Required texts

Required texts

Optional (a Graduation gift to yourself)

Painting Chinese: A Lifelong Teacher Gains the Wisdom of Youth by Herbert R. Kohl

I’m an optimist by nature. That’s why I awake each day thinking I can make the world a better place for children despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For years I believed that public education would hit bottom like an alcoholic and then rise from the ashes unencumbered by the shackles of past policies and practices. When that Phoenix rose, I would be ready. I had worked in the best and worst public and private schools in the world. I worked with homeschooling communities and even created productive contexts for learning within a prison for teenagers. I would be prepared to help reinvent public education as soon as the conditions were ripe for such transformation.

The problem with the rehab or resurrection myth was that I never anticipated the chance that American public policy regarding public education was that there IS NO BOTTOM to rise up from. It now appears that schooling and the way in which some Americans treat other people’s children has no bottom. Things can and will get worse, perhaps indefinitely. The public is on a collision course to defund education and other services intended for the common good. I have chronicled this trend for a decade, but hoped things would never get this bad.

I clung romantically to fantasies that Americans embraced democratic principles, the common good and loved children. Learning otherwise is a somber realization, especially on Easter Sunday.

It has been suggested that Ronald Reagan made it cool to distrust government and ethical obligations to help your neighbor when in 1988 he said the scariest words you can hear are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” A decade earlier, Proposition 13 in California taught “citizens” that no matter what your neighbor or community needs, you will never be asked to reach into your pocket again and pay for it. Selfishness had become cool. America replaced the ideals of the Founding Fathers with the adolescent fantasies of Ayn Rand.

The singular genius of George W. Bush was recognizing that while people might dislike “school,” they like their children’s teacher. If you wanted to destroy or privatize (a semantic difference without distinction) public education, you needed to find a way to erode public confidence in the each and every public school. But how to do that?

Create an Orwellian law like “No Child Left Behind.” Give corporations billions of dollars for the creation, implementation and frequent mis-scoring of deeply miseducative and misused standardized tests. Require 100% of all students to be above the norm on largely norm-reference tests by 2014 – a statistical impossibility – and when everyone is not “above average” quickly enough, blame teachers, takeover schools, make kids repeat grades and make already troubled schools even more joyless and irrelevant.

Along the way, tell parents constantly and with increasing volume that your child’s teacher is failing your child and the Voila! you will withdraw your support for the system.

Cue the charter schools, get tough reformers like Michelle Rhee and get Oprah to pimp a simplistic propaganda film. Mission accomplished! Heckuva job, Brownie! As the great patriot Glen Beck once sang, “We Shall Overcome!” When the three wisemen – Arne Duncan, Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich team-up as “school reformers,” one can expect things to get old testament bad for public education. As long as unqualified is the new qualified, things will get worse for our children and even worse for other people’s children.

Please! Please! Please! watch this video clip from the Rachel Maddow show, share it with friends and then try to restrain your violent impulses or find the strength to carry-on for another day. I’m sorry you have to watch a cheesy commercial first and that you may not like the messenger. The message is really important and stunning.

This is the tale of how two generations of severely at-risk young people are having their chances for a productive life and slice of the American dream sacrificed on the alter of capitalist greed, authoritarian impulses and callous disregard for the vulnerable.

Note to self: Next time I decide to arrest teen mothers demanding a quality education, be sure to run the police sirens to drown out their cries and screams.

Happy Easter!

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Chris Lehmann’s blog post today, Enough Already, provides further evidence of how public education is being hijacked by corporate assassins, political demagogues, merry pranksters and desperate parents. We need to get mad AND get active!

I responded:


I agree with you on the issues, but I’m not sure I agree about tactics.

It is obvious that the mean-spirited name-calling, mockery and condescension is working VERY well for the other side.

The days of Dale Carnegie are over. This is Hannity and O’Reilly time. Failure to accept, embrace and develop the skills required to shout louder than our opponents AND tear down their house of cards is critical.

