Will Richardson wrote a nice blog post, “The Thin Value of Proposition,” in which he argues that the true value in education is the relationship between teachers and students. Good point.

One of his commenters, Tony Baldasaro, a good guy, argued that teachers can be freed-up to individualize instruction if the curriculum and assessment is standardized for them. He called this the “upside of standardizing curriculum.”
“By taking the burden of lesson planning and assessment creation for all students at once away from the teacher, administrators can empower teachers to individualize instruction for every student.”
I like Tony and he is well-intentioned, but I could not disagree more. The way in which he articulated his argument really provoked me to write about some ideas I’ve been playing with for a long time. I hope you will give them some consideration.
Tony,I would argue that the mess we’re in is largely the result of twenty years of thinking like you describe. Reducing teachers to technicians who may make decisions about individualizing instruction for each student is impossible since agency to make larger decisions has been steadily robbed from teachers, along with an ability to fight the forces deskilling them. Teachers incapable of deciding what to teach will be less capable of determining how to teach. There is no pedagogical change or dramatic shift in student outcomes possible without an ability to change the intellectual diet provided for children.

Papert used to say that School at best teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe, yet we quibble endlessly about which billionth of a percent is most important – the piece we have always taught. Take mathematics for example, the curriculum and pedagogical approach has remained constant since the Inquisition, despite dramatic societal shifts and the revolutionary impact of computers in real mathematics, not the BS served up in school. Teachers can either be experts in the true nature of mathematics, it’s beauty and power or devise little tricks to make a toxic curriculum a tad less poisonous. The result of that decision creates a scenario where we teach “Algebra in Utero,” pushing it down a grade level constantly while NAEP scores remain stagnant.

I want children to have teachers who can see a flower, read a short story or use a newspaper article as the basis for connecting lots of disciplines and powerful ideas at any moment to create rich rewarding learning contexts for children.

I’m in Krakow, Poland right now and am staying across the street from sort of school. I walked by today and heard children singing along to a song being played on the piano by their teacher. I don’t hear a lot of singing in American classrooms these days.

I became an elementary school teacher at the very end of the era when you needed to learn how to play the piano a tiny bit, teach PE, harvest meal worms and make puppets out of Pop-Tart boxes. We were explicitly talked about how if we saw educational value in playing Scrabble for three months, how to identify the educational objectives being met and write them in our plan book.

For generations, THAT was a teacher. Why do we ask so little of them today?

When I walk into classrooms, rich and poor – private and public, around the world today I see a remarkable return to whole class instruction. Gone are the projects, centers and other joyful spaces for becoming lost in one’s own learning. This sad reality may be the result of changing the definition of teaching to the delivery of curriculum and management of classrooms.

The elaborate ruse called differentiated instruction is only necessary because the curriculum is handed down to teachers on stone tablets. If the educators closest to children had the greatest voice in curricular decisions, individualization would be natural.

Gary Stager

First, my good friend Chris Lehmann wrote about in “Why I Am Against For Profit Schools,” how the school privatization movement (and I would add the Obama administration) have embraced the rhetoric of personalization and individualization to replace teachers with less expensive drill and practice systems. These integrated “learning” systems reduce education to an endless  series of multiple-choice quizzes. (read what I wrote about this idea in 1992, Integrated Learning Systems, The New Slavery) They never have worked and never will.

Since the evidence supporting computerized teaching systems has been weak since WWII, the dystopians and their bankers pushing this idea feel compelled to dress it up in fancy names like “Carpe Diem,” “Flipped Classroom,” “School of One,” “Blast,” “Khan Academy,” etc…. Each of these old wines in new marketing slogans have at their core a desire to reduce the cost of education as low as possible and attempt to do so by replacing qualified educators with 200 terminals, Math Blaster and an armed security guard.

Soon after Chris published his article, our mutual friend Will Richardson wrote “The Thin Value Proposition,” in which he too agrees with Chris and argues that the the value in schooling is the establishment of relationships among teachers and students. I often end my speeches by saying that teachers make memories and when students come back to reminisce, they never speak about the time they raised PISA scores or used all of their spelling words in a sentence, they remember meaningful projects teachers created the context for.

I agree with the arguments made by Chris and Will. They perfectly frame the terms of the conundrum many of us who advocate the use of computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression face when more powerful forces wish to use computers as tools of oppression, cost-cutting or antidotes for progressive education. How is it possible to love computers in education and hate the popular implementations of computers in education?

