NYU psychologist Gary Marcus wrote an interesting article recently in the Huffington Post. He explores the phenomena that might account for the enormous popularity of the video games, Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Marcus writes:

Few games demand less of the player; I suspect monkeys could be trained to play, and know for a fact that robots can cruise through Guitar Hero on Expert.

Aside from simplicity and affection for the songs, Professor Marcus’ hypothesis is that the success of these games is based rooted in “a lust for power.”

The article is well worth the attention of educators.

Read more at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-marcus/what-makes-people-want-to_b_286386.html

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Dale Carnegie era is well and truly over. American republican democracy is at great risk when one party, the Democrats, hone their skills at winning friends and influencing people while their rivals employ the scorched earth techniques of birthers, tenthers, 9-12ers, deathers and the other racist paranoid fantasies of Fox News performers and their followers. President Obama acts at our collective peril when he behaves as if there is a new politics.

Bill Maher’s latest “New Rules” commentary, “Float Like Obama, Sting Like Ali.” Is quite important and timely advice for not only the President, but citizens (even teachers) concerned with more rational and compassionate civil society.

Read the text of Maher’s advice here.

Watch him give the same advice here.

While on a recent flight across the South Pacific, I pondered the challenges facing American education. Somewhere high above Guam it hit me. What we really need is a witty leadership book replete with checklists, platitudes, alliterations and lovable characters we can all relate to. Schools are in trouble and the job is too big for mice, fish or even Dr. Phil.

What color is your P.O.W. Camp?

A new paradigm is needed to focus our thinking and explore the inner administrator in each of us. I suggest that there are two types of leaders, Colonel Hogan and Colonel Klink. Both men had weighty responsibilities under stressful conditions. Despite their similar positions, Klink and Hogan had different constituents, management styles and visions.

Colonel Klink

Colonel Klink

Colonel Hogan

Colonel Hogan

Klink blindly followed orders and acted reflexively. His first impulse was self-preservation. Klink lacked a vision and a strategic plan. He managed through fear and threats of being shipped to the Russian front. Klink viewed his subordinates as interchangeable cogs in a system he didn’t control. Above all, Klink worked tirelessly to please his superiors and put their needs ahead of all else.

Hogan was a different kind of manager. His primary objective was to preserve liberty for his men and his country. He remained optimistic in the face of extreme challenges. While a strong leader, Hogan led through consistency and consensus. He was a risk taker, a planner and a problem solver. The needs of his subordinates were the centerpiece of his management style. Hogan was responsive to his stakeholders.

Most of all, Colonel Hogan celebrated the unique talents, passions and personalities of his team. His men were empowered to experiment and lead. Interdisciplinary learning was the norm in Hogan’s barracks. Newkirk’s sewing (applied arts), Kinchloe’s radio skills (language arts/communication), LeBeau’s culinary talents (applied arts) and Carter’s gift for explosives and tunneling (science, math and geography) were critical to an organization striving to make the transition from good to great.


Sergeant Schultz

So, which leadership style is closest to your own? Are you a Hogan or a Klink?

There is actually a third option – Sergeant Schultz. “I know nothing. I see nothing,” was Schultz’s favorite expression. Schultz was friendly, kind and jovial. However, his leadership style was fundamentally immoral. If you know better, then you are obliged to do better.

Think back to why you became an educator. Were your parents proud? Would they still respect your decision if they knew that you were enforcing policies causing thousands of third graders to be held indefinitely in the third grade based on the results of one flawed test? Were you moved to tears or filled with rage when the eight year-old Latino immigrant looked into the Nightline camera and said, “I guess I just didn’t try hard enough?” (to pass Florida’s FCAT)

Would the teachers who inspired you to teach be pleased that you were eliminating music, art, recess, science and/or social studies because General Burghalter wants every child to pass a norm-reference test? (an impossibility) Would you have become a teacher if you knew that you would be commanded to read from a canned script to captive children for several hours per day?

Many school children have to overcome all sorts of personal, economic and societal challenges in their everyday lives. The last thing a child needs is to battle teachers or an inflexible one-size-fits-all curriculum. Kids need allies when they are in school, not an axis of evil. They are dependent on you to do the right thing on their behalf. School needs to be an oasis that nurtures the body, mind and soul.

Isn’t it about time that we draft a Geneva Convention for teachers and learners? Don’t we need to create a set of principles governing how we humanely treat the people occupying our school buildings?

