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Don’t give up on schools, there is still much to be done

By Gary Stager

District Administration, Aug 2006

Dear Mr. Gates:

I write with great admiration and appreciation of your remarkable philanthropic efforts on behalf of health, poverty and education. Changing the world is a spectacular goal. Congratulations on your plans to dedicate more of your time to charity and on Warren Buffett’s enormous contribution to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts.

I know nothing about infectious diseases, vaccines or sustainable agriculture. I defer to you and other experts on those topics. A recent Business Week cover story, Bill Gates Gets Schooled, was eye opening. That article reports the mixed success of your foundation’s efforts in public school reform and your candid admission of disappointing results. It must be depressing to spend a billion dollars on school reform and all you got was a lousy t-shirt. I humbly share the following recommendations to help guide your future initiatives.

Decide what you believe

You and all your advisors should read Seymour Sarason’s book, What Do YOU Mean by Learning? Sarason makes what should be an obvious observation that discussions of learning, teaching and school reform often fail to discuss what the stakeholders mean by learning. Without such a serious ongoing discussion, failure is predictable.

With all due respect, the Gates Foundation needs to decide what it means by learning and stop funding competing organizations. Investing in the Met Schools (see “Radical Reformer,” November 2005, page 46) and Achieve, Inc., simultaneously is like funding both sides of a war.

Apparently it is rocket science

The Business Week article tells the story of a Denver High School that received Gates Foundation funds. The school was broken up into four smaller schools in an attempt to make schooling more personal and have fewer students fall through the cracks. However, the school’s award-winning choir, a perennial source of pride and excellence, crumbled when students were dispersed to four different schools within the building. Surely, some smart adult could have figured out a plan to move children from one corner of a school to another for choir practice?

It must be depressing to spend a billion dollars on school reform and all you got was a lousy t-shirt.

Schools are complex organisms full of unintended consequences

A recent Los Angeles Times article chronicled how the noble goal of breaking large high schools into small, more personal, learning communities does foster school pride. However, it also may cause those communities to become tribes hostile to one another and result in limited elective options for students.

The impossible is easy, the easy is often impossible

This is my axiom to explain the chaotic nature of schools. It may indeed be easier to build a residential campus in Paris for New York City ninth graders than to hire a French teacher for their neighborhood school.

When seeking clarity, ask yourself a simple question: “Would I proudly send my child to this school?”

Drop the business metaphors

Stop talking about schools as businesses and using terms like efficiency, productivity, supply chain and measurable outcomes. Such metaphors are weak and create needless tension among your “partners” in education.

Drop the school metaphors

The clich?s used by educators to describe their practices and objectives can prove just as stifling and counterproductive as business metaphors. Reflexive mantras like “Sage on the stage” and “You must invest in professional development” fail to acknowledge the complexities of education and provide alibis for failure.

Stop talking about results

Such short-term language may be appropriate for quarterly profit statements, but not education. Learning is messy, individual and natural. Schools do not manufacture widgets, but create an environment in which children and teachers may grow.

If you do wish to focus on results, be honest about what works. Education is notorious for having ideology trump evidence. Your talk of “more rigorous curriculum” and scores directly contradicts research funded by your foundation. The Met/Big Picture schools are wildly successful despite the complete absence of any traditional notion of curriculum. If you want results, build a lot more schools like the Met and let go of the fantasy of one-size-fits-all magical curricula.

You need to meddle

If you pay the bills, then you have a right and responsibility to run the school. A hands-off approach to schools you fund creates confusion among the stakeholders. Your support, insight, expertise and clear expectations must be apparent and consistent.

Work with the living and do no harm

You have acknowledged that it is easier and more effective to build new schools than fix some existing ones. Keep creating great schools where children can flourish and building models others can follow.

Solve the college readiness problem

If you find that preparing poor, urban, rural and minority students for college is too difficult, then build some colleges with open enrollment in those communities to offer opportunities students would otherwise be deprived of.

Admit that math education is a disaster

Almost nothing done in the past 50 years has helped students be more numerate. Work with Seymour Papert to invent a mathematics curricula that students could love, rather than coming up with tricks to help a few more memorize algorithms irrelevant to their lives and the complex world in which they learn. Computers have a clear role to play in learning about such sciences of complexity.

