Warning: Educators will be criticized below! You have been warned.

Recently, a friend sent me a link to an episode of Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show.  In this whimsical YouTube video, eight year-old Sylvia teaches you about designing, engineering and programming a variety of projects using the open-source Arduino robotics controller. With the poise, wit and clarity of a seasoned television host, Sylvia explains the electronic principles of light–emitting diodes, resisters, potentiometers, grounds and compiling the program you download to create a strobe light. Next, she teaches viewers how to construct a Randomly Influenced Finger Flute that uses a square wave at a variable number of hertz to make the Arduino play music.

This is no burping into VoiceThread!

Sylvia disposes of the ISTE technology standards in the first fourteen seconds of her video. By following her motto, “Have fun, play around and get out there and make something,” she learns a host of powerful ideas, engages countless habits of mind and demonstrates her knowledge by constructing something shareable. Sylvia’s video embodies Seymour Papert’s theory of constructionism. In fact, many of the fluencies displayed by Sylvia are discussed in Papert and Solomon’s 1971 paper, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer.”

Don’t you dare tell me that the demands of the curriculum preclude time for such classroom projects. Kids like Sylvia remind us of the authentic nature of learning and the efficiency of project-based learning. Several years worth of lectures on physics, electronics, engineering, computer science and video production would not result in the understanding demonstrated by Sylvia; that is if elementary schools bothered to teach such subjects at all.

Engineering is concrete. Engineers make things. They experiment and tinker. If you know anything about development you recognize that knowledge construction follows a progression from concrete to the abstract. Yet, most kids are deprived of engineering experiences until they endure twelve years of abstractions. If the creative inclinations of young children were nurtured in an engineering context, their understanding of the increasingly elusive math and science facts would be developed in a meaningful natural context.

Sylvia’s father is an accomplished technology expert. So what? Public schools are designed to democratize specialized learning experiences for all children. If Sylvia was doing little more than reading off a teleprompter, then her performance would still exceed our expectations. Yet, she demonstrates so much more.

Sylvia embodies the spirit of the exploding DIY movement with the creativity of the Little Rascals and curiosity of Mr. Wizard. She’s just using the construction materials of her era. The difference is the power of computational thinking and microprocessors. Arduino microcontrollers are the Barbies of her generation.

The high crime is that kids like Sylvia will be in seventh grade, four years from now, where the curriculum awaiting them will be worthless concoctions like keyboarding instruction or “using the Google.” We insult children’s intelligence and squander their potential by serving up a curriculum of “computer appreciation” dependent on adult inadequacies or misallocated resources.

There are lots of computers in schools, but very little computing! Three decades ago, I dedicated my life to using computers constructively to amplify human potential. Back then, educational computing was built on progressive learning theories, propelled by passion of the civil rights movement and based on a notion that children could invent a better world than existed for previous generations. Sadly, I no longer recognize my own field. The powerful ideas of Dewey, Holt, Papert, not to mention Al Rogers, David Thornburg, Tom Snyder, Fred D’Ignzaio and Tom Snyder – have been replaced by a focus on filtering policies, meaningless clichés about 21st Century skills and funding concerns. I often wonder, “is edtech/ICT a legitimate discipline or just a shopping club?” Too many educational technology conferences, like ISTE, seem like a busload of foreign tourists speeding past historical monuments in order to get to the next duty-free shop.

While your district tech team wrestles with the earth-shattering decision over whether kids should write their five-paragraph essay in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, kids could be doing and learning like Sylvia. While you bathe in the warmth of your PLN with self-congratulatory tweets, Sylvia is sharing serious expertise with the world.

Tens of thousands of district tech directors, coordinators and integrators have done such a swell job that after thirty years, teachers are the last adults in the industrialized world to use computers. I feel compelled to ask, “Are the very same employees charged with inspiring teachers to use computers creating dependency and helplessness instead?”

Teachers are not imbeciles incapable of growth or felons who can’t be trusted to show Sylvia’s YouTube video in class. Each summer’s Constructing Modern Knowledge Institute demonstrates the creativity and intellectual capacity of educators when they are engaged in projects involving programming, robotics materials, microcontrollers, drawing tablets, musical bananas, soda can orchestras, bike powered LEGO iPhone chargers, animation, filmmaking, authentic problems and whimsy. During the 1980s, we taught tens of thousands of teachers computer programming and how to teach it to children.

