I’ve been online since 1983 and my own web site dates back to the first term of the Clinton presidency. Along the way, I may have ruffled a few feathers.
Let me tell you about one of my all-time favorite social media brouhahas.
On December 17, 2008, The Huffington Post published an article I wrote entitled, “Obama Practices Social Promotion.”
I began the article…
“A curious cartel of billionaire bullies, power hungry politicians and tough-talking school superintendents wage an eternal battle against social promotion — for the good of our children of course. Social promotion, a divisive political term with no basis in reality, like partial-birth abortion, is one of the most popular talking points among the the most vocal critics of public education. The “end of social promotion” has caused tens of thousands of kids as young as 3rd grade to be left-back, despite overwhelming evidence that this practice harms children and increases the drop-out rate.
However, social promotion is a godsend to urban school superintendents in this age of privatization. It is truly bizarre that the public education system, which at least in-part is dedicated to preparing people for careers and life, would devalue expertise.”
…and went on to say…
“Arne Duncan Fails Upward
Today’s nomination of Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan to be the Barack Obama’s Secretary Education is a spectacular example of social promotion. Duncan, who as been the CEO or Chief of Staff of the Chicago Public Schools for the past ten years has done such a swell job of “reform” that his best friend and basketball buddy, Barack Obama, would not send his own children to the public schools. President-elect Obama is like Eli Broad, Bill Gates and the members of the Business Roundtable who kill public schools with their kindness while turning them into the sort of joyless test-prep sweatshops unworthy of children they love.
Arne Duncan is a darling of the charter school movement, Eli Broad, the right-wing Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, anti-union “Democrats” and I kid you not — Hooked-on-Phonics. President-elect Obama eagerly awaits recommendations on nuclear proliferation from Billy Mays, Ron Popeil and the ShamWow guy.”
All of my assertions (especially the inflammatory ones), contained links to supporting evidence.
Then it happened
A few days later, right around Christmas, my Google Alert started sounding. Soon it was like a bell warning of four-alarm fire and the alarm sounded for several straight days. What could possibly have caused such sudden popularity for Little ‘ol me?
It seems that the CEO of Hooked-on-Phonics® was so offended by my joke comparing their qualifications to endorse a federal Secreatary of Education to the ShamWow guy that the company paid a public relations firm to issue a global press release condemning me. “Hooked on Phonics(R) CEO Responds to Gary Stager’s Criticism of President-elect Obama’s Choice of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education,” was released in dozens of countries around the world. Every time one of those press releases went public, my Google alert rang again.
What is so golden about that misguided attempt to make me famous is the lengths to which the CEO of Hooked-on-Phonics® went to avoid offending the ShamWow guy (probably a wise idea since he apparently beat up a cannibal hooker).
“Gary Stager is entitled to his opinions regarding President-elect Obama’s selection of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and education policy generally. However, it is unfortunate he has tried to trivialize my views by likening my company and its product — Hooked on Phonics, a product that has helped millions of children learn to read — to a sponge (with all due respect to the folks at ShamWow).”
Read the entire condemnation of me here. I could not be prouder!
My only regret is that the predictions I made about President-Elect Obama’s education policies and his nominee for Secretary of Education turned out to be even worse than I had feared. Read the five and a half year-old article for yourself here.
I led professional development in the Newark, NJ Public Schools and taught Newark teachers for about a decade from 1983 through 1993. Newark, NJ, a large city dwarfed by its neighbor, New York City has spent much of my lifetime grappling with third world-levels of poverty and all of the ills that accompany urban neglect. Half of Newark’s mayors since the 1960s have gone to prison on corruption charges. Only recently has Newark had supermarkets or a movie theatre despite being the birthplace of Sarah Vaughan, Wayne Shorter, Amiri Baraka, and countless other great American artists. Teaching in Newark is difficult and a calling.
Allow me to be unequivocal.
In my thirty-two years of work with schools and educators on six continents, I have never worked with more caring, competent, generous or hardworking educators than those employed by the Newark Public Schools.
If I led a PD session on a sweltering August day, it would be filled by Newark teachers working without compensation. Others would pay their own way to attend afterschool workshops 30 miles away.