Show some courage

You are the richest man in the world. That’s like having tenure. You may work without fear! You and Oprah spent two hours on television alerting the public that too many schools are failing too many children. However, you seem reluctant to discuss the underlying causes of poverty, inequitable funding formulas and the resegregation of our nation’s public schools. The Gates-funded Manual Arts High School in Denver that has now closed was destroyed by the resegregation of the school. Civil rights are critical for students and you need to lend your voice to that struggle.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings likes to say, “Schools are the same as they were 25 years ago.” That is demonstrably false. I graduated high school 25 years ago and enjoyed a full-range of electives, three music classes per day, great bands, fabulous plays, no AP courses, little tracking and teachers did not soil themselves over the need to raise scores on deeply flawed standardized tests. The climate of fear, name-calling and punishment paralyzing schools today is a recent phenomena produced by those professing to help.

We will have achieved success when all schools are demonstrably great places where children prefer to be and authentic learning exceeds our expectations. I wish you well in your quest to create such a reality.

“I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents. I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.” (Academy-Award Winner Matt Damon, March to Save Our Schools, July 30, 2011)

Matt Damon is one of the world’s most popular action-heroes, but you educators do realize that is make-believe. Right?

Saturday, July 30th, thousands of educators from across the country spent many hours in sweltering heat as part of the March to Save Our Schools. Leading educators, Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah Meier, Jonathan Kozol, Pedro Noguera, Diane Ravitch and fed-up courageous Texas school superintendent John Kuhn inspired the crowd.

The demands of the march were unequivocal:

  1. Equitable funding for all public school communities
  2. An end to high stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation
  3. Teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policies
  4. Curriculum developed for and by local school communities

Matt Damon was the day’s final speaker delivering a barnburner that got the lazy media’s attention. [transcript]

I had a front row perch. Matt Damon is a real mensch. He flew all-night from a film shoot in Vancouver to stand with public school educators on behalf of their jobs, dignity and the critical importance of public schools to a democracy.

That is precisely the problem.

Washington D.C. is less than a day’s drive from hundreds of thousands of teachers. Why was Matt Damon fighting for their profession while they stayed home?

Make no mistake ladies and gentlemen. We no longer engaged in genteel academic debates over differing approaches to spelling instruction.

There are well-funded powerful forces out to destroy public education and deprive educators of their livelihoods. Despite this, most educators remain silent and defenseless. The “bold ones” fantasize about Twitter saving the world while their dignity, expertise, paychecks and pensions are being attacked.

Educators, if you will not stand up and take care of yourselves, how can we count on you to care for other people’s children?

If you will not stand between students and the madness of “the system,” who will?

Matt Damon can’t save you. You need to be the action hero for America’s children!

Matt Damon addresses the Save Our Schools March on D.C. from Gary Stager on Vimeo.


Here is another fabulous video clip of Damon responding forcefully to questions from a Libertarian crackpot at the March.


Check out his comments on charter schools at 1:33

I just received the following email with the subject above. It’s a political critique of Governor Christie by my 13 year-old nephew, Mathew. I’ve posted it here verbatim.

That’s it Christie! I’m moving to Nauru!
Read Mathew’s recent critique of public school policy in New Jersey, posted in September.

As some of you know, I have been writing about school improvement and the political, corporate and ideological forces that have been attempting to claim “school reform” as their own invention for more than a decade for my blog, District Administration Magazine, The Huffington Post and GOOD Magazine (perhaps my most cogent discussion of the “School Wars” and the desire to surrender the public treasure of public education to private hands.)

You may also beware of my serious misgivings about what I view as NBC News’ unprecedented attack on public education in the guise of Education Nation. I so annoyed NBC News earlier this week that they had me blocked from posting on Facebook for a time. Since my social media sentence was commuted, I continue to try and correct the record on Education Nation‘s Facebook page and via Twitter.

My greatest concern about Education Nation is the one-sided depiction of both the “crisis” in public education and the “solution” to said crisis. Despite NBC News’ cries that 300 people are participating in their televised panels and therefore diversity is automatically achieved, citizens would be well-advised to heed the advice of Watergate’s “Deep Throat,” and follow the money.