Is it nice? No
Is it necessary? Yes
Is it effective? They’re winning

I went on to suggest a small collection of books (and one film) that captures the spirit of the battle we find ourselves in. They may be read by teachers, students and parents – anyone concerned about preserving public education, but the blog would not allow the posting for some reason. So, here is my hardly exhaustive “summer reading” list:

  1. Buck Up, Suck Up . . . and Come Back When You Foul Up: 12 Winning Secrets from the War Room by James Carville and Paul Begala
  2. The Best of Abbie Hoffman: Selections from Revolution for the Hell of It, Woodstock Nation, Steal this Book and New Writings
  3. Rules For Revolutionaries: The Capitalist Manifesto for Creating and Marketing New Products and Services by Guy Kawasaki
  4. Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality by Gerald Bracey
  5. Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? by Susan Ohanian and Kathy Emery
  6. All the President’s Men (DVD)
  7. Not with Our Kids You Don’t: 10 Strategies to Save Our Schools by Juanita Doyon
  8. The Exhausted School: Bending the Bars of Traditional Education by John Taylor Gatto

The list is admittedly ecclectic, but might help us shape our message, strategy and tactics on behalf of young people.

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I just read with horror that Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emmanuel has appointed Rochester, NY schools superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard to be the new Cathie Black of the Chicago Public Schools (the nation’s 2nd largest school district). This continues FOO’s (friends of Obama) full-scale assault on public education and teacher unions begun months before President Obama was even elected.

Apparently, large city schools superintendent is the only job for which references are not checked.

Jean-Claude Brizard is an Eli Broad disciple whose singular genius was creating in-school suspensions where kids waste time doing nothing in school, rather than outside of school. (video news report here) That’s some reform!

Since coming to Rochester in January 2008, Brizard has pushed for his own brand of reform: instituting a contentious in-school suspension policy, and moving problematic teachers out of classrooms into what some New York City teachers call “rubber rooms.” (Rochester City Newspaper – March 17, 2010)

In February, more than 95% of Rochester teachers voted no-confidence in Brizard. Now that’s quite a recommendation and cause for a promotion!

Just like Rahm Emmanuel used the “punch a hippie” strategy while in the Obama White House, his appointment of Brizard is a form of “punch a teacher.”

In an April 19, 2011 article Chicago Tribune article “Our Kind of Guy to Lead Chicago Schools,” they write the following about Brizard.

Can Rochester, N.Y., superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard pad a payroll? Skirt the rules? Spend frivolously? Distort statistics to make himself look good? Infuriate his constituents with a high-handed style?
Check, check, check, check and check.

Mike Klonsky has done some fine writing on the Brizard appointment and Rochester, NY television station WHAM 13 (ABC affiliate) reporter, Rachel Barnhart, has assembled an indispensable collection of articles about Brizard’s record in Rochester, so you may fact-check his record for yourself. It is too bad that Mayor-elect Emmanuel did not heed the advice of George W. Bush and “use the Google” before subjecting Chicago school children to Jean-Claude Brizard.

I wrote the following about Brizard in 2008 for my Good Magazine cover story, School Wars. Alas, it was cut from the article.

Where do they grow these guys?

The new Superintendent of the Rochester, NY Public Schools, Jean Claude-Brizard, has a dream. He wants to create “Dream Schools” in his urban school district. Here is how the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle News described his dream.

…the plan calls for bundling troubled schools together in a special group to be called “Dream Schools.”

Those schools would be mandated to teach a uniform curriculum, devote longer blocks of time to math and reading, offer after-school tutoring — and face closure if they fail to improve over time. Schools would be selected for the distinction based on state test scores.

“We are going to put them in a box and tell them what they need to do to get better,” Brizard said. “After intense intervention, if there is no improvement, guess what? We’ll shut them down.”

The Democrat and Chronicle news article later reports, with no sense whatsoever of irony of contradiction that new Superintendent Brizard’s plan, “would both strengthen and relax centralized control of schools.”

Right, you have all the freedom you want at the local school-level to treat teachers like robots and teach a standardized curriculum!