I have worked in some of the most elite and expensive private schools on earth and in many cases would rather trust my child’s education to the teachers I worked with in Newark (the physical plant and resources are another matter entirely). Newark teachers provide material, emotional, and financial support for their poor students every day.
Decades before Cory Booker donned his superhero Underoos and tweeted his enthusiasm for code.org, Logo programming was being taught by outstanding Newark teachers in dozens and dozens of Newark elementary schools. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Newark Public Schools were one of the leading centers of innovation in educational computing. All of that is long gone after decades of test-score-raising gimmicks imposed by political charlatans from outside of the community.
You would never know that because in addition to abandoning the residents of this once great city, the good people of New Jersey suspended democracy, neutered the elected school board, and let the State take over the school in 1995. That’s nearly 20 years ago. Surely, all of that State wisdom, leadership, and no-nonsense zero-tolerance innovation, together with endless test-prep and demonizing of teachers would be successful, right?
The city’s public schools are among the lowest-performing in the state, even after the state government took over management of the city’s schools in 1995, which was done under the presumption that improvement would follow. – Wikipedia
Where’s the accountability Governor Christie?
It is high time to return democracy to the governance of the Newark Public Schools!
Surely after the State installed the unqualified adolescent little sister of Michelle Rhee, Cami Anderson, as Superintendent of Schools, things would improve, right? She even instituted that holy grail of no-nothings, merit pay.
Cami Anderson loves charter schools and has dynamite (I mean literally dynamite) ideas for the Newark Public Schools. Check out Diane Ravitch’s review of Anderson’s “One Newark” Plan.
Cami’s dynamite plan is to get the state to suspend tenure/seniority laws so she can fire 700 Newark teachers and replace them with 350 or so unqualified Teach-for-America interns. Surely, interns will solve the problem. Larger class sizes AND unqualified teachers, perfect together!
Where’s the accountability Governor Christie?
According to the TFA regional website, Newark schools already have hired some 200 members. They are usually graduates of liberal art programs who sign up for two years to teach in low-income areas and then leave.
Anderson herself is both a TFA graduate and an executive with the foundation-financed TFA, an organization that also receives federal subsidies. (source)
Oh, did I forget to mention that this plan will be financed by the Walton Family Foundation. The Waltons aren’t that nice TV family, they are the scumbag plutocrats who own Wal-Mart, bribe foreign officials, underpay their employees, and stick taxpayers with the bill. Driving the cost of public education to zero is consistent with their scorched earth business practices.
If you care about public education, stop shopping at Wal-Mart.
The business press and forces of public school privatization LOVE Cami and her dynamiteplan. We need to stand up and tell them, “Hell no!”
Isn’t it time that we treat Teach-for-America interns as the scabs they are?
Every American who cares about the future of our nation or values the role our public schools play in preserving our democracy needs to stand with Newark teachers against the robber barons, Mark Zuckerberg and Governor Bully.
The following new strategy for 1:1 implementation in schools has been based on careful observation of emerging standards and implementation patterns across the globe.
Buy a lot of “devices” containing a rechargeable battery or allow students to bring a random assortment of “devices” to school
Announce that your school, district, state, or nation has “gone 1:1″
Step 3 – Step 1,000,000:
Repeat Step 2 over and over again
As Thomas Friedman once said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Two educators have developed a radical pedagogical theory solving an timeless problem that has plagued education for decades.
The historic is so remarkable that two professional institutions, ASCD and ISTE rushed to joint-publish the work, as they say in the trade, before the crayon dried on the page.
The profundity, clarity of vision, and transformative nature of “The Method” generates a force field of exuberance that repels the “scientific” findings of such 20th Century institutions as Stanford University and Harvey Mudd College. This paradigmatic shift transcends the need for academic references or even a bibliography. We are asked to believe and thousands of school administrators have heeded the call.
If you would like to learn more about how to insure that students don’t miss a precious instant of your lecture while off at sport practice or music lessons, click here.
Student voice is good. We should take the needs, interests, concerns, talent, curiosity, discomfort, and joy of children seriously. (pretty courageous statement, eh?)
