Two scandals involving our government and the young people of this country broke in the last few weeks. One involved the internet antics of an important Republican Congressman with current and former Congressional pages. His indiscretions shocked the nation, have brought suspicion on the House Republican hierarchy who appear to have covered up for him, and may well effect the mid-year elections. The second scandal involved millions of children in schools throughout the country. Yet, after a few newspaper reports and an occasional mild editorial, there have been no noticeable repercussions

I’m talking about the amazing report of the US Department of Education Office of Inspector General involving the Reading First portion of the No Child Left Behind. The OIG found that the DOE personnel:

  1. deliberately obscured the requirements of NCLB
  2. imposed conditions on the states which are not in the act, 
  3. were totally indifferent to blatant conflicts of interest of persons appointed to panels reviewing state proposals, 
  4. ignored the law in illegally constituting review panels
  5. and interfered in the selection of curricula, texts and tests by states and school districts illegally, according the provisions of NCLB itself and the Department of Education Authorizing Act (1979).

That sounds a lot more damaging to a lot more kids than what the reprehensible representative did. When George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Work Force expressed his outrage and called for immediate hearings in the House, the Republican leadership said no. 

NCLB, including Reading First, is a major program of the Bush administration which had bipartisan support not only from Miller but from Senator Kennedy as well. School administrators know that Reading First has been a disaster for schools in every part of every state.

State and local schools administrators have been caught in the middle between the bureaucrats in the DOE and parents, students and teachers, forced to enforce absurd programs like Direct Instruction Reading and DIBELS and to defend them as “scientifically based”. Now the ugly truth is revealed: those who authored and profited from these programs were illegally employed to review state proposals and insist on including these absurdities as a condition of approving them.

Chris Doherty, the Reading First Director is the chosen fall-guy. It’s already been announced he is leaving DOE . His only original qualification for the job is that he directed an unssuccessful Direct Instruction program in Baltimore. His assistant Sandi Jacobs has ben transferred to another job. The OIG report contains emails between Doherty and Ed Kame’enui (mentioned as having conflicts of interest}, and others boasting about how they were pushing some programs on states while harpooning others. While not as salacious as Foley’s emails they are much clearly illegal. Doherty even boasts he forced school districts in a number of states to drop blacklisted programs after their state proposals had already been approved.. Rigby and Reading Recovery are mentioned by name in the emails.

The OIG report has asked for the review of all state Reading First contracts with DOE. There is little doubt that there is a basis in what has already been revealed to declare them all illegal according to the NCLB law itself and the law establishing the DOE.

So why isn’t this scandal causing the repercussions that the Foley missteps have caused? Why did TV news virtually ignore it? With NCLB up for renewal for another 7 year sequence in the next Congress, why isn’t this becoming a major issue in the mid-term elections?

Maybe it’s because some very powerful interests have put a lid on it. Maybe the Reading First scandal has the potential for being a lot more embarrassing for some very important people than Foley’s Follies.

One of the most remarkable achievements of American democracy was its provision of free universal compulsory education for all its children and young people. No society had ever committed itself to universal education. The movement to get our children out of the fields and factories led every state by 1918 to set a minimum school leaving age ranging from 16 to 18. . That meant that publically supported high schools had to be available to all communities.

It also meant that schools had to develop ways of serving the full range of differences in language, culture, experiential background , values, goals and ability  among the children coming to our schools . In earlier times the goals of general education were little more than the minimal three r’s with secondary education only to prepare the elite for higher education. To serve all pupils well, new institutions with new curricula had to evolve: schools needed a broad and variable curriculum to serve the all of the nation’s youth including the waves of  young immigrants. 

Much thought went into this curriculum. John Dewey said we could no longer make the students adjust to the school; we had to make the school fit the learners. We needed to prepare all learners for full participation in a democratic society, and also to accept difference, to start where the learners were and carry them as far as they were capable of going. One answer was the comprehensive high school. The central idea was that a single school could serve everyone in a community by offering varied curricula with many choices and options. That was particularly important in small and medium sized towns that could only support a single high school; but it was also important in the large cities. By having all young people in the same school, students could learn to participate in a diverse society. Schools could serve the college bound but they could also provide interesting and challenging sequences for those who would enter the work force when they left school.

The civil rights period extended this concept to eliminate racially segregated schools. New  laws required inclusion of the full range of handicapped and special populations so that the schools were really serving all young people in the public schools of  the community.