A few weeks later, Superintendent Brizard announced his plan to spend $1.2 million to save the Reading First program in Rochester. The announcement was made the very same week that the US Government declared that Reading First didn’t teach children to read.

As I read the news I could not help wondering to myself, “Where do they grow people who think like that?” The answer is simple. You learn that ideology trumps even common sense at the Broad Academy, an intensive program in which future school leaders are trained to think like their mentor Eli Broad.

In September 2008, District Administration Magazine published an article I wrote in which I explored how Jean-Claude Brizard appeared reality-impaired and driven by ideology. The text of that article follows:

Who Ya Gonna Believe? (2008)

The ongoing battle between facts and mythology

It has long been accepted that good teaching requires a mixture of art and science. Outstanding teachers possess a solid knowledge of learning theory, human development. That content knowledge is brought to life by personal gifts, creativity and craft. Sadly, education news stories suffer from a lack of critical analysis or follow-up questions and educators too often justify questionable practices on the basis of personal beliefs, even when such beliefs are contradicted by evidence.

There is perhaps no greater educational battleground in the fight between ideology and fact than reading instruction. In fact, No Child Left Behind went to great lengths to redefine “science” when it insisted that every classroom practice adhere to “scientifically-based research” to the exclusion of evidence that interfered with their belief system. The underlying assumption of NCLB’s Reading First program was that every child learns to read through a program of “highly structured, systematic sequential explicit phonics instruction.” Research and common sense challenges that belief system.

First of all, not everyone learns everything the same way. Second, if the only way to learn to read is this form of alphabet sound connection, how does one explain the billions of people who read languages such as Chinese or Hebrew that don’t have such written language systems? How do deaf people read?

The Department of Education’s May 2008 report on the efficacy of Reading First concluded, “Reading First did not improve students’ reading comprehension.” Wow! That’s fairly unambiguous. The creators, funders and enforcers of a national reading initiative announced that it did not work. Surely, a reading method that failed to improve comprehension would be tossed on the dustbin of history, right? Not so fast.

Let the spinning begin. “On the plus side, researchers found that Reading First teachers spent more time emphasizing phonics and other aspects of what many experts consider solid instruction — about 10 minutes more a day, or nearly an hour more a week. “Teachers’ behavior was changed,” Institute of Education Sciences Director Whitehurst says.

Fantastic! Teachers are spending more time doing what doesn’t work. Just as the program was declared ineffective and long since its corruption was made public, Rochester, NY Schools Superintendent Jean Claude-Brizard, proposed to spend $1.2 million dollars of local funds to “save” Reading First in his district. Truth makes some educators emotional. The Arizona Republic recently wrote about educators who “mourn” the passing of Reading First. Barbara Wright of the Casa Grande Elementary District told the paper, “This was good, solid, research-based information, and we implemented it in all our schools at the time, even though only two schools were funded.” She said that despite the probable death of the ineffective program that it will “continue to guide the district’s reading program.” I’m sorry, you should not be allowed to claim something is solid or research-based when it has been proven ineffective. Such claims are not scientific. They are religious.

It’s not just reading

In the April 2008 issue of District Administration, Long Beach California Superintendent, Christopher Steinhauser, proudly boasts of his use of grade retention. The Broad Foundation even rewarded him for it. Like Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Jeb Bush, Steinhauser embraces making students repeat a grade as an effective policy tool in the face of an overwhelming mountain of evidence that it does more harm than good.

Other professions have a term for when you put your personal belief ahead of facts – malpractice.

Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Joe Biden have often said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” This is excellent advice for educators who continue to eliminate recess, impose zero tolerance policies, cut arts programs, maintain agrarian school starting times, “teach algebra” at younger and younger grades and spend months each year testing or preparing students to take high-stakes tests. Conventional wisdom too often goes unchallenged and ineffective practices become myths. These practices are justified by personal beliefs.

The great philosopher Stevie Wonder reminds us, “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way.” In education, adult superstitions cause children to suffer.