However, if one is truly committed to making the world better for kids, “voice,” is nice, but inadequate. “Voice” absent of power is often little more than propaganda or exploitation.
While I’ve been on a brief social media “skunk at the garden party” hiatus, Dean Shareski has generously filled-in by sharing his queasiness over the “viral” Goldieblox video being passed around the Web. Señor Shareski set his BS detector on high and has provided evidence that the “amazing” Rube Goldberg machine “made by girls” is merely a commercial for a new toy called, Goldieblox.
I am shocked! Shocked!
Anyone who knows me knows that I love toys. I find buying them irresistible. I’ve been seeing Goldieblox at Maker Faires for more than a year, but have not bought a set because I think they lack extended play value (a term LEGO uses internally). I’m not one to get all outraged that a toy for girls is pink. Goldieblox just hasn’t seemed very interesting to me or the girls I work with. It’s not part of my workshop road show sweeping the globe, “Invent To Learn.”
It just doesn’t seem that Goldieblox has any chance of measuring up to the self-promotion and hype of its creator that her box of ribbon and spools is “building women engineers.” I applaud the sentiment, but if we are truly serious about improving the education of girls, it will take a lot more work than a trip to Toys R Us.
I could be wrong. I’ve recently been upgrading my initial assessment of littleBits, based on my observations of children playing with the new toy/electronics construction kit. So, perhaps I will soon fall in love with Goldieblox, but I doubt it.
Back to Monsignor Shareski…
I took a lot of “brown porridge” when I called BS on the very same videos of yesteryear.
There was Dalton Sherman, the “amazing” 5th grader who was coached all summer-long to give a condescending speech, written by the Dallas Schools PR department to Dallas teachers, right before laying off 400 of them. I smelled a rat the second I saw the video. Was called a big fat poo-poo head by teachers on social media and was right. BTW: Dalton Sherman seems to have disappeared just like those teacher jobs. So much for being the voice of school reform.
Then there was Michael Wesch (who is an important scholar) made famous by the hostage film he created in which college students decried the state of education.
Fantastic. A college class with far too many students in it (200) attempts to revolutionize the educational system by whining in a five minute web video.
I’m sorry, but count me unimpressed!
Perhaps a student should hold up a sign saying, “My professor is wasting my time and money by making me participate in a piece of exploitative propaganda in which I get to insult either my generation or the one before me just to get on YouTube.”
How did bashing our own profession become such a popular sport? What possible value could demeaning educators have in a professional development setting? Are we desperate for moving pictures or are they merely a substitute for actual ideas?
From Hey Mom! Look What I Made in College (November 2007)
Aside from their lack of authenticity, what these three AMAZING viral videos of is how children and claims of “student voice” exploit children for propaganda purposes. The Goldieblox video is a commercial selling a toy. We don’t tweet Sir Grapefellow commercials (my preferred boyhood breakfast treat) as AMAZING examples of student voice, so why the wishful thinking about Goldieblox?
Señor Shareski rightfully cites my colleague Super-Awesome Sylvia (read Super-Awesome Sylvia in the Not So Awesome Land of Schooling) as a counter example to the fake Goldieblox commercial. I have worked closely with Sylvia over the past couple of years and made her part of the Constructing Modern Knowledge faculty, not because she is cute (she is), but because she is accomplished. She knows stuff. She has skills. She has a great work ethic and is a terrific teacher (at 12).
However, talent and achievement did not made Sylvia immune from cynical exploitation by Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein’s education cabal as documented in an article I wrote for the Huffington Post, Shameless Shape Shifters.
So the moral of our story is…
- As a young blogger in 1971, The Brady Bunch taught me an important lesson relevant here, caveat emptor – buyer beware. Users of social media need to “follow the money,” have a highly-tuned BS Detector, and know when and what they are being sold.
- Calling everything amazing or everyone a genius is lazy and counterproductive.
- Student voice without what Seymour Papert calls “kid power” is worse than empty rhetoric, it is a lie. Escapism is not the same as freedom. Too much of what is offered as “student voice” offers a false sense of agency, power, or freedom to the powerless. It is what Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “the intoxicating drug of gradualism.”