Merely adding Al Sharpton or NBC and Oprah’s resident education expert, R&B singer John Legend, to a discussion does not ensure that multiple perspectives will be heard or that expertise is bestowed upon unqualified folks with access to the media. Colin Powell might be an expert on creating “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” or on starting a war in Iraq, but does not qualify him as a leading voice on school reform.

Simply stated, Education Nation does not represent the well-informed, research-based expertise of many successful urban school reformers and education experts including obvious choices, MacArthur Genius Deborah Meier; best-selling author, Alfie Kohn; outspoken critic of the corporate takeover of public education, Susan Ohanian; tireless advocate for poor children, Jonathan Kozol or serial urban school reformer, Dennis Littky.

Many brave and vocal educators, such as Carolyn Foote, have held NBC News’ feet to the fire and demanded to know why teacher voices were not being adequately represented in the Education Nation programming. Carolyn and others have rightfully pointed out that the participating teachers are unlikely to receive proper billing or sufficient air-time. NBC News responded by indicating that “some of Education Nation’s best friends are teachers.”

However, we make a huge mistake if we accept NBC’s claims of teacher involvement by counting heads or are persuaded by the impressive biographies of the teachers chosen to participate without exploring why such invitations were extended to those particular teachers. In this case, a few clicks of the mouse allows one to follow the money and follow the ideological blindness.

I do not in any way mean to denigrate the teachers being showcased by NBC News. I have no reason to believe that they are anything but hard-working, dedicated and excellent educators. I merely wish to make the case that they were chosen by NBC to advance a particular narrative.

That narrative is based on the following myths:

  1. Public education is destroying America
  2. There is a sudden emergency of bad teachers sweeping the land
  3. Schools should be run more like businesses (Education Nation’s patron Eli Broad believes this, but should we listen to a man who served on the board of AIG?)
  4. Charter schools, merit pay, standardized testing and mayoral control are the magic beans that will save children from wretched teachers
  5. When we fire all of the zillions of bad teachers a whole new crop of fantastic ones will grow in a Washington D.C. cornfield
  6. The best and brightest will eagerly become teachers when we remove all teacher autonomy and reduce teaching to test prep and script reading
  7. Unqualified is the new qualified as exemplified by Teach for America’s zeal to create unqualified missionaries to replace teachers
  8. Getting tougher is the same as reform
  9. Michelle Rhee was victimized by enemies of school reform (teachers) when voters rejected her tactics and bankrupt educational vision (thanks Nora O’Donnell)
  10. Billionaires are smart!
  11. Racism and intergenerational poverty have nothing to do with academic achievement
  12. The purpose of education is job readiness
  13. Teacher layoffs, budget cuts and union busting are just three ways of saying “We should pay teachers more, but them accountable.”
  14. Poor children need educational experiences much different from those afforded the children of the powerful
  15. We should all run out to the cineplex and see Waiting for Superman!

Here are the teachers NBC touts as being representative of educators’ interests.

Kaycee Eckhardt had been teaching for four years in Japan when Hurricane Katrina hit her native Louisiana on her 25th birthday. Inspired to return home and teach in New Orleans, she took a job as a 9th grade reading teacher at New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy. Her school serves some of the areas hit worst by Hurricane Katrina and often struggles to provide hot food, running water, and electricity. Despite that, in the past two years, Kaycee’s students have averaged a phenomenal three years of growth each year. In addition, Kaycee’s students have the highest math and science scores of any school in New Orleans. In 2009, she was awarded the Louisiana Charter School Association Teacher of the Year award.

Charter school teacher who may not hold a teaching credential and who is participating in TeachNola, a spinoff of Teach-for-America and the New Teacher Project that “streamlines” the process of learning to become a qualified educator. This is the same path Michelle Rhee took in her meteoric rise and fall as D.C. Schools Chancellor.

Sarah Zuckerman teaches art in Indianapolis, Indiana. As an art teacher she is deeply committed to making sure students develop core literacy skills and integrates literacy into all her art lessons. As a result her students have shown consistent academic growth in all their tested subjects. Sarah has taught abroad in China and Mexico and is a practicing artist who has shown her work nationally and internationally. Sarah received the Sontag Prize for Urban Education in 2010 and was a 2009 Teach Plus Fellow.

