For decades, I have marveled at the vehemence with which seemingly reasonable adults defend not teaching kids to program computers. Aside from the typical (and often dubious) justifications popularized by politicians, Hour of Code, and the Computer Science for All community, I know how learning to program in the 7th grade was an intellectual awakening that has served me well for more than four decades.

So, when #1 Canadian, Dean Shareski, posed the following tweet, I decided to take “his” question seriously and offered to speak with him about the top online. Then another person I don’t know, Shana White, called in.

I hear some suggest everyone should learn to code. Ok. But should everyone learn basic woodworking? electrical work? cooking? plumbing? automotive? Those are all good things but is time part of the issue? How do all these good things get taught? Just thinking out loud.— Dean Shareski (@shareski) September 10, 2018

For what it’s worth, some of y0u might find the conversation interesting or just use it to lull yourself to sleep.

You may listen to or download the podcast here.

#basta


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.

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 discreditedmanifesto,” 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 Differencesblog.

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.


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.

America once again is in mourning over the 18th or 19th school shooting of 2018. Surely, common sense gun safety legislation is necessary, but educators also need to look in the mirror and ask why kids feel so alienated and aggrieved by schooling that they choose to shoot up their classmates and teachers.

Earlier tonight, I tweeted, “Can we please cool it with the irrational mean-spirited bullshit about banning cellphones in schools? They quite possibly saved lives today.” Immediately, I received a supportive response about the pedagogical potential of cell phones. With all due respect, this issue is much simpler and more fundamental than whether cell phones have a place in the curriculum,

There are two reasons why schools should stop banning cellphones.

  1. It is wrong to be arbitrarily mean to children. If learning is to occur, educators need to do whatever they possibly can to lower the level of antagonism between adults and children.
  2. The school has no right whatsoever to endanger my child or cut her off from communication. 

This has nothing to do with standards, teaching, or curriculum. It is a simple matter of human decency or common sense.

Then I remembered that I wrote about this very issue in the long-defunct Curriculum Administrator Magazine back in its November 2001 issue. For those of you playing along at home, that is nearly 17 years ago.

In 2001, I wrote the following in my column, Back to Rule:

Some technologies make our students and staff safer

Cell phones are perhaps the most often banned legal devices in American schools. Aside from the obvious convenience they afford, cellular phones have become lifesaving tools. In both Columbine and the terrible terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, cell phones preserved life, called for help or offered comfort for family members. My childrens’ high school has unilaterally banned cell phones from the campus as have many schools across the country.

I adamantly believe that a school has no right whatsoever to jeopardize the safety of my daughter who is forced to wander a dark locked campus at 10:30 PM after drama practice. The payphones and vending machines are often more secure then the children. As a parent, it is I who should have the right to locate my child and have her call for help in case of an emergency.

Reducing classroom distractions is often cited as the rationale for this rule, but this is nonsense. If you walk into Carnegie Hall or an airplane, a polite adult asks that you please turn off your phone for the comfort or safety of those around you. Why can’t teachers do the same?

If a student disrupts the learning environment then that action should be punished in the same way we address spitballs, note passing or talking in class. It is irrational to have different rules for infractions involving electronic devices. We must address behavior, not technology. This approach will make our schools more caring, relevant, productive and secure. Our kids deserve nothing less.

Read the rest of the column for other examples of callous authoritarian school assholery and then be extra nice to some kids.

Thankfully, NYC students are no longer being robbed to store their cellphones outside of their schools

You might also be interested in my 2014 column, Why the NYC Schools Must End the Student Cellphone Ban.

One seventh grader’s journey includes learning math through Scooby Doo
©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 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? No, 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.