In First Chance to Make a Learning Impression, my friend Will Richardson shares his disappointment with the “back-to-school” packets he just received in anticipation of his children’s next school year. Will explains how the focus of the packet is on everything but learning.
Just for fun, I set out to see how long it would take to find the word “learning” somewhere in the mix. Nothing on the first page, or the second, or the third…by the time I finally found the first instance I had stopped counting. It was a buried line in a letter from the principal explaining that due to NCLB, every teacher has to be “highly qualified” and that “every teacher continues life-long learning through professional development activities.”
Will’s 2013 article reminded me of a similar article I wrote for District Administration Magazine way back in 2004. I recommend reading Will’s article as well.
The back-to-school commercials each summer fill me with dreadful flashbacks of my own days as a student. As a parent, the end of summer is signaled by a last-minute desire to squeeze in a bit more family fun and the arrival of a large ominous envelope from the local high school. The package contains countless documents commanding our immediate attention and signatures in triplicate.
This enormous collection of murdered trees contains countless rules, regulations and a list of innumerable sanctions the school intends to visit upon my child. As if this draconian catalogue of crimes and subsequent punishments were not bad enough, I am then expected to sign the documents, implying that I agree with them.
This recent and disturbing phenomenon leaves me with many unanswered questions. What if I don’t sign the forms? When did the local public school become a gulag? Was there a public meeting in The Hague at which these rules and sanctions were compiled and democratically agreed to? Is this the best way to start a fresh school year? Can I have Johnnie Cochran look over the documents before I affix my signature?
If the school expects parents to sign-off on a list of ways school discipline may be enforced, perhaps I can circulate a list of expectations for how I expect the school to educate my child. It only seems fair.
So here’s my list, in no particular order:
- School to home communications will be proofread and spell-checked
- Teachers will take reasonable steps to maintain expertise in their subject area
- Homework will be purposeful and only assigned when necessary to reinforce a concept, engage in a long-term project or as the result of work not completed in-class
- Children will be encouraged to play
- Classroom libraries will be stocked with interesting books
- Students will not be treated as numbers
- Teachers will discuss current events with their students
- Students will be encouraged to talk about books they read, not just create mobiles and book reports
- School personnel will publish their e-mail addresses and respond to e-mail promptly
- The school district Web site will be updated more often than every five years
- Class sizes will be 20 or lower
- Teachers will attend at least one professional learning event outside of the school district per year
- Teachers will not talk down to children
- Punishment will be viewed as a last resort
- The school will offer rich visual and performing arts opportunities for all students
- Curriculum will endeavor to remain relevant and connected to the world
- Classroom rules will be developed democratically
- There will be formal and informal opportunities for parents to interact with teachers
- The principal will be accessible to students and parents
- Administrators will make an effort to interact with students in positive contexts
- Student diversity will be valued and celebrated
- Cooperation will be valued over competition
- The school will refrain from sorting, tracking, streaming and labeling children
- Students will play a large role in all aspects of the life of the school;
- Authentic forms of assessment will be used
- A modern functioning computer will be available whenever a child needs one
- Teachers will embrace opportunities to learn with and from students
- The school will take teacher input seriously
- Teachers will feel supported and encouraged to take risks
- Effective models of professional development will be designed and include the participation of the principal
- Equal attention and resources will be applied to the arts as to sports
I certainly sized the opportunity to pull no punches. I left no myth behind. Perhaps a few school business administrators will think differently about some of their decisions in the future.
A PDF of the article is linked below. I hope you enjoy the interview and share it widely!
Coming to a Classroom Near You!
©2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine
A version of this was published in the August 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine
At our annual family dinner to celebrate the end of another grueling school year, each of our children reflected upon the lessons learned and the obstacles overcome during the previous ten months. Our seventh-grade daughter, who will be referred to by the top-secret code name of Miffy, shared with us a new pedagogical strategy and use of educational technology not yet conceived of during my school years.
What was this innovation? Was it project-based learning, multiage collaboration, constructionism, online publishing, modeling and simulation? Nope, it was Disney films.