Educators love the stories of the eleven year-old dot.com millionaire and Web stars, like Sylvia, but would you really want her in your class? Can you build upon the gifts the kids bring to you or will you force them to comply with someone else’s curriculum? Would you punish her or classify her with a learning disability for a failure to sit quietly as school repeals the 20th Century?

Failure to embrace the kids’ competence, capacity and creativity leads educators to deprive children of opportunities to achieve their potential. Worst of all, it cheats children out of the rich 21st Century childhood they deserve.

This year’s Constructing Modern Knowledge 2012 Big Night Out in Boston will begin with a reception at the world-famous MIT Media Lab hosted by Assistant Professor Leah Buechley.

Dr. Leah Buechley (Courtesy of Indiana University)

Leah Buechley directs the MIT Media Lab’s High-Low Tech research group, which investigates the integration of high and low technology from cultural, material, and practical perspectives, with the goal of engaging diverse groups of people in developing their own technologies. She is a well-known expert in the field of electronic textiles (e-textiles), and her work in this area includes developing a method for creating cloth printed circuit boards (fabric PCBs) and designing the commercially available LilyPad Arduino toolkit. Her research has been featured in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Popular Science, CRAFT Magazine, Journal of Architectural Design, Denver Post, and the Taipei Times. Buechley received PhD and MS degrees in computer science from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a BA in physics from Skidmore College.

Register today for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2012 and enjoy substantial early-bird savings!

Interactive Wall Paper

I am fortunate to be invited to work in schools all over the world. Regardless of the setting, I find myself leaving educators I meet with the same four words of advice, “Less Us, More Them!”

Knowledge is a consequence of experience. Understanding is the result of existing knowledge accommodating and explaining new experiences. If we focus on a handful of powerful ideas, students learn more. The role of the teacher is to create and facilitate powerful, productive contexts for learning.

Education policy often confuses teaching and learning. Learning is not the direct result of having been taught. If you have spent any time working with learners, you know that you can’t simply talk at them, or do something to them, and expect that they have learned anything. A robot can deliver curriculum; great teachers provide much more.

Young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity, but need their teachers to craft learning environments that reduce stress levels, interruptions, and confusion. When a teacher creates a well–designed prompt that capitalizes on student curiosity, kids can embark on complex, long-term learning adventures.

Inquiry begins with what students want to know… the things they wonder about and that drive their desire to learn. When we build off this natural phenomenon, we support learners along the path to knowledge and understanding without expecting a right answer. Successful learning expeditions use the curriculum as the buoy, not the boat.

“Less Us, More Them” (LUMT) doesn’t exempt teachers from the learning process, or minimize the importance of their expertise within in the learning environment. LUMT raises expectations and standards in our classrooms by granting more responsibility to the learner. In this environment, it is natural to expect kids to look up unfamiliar words, proofread, and contribute resources for class discussion without prodding from the teacher.

To start making your classroom more student-centered, demonstrate a concept and then ask students to do something. Walk around and support them. Bring the group together to celebrate an accomplishment or seize the next teachable moment. We need to operate as if students own the time in our classrooms, not us. Kids rise to the occasion if we let them. When students own the learning process, they also own the knowledge they construct. Self-reliance results when we relinquish control and power to our students.

If you wanted to become a carpenter, you would spend time with great carpenters. Teachers serve as effective mentors when their apprentices – students – observe their continuous growth and learn by example.

Piaget suggests that it is not the role of the teacher to correct a child from the outside, but to create conditions in which the student corrects himself. Whenever you are about to intervene on behalf of a teachable moment, pause and ask yourself, “Is there a way I can shift more agency to the learner?”

Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.


This article appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of The Creative Educator. Download the entire issue in PDF form here.


Although I am not fully unpacked from a triumphant Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011 in July, I have been working hard over the past two months to assemble a collection of world-class guest speakers for the Fifth Anniversary Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute, July 9-12, 2012 in Manchester, NH.

As you know, Constructing Modern Knowledge is about action, but once a day, participants get to interact with brilliant thinkers whose work crackles with creativity, commitment and expertise. We’ve featured historians, astronomers, mathematicians, education reformers, MIT professors, early childhood experts and artists over the past four years, in addition to the best faculty in the world.