The Nuremberg Defense is simply unacceptable. Your position of authority is ordained based on an assumption of trust and an expectation that your efforts will benefit children. It is immoral and educationally ineffective to blindly enforce arbitrary regulations when we know that in many cases the opposite approach is required to benefit children.

Regardless of whether you are a Klink, a Hogan or a Schultz one thing is certain. The fräulein in the main office was the real brain behind the organization.

Originally published in the October 2003 issue of District Administration

Will public schools continue to exist in the United States?

Broad and Secretary Duncan

Arne Duncan and his puppeteer Eli Broad

You have to wonder when you consider the press release below. This morning, billionaire mischief maker, Eli Broad will take time from destroying the economy and reneging on charitable promises, to commit greater violence against public school children in America by awarding his annual bribe prize for the school district that places the greatest misplaced emphasis on deeply flawed standardized testing.

At a time of deep budget cuts in public education, a million dollars is real money. Districts like, Long Beach, CA are addicted to the Broad Prize payola bribe food pellet scholarship money and compete year-after-year at the alter of testing über alles. The Long Beach schools are now so great that Eli Broad and all of his rich friends now send their own children and grandchildren to the Long Beach public schools – I’m only kidding! LMAOROTFL! 🙂

It’s one thing to convince mayors to suspend democracy, seize control of public education and transfer public treasure to private hands (as described in my 2008 GOOD Magazine cover story, School Wars), but Eli Broad’s unchecked power now seems unstoppable. It’s quite likely that Broad will soon turn dozens of Los Angeles Unified public schools into the obedience schools for minority children that he so loves.

Sure, Broad likes to kick-it old skool with his posse, including Bill Gates and Kanye West, but today he wins the VMA of American politics when Federal Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, presents the 2009 Broad Urban Education Prize. That’s right, Duncan will play Pinocchio to Broad’s Gepetto. Since co-opting only one branch of government is so old-fashioned, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi will be there too as Eli Broad’s Vanna White. (She has played this role in the past)

Is the United States Government now a wholly-owned subsidiary of oligarchs like Eli Broad? Should educators throw a tea party?

(Below the press release are some links for additional reading on Duncan and Broad)

media advisory

Winner of $2 Million Broad Prize for Urban Education to be
Announced, Named Most Improved Urban School District

Aldine, Broward County, Gwinnett County, Long Beach and Socorro
Vie for Country’s Largest Education Prize

For Immediate Release
Monday, Sept. 14, 2009

Contact: Erica Lepping, elepping@broadfoundation.org
O: 310.954.5053, C: 310.594.6880


U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Members of Congress
D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty
Philanthropist Eli Broad
300 leading education policy-makers and practitioners


Announce the winner of the 2009 Broad Prize for Urban Education, the largest education prize in the country. The finalists are school districts in Aldine, Texas; Broward County, Fla.; Gwinnett County, Ga.; Long Beach, Calif. and Socorro, Texas.


Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2009

  • 9 to 10:45 a.m. ET: Panel discussion with superintendents from The Broad Prize finalist districts, moderated by former USA Today education journalist Richard Whitmire
  • 11 a.m. to noon ET: Announcement of winner, with remarks by Secretary Duncan


United States Capitol Visitor Center, Washington, D.C. Enter below East Plaza of Capitol between Constitution and Independence Avenues. Events in Congressional Auditorium.


Please RSVP to elepping@broadfoundation.org to reserve a seat. Capitol Visitors Center press credentials required in advance through House Radio/TV Gallery, 202.225.5214.

The following opportunities to cover the announcement will also be available on Sept. 16:

  • Noon ET: Press kit (in English and Spanish) on http://www.broadprize.org/
  • 12:30 p.m. ET: Conference call with Broad Prize-winning district leaders and Eli Broad. For call-in number and pass code, please email elepping@broadfoundation.org.
  • 4 p.m. ET: Event photos available on AP wire
The $2 million Broad (pronounced “brode”) Prize for Urban Education (http://www.broadprize.org/) annually honors urban American school districts that demonstrate the greatest overall performance and improvement in student achievement while reducing income and ethnic achievement gaps. The winning district will receive $1 million in college scholarships for high school seniors, with $250,000 in scholarships for each finalist district. The event is sponsored by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation (www.broadfoundation.org).

Further reading:

Laura Bush Praises Obama, Defends Back-To-School Speech
In an interview with CNN, Mrs. Bush, a former school teacher, said, “There’s a place for the president of the United States to talk to school children and encourage school children” to stay in school. And she said parents and others also need to send that message.

“That certainly is the right of parents to choose what they want their children to hear in school.”