Yup, that’s right. Disney films (and several others too). The following is a partial list of the films shown this year during class time by my daughter’s teachers.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Lion King
Mighty Joe Young
The Little Mermaid
Angels in the
The Big Green*
Planet of the Apes
Mighty Joe Young
The Lion King II
The Road to
Remember the Titans
Rocky & Bullwinkle
Star Wars: Return
Mr. Holland’s Opus
This remarkable waste of class time occurred in a school where requests for meaningful projects, hands-on experiments, field-trips, drama and other productive learning experiences are abandoned because of an oft-repeated “lack of time.” Sure the standardized tests and top-down curricular pressures wreak havoc with creating a productive context for learning, but we can’t blame this one on Princeton or the President. Somewhere along the line educators determined that the demanding curriculum was elastic enough for the illegal showing of countless commercial films.
My Daughter the Rodeo Clown
Miffy also told me that due to the SAT-9 exams, Career Day had been cancelled. I’m not sure which part of that statement is most tragic, so let’s state it in the form of a standardized test question.
Which is most pathetic?
a) Canceling Career Day because of SAT-9 (standardized) testing
b) Career Day
c) The school’s remedy for having cancelled career day
The ingenious remedy chosen was to spend much of the last week of school watching a series of instructional videos called, “Real Life 101.” While hardly as educational as Mulan, these shows turned out to be far more entertaining. The audience was repeatedly reminded, “you don’t need a college degree for this career, but it wouldn’t hurt! “
The hosts of the series, Maya, Megan, Zooby and Josh (there always seems to be a Josh) introduced exciting career options for the high-tech interconnected global economy of the 21st century. The career options included the following: Snake handler, projectionist, naval explosive expert, skydive instructor, rafting instructor, diamond cutter, roller coaster technician, exterminator, auctioneer, alligator wrestler and my personal favorite growth industry – rodeo clown!
You can’t make this stuff up! The worksheet that followed the Career Day substitute asked each child to rank these careers in order of preference and write a few sentences explaining their number one choice.
If I wanted my children to watch television, I’d let them stay home. At least at home they could watch something educational like “Behind the Music: The Mamas and the Papas”or learn about Beat poetry from the “Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. ” At least then they would have a chance to learn something more than the unfortunate lessons being modeled by their schools.
*My kid explained that all of these films share the same plot about a group of fat kids working hard together to win the big game – somewhere in there a lesson for us all.
Almost daily, a colleague I respect posts a link to some amazing tale of classroom innovation, stupendous new education product or article intended to improve teaching practice. Perhaps it is naive to assume that the content has been vetted. However, once I click on the Twitter or Facebook link, I am met by one of the following:
- A gee-whiz tale of a teacher doing something obvious once, accompanied by breathless commentary about their personal courage/discovery/innovation/genius and followed by a steam of comments applauding the teacher’s courage/discovery/innovation/genius. Even when the activity is fine, it is often the sort of thing taught to first-semester student teachers.
- An article discovering an idea that millions of educators have known for decades, but this time with diminished expectations
- An ad for some test-prep snake oil or handful of magic beans
- An “app” designed for kids to perform some trivial task, because “it’s so much fun, they won’t know they’re learning.” Thanks to sites like Kickstarter we can now invest in the development of bad software too!
- A terrible idea detrimental to teachers, students or public education
- An attempt to redefine a sound progressive education idea in order to justify the status quo
I don’t just click on a random link from a stranger, I follow the directions set by a trusted colleague – often a person in a position of authority. When I ask them, “Did you read that article you posted the link to?” the answer is often, “I just re-read it and you’re right. It’s not good.” Or “I’m not endorsing the content at the end of the link, “I’m just passing it along to my PLN.”
First of all, when you tell me to look at something, that is an endorsement. Second, you are responsible for the quality, veracity and ideological bias of the information you distribute. Third, if you arenot taking responsibility for the information you pass along, your PLN is really just a gossip mill.
If you provide a link accompanied by a message, “Look at the revolutionary work my students/colleagues/I did,” the work should be good and in a reasonable state of completion. If not, warn me before I click. Don’t throw around terms like genius, transformative or revolutionary when you’re linking to a kid burping into Voicethread!! If you do waste my time looking at terrible work, don’t blame me for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.