It is questions like this that led me to create The Daily Papert two years ago.

Papert articulated Will’s argument twenty-two years ago.

“It is this freedom of the teacher to decide and, indeed, the freedom of the children to decide, that is most horrifying to the bureaucrats who stand at the head of current education systems. They are worried about how to verify that the teachers are really doing their job properly, how to enforce accountability and maintain quality control. They prefer the kind of curriculum that will lay down, from day to day, from hour to hour, what the teacher should be doing, so that they can keep tabs on it. Of course, every teacher knows this is an illusion. It’s not an effective method of insuring quality. It is only a way to cover ass. Everybody can say, “I did my bit, I did my lesson plan today, I wrote it down in the book.” Nobody can be accused of not doing the job. But this really doesn’t work. What the bureaucrat can verify and measure for quality has nothing to do with getting educational results–those teachers who do good work, who get good results, do it by exercising judgment and doing things in a personal way, often undercover, sometimes even without acknowledging to themselves that they are violating the rules of the system. Of course one must grant that some people employed as teachers do not do a good job. But forcing everyone to teach by the rules does not improve the “bad teachers”– it only hobbles the good ones.”

Papert. S. (1990, July). Perestroika and Epistemological Politics. Speech presented at the World Conference on Computers in Education. Sydney, Australia.

Seymour Papert began giving voice to Chris Lehmann’s concerns as far back as 1968!

“The phrase, “technology and education” usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way. Moreover, if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dumbest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a skinner box.”

Papert S. (1980). Teaching Children Thinking in Taylor, R., Ed., The Computer in School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee. New York: Teachers College Press. pp. 161 -176.

Note: This paper was originally presented in 1970 at the IFIP World Conference on Computers in Education in Amsterdam. The paper was published as an MIT Logo Memo No. 2. Nicholas Negroponte reports that Papert first presented this work in 1968.

Few authors, activists, intellectuals or teachers move me like Jonathan Kozol. For nearly a half century, Kozol has given voice to the optimistic, playful, scared, sad and hungry children in our society. He spends time with the children most of us never think about and confronts us with our spiritual beliefs and the policies that most acutely affect the least of us in society. To meet a man with the greatness, humility, decency and literary genius of Kozol would be a miracle. To be able to work with him is a rare gift. To have him introduce me at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011 as “one of my oldest friends in education” was a blessing I will never forget. Watch his CMK11 talk.

After far too long of a hiatus, Jonathan’s latest book, “Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America,” is out today! I have read the galleys and the book is riveting, profound, tragic, hopeful and beautifully written. You should read it AND buy a copy for a friend or colleague. Click to buy from Amazon.com.


Jonathan Kozol & Gary Stager at CMK 2011

This school year, Constructing Modern Knowledge will expand beyond its unique summer institute (July 9-12, 2013 – Manchester, NH) to offer some exciting new learning opportunities for learners and parents. The first event by Constructing Modern Knowledge Productions is in collaboration with my colleagues at the Willows Community School in Culver City, California.

On September 10th at 7:00 PM, The Willows Community School will host An Evening with Jonathan Kozol, Acclaimed Author and Educational Activist. Due to the generosity and public mindedness of the school, the event is free and open to the public! Reservations are required via the web site.

At this event, Kozol will speak and sign his new book, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America. I hope you will join us for this very special evening!

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this article. I realized I had already published it one year ago. Senseless Acts of Homework in The Huffington Post describes my contempt for the loathsome practice of summer homework.

However, this summer, my nephew’s high school cranked the stupid dial up to 11.

I am against homework for lots of reasons.

  • The public equates it with education
  • Kids hate it
  • It encroaches on a student’s private life
  • It is coercive
  • It is too often busy-work provided by a textbook company who knows nothing about the learner
  • It wastes class time when kids swap papers and grade homework; a tedious process that leads to zero benefit for learners

In the face of a glaring absence of evidence, teachers argue that homework is used for practice or reinforcement. (I’ll save how this is a misinterpretation of “practice” for anther day) If homework is for skill development then every student should have different homework each night, right?

Nah, one-size-fits-all kids!

If there was a shred of evidence that homework was good for kids or had anything to do with learning, I would be sympathetic. However, the crazy train has now gone one station beyond forcing kids to do something they hate, that makes them hate school and that robs them of free time.

If homework is intended for reinforcement, how does one possibly justify assigning homework to students during the summer before they set foot in your class? Let me say that again. Schools are giving homework to kids before they start a course!