All of the guest speakers for CMK 2012 will be announced in a week or two, but our first confirmed guest speaker is so exciting that I can no longer keep him a surprise!

Extraordinary filmmaker Casey Neistat is coming to CMK 2012!

Casey Neistat is today’s premiere digital storyteller. He is an award-winning film producer, activist, artist and star of the HBO series, The Neistat Brothers, a show in which he and his brother shared “homemade” films about their lives. Watch an interview about their work here.

Casey Neistat was born and raised in Ledyard Connecticut, a farming town turned Foxwoods casino town.  His mother bought a VHS camera from Sears on credit in 1989 and was generous in letting the kids use it.  Casey moved to NYC in 2001 to make movies with his brother Van. The two worked together exclusively from 2001 through the production their self-titled HBO series ‘The Neistat Brothers‘ in 2008.  In 2011 Casey won an Independent Spirit Award for his work as producer on the film ‘Daddy Long Legs’. He currently lives and works in New York City

Casey uses consumer quality cameras, along with clever, remarkably simple and whimsical animation techniques to tell stories that are moving, funny or provoke action. He is a prolific moviemaker who can turn what others might perceive of as mundane everyday moments into great stories shared by tens of thousands, even millions, of viewers. That is why I invited him to be a guest speaker at Constructing Modern Knowledge!

The Neistat Brothers first gained notoriety when they produced iPod’s Dirty Secret, a 2003 viral video that shamed Apple into offering replacement batteries for the iPod. (read the press coverage) Casey’s recent video activisim turned his $50 ticket for riding his bike outside of the bike lane into a hilarious video in which he crashes into all sorts of obstacles found in lanes designated for cyclists. This short video not only warns users about Facebook’s questionable privacy practices, but teaches you how to protect yourself  in an entertaining and informative six minute film.

The Constructing Modern Knowledge web site will be updated over the coming weeks, but you can register today for CMK 2012 by clicking here. Register by December 1st for the insanely great super early-bird discount.


HBO promotional video for The Neistat Brothers


Casey Neistat of HBO’s Neistat Brothers talks technology and filmmaking.


A remarkably poignant story told in the simplest fashion


Everybody wants to be an action hero!


A public service announcement

As many of you know, I once studied to be a jazz musician. Although I came to grips with my profound lack of talent in my twenties, I am fortunate enough to have great friends who are among the world’s finest jazz musicians. Jazz remains one of the great joys of my life.

My friend Brian Lynch is not your average trumpet player. His trumpet playing facility and compositional skills are unrivaled. He is also curious, disciplined and a very find professor at the University of Miami. Brian has enjoyed long tenures in the bands of Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Phil Woods, Eddie Palmieri and countless other musical greats.

One of the most exciting experiences of my life was being in the recording studio (owned by Tony Bennett) while Brian rehearsed and recorded the groundbreaking CD, Simpático with 9-time Grammy Award winning Latin music giant, Eddie Palmieri, legendary jazz saxophonist Phil Woods and many of today’s finest jazz/latin jazz artists. Brian was gracious to give me an album credit for Videography, Web Photos and New Media Consultant. (you can see two of the videos I created in 2005 at the bottom of this post)

However, the greatest day of my life was when I put on my fancy clothes to attend the 2006 Grammy Awards where Brian won the Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year and thanked me from the stage! I never screamed so hard or felt as much joy for another person than when I heard his name read as the winner. Seconds later Sylvia and I  were whisked away with the rest of Brian’s entourage to run the media gauntlet  before the televised Grammy spectacular and after-party. While waiting with Brian to do press interviews, we were positioned between Al Jarreau and Ruby Dee!

At the Grammys (real cameras were prohibited)

Brian initially released his self-produced and Internet-distributed recording via the pioneering Artistshare Web platform, where fans not only help finance the production, but participate in the creative process. The recording brings together musical elder statesmen, Eddie Palmieri and Phil Woods in a genre defying gumbo of jazz and latin rhythms. If you don’t know anything about music, Phil Woods improvised the iconic saxophone solo on Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are, in one take. Brian, Eddie and Phil Woods were joined by the phenomenal Mexican American vocalist, Lila Downs, on two tracks and were supported by many of the best musicians of today.