Just today, two pieces of dreck were shared with me by people I respect.
1) Before a number of my Facebook friends shared this article, I had already read it in the ASCD daily “Smart” Brief. Several colleagues posted or tweeted links to the article because they yearn for schools to be better – more learner-centered, engaging and meaningful.
One means to those ends is project-based learning. I’ve been studying, teaching and speaking about project-based learning for 31 years. I’m a fan. I too would like to help every teacher on the planet create the context for kids to engage in personally meaningful projects.
However, sharing the article, Busting myths about project-based learning, will NOT improve education or make classrooms more project-based. In fact, this article so completely perverts project-based learning that it spreads ignorance and will make classroom learning worse, not better.
This hideous article uses PBL, which the author lectures us isn’t just about projects (meaningless word soup), as a compliment to direct instruction, worksheets and tricking students into test-prep they won’t mind as much. That’s right. PBL is best friends with standardized testing and worksheets (perhaps on Planet Dummy). There is no need to abandon the terrible practices that squeeze authentic learning out of the school day. We can just pretend to bring relevance to the classroom by appropriating the once-proud term, project-based learning.
Embedding test-prep into projects as the author suggests demonstrates that the author really has no idea what he is talking about. Forcing distractions into a student’s project work robs them of agency and reduces the activity’s learning potential. The author is also pretty slippery in his use of the term, “scaffolding.” Some of the article doesn’t even make grammatical sense.
Use testing stems as formative assessments and quizzes.
The article was written by a gentleman who leads professional development for the Buck Institute, an organization that touts itself as a champion of project-based learning, as long as those projects work backwards from dubious testing requirements. This article does not represent innovation. It is a Potemkin Village preserving the status quo while allowing educators to delude themselves into feeling they are doing the right thing.
ASCD should be ashamed of themselves for publishing such trash. My colleagues, many with advanced degrees and in positions where they teach project-based learning, should know better!
If you are interested in effective project-based learning, I’m happy to share these five articles with you.
2) Another colleague urged all of their STEM and computer science-interested friends to explore a site raising money to develop “Fun and Creative Computer Science Curriculum.” Whenever you see fun and creative in the title of an education product, run for the hills! The site is a fund-raising venture to get kids interested in computer science. This is something I advocate every day. What could be so bad?
Thinkersmith teaches computer science with passion and creativity. Right now, we have 20 lessons created, but only 3 packaged. Help us finish by summer!
My experience in education suggests that once you package something, it dies. Ok Stager, I know you’re suspicious of the site and the product searching for micro-investors, but watch the video they produced. It has cute kids in it!
So, I watched the video…
Guess what? Thinkersmith teaches computer science with passion and creativity – and best of all? YOU DON’T EVEN NEED A COMPUTER!!!!!!
Fantastic! Computer science instruction without computers! This is like piano lessons with a piano worksheet. Yes siree ladies and gentleman, there will be no computing in this computer science instruction.
A visitor to the site also has no idea who is writing this groundbreaking fake curriculum or their qualifications to waste kids’ time.
Here we take one of the jewels of human ingenuity, computer science, a field impacting every other discipline and rather than make a serious attempt to bring it to children with the time and attention it deserves, chuckleheads create cup stacking activities and simplistic games.
There are any number of new “apps” on the market promising to teach kids about computer science and programming while we should be teaching children to be computer scientists and programmers.
At the root of this anti-intellectualism is a deep-seated belief that teachers are lazy or incompetent. Yet, I have taught thousands of teachers to teach programming to children and in the 1980s, perhaps a million teachers taught programming in some form to children. The software is better. The hardware is more abundant, reliable and accessible. And yet, the best we can do is sing songs, stack cups and color in 2013?
What really makes me want to scream is that the folks cooking up all of these “amazing” ideas seem incapable of using the Google or reading a book. There is a great deal of collected wisdom on teaching computer science to children, created by committed experts and rooted in decades worth of experience.
If you want to learn how to teach computer science to children, ask me, attend my institute, take a course. I’ll gladly provide advice, share resources, recommend expert colleagues and even help debug student programs. If you put forth some effort, I’m happy to match it.
There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.