Published originally in the September 2008 issue of District Administration Magazine.

Gary S. Stager is Senior Editor of District Administration and Editor of The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate.

The New York Times invited me to debate the following premise:

“School administrators say online courses in K-12 classrooms can give students the skills they’ll need in college and the workplace. Indeed, the presence of online courses in primary and secondary schools is a growing trend across the country.

Critics, however, say the interest in such courses is driven by a desire to spend less on teachers, especially when budget crises are forcing deep cuts in education.

Given that middle school and high school students are easily distracted, can they really learn and benefit from online classes?” (NY Times Online)

So, without knowing who I was debating or their positions, I wrote this response (within their tight word limit). In the grand tradition of TED, 140 Character Conferences and other short-attention-span forums, I get to talk. You get to read, and perhaps leave snarky comments.

It’s too bad. Education is complex and could really benefit from substantive conversation. It would be even better if education issues were discussed in the actual NY Times.

In any event, I’m honored to have been asked and proud of what I wrote.

“I reject the assumption that adolescents are easily distracted. Given the right project, topic and environment, young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity. Inherent in the second question lies a major problem facing education today…” (Gary Stager, from article)

60 Minutes just aired a two-part story that stands in their grand tradition of breathtaking journalism. The report tells the story of Gospel for Teens, a non-profit arts organization created in Harlem, NYC by the radio broadcaster, publisher and theatre producer, Vy Higginsen. Her original goals were modest; teach kids to sing gospel music so that this important African American art form endures. The lessons Ms. Higginsen, the teenagers and the 60 Minutes audience learn are much more profound and life-altering.

First you witness the children’s drive, determination and capacity for intensity (a major theme of my forthcoming book). During their first two-hour class, the kids learn three gospel songs in three-part harmony. Try comparing this accomplishment to the school tasks teachers so mightily struggle to eek out of these kids, or kids just like them. The complexity of this musical feat dwarfs much of what one finds in the school curriculum, especially the curriculum for poor children.

The 60 Minutes report follows the development of these children through two semesters of participation in Gospel for Teens and explores their backgrounds, daily struggles and triumphs. Perhaps you know the challenges urban teens face, but have forgotten, or you are just so focused on raising those damned test scores that you forgot why you became an educator. Every child – yours and mine – is precariously close to being labeled “at-risk.” This is especially true of poor children.

Teaching is as complex and diverse as each learner. Although these kids can sing their pants off, they struggle with the most basic of life skills. Their emotional needs can make academic success impossible, especially because way too few adults give a damn about each kid and do whatever is necessary to connect with them on a human level.

I am sick and tired of hearing about “those kids” and how they are failing! You never know when the slightest gesture of good will, willingness to listen or simple act of kindness can change a young person’s life and enrich us all.

We are all reminded of this lesson over and over again throughout the 60 Minutes piece. As in other constructive environments where children choose to be, there are quite likely no discipline problems at Gospel for Teens.

Teachers really need to do some soul-searching during these challenging times.

Try remembering why you told your parents that you wanted to become an educator. Was it so you could scream at children and control when they get to pee? Was it so you could march kids up and down the hall like POWs? Was it to deliver the curriculum and hold them accountable? Was it to raise f$#king test scores on tests never intended to be used to rank kids or punish teachers, especially when they are hugely expensive and rigged against the very children you serve?

If the answer to all of the above is NO, then wake up every morning and ask yourself, “What can I do to ensure that this is the best 7 hours of each student’s day?” While you’re at it, fight with every ounce of your being to preserve world-class music and art opportunities for every American child! Don’t blame the kids when we won’t do the right thing!

Why not declare every day, “I’m Here for the Kids Day,” and protect them from the corporate and political bullies fighting to make their schools joyless test-prep factories?

Watch the 60 Minutes report:

  1. Gospel for Teens 60 Minutes Story – Part 1
  2. Gospel for Teens 60 Minutes Story – Part 2

(the clips may not play inline, but the links above work)