“I also think it’s also really important for everyone to respect the president of the United States,” she said.

Mrs. Bush praised Obama’s performance under difficult circumstances. “He’s tackled a lot to start with and that’s made it difficult,” she said.

Greetings from Australia!

Karl Fisch’s latest blog, Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?, and a horrific current event inspired me to mine the Stager Archives for another old article (originally published in 2007).

I witnessed a horrific spectacle last night. Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister, Julia Gillard, was a contestant on the Aussie version of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? Yup, that’s right – an accomplished attorney and Deputy Prime Minister was a shameless combatant in this nationally televised trivia porn.

You MUST watch this 10-second clip!

I know what you’re thinking, my fellow Americans. Does Arne Duncan have what it takes to demonstrate his intellect on pressing questions like, “Which wood is cricket bats made of?” (That was in the 5th PLANTS category)

Is Plants an actual subject area and if so, is it important to know how cricket bats are made?

Deputy Prime Minister Gillard is another in a long-string of accomplished thoughtful professionals whose intelligence drops in half when it comes to matters of education. Ten months ago I wrote about her crush on American public education saboteur in the Australian publication, Crikey. Educators can learn nothing from Chancellor Klein’s visit Gillard is pushing a national curriculum, standardized testing, data-driven decision-making, school ranking and other equally despicable fantasies across her nation in the name of educational quality. She embraces the worst of American trends in public education with two fists.

I will be enormously sad if the Australian teacher unions capitulate on such matters of importance as have their American brethren.

Gillard is also advancing a plan called The Digital Education Revolution under which Aussie schoolchildren may or may not gain access to a personal computer. The most objectionable aspect of this plan is the fact that I am less than an hour’s drive from one of the first schools in the world where every student got a personal laptop computer nearly 20 years ago. In fact, I led professional development at that school 19 years ago! It was the stated policy of the state government in 1990 that by 1991, every child would have a personal laptop computer.

It’s depressing that every 20 years we need to have a revolution to do what we promised to do 20 years ago. Such bureaucratic amnesia proves Stager’s Second Law of School Reform:

Educators will continue to invent what already exists, each time with diminished expectations.

In any event, here is the February 27, 2007 article I wrote for The Pulse.

Is Your State Commissioner of Education Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

Tonight, the Fox Television Network will perform a great public service. TV will demonstrate to millions of households what some of us have known for years. Much of what school teaches is utterly useless nonsense.

Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl, Susan Ohanian and Alfie Kohn have long proposed that politicians and business leaders imposing educational standards and high-stakes tests on children should be forced to have their (current) scores on the same tests published in the newspaper. Quick! Name an official with the courage to do so!

While the Miss Crabtree generation laughed at a pie in the face. Fox hopes that the MCAS/FCAT/STAR/TAKS generation will yuck it up to Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader; a light-hearted confection celebrating the humiliating prospect of an adult being “outsmarted” by a kid. If the show is successful, it will be expose the dirty-little secret of American education – school curricula is focused on trivia.

Trivia is the fuel that propels game shows. Some game shows are based on chance or physical prowess, yet some of the most enduring ones are based on “knowledge.” Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy “test” the knowledge of contestants, but what sorts of knowledge are being assessed? Successful contestants combine rapid twitch reaction with spelling, vocabulary and memorization of esoteric factoids. Understanding, experience, talent or effort is not required and therefore unmeasured. That stuff may not be quick, relevant or prone to multiple-choice questions.

The appeal of Game Shows is that the viewer thinks, “I’m smarter than that guy!” Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader ingeniously plays on our fear of appearing stupid and the schadenfreude we enjoy when someone else looks like a buffoon.

I can hardly wait for “State Department of Education Week” or “Business Roundtable Showdown” on Are You Smarter that a 5th Grader!

sample question from the program web site

Do we agree on what it means to be “smart?”

There is an unfortunate paradox in play here. What many of us see as the dumbing-down of American education is now being sold to the television audience as intelligence. Where American Idol (the lead-in to …5th Grader) celebrates perseverance, talent, individuality and personal expression, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader rewards being a smart-aleck and implies that education is a zero-sum game.

The incessant quest for one hundred percent of students to be above the norm reduces schooling to a contest with lots of losers and no exciting cash and prizes. Teachers who camp out in-front of conference booths selling multiple-choice clicker systems hoping to use such technological goodies in their classroom should think about the consequences of their lust. Classrooms are not game show sets and teachers should be more than game show hosts.