-Sir Joshua Reynolds
Don’t lecture me about the power of social media, the genius of your PLN, the imperative for media literacy or information curation if you are unwilling to edit what you share. I share plenty of terrible articles via Twitter and Facebook, but I always make clear that I am doing so for purposes or warning or parody. The junk is always clearly labeled.
Please filter the impurities out of your social media stream.You have a responsibility to your audience.
* Let the hysterical flaming begin! Comments are now open.
Before accepting overtesting as inevitable, try debating the issue with parents and students
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine – July 2003
Our schools are in the midst of a mass panic not seen since the swine flu epidemic–standardized testing. We are swept up in a wave of “the tests are important,” “parents demand accountability,” and “they make us do it.” This uncritical groupthink will destroy public education unless we wake up, form alliances and tell the public the truth.
Democrats and Republicans alike caught a bad case of testing fever and voted overwhelmingly for No Child Left Behind, perhaps the greatest intrusion of the federal government into local education in history. NCLB will compel states to test their students every year from grades 2-12 in order to rank schools and shut many of them down. Our Proctor-in-Chief, George W. Bush, is extending the joys of standardized testing into Head Start.
Since many administrators and school board members have no idea how many standardized tests they need to administer, NCLB will undoubtedly add additional tests and draconian consequences to a school year already diminished by weeks of testing and test preparation.
Without so much as a public debate on what we would want for our schools, testing mania has been allowed to spread like a plague on our educational process. If some testing is good, more is better. If the youngest students can’t yet hold a pencil or read, of course they can bubble-in answers to math problems for several hours at a time. Head Start should be a reading program. You got a problem with three-year-olds reading? Why then, you must suffer from “the bigotry of low expectations.” The end of recess does not affect obesity. Replacing art and music with scripted curricula won’t lead to increased school violence or discipline problems. Down is up, black is white.
Education Week’s annual report “Technology Counts,” states an alarming trend–schools are not spending enough money on using computers for the purposes of standardized testing! Apparently, the years I’ve spent helping schools use computers to enhance learning have been wasted. It never occurred to me that computers should be used to replace #2 pencils and scan sheets. Tech-based testing reminds me of the old Gaines Burger commercial that asked, “Is your dog getting enough cheese?”
The Education Week “research” is replete with charts and graphs designed to whip child-centered educators into line. EdWeek loves winners and losers nearly as much as the testing industry. Coincidentally, a giant publisher of standardized tests, textbooks and test preparation systems, funded their “study.”
In such a climate of confusion and hysteria, educators feel powerless. Parents trust that you will do the right thing. Misconceptions about high-stakes testing are amplified by an unwillingness to engage the community in conversation.
Inspired by Juanita Doyon’s terrific new book, Not With Our Kids You Don’t: Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools, and a desire to show my kids that you can make a difference, I decided to try my hand at activism.
I designed a flier answering some of the myths about standardized testing and telling parents that California state law allows them to exempt their child from the STAR tests. Two days before testing was to begin I stood in front of my daughter’s high school and passed out 150 fliers in about 10 minutes. I felt a bit creepy, but the kids told me that I was cool (a first).
I have since learned that 46 students opted out of the tests. That’s a one-third hit-rate. Not since the Pet Rock has a marketing effort been so successful with so little effort Think about it–a kid had to take a piece of paper from a stranger, bring it home, convince his parents to write a letter disobeying the wishes of the school and bring the letter back to school the next day. Perhaps the public isn’t as hungry for increased accountability as we have been led to believe?
One parent said she didn’t know her tax money was spent on standardized testing. Can you imagine the public being less engaged in a matter so important?
It is incumbent upon each of us to tell parents what we know and engage the community in serious discussions about schooling. We may find that we have many more allies than there are politicians telling us what’s best for kids.
The year following my initial opt-out activism,I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper urging parents to opt-out. Fearing a loss of federal money as a result of not making AYP due to testing resistance, the Torrance Unified School District lied to parents about the legitimacy of the testing process. I responded with a freedom of information request about funding, personnel, policy, costs and time dedicated to STAR testing. This tied the district office in knots for months. If I can find the request, I will share it.