This is personal

Homework at the steps to the Acropolis

Three years ago, my nephew became fascinated by genealogy and has spent a great deal of time since researching our family history. He has done a remarkable job with the Ancestry.com account I pay $30/month for, has reached out to experts and fellow researchers across the globe in grammatically perfect email messages and has developed sophisticated habits of mind. I’ve long since given up hope that schools (and teachers) at most schools (The Big Picture Schools are an exception) will take notice of student interests, connect with them and provide the intellectual support to go farther than they could have gone on their own.

Kids don’t receive credit for what they are passionate about and school rarely values outside activities, except for assigned homework. I would love for my nephew’s teachers to respect his genealogical research, but it would be even better if they helped him learn what he needs to know in order to be a better historian.

My nephew’s school district does just about everything wrong – endless test prep, tracking, “honors” classes and mountains of homework.

When I realized how serious the kid was about genealogy, I promised to take him to places he learns our family is from. So, I am writing from a hotel lobby in L’Viv, Ukraine. We spent the day touring Zboriv, Ternopil and Zolochow, the villages where the learned that 3/4 of my ancestors came from. My nephew’s clue that that my great great great grandfather owned a mill in Zboriv led us to a small museum where an old historian said that there was a large mill that provided flour for the Austria-Hungarian empire down along the Strypa River. Our guide was our translator and took us to stand on the spot where my ancestors worked and fire killed their young daughter. We walked through the remaining disheveled Jewish cemeteries, visited too many monuments marking the sites of  World War II exterminations, ate Ukranian food and learned about the Zboriv battle of 1649. We discussed Eastern European politics, Soviet occupation and US politics. Our guide and driver was Alex Dunai, one of the world’s experts on Jewish life in Galicia and invaluable researcher for Daniel Mendelsohn’s magnificent book. “The Lost – A Search for Six of Six Million.”

Tomorrow night we head to Krakow and Auschwitz, followed by Vilnius, Lithuania before we rush back to the USA so the kid won’t miss a day of school. Prior to this, we spent two days in London, where we saw pieces of the Parthenon at the British Museum, and five in Athens where we went to the Acropolis, Acropolis Museum and Temple of Poseidon. The kid spent a bit of time hanging out at the Constructionism Conference where I presented a paper. My nephew not only had the opportunity to attend a SNAP! programming workshop led by Dr. Brian Harvey, but had dinner with linguists, mathematicians, computer scientists, master educators and with friends of mine who worked with Jean Piaget, Paolo Friere and Seymour Papert. He got to see his uncle speak, watch really smart people argue passionately in a civil fashion and share his work with interested adults.

Sounds good, right? The only problem is the kid has been in a hotel room trying to guess how to respond to open-ended homework prompts from teachers he hasn’t met? Did the teachers spend their summer working an unpaid second shift like my nephew did? Why did we have to schlepp a backpack full of school shit (the technical term) half-way around the world?

Before anyone says, “not every kid has an uncle who does such cool things with his nephew,” I’ll respond by saying that I would rather a kid play basketball, take a trumpet lesson, swim, go to summer camp, read for pleasure or just watch television then memorize a chapter in a science textbook before any science occurs.

I don’t know any nicer way of saying this, but preemptive summer homework seems a lot like a clear case of an abuse victim battering an even less powerful subordinate. This cycle of insanity has to end.

Defend preemptive summer homework! C’mon! I dare you!

Here is the article I published last year…

Senseless Acts of Homework – August 25, 2011

I’m a big fan of summer. I still have the same “back-to-school” nightmares I experienced as a kid as the days get shorter each August. I think that “Back-to-School” sales before Independence Day are a form of child abuse. I believe that casual neighborhood play, family vacations, scouting and organized camps produce powerful learning experiences unrivaled by school.

When I hire new teachers, I look for people who worked at a summer camp. These are teachers who love kids and know how to engage them in meaningful (and fun) activities without coercion or a scripted curriculum. In 2007, I took issue with then Senator Clinton’s call for more tutoring and suggested that the federal money allocated for tutoring children in “underperforming schools” be spent on summer camp (My Plan to Fix NCLB). The richest nation in the world can afford high-quality summer activities for even its poorest children.