It wasn’t a perfect system but it worked well to keep virtually all young people in school, to educate them to a reasonable level, and to provide a unifying experience for new and native born citizens. 

Now, however, there are strong pressures on state and federal levels to move to a one size fits all narrow curriculum. Choices, even for those college bound, have been largely eliminated and every student is required to complete the courses formerly required for those seeking college admission. Advanced math and science courses are required for all that were designed originally for those planning to follow college majors in math and science. And in many states all students have to pass the same tests at the same level to even get a high school diploma.

Ironically, as other developed and developing nations are moving toward universal education and a comprehensive secondary curricula, we ‘re driving pupils out of schools that are no longer willing or able to adjust to their needs and goals. 

On the national level, the punitive No Child Left Behind law is requiring that schools not only narrow the curriculum but that all pupils reach the same high level of achievement previously only reached by the top 10-20 percent. Virtually every school and school district will be labeled as failing by 2014 according to several state studies because they can’t reach these impossible goals.

Our nation needs good mathematicians and scientists. But more than that it needs informed citizens with a broad education who can participate in a democratic society. In an increasingly diverse society we need schools that can adjust to differences among learners.  For that we need to bring back the comprehensive high school.

Once a decade or so, the New York Times publishes a hysterical article about “the reading wars,” in which the argument for systematic phonics instruction is advanced. They just did it again in An Old and Contested Solution to Boost Reading Scores: Phonics. The article is a predictable mess.

The phonics phanatics are hard-core. One academic used to contact my former university and demand that I be terminated whenever I questioned the phonics gospel in my magazine column. That was in addition to sending scalding letters-to-the-editor.

In 2004, the entire editorial staff of the magazine I worked for was threatened with termination for questioning Reading First. Here’s another one I wrote in 2006.

To “commemorate” the latest discovery of the “reading wars”, I humbly suggest that journalists tackle the following questions.

Q1: Anyone remember when “whole language” was banned in California? Any journalist wish to follow-up on that legacy?

Q2: Why is “balance” virtuous? Can’t it be dangerous or wrong? In my experience, educational quests for balance result in the weeds killing the flowers. In education, “balance” can be not only simplistic, but cowardly and wrong. When schools seek “balance,” the weeds always kill the flowers.

Q3: Why does the defense of systematic phonics instruction remain a top priority of the religious right?

Q4: Why are the same people so often anti-science when it comes to issues like climate change or sexual orientation and yet cling to phonics instruction as scientifically proven?

Q5: Has there been any research or journalistic investigation (or even interview) about the evolution of Lucy Calkins’ work over time? I acknowledge her contributions, but have simple profound ideas become massive curriculum products? If so, what has been lost/gained?

Q6: Where is all of this “unbalanced” whole language influence emanating from? Please name the texts or teacher preparatory programs that have gone hog wild on non-phonics-based instruction. (Not excusing the batshit crazy, sloppy, silly, reading myths SOME teachers subscribe to.)

Q7: NAME A TIME OR PLACE IN THE POST-WAR (WW II) ERA WHERE PHONICS HAS NOT COMPLETELY DOMINATED READING INSTRUCTION. Doesn’t a “reading war” require actual combatants? One side has nuclear weapons and every White House, the other has Shel Siverstein.

Q8: How can you publish an article about the reading wars without any input from the seminal experts on the losing side? Where is the expertise of scholars such as, Frank Smith, Ken Goodman, Richard Allington, Herbert Kohl? I know you now how to reach Stephen Krashen. He writes letters-to-the-editor of the New York Times regularly.

Q9: How about writing an article in which lots and lots of experts do nothing but define “phonics,” “whole language,” “literacy,” “balanced literacy,” “reading,” and “instruction?”

Q10: If everyone learns to read by being taught a sequence of 43 phonemic sounds, how do you explain children reading in Israel, China, Japan, or other countries with non-phonemic languages. How can deaf people possibly learn to read without phonics>

I respectfully implore you to investigate the effects of an unconscionable lack of access to high-interest reading material in classrooms and school libraries in places like Los Angeles and Oakland. https://www.accessbooks.net/school-library-crisis.html

“Things take longer to happen than you think they will, but then they happen faster than you thought they could.” – Al Gore

As summer 2019 draws to a close, I am left with a sense of renewed optimism. It feels as if there is a growing appetite for the sort of progressive, constructionist, child-centered, Reggio inspired, project-based I have advocated for over my entire career. The popularity of our book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, interest in the other books we publish, and the success of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute contributes to my optimism. I spent much of August working in three different schools that are unapologetically progressive. They embrace things like project-based learning, no grades, multi-age grouping, authentic assessment, learning-by-making, and computing as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. I have not enjoyed this level of fun and meaningful work since I led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools, started one of the first camp computer programming programs, or collaborated with Seymour Papert on my doctoral research, when we created a multiage, project-based, alternative learning environment for incarcerated teens.