The recording, engineering and mastering was done with great care and precision. This is a fantastic sounding album you will want to listen to for years to come and it is finally available for digital download in an extended version with extra tracks and PDF liner notes from Amazon.com, iTunes and Bandcamp.

Please check out this CD, you won’t regret it!

Buy the music via digital download!

The Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project Simpático
2006 Grammy© Award Winner, Best Latin Jazz Album
credits
COLLECTIVE PERSONNEL
Brian Lynch – trumpet
Eddie Palmieri – piano
Lila Downs – voice
Phil Woods – alto saxophone
Donald Harrison – alto saxophone
Yosvany Terry – alto saxophone
Gregory Tardy – tenor saxophone, clarinet
Conrad Herwig – trombone
Mario Rivera – baritone sax
Edsel Gomez – piano, organ
Boris Kozlov – acoustic bass
Ruben Rodriguez – baby bass
Luques Curtis – acoustic bass
Giovanni Hidalgo – congas
Pedro Martinez – congas, bongo, campaña, coro
Little Johnny Rivero – bongo, campaña
Dafnis Prieto – drums
Robby Ameen – drums
Marvin Diz – timbales
Pete Rodriguez – maracas, guiro
Adam Rogers – acoustic guitar
Joe Fielder – additional trombone

Musical direction and all arrangements by Brian Lynch

Recorded at Bennett Studios, Englewood, NJ on Nov. 23, 25, 26, Dec. 5, 2005
Engineer: David Darlington
Additional Recording at Bass Hit Studios, New York, NY
Mixed by David Darlington and Brian Lynch at Bass Hit Studios, New York, NY with assistance from Tom Dambly and Roger Townsend
Mastering: Tom Carr at The Annex, Menlo Park, CA
Produced by Brian Lynch
Production Assistance, Web Photos and Pro Tools: Tom Dambly
Principal Photography: Nick Ruechel
Videography, Web Photos and New Media Consultant: Gary Stager
Design: Christian Ericson

Executive Producer Participant: Roger Townsend
Gold Participants: Peter Straub, Jo Daley
Bronze Participants: Rafael Hernandez, Bryan Davis, Fred & Meg Lynch, Philip Tauber

Brian Lynch’s Horns: Yamaha 8310Z trumpet, Monette 993 trumpet (Que Sería La Vida, Tema Para Marissa)
Brian Lynch, Eddie Palmieri, and Phil Woods are Yamaha performing artists
Trumpet mouthpieces by Monette
Brian’s hats by Kelly Christy
Lila Downs courtesy of Narada Productions
Giovanni Hidalgo, Pedro Martinez, and Johnny Rivero are LP artists

I’m heading to Washington D.C. to cheer on my young pal, the gifted 21 year-old pianist Emmett Cohen, compete as a semi-finalist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Pianist Competition. The Monk Competition is a very big deal. It’s like the Olympics for jazz musicians.

Emmet is a very fine musician. You should check out his Emmet’s first CD, In the Element – available from Amazon.com and iTunes. Keep your eyes on this young man. He’s going to be something special!

Emmet and each of his competitors will be accompanied by one of my oldest friends, Carl Allen on drums and Rodney Whittaker on bass. Carl is not only one of the world’s most accomplished musicians, he is also an amazing educator currently serving as the Artistic Director of Jazz Studies at the Julliard School. Carl has participated in the Monk Competition for many years.

Emmet Cohen, the Great Roy Haynes, Gary Stager

Not only will Emmet be accompanied by world-class musicians and competing against the best jazz pianists of his generation, but the judges are some of the world’s greatest pianists – Herbie Hancock, Ellis Marsalis, Jason Moran, Danilo Perez and Renee Rosnes!

That all occurs on Sunday. Monday evening, the winners are announced at a gala concert featuring dozens of the world’s greatest jazz musicians, past Monk competition winners and Aretha Franklin! Check out the musicians scheduled to perform!