Also in 2007, I published When the Jumbotron says, “Read,” You Read! That article addressed the folly of forced summer reading assigned by schools, the outlandish claims made on behalf of the practice and the punishments meted out for non-compliance. I marveled at the quality of books assigned as summer reading when compared with the standardized drivel “read” during the school year and mourned the absence of meaningful discussion accompanying the reading.

When I was a kid, the only time you heard the combination of the words, “summer” and “school” was if you misbehaved or failed a course during the school year. How I long for the good ol’ days.

Just when I think that schooling can not get any more punitive or heavy-handed, things get worse. Schools no longer feel constrained by the impulse to ask kids to read Homer Price, Holes or Because of Winn-Dixie for pleasure under a tree on a balmy summer day. Now, school leaders view children as their serfs and every waking minute of a child’s life as their property. Such megalomania may be rooted in the paranoia created by the testing uber-alles policies of NCLB and Race To The Top. Whatever the motivation, robbing children of summer is irresponsible, ineffective and malicious.

Wow! Those are strong words, Dr. Stager. What are you talking about?

My “niece,” let’s call her “Miss Summer,” just completed eighth grade in a Northern New Jersey public school district. Miss Summer is an excellent student with perfect attendance and a great many interests she looks forward to pursuing during the summer. They include swimming, playing with her brother, developing friendships, practicing the trumpet, fishing, genealogy, reading and doing nothing at all but staying in her pajamas on rainy days and watching cartoons. When I was a kid, our society valued those activities and embraced childhood. That is no longer the case.

At the end of eighth grade, Miss Summer received a substantial packet of work to be completed before she sets foot in her new high school. The transition from primary to secondary school is stressful enough, but now a mountain of homework hung over a carefree summer like a rain cloud ruining your beach vacation. Miss Summer’s school district is no longer content with suggested summer reading for parents interested in supplementing a child’s education. Hell no!

Miss Summer has assignments in nearly every subject, is expected to read Dickens’ Great Expectations alone and without teacher support, write a thesis or two and submit the work by assigned due dates via a Web-based plagiarism site, Turnitin.com.

This mountain of homework is not only cruel, it is irresponsible, miseducative and profoundly unfair for the following reasons.

  • Miss Summer has not met any of the teachers this work is being submitted to. She neither knows their personalities, values or expectations.
  • Great Expectations is pretty heavy for a fourteen year-old without teacher assistance or classroom discussion. Will it inspire or hinder a greater interest in English literature?
  • Thesis writing has not yet been taught and is unnecessarily anxiety producing for a kid who has yet to enter your school for the first time.
  • Three is an assumption made by the school district that every student knows how to use the specialized web site and has sufficient computer access to complete and submit assignments.
  • Due dates assume that children have no plans for the summer. Should camp or family vacations be ruined by these deadlines? Should a student take a laptop and satellite modem on a hike?
  • The same impulses to assign massive amounts of homework to students you’ve never met predicts that there will be little follow-up of that work when students return to school.
  • These practices are coercive, intrude upon families and seek to overrule parental decisions.
  • You are ruining kids’ summer!

I do everything I can to combat to the misguided federal education policies turning schools into joyless test-prep factories. I’ll march. I’ll write. I’ll speak out. I’ll organize. I’ll donate. I’ll provide educators with alternative strategies and help them improve their practice. I will challenge the plutocrats who threaten teachers and children.

What I will not do is defend educators who transfer their misery to innocent children. It is unconscionable for teachers to outsource their corpulent curriculum to children. You have no right to surveillance when a child is at home. If kids cannot count on you to stand between them and madness, who will protect them?

For more arguments against homework, read Alfie Kohn’s book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing or watch his DVD, No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.

I sent the following questions to the Superintendent Christopher Steinhauer on July 22nd after the Superintendent and School Board had concerned parents forcibly removed from a public meeting.

Not a single one of my questions has been answered by Superintendent Steinhauer, the two board members I copied or any official of the school district.

A bit of background… The Long Beach Unified School District has been systematically revoking the charters of each charter school within its jurisdiction. The New City Public Schools are quite special and are facing extinction without transparency on the part of the school district.

Concerned citizens might wish to ask Supt. Steinhauer some or all of these questions at cstein@lbschools.net


Dear Superintendent Steinhauer:

I am currently writing a number of articles  for The Huffington Post and other publications about the New City Public Schools proposed charter revocation You prompt response to the following questions is greatly appreciated.

I know how busy you are, so answering the following questions via email is considerate of your schedule and immune to misquoting.