Wealthier children enjoy art education for aesthetic, cultural and creative reasons, not to raise test scores. The Sontag Prize is funded by Boston Public Schools and the Lynch Foundation, an advocate of Catholic Schools. It is unclear whether Ms. Zuckerman is a “trained” educator.

Shakera Walker is an award winning kindergarten teacher and a passionate advocate for the education reform movement and early childhood education. With over 8 years of teaching experience, Shakera continues to have a dramatic impact on student achievement. As a result of her incredible leadership, Shakera was awarded The Sontag Prize in Urban Education (2010).

The Sontag Prize is funded by Boston Public Schools and the Lynch Foundation, an advocate of Catholic Schools.

Joseph Almeida teaches 6th grade math at KIPP Infinity in New York City. He has created a YouTube channel with tailored lessons recorded for his students so that they can learn both inside and outside of the classroom. Joseph was awarded the Sue Lehman Award for Teaching excellence by Teach for America and was featured in the recently released book “Teaching as Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide in Closing the Achievement Gap,” a book that has been hailed for both its policy and pedagogical influence.

KIPP and Teach for America affiliations. Works in a charter school. Not sure if he is a credentialed teacher.

David Wu, who spent part of his life in Taiwan, is a high school Chemistry teacher at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. Originally headed to medical school, he decided to join Teach for America for two years and has now stayed four. His students, who often start far below the district and statewide averages for Chemistry, have beaten both the district average and state average the last two years on the California Standards Test. He is also the first teacher at Dorsey High School to see one of his students score a perfect score on the CST–and he’s had two students do it in the last two years.

Yet another Teach for America teacher. Works in a charter school. Not sure if he is a credentialed teacher. More emphasis on meaningless standardized test scores.

Kelly Burnette is a high school Biology and Physical Science teacher from Nassau, Florida. Her school district, which has quickly transformed from a rural community to a bustling suburb, has one brand-new state-of-the-art high school and another one built in 1912. Kelly just recently transferred from the new school in the suburbs to the older school in an under served area in an attempt to help that school turn around. At her previous school, Kelly helped lead teachers at a school that had been given a “D” grade in 2007-2008 to an  ”A” rating in 2008-2009. For her work, she was chosen as a finalist for Florida’s Teacher of the Year award.

Ms. Burnette might be an actual public school educator! Hooray! (I will assume that all of the school grade nonsense is beyond her control.)

Abigail Garland teaches 12th grade history at IDEA College Prep, a charter school in Donna, Texas, at which 80% of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch. She previously taught at Jaurez-Lincoln High School in La Joya, Texas. For the past three years, not a single student of Abigail’s has failed his or her state assessment, and 80% scored a 90% or higher on the 11th grade Social Studies exam. In 2008-2009 she was awarded the Humanities Texas award as an outstanding teacher. Since becoming Department Head the school’s state assessment passing rate has not fallen below 99% and commended scores (scores of 90% or higher) have risen from 50% to 73%. Abigail is passionate about higher education, and her classroom goals are derived from her hope that every student will have the ability to succeed in college.

Charter school teacher. More obsession with test scores.

Doris Milano is an elementary school teacher in Palm Beach County, Florida. During her 16-year tenure as an educator in her community, Doris has inspired and challenged her students to soar beyond mediocrity. For three consecutive years, Doris students have made more than a year and a half of growth in a year’s time in all subject areas. Doris has won numerous awards for her teaching practice, including the EXCEL Award from the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

The implication that other teachers strive for mediocrity is offensive. The award she has received is from Jeb Bush’s non-profit dedicated to the failed or unconstitutional strategies of private school vouchers, charter schools, merit pay and standardized testing.

Fatima Rich teaches 4th and 5th grade at Greenbrier Elementary in Indianapolis, IN. Although 77% of the students at Greenbrier qualify for Free or Reduced Price Lunch, she has seen phenomenal growth in her student’s test scores, with more than 30% increase in the number of students who scored proficient or advanced in one year and her students are now beating the state average on the 5th grade math assessment.