However, it should be noted that Jeff Foxworth, host of …5th Grader, is an accomplished artist who has spent more than twenty years perfecting his craft and entertaining millions. Regardles of whether you enjoy his brand of humor, he has a unique style and a strong sense of self. No memo will cause him to change his style or tell a joke he doesn’t think is funny.

By the way… Have you heard the latest Jeff Foxworthy joke? You might be a redneck if you let some anonymous bureaucrat bully you into what and how you teach.*

Oh, I love that joke!

Game shows are one way we escape from thinking. Is the same true for 5th grade?

*That’s not really a Jeff Foxworthy joke and should not be construed as a slur against rednecks. I made it up.

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

Originally published in the January 2004 issue of

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 few 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.

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 uses half the toner on the planet.

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.

Everyone should read Edward Tufte’s very short book, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.

© 2003 Gary S. Stager/District Administration Magazine

2012 Note: The New Hampshire legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto and passed a law this week allowing the parental veto of curriculum. The following is a reference to this sort of power grab from 2009 and the text of a March 2007 article I wrote on the subject for District Administration magazine. I suggested the inevitability of such action five years ago.

Be sure to subscribe to this blog to receive regular access to my crystal ball and predictions about the rapid decline of public education and common sense!

2009 Note: The insanely paranoid right-wing fears about the president of the United States urging American children to be good students scares me. I believe that it is another hysterical attempt to usurp the legitimacy of a democratically elected African-American President. Denying children access to the President of the United States is unpatriotic and miseducative. The teachable moment should be seized to discuss and debate the President’s words in a civil democratic fashion. Surely, that is consistent with the ideals of public education in a free society.

I wrote about what might be in the Obama speech for the Huffington Post – A Sneak Peak at Obama’s Speech to Schoolchildren

I also dug up this article I wrote for the March issue of District Administration Magazine back in 2007.

The Parental Veto of Curriculum
Fanaticism must not overrule district leadership!

An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary addressing environmental policy, hosted by Al Gore, continues to generate educational controversy. A number of parents have objected to the film’s classroom use, accusing it of being inaccurate, in spite of numerous scientists who testify to its veracity. Other critics challenge the messenger, accusing the film of partisanship. This seems peculiar. Is truth Democratic or Republican?

The Federal Way School District in Washington recently banned the film unless specific criteria were met. Teachers who want to show the movie must get the approval of the principal and the superintendent, and must ensure that a “credible, legitimate opposing view will be presented.” And teachers who have already shown the film must now present an “opposing view.”

This policy raises more questions than it answers. What is credible? Does every issue have an equally valid opposing view? Is there only one opposing view? Should the views of the Aryan Nations be included in discussions of the Holocaust or civil rights? Are there worksheets on the upside of slavery?

“Condoms don’t belong in school, and neither does Al Gore.” -Federal Way parent

Must all materials used by a teacher pass muster from the superintendent? How long will that take? Is the superintendent competent to make every judgment? What happened to academic freedom? May teachers discuss current events or share breaking news stories with students?

You’re probably asking, “How did the Federal Way School Board get to this point?” The answer is that one parent, yes one, sent an e-mail message objecting to the showing of the film. Evidently some parents are emboldened to legislate for all students, rather than opting to keep their child out of an activity they find personally offensive.

What sort of educational leadership reverses policy based on a single complaint? How about telling such parents that we trust the judgment of our teachers? Why capitulate so easily?

In fact, Frosty Hardison, the objecting parent, isn’t really concerned about the science of global warming. Like many zealots, Hardison has not seen the film in question, but did say: “Condoms don’t belong in school, and neither does Al Gore. He’s not a schoolteacher…The information that’s being presented is a very cockeyed view of what the truth is …. The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn’t in the DVD.” It’s obvious that Hardison’s motives are concerned with imposing his religious beliefs on the school system. He found an ally in the school board president, who dismissed evolution as “only a theory,” that timeless canard that mangles the definition of theory for ideological gain.

I don’t understand the vitriol directed toward Vice President Gore. Why do so many assume he doesn’t know what he is talking about? When did decades of public service and two terms as vice president become something to be condemned rather than respected? What are the implications for our democracy when elected officials are dismissed out of hand as partisan hacks?

Should any parent be able to change classroom practice with a single e-mail? If parents can opt children out of a health class because it violates their family’s values, can I opt my child out of a course because I think it is a dopey waste of time? Why can’t I select my child’s teachers and demand a personal curriculum? Should I be able to bend the district to my wishes? Is the parental veto a sound idea?


The common school is at the center of our democracy. Educational leadership requires the assertion of expertise and a willingness to say “No!”