Piano
John Beasley
Gerald Clayton
Bill Cunliffe
Herbie Hancock
Eric Lewis
Ellis Marsalis
Jason Moran
Danilo Perez
Renee Rosnes
Ted Rosenthal
Helen Sung
Jacky Terrasson

Organ
Joey DeFrancesco

Bass
Ron Carter
Daryl Hall
Christian McBride
John Patitucci
Joe Sanders
Rodney Whitaker
Ben Williams

Drums
Carl Allen
Ronald Bruner
Terri Lyne Carrington
Sebastiaan DeKrom
TS Monk
Harold Summey

Saxophone
Seamus Blake
John Ellis
Jon Gordon
Jimmy Heath
Jon Irabagon
Godwin Louis
Joe Lovano
Wayne Shorter
Walter Smith

Trumpet
Ambrose Akinmusire
Terence Blanchard
Diego Urcola

Guitar
Kevin Eubanks
Lionel Loueke
Lage Lund
Jesse Van Ruller

Trombone
Andre Hayward

Vocal
Dee Dee Bridgewater
Kurt Elling
Aretha Franklin
Roberta Gambarini
Sara Lazarus
Cecile McLorin Salvant
Jane Monheit
Gretchen Parlato
Dianne Reeves

Percussion
Sean Thomas

Vibes
James Westfall

In the words of the great political philosopher, Popeye the Sailor Man, “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more.” On the same day that the Obama Administration refused to stand for clean air by not even enforcing the clean air standards of the George W. Bush administration, I received an email from the campaign asking for my money and labor for his re-election.

Full disclosure:
I am a Liberal considerably far to the left of the President. In 2008, he was my 5th choice during the Democratic Primaries. However, once he defeated Senator Clinton, I became an enthusiastic Obama supporter. I donated money and traveled to Washinton D.C. to attend his Inauguration. Although I believed that he was politically naive with few coattails or allies in Washington, I was optimistic. That hope triumphed over what I knew about his hostility towards teacher unions as expressed in my September 2008 article, “First We Kill the Teacher Unions” and my horror at Arne Duncan’s nomination as Secretary of Education, “Obama Practices Social Promotion.”

Getting the President’s Attention
The President’s base is having a heck of a time having their concerns heard or respected by the Obama White House. The “punch a hippie strategy” might work as a political tactic, but not at the expense of increased asthma suffering by children or the survival of the American middle class.

My possibly inconsequential act of dissent was unsubscribing from the Obama political mailing list. Perhaps, the White House political team will take “the base” more seriously if a large number of political supporters sever their ties to the re-election campaign. So, I just unsubscribed and I urge others to do so as well, even if you plan to vote Obama as I do in November 2012.

I only had a small text field in which to express my reasons for unsubscribing. My comment is as follows:

The President’s weakness in negotiating with the GOP House, attack on public education, refusal to march with Wisconsin workers, capitulation on environmental regulation, continuation of questionable interrogation techniques, escalation in Afghanistan, support for soldiers of forture and refusal to fight for qualified nominees like Elizabeth Warren makes me quite unenthusiastic about either donating to his campaign or volunteering my time.

If you too wish to express your dissatisfaction and unsubscribe from Obama’s mailing list, click here.

Please donate to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and/or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee!

Happy Labor Day!

In addition to the keynote addresses, presentation topics and workshops offered here, I have created new hands-on minds-on workshops for the coming school year.


Invent to Learn

Join colleagues for a day of hard fun and problem solving where computing meets tinkering and performance. A secret yet timeless curricular theme will be unveiled Iron Chef-style. Participants will work with a variety of software, hardware and found materials in four domains (virtual, tactile, audio and video) to express the theme in a personal fashion. The day’s intensity will lead to impressive gains in skill development and a greater understanding of effective project-based learning. Computer programming, filmmaking, animation, audio production, robotics and engineering are all on the menu. Bring a laptop and camera or video camera We’ll supply the rest. Invention is the mother of learning!

For information about booking Gary Stager for a conference keynote, school workshop or consulting services, email here. Gary’s bio may be found here.


Electrifying Children’s Mathematics
There may be no greater gap between a discipline and the teaching done in its name than when the beauty, power and mystery of mathematics becomes math instruction. One can only begin to address the systemic challenges of math education by understanding the nature of mathematics. Nearly 100 years of efforts to increase achievement with unchanged curricular content continues to fail spectacularly; yet, we do not change course. This workshops moves beyond the goal of making math instruction engaging to providing educators with authentic mathematical thinking experiences. Such experiences acknowledge the role computers play in mathematics and society’s increasing demand for computational thinking. Project-based approaches with mathematics at the center of the activity will be explored. Traditional concepts such as numeracy, geometry, probability and graphing will be investigated in addition to exciting new branches of mathematics rarely found in the primary grades.