Recent news accounts detail how the children of the Koch Brothers are creating a progressive school in Wichita, Kansas, called Wonder. Even if that school and its potential spinoffs are the polar opposite of the obedience schools for other people funded by the Kochs, the mere recognition by rich people that progressive education is preferable (at least for their children) may be viewed as a small victory.

EduTwitter and education articles are awash in ideas with progressive intent. Unfortunately, much of the escalating volume of half-baked and often terrible advice dispensed is shallow, ahistoric, or just plain wrong. However, even impoverished or disingenuous notions of student voice, reflection, metacognition, choice, centers, exhibitions of work, Montessori education, agency, making, etc. are evidence of a growing desire for progressive education.

We may also see a demographic shift in the expectations for schooling by millennials who entered kindergarten the year No Child Left Behind was enacted and are now coming to grips with the costs of an impoverished educational experience focused on standardization, testing, and narrowing of the curriculum. Their K-12 education was distinguished by constant test-prep, teacher shaming, charter and privatization schemes, elimination of electives, and dismantling of arts programs.

Their teachers’ preparation was focused on animal control and curriculum delivery, absent practice in the art of teaching. Tens of thousands of Teach for America interns were thrown in front of a classroom after being handed a backpack of tricks and greeting card messages about “what a teacher makes.” Whole language, classroom centers, interdisciplinary projects, authentic assessment, pleasure reading, play, integration, and even recess were flickering flames in the heads of teachers old enough to remember the seventies. Donald Graves, Frank Smith, John Holt, Lillian Weber, Maxine Greene, Herb Kohl, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Ivan Illitch, Bev Bos, Vivian Paley, Loris Malaguzzi, Dennis Littky, Deborah Meier, and Ted Sizer have been erased from the common language of educators. Award-winning school administrators congratulate themselves for their discovery of TED Talks on the hotel room TV during one of the many school discipline conferences. Sound educational theory has been replaced by “I believe.”

Hey Stager, I thought you said there was room for optimism? Those last two paragraphs are pretty brutal.

There is now, and will be for the foreseeable future, more demand for progressive education than there is supply.

The children of the first Millennials are now entering school. This emerging generation of parents will greet the schooling of their children with a hunger for a different educational diet than they experienced, even if they have no idea what that might be. Those of us who know better, need to do better. We need to create clear and distinguishable options for parents yearning for a creative, humane, and joyful educational experience for their children. I assert that the demand for progressive education already exceeds supply and will continue to grow.

Remarkable new materials and software are creating opportunities not just to teach things we have always wanted kids to know, but are granting students access to new knowledge domains, ways of knowing, and creative outlets unimaginable just a few years ago. Such objects-to-think-with help realize a modern sustainable form of progressive education.

The challenge: When the Koch Brothers and progressives value the same quality of education for their children, doing the right thing for all children might not only be viable, but on the right side of history. Imagine if the world awakes from its slumber and suddenly desires the kind of educational system many of us dream of. How would we meet the demand? Who will teach in that fashion? Who will teach the teachers? Where does one begin?

My recent work reminds me that even in schools fully committed to progressive ideals, we are building the plane while flying it. Regardless of the quality of their preservice education, teachers love children and want to be liberated from the shackles of compliance. Schools will need to educate children, their teachers, and the community all at the same time if they wish to invent a better future. You cannot visit this future, watch a video about it, or tweet it into existence. No amount of education tourism is a substitute for you and your colleagues taking the controls, confronting your compromises, and doing the right thing.

Issues to address as a community

My work in progressive schools has helped me identify a list of issues schools need to address in any attempt to realize their aspirations. Essential conversations are ongoing and essential, but must accompany bold, meaningful, and reflective practice.

Where do we begin?

  • Projects
  • Teaching for democracy
  • Independence and interdependence
  • The value of learning stories
  • Honoring childhood
  • Removing coercion, competition, and antagonism from the classroom
  • Interdisciplinary projects are not a mash-up but are rooted in reflective practice.
  • The importance of whimsy, beauty, and fun
  • Computer programing as a liberal art
  • The value of school R&D

Making the case for project-based learning

  • What is a project?
  • Projects as the curriculum, not a culminating activity
  • Teaching in a project-based environment
  • How do you know a kid is learning?