From Curriculum Administrator Magazine — June 2000

Amidst the sadism, angst and mediocrity of middle school, two social studies teachers had an important impact on my development. Bob Prail has taught social studies for decades and has touched the lives of countless children at Schuyler Colfax Junior High School in Wayne, New Jersey. His class was concerned more with the intellectual, moral and emotional development of each student than the bunch ‘o facts curriculum commonplace in similar classes. Mr. Prail’s class was rigorous despite the pabulum prescribed by the mediocre textbook, which remained in virginal condition. He excited us about American history and our nation’s uneasy quest for justice. Before multicultural education and interdisciplinary teaching were hot, Mr. Prail had each seventh grader read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and each eighth grader read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Decades before student-created multimedia was the rage, our class produced a film of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I was Harry the imp. Being home sick for a week created interesting cinematic challenges when my understudy, an Asian classmate, replaced me. Few middle school students read, let alone dramatize the controversial lessons of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Mr. Prail’s classes were filled with lively discussions and our content knowledge was tested by using an electronic game show set built by the teacher. His classroom was a safe environment for shaping an opinion or arguing one already formed. I’ll never forget how much grief Mr. Prail faced for teaching us how to relax and meditate during class time. There were absurd accusations of religious proselytizing and sorcery swirling around the school while any rational person familiar with middle school kids understands the need for relaxation and reflection. While I hardly remember the content of the class, Mr. Prail taught me a much more important lesson by his example. He treated everyone with dignity and respect even when little respect was accorded him by the school administration. I am convinced that my personal sense of political activism and willingness to fight for those people and issues worthy of support may be traced back to an intuitive sense that at twelve years old we might need to stage a protest to ensure Mr. Prail’s job security. Bob Prail’s lifelong commitment to doing the right thing on behalf of kids, regardless of what the adults around him might think is a testament to the courage and power of great teachers.

My eighth grade social studies teacher, Harold “Hack” Miller, inspired me in many other extra-curricular ways. Mr. Miller introduced partisanship, parody, humor and controversy to the study of history and importance of politics. These are noble traits required by a strong democracy. I’ll never forget the bulletin board decoration in Mr. Miller’s classroom. On it hung a front-page tabloid photo of President Ford receiving his swine flu shot and underneath it Mr. Miller wrote the caption, “No Brain… No Pain.” Mr. Miller traded “boring” subjects from the curriculum for more engaging ones like the influence of the arts on American culture. Best of all, he let us in on his subversion. He knew what his students needed and taught expertly what he knew best. Mr. Miller cultivated my love of history and passion for politics in both eighth and eleventh grade.

In high school, Mr. Miller was a behind-the-scenes instigator in our effort to rid the school of the sappy sexist expensive pre-Title IX annual student dance competition. He encouraged a camouflage-wearing school legend named Duke to seek the presidency of this august student organization while a slate of my male pals ran to be captains of a dance team. When informal polling indicated that the head cheerleaders were about to lose their most cherished position to a bunch of… well, boys all hell broke loose. While we were not particularly serious about leading the dance contest into the next millennium we were fighting for important principles of gender equity and against entrenched patterns of discrimination. Our mucking up of the works may have been silly, but it was also in the great tradition of the Boston Tea Party and the anti-Viet Nam war protests.

Mr. Prail and Mr. Miller taught without the script or straightjacket imposed by the textbook. They taught from a wealth of knowledge, a love of the subject matter and a commitment to children. I am most grateful for the role they played in the development of active citizens. They make me proud to be a teacher and an American.

There are many ways to evaluate excellent educational leadership. Here is a true story demonstrating such leadership.

A school principal recently led me on a tour of his elementary school. As we walked into one classroom I saw the blood flush from the principal’s face. We walked in on a classroom full of children watching a Disney cartoon while their teacher did paperwork. Once outside the classroom the principal apologized profusely and promised that the teacher would be spoken to.

This principal was embarassed by the lack of teacher professionalism demonstrated by using a cartoon to distract her students. Such practice is widespread and illegal. It is against the law to show commercial films to a public audience (including public schools) without the consent or license of the publisher.

My grade school-age nephews are watching plenty of commercial films as the school year winds down. Therefore, I’m inspired to share an article I wrote six years ago.

Coming to a Classroom Near You!

One seventh grader’s journey includes learning math through Scooby Doo

curriculum administration 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.

I know that you must be marveling at the remarkable interdisciplinary properties 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?

a) Canceling Career Day because of SAT-9 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 daughter 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.