1st period Science 2nd period Math 3rd/4th period Language Arts 6th period Physical Education (rainy days) 7th period Social studies 8th period Band
Mulan
The Lion King
Babe Angels in the Outfield*
Young Frankenstein
Mighty Joe Young Little Giants* Babe
The Nightmare Before Christmas Aladdin The Big Green* Charlotte’s Web Rocky & Bullwinkle
Contact Cinderella The Sandlot* The Lion King II A Touched by an Angel episode dealing with racism & prejudice The Emperor’s New Groove
The Andromeda Strain The Little Mermaid Planet of the Apes Aladdin Remember the Titans Grease
MTV videos Mighty Joe Young The Road to Eldorado Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
VH1 videos The Nightmare Before Christmas Dinosaur Mr. Holland’s Opus
Scooby Doo
The Nightmare Before Christmas
[The list is based on what my daughter could remember at the end of a school year. So, it is likely to be incomplete.]

I know by now that you must be marveling at the interdisciplinary nature of The Nightmare Before Christmas. You may also be wondering why there were no movies shown during fifth period. That’s because they don’t show movies during lunch.

Now I’m as fond of wasting time and goofing-off as the next guy, but Miffy was able to remember watching at least 34 films having no educational value whatsoever in one school year. In case you were thinking that they could be studying film criticism or visual storytelling you should know that they only watched half of most films because the periods are too short. Others were watched over several days.

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?

  1. a) Canceling Career Day because of SAT-9 testing
  2. b) Career Day
  3. 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!

Actual Career Day worksheet used in the Torrance, CA Unified School District

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.


Notes: *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’s a lesson for us all.

About the author

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 is also the curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, The Daily Papert. Learn more about Gary here.

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.

Getting Active
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.

Pointing in the Wrong Direction
© 2003 Gary S. Stager/District Administration Magazine

Published in the January 2004 issue of 

The good news is that my daughter’s teachers are at last beginning to use computers. The bad news is they are using them to make PowerPoint presentations. Frightening images of my high school algebra teacher with the indelible blue arm from the ceaseless writing and erasing at the overhead projector flashed through my mind during my recent trip to Back-to-School Night.

Monotonous lectures at the overhead are quickly being replaced by the even more mind-numbing PowerPoint-based instruction. While the overhead projector allows a presenter to make changes and annotations on the fly in response to the needs of the audience, a PowerPoint presentation is a fossil created earlier that day — or during another school year — with low expectations for audience engagement.

Allow me to set the scene, a drama familiar to parents of secondary school students. Your child writes his or her daily school schedule for you to dutifully follow during Back-to-School Night. You rush through dinner to attend the PTA meeting, where the details of the latest fundraiser can be revealed. This year you will be inflicting $20 gallon drums of cookie dough on your innocent friends, colleagues and relatives. Next, you run a half-marathon in less than three minutes on a pitch-dark campus in order to make it to your first-period class.

The teacher, a new devotee of PowerPoint, has a problem to solve. The low-bid PC in her classroom is broken and the school district cannot afford an expensive data projector for every teacher. Undeterred by these challenges and buoyed by a motivation to convey critical information to the assembled parents, the teacher does what any good problem solver would do. She prints out the PowerPoint presentation. The teacher carefully hands each parent a copy of her presentation one at a time. This takes approximately four minutes (and uses all of the toner in the hemisphere).

The title page contains her name and contact information, but no details about this particular class because the presentation needs to be generic enough to use all evening. Upon opening the stapled packet one is treated to a couple of dozen slides detailing the teacher’s gum rules, incomprehensible grading system and ways in which students will be punished for breaking any of the innumerable classroom rules. Since the “presentation” was prepared with a standard PowerPoint template, each page is dark and the school will be out of toner for the remainder of the year.

Teachers like the one I describe are well-meaning, but their reliance on PowerPoint undermines their ability to communicate effectively. Such presentations convey little information and reduce the humanity of the presenter through the recitation of decontextualized bullet points. Such presentations require expensive hardware, time-consuming preparation and reduce spontaneity. This eight-minute presentation was a test of endurance. I fear for students subjected to years of teacher-led presentations.