This workshop is designed for teachers of grades 3-8. It may also be offered as an ongoing course with a greater emphasis on curriculum development and action research.

For information about booking Gary Stager for a conference keynote, school workshop or consulting services, email here. Gary’s bio may be found here.

 

How to Teach with Computers
This hands-on minds-on workshop helps expand your vision of how computers may be used in knowledge construction while exploring pedagogical strategies for creating rich computing experiences that amplify the potential of each learner. Mini activities model sound project-based learning principles and connect various disciplines across multiple grade levels.

Longer description
Modern schools face several challenges; among them are the questions at the heart of this workshop. Once teachers are finally convinced to use computers as instruments for learning, do they have creative project ideas and do they possess the pedagogical skills necessary for success?

This minds-on hands-on workshop will feature mini-projects designed to nurture sophisticated inquiry, computational thinking and artistic expression across disciplines and grade levels. The presenter will also discuss pedagogical strategies for using computers in an effective fashion as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. These strategies illuminate principles of sound project-based learning and honor the individual learning styles, talents, curiosity and intensity of each student.

Dr. Gary Stager has thirty years of experience helping educators maximize the potential of computers and create productive contexts for learning on six continents. He led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools, created one of the first online Masters degree programs and was recently recognized by Tech & Learning Magazine as one of today’s 30 most influential educators.

I published this (IMHO) important article, “First We Kill the Teacher Unions” exactly three years ago today in The Huffington Post. I am enormously proud of the article and extremely sorry for being so prescient. After you read the text of that article below, you might take a look at my December 2008 article about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Obama Practices Social Promotion. That’s the story that caused the CEO of Hooked-on-Phonics to issue global press releases condemning my comparison between their product, Arne Duncan and Shamwow.


First We Kill The Teacher Unions

September 3, 2008

Then What?

Slate recently reported on the latest public demonstration of enmity towards public schools and their teacher. Teacher bashing is hardly novel, but what makes this gathering particularly noteworthy is that took place during the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

The voucher, excessive testing and privatization fantasies of the GOP are well documented, but Democratic big shots have now joined in the chorus of anti-teacher karaoke.

The complexity of how to “fix” America’s public schools reduced to a single objective. Break the teacher unions. This is particularly ironic given the AFT and NEA’s timeless support for the Democratic Party. Hell, AFT President Randi Weingarten, was seated behind President Clinton during Senator Clinton’s address to the Convention. In almost any jurisdiction, support of teachers can mean the difference between election victory and defeat. Yet, many Democratic officials are eager to bite the hand that feeds them, regardless of the consequences for children in their communities. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek called this week’s betrayal of the DNC’s supporters, “landmark.”

It especially saddens me that Cory Booker of Newark, a man of privilege and extraordinary education at Stanford and Oxford, would attack teachers with the level of contempt reported by Slate. He’s upset that teachers had the audacity to fight him on school choice schemes for Newark. Aside from wondering how magically wonderful schools would spontaneously bloom in Newark it is worth mentioning that Cory Booker didn’t need school choice when he grew up in affluent Bergen County. What sorts of choice does he advocate – taxpayer funded religious schools or the urban obedience schools funded by Eli Broad (another Democrat). Broad loves schools where poor kids spend their days barking answers to scripted curricula – schools Mayor Booker’s parents would never have tolerated for their son.

At the recent Ed Challenge for Change event, Booker denounced the “insane work rules” of teachers. Perhaps he should meet the teachers in his district that I know.

Newark, New Jersey, an economically deprived city, which for decades had neither a supermarket or movie theatre, does have some of the most dedicated capable educators I’ve ever encountered. For a decade, I led professional development in the Newark schools and had countless teachers attend workshops I led elsewhere. Newark was known for its innovative uses of computers in education, despite little local funding and the Newark teachers I worked with demonstrated a level of commitment and skill rivaling the best of their suburban counterparts. Newark is one of the rare school districts where dozens of teachers would voluntarily attend a daylong workshop on a hot humid summer day. The Newark educators I know love the children they serve and do their best to educate some of the poorest children in this country. They deserve our support and respect.