Another example of reducing education to test preparation and standardized test scores.

Erin Dukeshire has taught middle school science in Miami and Boston and currently took a job as the science teacher at a turnaround school called Orchard Gardens because she wanted to transform a Boston school where only 3% of the students are proficient in math and none were proficient in science. At her previous school Erin lifted her students’ science scores from 15% below the state average to well above the average.

Might be a great teacher, but “turnaround schools” are under-performing schools that can circumvent teacher union contracts.

Pamela Heuer is a 7th and 8th Grade Reading teacher in Indianapolis Public Schools. An alumna of Teach For America, Heuer’s students averaged 1.9 years of growth in one semester during the 2008-2009 school year, and her students were recognized as the fastest growing students in the entire Indianapolis school district. For spearheading a peer reading program with a neighboring elementary school, Heuer received the Eli Lilly New Teacher Challenge Award.

Teach for America affiliation and advocate.

Claudia Aguirre is the principal at MS 247 Dual Language Middle School in Manhattan.  That school, which teaches about half of its classes in each language, has quickly moved up the ranks of New York City’s middle schools because of Claudia’s efforts to impose strict program of classes and work, add academic help sessions and social activities after regular school hours. MS 247 now tests on par with the average middle school in the state across the board, a marked improvement from the scores before Claudia took over.

An actual school principal. Nothing particular jumps out from her bio except for the emphasis on “strict” and after school hours which indicate that this might be a school unlike those parents of means might embrace for their children.

Michelle Henry teachers 3rd-5th Grade Mathematics at Witter Elementary in Florida. Although a full 93 percent of Witter’s students qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch, the school had an 82 percent AYP rating in 2009. In addition, the Foundation for Excellence in Education recently presented Henry an award for having some of the greatest math gains of any teacher in the state of Florida. Henry is the recipient of the Mary Fraiser National Scholar of Gifted Education Award is rated an “Outstanding Teacher” under MAP and the Teacher Incentive Fund.

Another recipient of an award from Jeb Bush’s foundation and citation of the No Child Left Behind Annual Yearly Progress rating

Pam Williams, the current Georgia Teacher of the Year, is a high school social studies and economics teacher from rural Appling County in southern Georgia.  A strong advocate for the Common Core State Standards, Pam is spending part of this year touring the state to talk to teachers and advocate for them at the state level.  She has previously taught in a self-contained 6th grade classroom, middle school Spanish, music, language arts, and social studies before moving to the high school level. In the last two years, she has taken over the economics program at Appling County High School and saw a 33% increase in the number of students passing the statewide End of Year Test after she redesigned the curriculum.”

Another emphasis on test-prep and an embrace of “Common Core Standards,” a fancy euphemism for “standardized national curriculum.”

In closing, it’s worth exploring the sponsors of Education Nation. The following foundations and corporations have their fingerprints on many of the most regressive educational practices in the United States today.

  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are major sponsors of Waiting for Superman directly and through their spin-off organization, Get Schooled. They are also a sponsor of Education Nation. Gates also appears on Oprah and Education Nation as an education expert. The Gates Foundation’s influence on public education is enormous from its advocacy of KIPP Schools for other people’s children to its staffing of the US Department of Education.
  • The Broad Foundation is a sponsor of Waiting for Superman and of Education Nation, plus a host of the other organizations being represented during Education Nation.
  • The Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart) is a sponsor of Waiting for Superman and advocate for school vouchers (privatization).
  • The University of Phoenix is a sponsor of Education Nation despite admitting to fraud in its educational recruiting practices and its self-service advocacy of for-profit education.
  • Microsoft is another sponsor of Education Nation. I believe that they might have a connection to The Gates Foundation. Some readers might find Microsoft’s record on labor practices disturbing and be unsurprised by its longstanding antipathy towards labor unions. Oh yeah, don’t forget to check out how Microsoft created an educational disaster in the Philadelphia public schools.

Further reading:

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Note: This was originally submitted for publication in The Huffington Post. I sincerely hope it gets an airing there ASAP at which time I may remove the cross-posting here. I just wanted this to be read before Education Nation begins.