What happens in a progressive classroom?

  • The limits of instruction
  • What if a kid isn’t interested in a particular project?
  • Connecting to student interests
  • How long should a project last?
  • Classroom centers
  • Shaping the learning environment
  • Teacher as researcher

Curriculum

  • How do I satisfy “the curriculum” without teaching it?
  • How skills and knowledge emerge from projects
  • The power of themes
  • Finding the balance between student interests and the responsibility to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love
  • Why the constructive use of computers is non-negotiable.
  • Lessons from the Reggio Emilia Approach, El Sistema, constructionism, and other progressive traditions

The issues involved in realizing the ideals of progressive education are subtle and incredibly complex. They may even be impossible, but such aspirations are beneficial and worthy of a relentless pursuit.

Piaget “teaches us that knowledge is a consequence of experience.” If we wish for teachers to teach differently, they need to experience learning in new ways. If we want parents to support our progressive efforts, they too need to experience learning in different contexts.

We’re not clairvoyant and can’t predict what the future holds. We do however know a great deal about how to amplify the potential of each teacher and learner. I intend to dedicate the rest of my days making schools more productive contexts for learning so that each school day may be the best seven hours of a kid’s life.

I look forward to helping many more schools stand on the side children, perhaps even yours.

Please reach out if you are interested in PD, speaking, consulting services, family workshops, or school residencies.


Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.is an award-winning teacher educator, speaker, consultant and author who is an expert at helping educators prepare students for an uncertain future by super charging learner-centered traditions with modern materials and technology. He is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on learning-by-doing, robotics, computer programming and the maker movement in classrooms. Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the first online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

Two-Day Seminars with Will Richardson in December 2019 in DC, NJ, & Boston – Register today!

 

 

Nearly a decade ago, The Huffington Post published an article I wrote, Wanna be a School Reformer? You Better do Your Homework! Today, all the cool kids are getting “FutureReady®!”

Whenever school leaders suggest that they want to improve the educational experiences offered students, if only they knew how, I do two things.

  1. Wish the education community could find a cure for amnesia
  2. Tell them to swing by my place. I’ve got a thousand books on how to improve education written with authority, clarity, and specificity by generations of gifted education leaders.

The best way to be “FutureReady®!” is to be well-versed in the education literature (not get-rich quick books found in airport gift-shops en route to school discipline conferences) and recognize that every problem in education has been solved before.

If you are a classroom teacher, parent, or school board member, I humbly recommend this assortment of books, suitable for whole faculty book groups (PK-12).

School leaders should step away from the TED Talks and dig into some of the books recommended below. Your students will thank you!

Wanna be a School Reformer? You Better do Your Homework!

Originally appeared in The Huffington Post on 10/19/2010

Shouldn’t people bold enough to call themselves “school reformers” be familiar with some of the literature on the subject?

Most of the school leaders who signed last weekend’s completely discredited manifesto,” are unqualified to lead major urban school districts. Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein are not qualified to be a substitute teacher in their respective school districts. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could not coach basketball in the Chicago Public Schools with his lack of credentials. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that they advocate schemes like Teach for America sending unprepared teachers into the toughest classrooms armed with a missionary zeal and programmed to believe they are there to rescue children from the incompetent teachers with whom they need to work. In public education today, unqualified is the new qualified.

The celebration of inexperience and lack of preparation is particularly disconcerting when it comes to education policy. When you allow billionaires, ideologues, pop singers and movie viewers to define reform, you get Reform™.

Reform™ narrowly defines school improvement as children chanting, endless standardized testing preparation, teacher bashing and charter-based obedience schools who treat other people’s children in ways that the rich folks behind Reform™ would never tolerate for children they love.

If that were not bad enough, Reform™ advances a myth that there is only one way to create productive contexts for learning. It ignores the alternative models, expertise and school improvement literature all around us. Public education is too important to society to allow the ignorant to define the terms of debate. Great educators stand on the shoulders of giants and confront educational challenges with knowledge, passion and intensity when afforded the freedom to do so. There are a great many of us who know how to amplify the enormous potential for children, even if we are ignored by Oprah or NBC News.

Reading is important for children and adults alike. Therefore, I challenged myself to assemble an essential (admittedly subjective) reading list on school reform. The following books are appropriate for parents, teachers, administrators, politicians and plain old citizens committed to the ideal of sustaining a joyful, excellent and democratic public education for every child.