As a service to educators everywhere, I have prepared a one-slide PowerPoint presentation (above) to help them with Back-to-School night.

What’s the point?
Somehow the making of PowerPoint presentations has become the ultimate use of computers in American classrooms. Perhaps we are emotionally drawn to children making sales pitches. Adults see these children playing Donald Trump dress-up and overvalue the exercise as educational. Teachers refer to “doing PowerPoint” or students “making a PowerPoint” and this is unquestionably accepted as worthwhile.

The desire to create a generation of fifth graders with terrific secretarial skills fails on a number of levels. PowerPoint presentations frequently undermine effective communication. The time spent creating PowerPoint presentations reduces opportunities to develop important storytelling, oral communication and persuasive skills. The corporate look of PowerPoint creates an air of false complexity when students are really constrained by rigid canned templates and the use of clip-art. Class size and time constraints frequently deprive students of opportunities to actually make their presentations before an audience.

Kids should be conducting authentic research, writing original ideas and learning to communicate in a variety of modalities. PowerPoint is a poor use of technology and trivializes the development of communication skills.

The story of a boy’s academic pursuits in New Jersey and education’s lack of progress since then…

© 2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine
Published in the July 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator

I recently received a sad email informing me that Paul Jones, my first and only computing programming teacher, had passed away. Mr. Jones taught at Schuyler Colfax Junior High School in Wayne, New Jersey for thirty-seven years. If a monument to honor great achievements in educational computing is ever erected, it should surely include a statue of Mr. Jones.

Around 1976 I got to touch a computer for the first time. My junior high school (grades 6-8) had a mandatory computer-programming course for seventh and eighth graders. I only had the course once since I was in the band. In a twist familiar to schools across the land, kids less inclined to creative and intellectual pursuits got to take double the number of courses in those areas!

In the 1970s the Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey believed it was important for all kids to have experience programming computers. There was never any discussion of preparation for computing careers, school-to-work, presentation graphics or computer literacy. This was not a gifted course or a vocational course. This “mandatory elective” (a concept unique to schooling) was viewed as a window onto a world of ideas – equal in status to industrial arts, home economics and the arts.

To young adolescents transitioning out of trick-or-treating Mr. Jones was scary in a Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. Rumors abounded about him talking to his computer and even kissing it goodnight before going home at the end of the day. The truth was that this guy could make computers do things! To kids who never imagined seeing a computer – let alone controlling one, having such power within our reach was pretty heady stuff.

The class consisted of mini-tutorials, programming problems on worksheets to kill time while we waited to use the one or two teletypes sitting in the front and back of the room. The scarcity of classroom computers had an unintended consequence, lots of collaboration.

We could sign-up to do more programming or play a computer game after school. This afterschool activity, undoubtedly offered out of the goodness of Mr. Jones’ heart, would allow us extra precious minutes of computer time. Text-based versions of boxing, tennis, football and Star Trek were favorites. Mr. Jones knew how the games worked and would show us the underlying code if we were interested. Mr. Jones did sort of love his computer and his students. Once I knew the odds for each football play the computer never beat me again. I could THINK LIKE THE COMPUTER! This made me feel powerful and laid the foundation for a life of problem solving.

The habits of mind developed in Mr. Jones’ class helped me survive the series of miserable mathematics classes that would greet me in high school. Perhaps Mr. Jones was such a great teacher because he was learning to program too. (This never occurred to me as a kid since Mr. Jones knew everything about computers.)

During high school I would pay an occasional visit to Mr. Jones in order to trade programming secrets. As an adult we had a casual collegial relationship. He may have even attended one or two of my workshops. I do remember that he loved AppleWorks with a passion normally reserved for opera and that he collected Beagle Bros. AppleWorks add-ons like they were Beanie Babies.