1) If your recommendation to close the New City Public Schools is realized at the end of August, where will New City Students attend school in September? (please list all possible schools)

2) What is the current enrollment at those schools?

3) What will be the impact on class size and teacher-student ratios

4) How many former New City students in grades 6-8 will be required to attend LBUSD middle schools if K-8 options do not exist?

5) Will LBUSD need to assign additional teaching personnel to schools to accommodate the influx of New City students? Is this budgeted? What are the qualifications of those teachers? Why are they available on such short notice?

5) Please provide the attendance rates over the past three school years for the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New CIty students.

6) Please provide the vandalism rates over the past three school years for the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New CIty students.

7) Please provide the incidence of substance abuse over the past three school years for the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New CIty students.

8) Please provide the crime rates over the past three school years for the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New CIty students, organized by type of infraction.

9) Please provide the graduation rates for LBUSD students who attended the New City Public Schools prior to 2009.

10) Please indicate the frequency of art instruction at the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New City students.

11) Please indicate the frequency of music instruction at the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New City students.

12) How many field trips to LBUSD students enjoy? Please indicate by school likely to enroll former New City students.

13) What is the percentage of bilingual faculty at the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New City students?

14) What sort of counseling services are being planned to help former New City students deal with the trauma associated with the charter revocation and transition into the LBUSD schools? Is this budgeted for?

15) How long will it take for the LBUSD to evaluate and develop IEPs, where appropriate for the former New City students joining LBUSD?

16) Do students at other LBUSD schools engage in public juried exhibitions as a form of assessment?

17) How does teacher professional development compare between the New City Public Schools and LBUSD schools?

18) How does time and resources for teacher planning and collaboration compare between LBUSD schools and The New City Public Schools?

19) How do playground facilities compare between The New City Public Schools and the LBUSD schools former NCPS students are likely to attend?

20) Will neighborhood schools accommodate all former NCPS students? If not, will transportation be provided by LBUSD?

21) Please indicate how many times since 2022, that you have visited The New City Public Schools? What was the purpose of those visits?

22) In your professional judgement, why are you recommending revocation of the NCPS charter?

23) If you were handed the keys to The New City Public Schools tomorrow, what would you do differently? What would you add? What would you eliminate?

24) Why does it seem that Long Beach is such a hostile jurisdiction for charter schools? Do you think the demand for parental choice will disappear after you revoke all of the school charters?

25) What are the anticipated financial costs or revenue to be realized by the LBUSD  if The New City Public Schools are closed?

25) What is your favorite book about learning?

26) What do you most admire about The New City Public Schools?

27) Why do you believe that The New City Public Schools is failing?

28) What is the role of parents in assessing the quality of their children’s education?

29) Do you have metrics to indicate levels of parental involvement across LBUSD schools? If so, will you kindly share that data?

30) Do you think it is appropriate for LBUSD School Board Meetings to be held during business hours in a tiny venue inaccessible to public transportation? How does this help increase community involvement in education?

31) How many school days are dedicated to standardized testing, practice tests or test-preparation in the LBUSD?

32) What were the 2011-2012 costs of standardized testing, practice tests and test-preparation materials in the LBUSD?

33) How many personnel are dedicated to standardized testing, test preparation, data analysis and other assessment-related activities?

34) What were the 2011-2012 personnel costs related to standardized testing, test preparation, data analysis and other assessment-related activities?

35) How many MacArthur Genius Award recipients have worked with LBUSD schools? Please name them.

36) How many colleagues of Jean Piaget have worked with LBUSD schools? Please name them.

37) Please indicate the number of LBUSD K-8 schools with their own farm.

38) What have The New City Public Schools contributed to real estate values, commerce and quality of life in their geographic areas?

39) I read the Superintendent’s goals for the 2011-12 school year at http://www.lbschools.net/Main_Offices/Superintendent/goals_10-11.cfm Presumably, they are intended to hold you accountable to the children, parents and tax-payers of Long Beach. They seem remarkably vague and easy to achieve. Do you think that The New City Public Schools is held to a higher standard of accountability than you are?

40) El Broad is a benefactor of the LBUSD and a proponent of charter schools. How might you explain to him why a city the size of Long Beach has no charter schools?

41) Does it strike you as odd that the LBUSD School Board would invoke to close schools without any public deliberation, dialogue, debate or request for evidence by the School Board?

I am enormously grateful for your help in organizing the data I requested and sharing your professional opinions with me.

Thank you for your service.

Best Wishes,

Gary

Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.