In A Schoolmaster of the Great City: A Progressive Education Pioneer’s Vision for Urban Schools, school teacher and principal Angelo Patri identifies and solves every problem confronting public education. This feat is all the more remarkable when you learn that the book was published in 1917!

Recently deceased Yale psychologist Dr. Seymour Sarason published forty books on a wide range of education issues well into his eighties. A good place to start is The Skeptical Visionary: A Seymour Sarason Reader. You have to admire a guy who published a book with the title, The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform: Can We Change Course Before It’s Too Late, twenty years ago! Books written in the 1990s, And What do YOU Mean by Learning, Political Leadership and Educational Failure and Charter Schools: Another Flawed Educational Reform? remain quite timely and instructive.

No serious citizen or educator concerned with the future of education can afford to ignore the role of technology in learning. Jean Piaet’s protegé, Seymour Papert, began writing about the potential of computers to amplify human potential in the mid-1960s. His view is a great deal more humane and productive than using computers to quiz students in preparation for standardized tests. All of Papert’s books and papers are worth reading, but I suggest you start with The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.

Want to see what sustainable scaleable school reform looks like where children are treated as competent? The Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business by Dennis Littky with Samantha Grabelle describes urban high schools with small classes, consistent student teacher relationships and an educational program based on apprenticeship. Students don’t go to “school” on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They engage in internship experiences in the community in any field that interests them. The other days of the week, the curriculum is based on whatever the students need to learn to enhance their internships. This is not vocational. It prepares students for university or any other choice they make. The Big Picture model has spread across the United States with impressive results.

The biography of Big Picture Schools co-founder Dennis Littky, Doc: The Story Of Dennis Littky And His Fight For A Better School, by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell may be the first school reform thriller. The book chronicles how Littky transformed a failing school and was wrongfully fired the second political winds changed. Anyone interested in “reforming” public education would be well advised to read this exciting page-turner.

MacArthur Genius Deborah Meier has forgotten more about effective teaching and urban school reform than today’s entire generation of “reformers” ever knew. Meier is often considered the mother of the small school movement and her work as the founder of the Central Park East Schools and Mission Hill in Boston remain influential inspiration for parents and educators committed to the preparation of learners with the habits of mind required for a healthy democracy. Her book, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, is a masterpiece sharing the wisdom developed over more than a half century of teaching and school leadership. You should also read Meier’s weekly online discussion with Diane Ravitch, the Bridging Differences blog.

The Schools our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” is but one of the many terrific books by Alfie Kohn in which he challenges conventional wisdom on sacrosanct topics like homework, grades, standardized testing and rewards with clarity and evidence. His books are fearless and make you think. His articles are collected at Alfiekohn.com. Alfie’s small book, The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools should be on the kitchen table of every parent and teacher. If you’re tired of reading, you may watch two terrific Kohn lectures on the DVD, No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.

Dr. Theodore Sizer was a school principal, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and unofficial leader of the high school reform movement over the past twenty-five years. His intellect, calm demeanor and practicality led to the creation of the Coalition of Essential Schools and a template by which any secondary school could improve from within. The first book in his “Horace trilogy,” Horace’s Compromise, tells the story of American high schools, warts and all, through the eyes of a fictional English teacher, Horace Smith. This book and the two that follow share Horace’s epiphanies about the shortcoming of American high schools, their strengths and how he and his colleagues can make their school better. The organization Sizer founded, The Coalition of Essential Schools, continues to inspire such local reform efforts one school at a time.

National Book Award-winning author, educator and civil rights activist has been giving voice to the poorest children in our nation and the injustice they face since the 1960s. All of Kozol’s books are equal-parts profound, infuriating and inspirational, but the tender and beautifully written, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, reminds us why we should care about public education.

Herbert Kohl has shared his insights as a teacher and teacher educator in dozens of brilliant books. His recent anthology, The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching, should whet your appetite for reading many more of his books.

There is no more fierce or tireless critic of the higher tougher meaner standards and accountability movement than Susan Ohanian. The book she co-authored with Kathy Emery, Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? engages in the old-fashioned “follow the money” journalism we keep waiting for from news organizations. This book will help you understand how we got to reform being defined and advanced by billionaire bullies.

Right before he died last year, respected scholar, Gerald Bracey published, Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality – Transforming the Fire Consuming America’s Schools. This book disembowels many of the premises and data used to justify the high-stakes accountability rhetoric and school reform strategies currently being advanced. It’s a must read!