Not long after Mr. Jones died I received a charming email from the world’s finest seventh grade social studies teacher, Bob Prail, asking me if I would be interested in applying for Mr. Jones’ teaching job. I was honored to be considered and must admit that the whole “circle of life” angle warmed my heart. However, living with my family 3,000 miles from Schuyler Colfax Jr. High would make the commute difficult. I also feared that the responsibilities assigned to this teaching position were no longer pioneering or designed to expand the thinking of students. I was concerned that the 2001 curriculum for a computing teacher (probably now called something like digital communication technology integration facilitator and cable-puller) would have deteriorated into the mindless computer literacy objectives of mouse-clicking, web bookmarking and word processing plaguing too many schools.

Unnamed sources within the junior high school in question have since revealed that students now spend a considerable amount of time learning to “keyboard.” I don’t know which is worse, disrespecting the talents and culture of kids by pretending that they have never seen a computer before or lowering our expectations by making it impossible for kids to do wondrous things with the most powerful technology ever invented.

As students of Mr. Jones a quarter century ago, none of us HAD ever seen a computer before and yet the curriculum was designed to inspire us to seize control of this mysterious machine. Since we had little idea what was impossible, we thought anything was possible. We felt smart, powerful and creative. Assuming Mr. Jones’ responsibilities while trivializing the intellectual power of computing would dishonor his spirit and diminish his pioneering contributions to the world of powerful ideas.


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.

I recently published my 2017 summer reading suggestions for educators, but here is an equally radical list from 2002! See my 2006 recommendations too.


School’s almost out, and it’s the perfect time to get in some interesting reading that will reinvigorate you for September

From the June 2002 issue of District Administration

One of the best ways to spend the summer is curled up with a good book. The following are nominees for books that will inspire, provoke or entertain educators. Professional development for you and your staff is only a bookstore away. Why not stay connected with your colleagues this summer by starting a book club? You can find all of these books and more here.

Summer Reading
The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith
This may well be the most beautiful, clear and pro-found book ever written about learning and overcoming the obstacles to learning created by schools. Smith paints a gorgeous picture of what real learning is and explains how it differs from what he calls the official theory of learning.

Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope by Jonathan Kozol
Jonathan Kozol’s latest book about the lives and education of poor kids will touch your heart. One of my all-time favorite books.

What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? by Susan Ohanian
I adore every book written by this master teacher, humorist and educational critic. Her most recent book explores the human cost of our current testing-mania, shares teaching anecdotes and discusses what parents are doing to make schools more playful places to learn.

American Psychology and Schools: A Critique by Seymour Sarason
Prolific author, educator and psychologist Sarason candidly investigates the question, “Where has the American psychological community been during the heightened concern over standardized testing and school violence?” He offers hypotheses for this disinterest in schools and explores the damage to the public welfare caused by the collective silence of the psychological community.

Leadership
The Inner Principal by David Loader
Veteran principal David Loader courageously explores the joys, challenges and inner conflicts of being a school principal. His accomplishments on behalf of kids will inspire school leaders. Teachers will give their principals a hug.

Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom Demarco
The latest book by this management guru argues that effective organizations need slack to nurture out-of-the-box thinking and productivity, particularly among knowledge workers.

One for Each Level
The following books are designed to appeal to elementary, middle school and high school teachers.

The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach Advanced Reflections by Edwards, Gandini and Forman (Editors)
This remarkable book should be read and re-read by every educator. It seems to contain solutions to every educational problem. While the city of Reggio Emilia focuses on early childhood education, there are numerous lessons to be learned by teachers at all levels.

Caught in the Middle—Nonstandard Kids and the Killing Curriculum by Susan Ohanian
Ohanian makes the case for a learner-centered approach to the middle grades from her amusing perspective.

Rethinking High School: Best Practice in Teaching by Daniels, Bizar and Zemelman
A six-year case study of the planning through graduation of a new Chicago school committed to preparing students for the 21st century.

