ AND MAKING SURE THAT THEY REPEAT THE PROMPT IN THEIR THREE-SENTENCE ANSWER. DOES ANYONE HERE BELIEVE THAT CONSTITUTES GOOD WRITING? WHO WOULD HIRE THOSE GRADUATES?

3. TEST-TAKING. AMERICAN KIDS ARE THE MOST TESTED IN THE WORLD.

THAT IS WHAT THEY REPEATEDLY DO. NO WONDER THEY ARE SLOPPY AND INARTICULATE IN THEIR SPEAKING, WRITING, ET CETERA. WE DON’T ASK THEM TO DO MORE. IT’S ON US.

IF WE WANT YOUNG PEOPLE TO BECOME CITIZENS WHO THINK AND SPEAK CLEARLY, WHO READ WITH UNDERSTANDING, AND WHO WRITE THOUGHTFULLY AND PERSUASIVELY, THEN THAT IS WHAT THEY SHOULD BE DOING — REPEATEDLY — IN SCHOOL.

TO ASK LESS OF THEM IS TO DEPRIVE THEM OF THEIR BIRTHRIGHT. IT IS ALSO A THREAT TO OUR DEMOCRACY.

IT’S NOT ABOUT UNIONS, CHARTER SCHOOLS, USING TEST SCORES TO EVALUATE TEACHERS, MERIT PAY, CLASS SIZE, OR ANY OF THOSE OTHER HOT BUTTON ISSUES. THOSE ARE SKIRMISHES AND DISTRACTIONS THAT DIVIDE US.

IT’S ABOUT WHAT IS HAPPENING IN SCHOOLS, HOUR AFTER HOUR, DAY IN AND DAY OUT. THAT SHOULD BE THE ISSUE THAT UNITES US.

THE MCGRAW PRIZE HONORS MEN AND WOMEN LIKE YVONNE CHAN, FREEMAN HRABOWSKI, LARRY ROSENSTOCK, JIM COMER, SAL KHAN, TIM DALY, ARELIA ROZMAN AND OTHERS WHO SHAPE THE DEBATE (AND ONE WHO TRIES TO REPORT ON IT). THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY WE MUST NOT PASS UP.

I SAY, “STOP CURSING THE DARKNESS. LIGHT CANDLES INSTEAD.”

IT’S LONG PAST TIME FOR PREDICTING THE DELUGE. LET’S BUILD ARKS INSTEAD.

I THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART FOR THIS HONOR…AND HOPE TO PROVE WORTHY OF IT.


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9 Responses to “Five Truths”

  1. Rick Ackerly 20. Sep, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    Congratulations, John. Good work–no Great work. Don’t stop till the revolution comes.

  2. Joe Nathan 21. Sep, 2012 at 4:33 am #

    thanks, John.

  3. Rachel 21. Sep, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    Well said and I hope heard.

  4. Joe Beckmann 21. Sep, 2012 at 11:41 am #

    John,

    Ironically, your five truths inspire reflection. And it is on that reflection that I reconsider the Great Books, the core of the St. John’s Curriculum, the explorations at Hampshire College and the brilliance of the Chicago School. Yes, Darien is a glimmer of that reflection, since my experience was in Winnetka, which bounced that same glow. But the real weakness of testing, common cores, and the brutalities we now see in academe remains how they betray that mission to explore a culture we knew and played with forty years ago and which changed and continues to change today. Another way to see it is the difference between teaching culture and sharing a culture of teaching. Congratulations on your recognition, and on the wisdom that that recognition celebrates.

  5. Heather Pang 21. Sep, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    Congratulations, John. As always, you give us much to think about.

  6. Rachel 22. Sep, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    Congratulations John. This is a well deserved honor. As a teacher librarian I appreciate your comments about the importance of libraries. In my 25 years as an librarian/educator I’ve heard people from all walks of life tell me that repeated visits to a library when they were young were instrumental to their intellectual life.

  7. Linda Johnson 29. Sep, 2012 at 12:14 am #

    Congratulations, John. Thank you for expressing the essential truth about education: It DOES take a village.

    I have always appreciated your habit of visiting schools and basing your opinions on your personal observations as opposed to what is being stated and restated in the media. What education needs more than anything is the truth. Thanks for providing it.

    • Tate Cohn 19. Oct, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

      Congratulations John, and thanks for sticking up for the needs of education so stoutly.

  8. Stephen Castle 11. Nov, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    Of course I want to congratulate you, but I need to point out something crucial you can not leave out of the debate OR THE REPORTING when it comes to educcation. That is the lives of so many of our children and the circumstances under which they live.

    Everyone involved in education knows that family income and the level of education achieved by a child’s primary care givers are the 2 most significant factors that most strongly correlate with success in school. I love and am proud of all of the exceptions and special cases, too. I see them and recognize them.

    We can’t change the level of success all students reach without considering the effects of poverty, single parent households, racism and institutional racism, and the crushing effects that drugs, exploitation and abuse, and the incarceration rate of some minorities, have on millions upon millions of children.

    MAKE THOSE ISSUES PART OF THE DEBATE. THEY ARE PART OF THE REALITY CHILDREN STRUGGLE WITH EVERY DAY. THERE WAS A TIME IN THE UNITED STATES WHEN WE COURAGEOUSLY DISCUSSED THE SE ISSUES. NOW, TOO MANY OF US PRETEND STANDERIZED TESTING AND THOSE WORKING IN SCHOOLS ARE THE MAGICAL CURE.

    Congratulations!

    Steve Castle

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