Not With Our Kids You Don’t! Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools by Juanita Doyon is a short must-read book for parents tired of their schools being turned into little more than Dickensian test-prep sweatshops. The book was written by a fed-up mom, turned activist from Washington who has upended her state’s political establishment in defense of the sort of high quality education Americans came to expect before No Child Left Behind.

October 2019 two-day seminars with Will Richardson in DC, NJ, & Boston!


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.


Future Ready Schools® is a project of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Either the principal IS a holocaust denier OR a cowardly knucklehead trapped in a zero-tolerance school setting where a misguided quest for “balance” is king.

If he is just an ignoramus (there are plenty of them with jobs), I might ask this hypothetical question. If the principal had refused to allow a debate on “slavery reparations” or “climate change,” would he lose his job?

Oh, and don’t pretend that schools don’t teach about the holocaust. In many cases, the subject receives so much instructional time that students (perhaps teachers too) just zone out. The teaching about the holocaust is just another example of the limits of instruction.

I wrote this article warning about the downside of “balance” 5 years ago. At the bottom of it is a link to an essential book chapter, “Extreme Ideas,” by Jonathan Kozol. I recommend both. I also recommend not contorting yourself into a pretzel to avoid all controversy in the classroom. This serves no one.

Note: If the principal is anti-semitic, a racist, or holocaust denier, then we should discuss his job security within the constraints of the First Amendment.


I’m a big fan of children’s book illustrator/author, Dav Pikley. So, when I came across a beginning reader by him called, “Big Dog and Little Dog,” I bought it for my three year-old grandson. The grandkids should love it.

The book is complex with a great deal of subtext.

Big Dog and Little Dog want food.

Here is some food for Big Dog.

Big Dog is happy.

Here is some food for Little Dog.

Little Dog is happy too.

Deep, I know!

After the dozen or so pages of the story, the book includes f#$cking comprehension questions. The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, calls them “Bonus Skill Building Activities.” I am not going to destroy my grandson’s love of reading by giving him books with a stupid quiz at the back.

Want to know why Johnny can’t read?

Textbook publishers and the educators engaged in a faith-based relationship with them!

I am sure that if you asked the publisher why they felt compelled to ruin a book with assessment schlock, I bet they would say, “teachers want it.” Well, who cares? Any teacher incapable of engaging a child in a conversation about Big Dog and Little Dog should be servicing robot drink dispensers at McDonalds. Better yet, perhaps teachers should shut up altogether and just let kids enjoy reading a book for information or pleasure.

Accelerated Reader, comprehension questions every three paragraphs, and other cynical schemes designed to interrupt reading  for the purpose of ranking, sorting, or failing children have a prophylactic impact on reading far more destructive than playing Minecraft or binge-watching episodes of Wife Swap.

When I was a kid, once you could read, there was no longer a subject in your schedule called, “Reading.” Today, some kids receive reading instruction K-12. These are the very same kids who we are often made to believe are not good at reading. Perhaps adults need to stop ruining the reading experience and provide kids of all ages with access to high-interest reading material free of moronic “bonus skill building activities.”


If you wish to do something about childhood literacy, donate generously to my favorite charity, Access Books. They build and stock beautiful libraries in third world schools where children would not otherwise have access to books. Criminally, those schools are in California!


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

I’ve never been good at ice-breakers or getting-to-know-you games. If I am being paid to teach, whether it be children or adults, that’s my focus. I never worry about classroom management because I never enter a classroom thinking I need to manage it. “Hi, I’m Gary. We’ve got stuff to do!”

I take seriously the Reggio Emilia inspired notion that the primary responsibility of a teacher is to be a researcher – one who makes private thinking public and invisible thinking visible. Teachers should work* to understand the thinking of each student and identify what they can do in order to prepare the learning environment for the next intellectual development.

During my educator workshops around the world I often find that the best engineers are preschool teachers, the best mathematicians teach P.E., and the most natural programmers teach 5th grade (or vice versa?).  I have certainly found plenty of veteran teachers to be much more sophisticated technology users than their younger peers. Starting the workshop with preconceived notions of who the participants are or what they think they know only narrows the possibilities for serendipity and exceeding expectations.

This is the time of year when teachers meet with teachers of the next grade level to discuss the students they are about to receive. Perhaps this common practice is counterproductive. A student’s “file” can be a life sentence. Why be prejudiced about a student  before you meet her? Why not start every class with fresh eyes, an open mind, and open heart? Ask yourself, “How do I make this the best seven hours or forty-three minutes of a kid’s life?”