Technology
Internet & Computer Ethics for Kids: (and Parents & Teachers Who Haven’t Got a Clue) by Winn Schwartau
This book explores a large quantity of ethical issues facing citizens in the digital age. While written for adolescents, adults will find the description of ethical dilemmas, the law and common sense useful in making sense of this confusing era.

The following opinion column from the October issue of District Administration Magazine caused the owner (and Editor-in-Chief) of the magazine to publish an apology in the very next issue. The mea culpa was published before any reader or advertiser complained. None did. This column never appeared on the magazine’s web site, so it is published here.

In August 2004, District Administration Magazine published my harsh critique of Senator John Kerry’s education plan. It may be read here.

In other words, the following fact-checked article was deemed unfair when an article critical of the political opponent two months earlier was fair game.

I remain incredibly proud of this article because it was timely, witty, and predicted the ultimate disaster caused by the policies I criticized.

Gary Stager on Direct Instruction

Perhaps it’s time to end political social promotion
From the October 2004 issue of District Administration Magazine

Michael Moore got it wrong.

In his film, Fahrenheit 9/11Moore shows President Bush in a Florida classroom on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The film’s narration said that while America was being attacked, the president read the book, My Pet Goat, to a room full of young children. This is factually inaccurate in three important ways.

  1. The story is actually titled, The Pet Goat.
  2. It is not a book, but an exercise in a heavily scripted basal.
  3. The president did not read the story to the children.

Any perceptive educator watching this would quickly realize what was going on. The president was not in that classroom to demonstrate his love of reading. Being read to is a powerful literacy experience. Having a wonderful story read to you by the president of the United States could create a memory to last a lifetime.

Unlike his wife, mother and Oval Office predecessors, this president had a more important agenda than demonstrating affection for children or for reading. The trip was part of a calculated campaign to sell No Child Left Behind. In what Michael Moore rightly observed as a photo opportunity, young children were used as props to advance the administration’s radical attack on public education.

The Pet Goat is an exercise from a literary classic called, Reading Mastery 2, by the father of Direct Instruction, Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann. In the 1960s, Engelmann invented a controversial pedagogical approach that reduces knowledge to bite-]sized chunks presented in a prescribed sequence enforced by a scripted lesson the teacher is to recite to a classroom of pupils chanting predetermined responses. Every single word the teacher is to utter, including permissible and prohibited words of encouragement, are provided. There is no room for individuality. The Direct Instruction Web site states, “The popular valuing of teacher creativity and autonomy as high priorities must give way to a willingness to follow certain carefully prescribed instructional practices.”

Engelmann told The New Yorker in its July 26, 2004 issue, “We don’t give a damn what the teacher thinks, what the teacher feels. On the teachers’ own time they can hate it. We don’t care, as long as they do it. Traditionalists die over this, but in terms of data we whump the daylights out of them.” It is easy to see how a man of such sensitive temperament could author more than 1,000 literary masterpieces such as The Pet Goat.

While I am sure the Florida school visited is a fine one and the classroom teacher loves children, educational excellence was not being celebrated. This was a party on behalf of Direct Instruction. While Moore made a documentary [some suggest artful propaganda] about the Iraq war, he could have made a movie about the United States government’s ideological attack on the public schools.

The War on Public Education
Engelmann’s publisher is a textbook giant with ties to the Bush family dating back to the 1930s. Company namesakes served on George W. Bush’s transition team and the board of his mother’s literacy foundation. The publishers have received honors from two Bush administrations and they in turn have bestowed awards on Secretary Rod Paige, who then keynoted their business conference. The same company’s former executive vice president is the new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Direct instruction has become synonymous with the “scientifically based methods” required by No Child Left Behind.

The War on Public Education has ratcheted up parental fear with cleverly designed rhetoric of failing schools, data disaggregation, underperforming students, unqualified teachers and clever slogans like, “no excuses.” If you turn public schools, even the best ones, into single-]minded test-]prep factories where teachers drone on from scripted lessons then more people will want that magical voucher. Repeatedly demonize teachers arid the public will lose confidence regardless of their personal experiences with their local school.