You Can’t be a Democrat who Quashes Democracy!

Fueled by the shaming and humiliation of No Child Left Behind, billionaire “philanthropists” and simplistic management theories recited from business books sold at airport gift shops, many big city mayors have staged bloodless coups of their city’s school districts. (Each of the mayors is a Democrat with the exception of “democratish” Michael Bloomberg of New York) Their theory suggests that the Mayor has ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of the public schools and is uniquely prepared to triumph where others have failed.

The reality is that publicly elected school boards are disbanded, chaos is introduced into the bureaucracy, the curriculum is homogenized, classrooms become Dickensian test-prep sweatshops, parental involvement is diminished, the arts disappear and with term limits, there is no actual consequence for mayoral failure. All of the benefits of dictatorship accrue to the mayor and innocent children feel all of the consequences.

It is worth noting that cities with mayoral control of schools – Chicago, New York, Washington D.C. and the mayoral control wannabe, Los Angeles – employ Superintendents and Chancellors woefully unqualified for the job. This new generation of mayoral dictators first suspends democracy, and then installs obedient ideologues lacking experience or independent thought to carry out their mischief making.

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty is the latest educational fascist of the month. His self-appointed killbot, Chancellor Michelle Rhee enjoys glowing profiles in Fast Company and gets an hour on the Eli Broad-funded Charlie Rose show (representing perhaps 10% of all television time dedicated to public education annually).

Rhee occasionally makes sense and may even be committed to doing the right thing for D.C. kids, but the majority of her public focus seems to be on busting the teacher unions. Mayor Daley of Chicago and Michael Bloomberg are equally vocal fans of sowing the seeds of teacher discord and powerlessness.

Unions are Democracy!

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees unions. The right to organize is the embodiment of our cherished Freedom of Assembly. Unions built the American middle class while building our roads, bridges, cars, schools, hospitals and other institutions we cannot live without.

American teacher unions are not too powerful and they do not have a stranglehold on our democracy. The fact that teacher unions are so readily used as political piñatas by shameless demagogues is proof of their weakness. The fact that major urban districts are run by unemployed generals, accountants and prosecutors challenges the notion of the union’s unchecked power. The fact that the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest school district, couldn’t manage to pay some teachers for nearly a full school year, yet the teachers continued to work while losing their homes or cars is evidence that the unions are weak, not powerful. Governor Schwarzenegger uses constitutionally guaranteed school funding as his personal piggybank. The union can’t stop him.

Former Secretary of Education Rod Paige survived calling the National Education Association a “terrorist organization” while his pal, Reid Lyon, called for colleges of education to be “blown up.”

It doesn’t take a very tough politician to beat up on teachers. That’s why teacher unions are such perennial targets. I’d like to see Democratic politicians talk such trash about teamsters, cops or firemen. Schwarzenegger was terminated when he messed with the nurses union a few years back. The nurses weren’t quite as genteel as the teacher unions.

A Few Facts and Even More Questions

America is not the only country with unionized teachers. Many of the countries that beat us on the ridiculous international comparisons politicians quote are more heavily unionized than us. It’s hard to imagine No Child Left Behind leaving the starting blocks in a country like Australia where the teacher unions would have shut the schools down at the first hint of NCLB.

Blaming educational problems on teacher unions is even more absurd when you consider that states like Texas have no teacher unions. Is Texas immune from student achievement challenges? Hardly.

The larger question is a matter of leadership and employee relations. How does reducing teacher creativity, independence and responsibility for decision-making help instill those qualities in the children they teach? How does alienating teachers, placing them in rubber rooms or attacking their motives make them a partner in school reform? How does insulting your base and violating a fundamental American liberty create a wise and more just society?

Do you want your children taught by defensive or depressed teachers who feel assaulted by the community they serve? How does that state of affairs contribute to educational excellence?

If the educational neocons succeed and break the backs of teacher unions, what do they think would happen? What would magically occur the next day? How are schools expected to improve? I demand that these Democratic tough guys and gals tell me what they will do next.