Footnote:

It's a lot less like work than it about caring for each student or getting to know them on a collegial level.


Long ago, a wise friend told me that 90% of education research is bullshit. As I mature, I realize that estimate is far too modest. Social media and the nonsense masquerading as education journalism have become inundated with a flaming brown paper bag full of articles out to prove that phonics[1]and penmanship instruction[2]are crucial 21stCentury skills[3], class size does not matter[4][5], constructivism is a failed pedagogical strategy[6], there are no learning styles[7], not everyone “needs to code,”[8]all kids need to be above the norm[9][10], and that standardized testing is objective, reliable, and valid[11].

If you believe any of these things, then I would love to tell you that the Common Core State [education] Standards were “written by the nation’s governors.” No seriously; they expect us to believe that crap. I for one would love to see Chris Christie’s notes from his curriculum development meetings. “Time for some BrainPop on the GW Bridge!”

When brightly colored infographics and Venn diagrams with nothing in the intersection of the rings fail to convince you to panic, the purveyors of hysteria wave their interactive white board pen and recite the magic word, “SCIENCE!”

SCIENCE is the new FINLAND!

Wish to justify the curious epidemic of learning disabilities, just yell, “SCIENCE!” Want to medicate kids when your curriculum fails to sedate them? SCIENCE! Care to cut salaries and slash electives? SCIENCE will prove that playing the bassoon will never get you a high-paying job at Google passing out t-shirts at tradeshows like the niece of your mom’s hairdresser. (Someone should set that last paragraph to music. Lin-Manuel, call me!)

Aside from the ISIS-like fanaticism defending phonics or penmanship systems, two recent “studies” reveal the quality of SCIENCE rushing through the body education like sugar-free gummy bears. “Study Shows Classroom Decor Can Distract From Learning,” about the value of bare walls on kindergartener’s recall, and “Kids perform better during boring tasks when dressed as Batman.” No, seriously. Those are real. Someone undoubtedly earned an EdD and parking space at Southern North Dakota Community College for such drivel.

The mere stench of SCIENCE associated with such studies goes unchallenged and serves as fantastic clickbait for a myriad of school discipline conventions. (Seriously, this is a real thing.) Why doesn’t anyone ask why babies are taking bubble tests or should be subjected to ugly classrooms? Surely, the National Science Foundation is funding replication studies to determine if five-year-olds dressed as Superman or Queen Elsa are more easily tricked into wasting their formative years on meaningless tasks? [12]

It just isn’t sufficiently SCIENTIFIC for children to enjoy happy, healthy, creative, productive, and playful childhoods. Move along young Batman. Nothing to see here. Wet your pants again? You might be dyslexic.

SCIENCE is only ever used to sustain the mythology or comfort of adults. The only time educators are ever asked to provide “evidence” is to justify something kids like – laptops, recess, band, making things…

The burden of proof is quite different for defending the status quo. What was the last time you heard anyone ask for evidence to support homework, 42-minute class periods, Algebra II, AP classes, textbooks, worksheets, times tables, interactive white boards, or the countless forms of coercion, humiliation, and punishment visited on students daily?

You know where else you find very little actual science? In Science class where the vast majority of the curriculum is concerned with vocabulary memorization or historical reenactments and very few students do science by engaging in the habits of a scientist.

At a recent gathering, three generations of people shared what they remembered from their high school science classes. The most vivid memories consisted of starting fires, causing explosions, noxious fumes, throwing test tubes out a window while exclaiming, “I’m Zeus,” or killing things (plants, the class rat, time). In SCIENTIFIC terms, 0.000000003% of the official science curriculum is retained after Friday’s quiz.

Another way of providing nutrients to the sod of education rhetoric is to sprinkle highfalutin terms like, metacognition, everywhere. This form of scientism takes a little understood concept and demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of it as a vehicle for justifying more memorization, teacher compliance, or producing the illusion of student agency. Don’t even get me started about the experts incapable of discerning the difference between teaching and learning or the bigshots who think learning is a noun.

Free advice: Forbes, the McKinsey Group, anyone associated with Clayton Christensen, TED Talks and EdSurge are not credible sources on education reform, pedagogy, or learning theory even if they accidentally confirm our own biases once in a while. They are libertarian hacks hell-bent on dismantling public education. It is also a good rule of thumb to steer clear of any source containing “ED,” “topia,” “mentum,” “vation,” “mind,” “brain,” “institute,” or “ology” in their title.