So, how are you doing? Is your job now more about compliance than kids? Are sound educational experiences being sacrificed for test­ preparation? Has fear replaced joy in your classrooms? President Reagan might suggest we ask ourselves, “Is your school better off than it was four years ago?”

 Raise test Scores – win a prize

I was horrified by recent news referring to U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s education platform. The newsflash reported that if elected president, Kerry would reward teachers for increased student achievement. The news media may have over-simplified a more comprehensive policy statement or the Kerry campaign may have distributed this bumper sticker slogan for its own purposes. Either hypothesis is plausible since there is so little thoughtful discourse on the status or future of public education.

In his book, Political Leadership and Educational Failure, Seymour Sarason reminds us that although we expect that our elected officials will be briefed by the best and brightest experts when concerned with issues of taxation, highway resurfacing or sewage, no such expectation exists for discussions of education policy. Members of both parties seem to increase in ignorance proportionate to their proximity to schooling decisions. After all, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy cosponsored No Child Left Behind.

Taken at face value, reports of the Kerry proposal could suggest either a generous desire to increase teacher pay or a cynical scheme to pander to the electorate. While I’m supportive of dramatic increases in teacher compensation, merit pay is a mischievous idea that continues to plague public education.

Is the key to educational quality a tip jar for teachers?

In a Harvard Business Review article, Alfie Kohn states, “… at least two dozen studies over the last three decades have conclusively shown that people who expect to receive a reward for completing a task … simply do not perform as well as those who expect no reward at all. … Incentives [or bribes] simply can’t work in the workplace.” You don’t have to agree with fuzzy teacher lovers like Kohn. The week of the Kerry announcement I read articles in Business Week and Business 2.0 stating unequivocally that incentive pay does not work in the workplace. W. Edward Demings opposes the destructive effects of merit pay as do Peopleware authors Lister and DeMarco. They detail how extrinsic rewards and performance reviews contribute to teamicide, the unintentional destruction of well-jelled teams. Most people believe they do the best job possible and reviews that merely reflect this fact lead to disappointment, lower morale and drive a wedge between colleagues. Even seemingly innocuous schemes like “employee of the month” do little to motivate excellent employees, but can increase resentment.

Countless psychologists have demonstrated how extrinsic rewards are unsustainable since the bribe must be continuously increased in order to maintain the same level of performance.

Making Enemies

Perhaps teachers are different. Could it be that they are more mercenary than Enron employees or waiters jockeying for tips? If it doesn’t work in industry, why is it constantly touted asthe cure for all educational ills? Merit pay is a ridiculous idea for improving teacher quality for a number of reasons. Let me share a few:

Teachers are not in it for the money. Remuneration is low on the list of reasons why people become and remain educators. While all teachers would prefer to earn more money, it is not a high priority.

Merit pay shifts all responsibility to teachers. Teachers would like to be treated more professionally and have their judgment trusted. Merit pay denies teachers autonomy through a top-down manipulation, yet holds them responsible for student performance.

Student performance is based on multiple factors. A good teacher can make a huge impact on the life and development of a student. However, human development is complex and learning is not merely the result of being taught.

Merit pay makes students the enemy. Linking teacher pay to test score increases invariably leads to teacher resentment of the very kids they are employed to serve.

Will Teach for Bonuses

The message implicit in political demands for pay linked to accountability is that teachers are failing to assist students until they get an extra food pellet. Demonizing teachers is so much easier than assuming responsibility for meaningful education policy.

According to his campaign Web site, Senator Kerry appears to offer a more comprehensive, less punitive vision for public education. Regardless of this November’s election results, I hope public policy will lead a serious national effort to benefit children without scapegoating teachers.

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editorat- large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.