When you get right down to it, many of the questionable educational practices seeking justification from SCIENCE seek to promote simplistic mechanical models of complex processes that are in actuality much harder to distill or even impossible to comprehend. To those seeking to justify phonics instruction, a simple input-output diagram is preferable to the more likely hypothesis that reading is natural. Learning is not the direct result of having been taught.

Note: This is a deliberate provocation intended to challenge a phenomenon in education rather than engage in a hot-tempered battle of dueling research studies. Don’t bother to ask me for evidence to support my claims since I’m trading in common sense and honestly do not care if you agree with me. Seriously.

Of course, there are studies widely available to validate my outrageous blather, but I am under no obligation to identify them for you unless you grant me a cushy tenure track position, medical insurance, and a pension. If this article upsets you, my powers of persuasion are inadequate to change your mind anyway.

Endnotes:

[1]If everyone learns to read through the direct instruction of a fixed sequence 43 different sounds, how do you explain students learning to read in China, Japan, Israel or any other language without phonemes?

[2]These studies always “prove” the importance of medieval chores by pointing to test score increases (memorization). How many children are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities for confusing the ability to express themselves (writing) with the way in which they use a pencil (writing)? If penmanship is so precious, teach it in art class as a craft or as a PE activity prior to the prehistoric high school IB exams.

[3]I refrain from citing the pernicious and ubiquitous “studies” I mock with such utter contempt because I do not wish to give them any more oxygen.

[4]See the amoral work of John Hattie. He also determined that desegregation doesn’t matter for student achievement. Basic concepts of right and wrong are of no consequence for such purveyors of SCIENCE!

[5]Bill Gates loves larger classes too (except for his children) – https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/02/bill-gates-big-idea-to-fix-us-education-bigger-classes/71797/

[6]Constructivism is not a pedagogical trick, it is a scientific learning theory. Those who doubt constructivism are like flat earthers or climate change deniers. Science has nothing to do with their beliefs.

[7]Go ahead; argue that humans do not learn differently. The anti-learning styles crowd confuses teacher intervention with learning.

[8]Addressed this issue in this podcast.

[9]Hillary Clinton promised to close all schools below average – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/12/23/hillary-clinton-may-want-to-close-every-public-school-in-america-according-to-math/?utm_term=.623a9f0ad161

[10]No Child Left Behind demanded that all schools meet norm-reference standards by 2014 – [10]https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/10/11/354931351/it-s-2014-all-children-are-supposed-to-be-proficient-under-federal-law

[11]See all education policy

[12]My friend Alfie Kohn does a fantastic job dismantling the quality of such “SCIENCE” in this article. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/06/05/the-education-question-we-should-be-asking/


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

The following is a non-exhaustive collection of resources intended to inform educators interested in open education, open plan classrooms, and other forms of learner-centered environments. It only recommends resources found on the Internet. You should of course read John Holt, Loris Malaguzzi, Herb Kohl, A.S. Neill, Lillian Weber, Jonathan Kozol, Paulo Friere, David Perkins, David Hawkins, James Herndon, John Dewey and many others… Consider this an introduction to open education.

Vintage Videos from the 1970s


A documentary on open education and open plan schools.


A Southern United States community commits to open education in an old public primary school.
This video blows my mind.


Herbert Kohl, a pioneer of open education featured in this documentary on the early days of whole language and open education.

Getting Started?

Getting started reading about progressive education, try this handy list Gary Stager assembled for teachers.

A Seminal Book

The Open Classroom by Herbert Kohl
This short book launched the open education movement in the United States

But how do they learn to read?

Reading by Frank Smith
A seminal text on natural approaches to literacy

But how do they learn math/maths?

Seymour Papert’s Mathland

Constance Kamii Videos

Double-Column Addition

Multiplication of Two-digit Numbers

Multidigit Division

Making Change – The difficulty of constructing “tens” solidly

Constance Kamii Direct vs Indirect Ways of Teaching Number Concepts at Ages 4-6
A comprehensive lecture explaining Piagetian ideas showing that although number concepts cannot be taught directly, they can be taught indirectly by encouraging children to think.

Kamii Games for Developing Number Sense


Constance Kamii and Lillian Katz “Defending the Early Years” panel

Other FABULOUS Inspirational Videos with Implications for Open Education


I remember seeing this live when it aired in 1991. There is rarely any coverage of education this sensible on television.


The late Bev Bos – “Starting at Square One”


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.