The worlds of education and psychology lost another giant January 28th. Dr. Seymour Sarason passed away at the Seymour Sarasonage of 91.

You can’t be taken seriously as a school reformer, transformer or agent of change without an understanding of Sarason’s work and having read some of the 40+ books he published. His work often asks more questions than it answers, reflecting the reality that humans and school systems are complex. Sarason taught us that serious thought must be given to notions of learning, leadership, governance and change if we are to do better as a society.

Seymour Sarason was not a phony baloney expert on school change or self-proclaimed educational leader, he was a serious scholar who left behind words to guide our thinking and our actions for decades to come.

As a young psychologist working with the mentally retarded in a Massachusetts state institution, Sarason challenged the conventional wisdom that psychological problems were inside of the individual and needed to be treated as such. Sarason became convinced that many psychological problems were created or impacted by social settings and institutional cultures. Sarason investigated whether settings could be created or modified to prevent psychological problems in the first place.

“Stricken with polio in high school, Sarson wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt for treatment his family couldn’t afford. Roosevelt’s secretary promptly responded and arranged a comprehensive six-month, in-patient treatment program.

Those experiences hammered home the importance of the role that social context plays in realizing one’s potential.” (“Colleagues pay respects,” 2010)

Sarason taught at Yale for forty-five years and founded the Psycho-Educational Institute, a clinic developing new approaches to treating the psychological problems of children and adolescents. Sarason and his graduate students went into schools, day care centers and prisons to work with personnel in those facilities to create settings that minimized psychological and learning pathologies. He came to believe that institutions intended to help individuals could do more harm than good, while consistently being reminded of human potential when an individual finds herself in the right environment. This work led Dr. Sarason to be credited as the founder of the field of community psychology.

This was the basis for his critical work on learning, educational institutions and school reform. Andy Hargreaves of Boston College says about Sarason, “He was one of the very first people to write in an explicit way about educational reform and the culture of the school from the perspective of the people who experience the change — teachers and students.” (Grimes, 2010)

Sarason coined a phrase, “productive contexts for learning,” that shapes much of my work. Despite his education as a clinical psychologist, Sarason weighed-in on complex political issues surrounding public education, the change process and even charter schools.

His optimism regarding each human’s potential to create, learn and grow was tempered by his understanding of how the institutions we find ourselves in can inhibit our progress.

I met Sarason a decade or so ago at the American Association of School Administrators Conference in San Diego. I attended the conference so I could hear him speak. I remember the setting vividly. Sarason spoke in a cavernous room with more than 500 chairs and a handful of people in attendance. I suppose the thousands of school superintendents attending the conference were investigating the “vending machine solution” or playing golf. Sarason was brilliant and very kind during the brief conversation we had about his current interest in race and economic deprivation.

When we met, Sarason had just published his first of two books on charter schools, Charter Schools: Another Flawed Educational Reform? (1998) A decade before charter schools would enter the public consciousness, Dr. Sarason was asking us to think more deeply about such changes in public school governance. In 2002, his second book on the subject, Questions You Should Ask About Charter Schools and Vouchers, was published.

In 1990, Sarason published The Predictable Failure of School Reform: Can We Change Course Before It’s Too Late? 1990! The first part of the book’s title predicted failure, but the second part asked if we could change the result. Several of Sarason’s book titles ended in question marks as a way of asking us to decide if we were up to the challenge of doing the right thing. Sarason also published, Revisiting “the Culture of the School and the Problem of Change” (1996) and Educational Reform: A Self-Scrutinizing Memoir (2002) in which he reflects on the evolution of his thinking over the decades of writing about school reform.

Sure, at times Seymour Sarason could be quite the curmudgeon, but what separated him from other cranky critics of school reform, such as Larry Cuban, was Sarason’s faith that it is possible to build better classrooms, institutions and social systems. Like Seymour Papert, Sarason wasn’t just complaining, he knew that the potential existed for us to do better by the children in our care.

My three favorite books by Seymour Sarason ask deceptively simple questions in the best Socratic tradition:

  1. And What do YOU Mean by Learning? (2004) suggests that we cannot change a classroom, let alone the entire educational system, if we ourselves cannot articulate a definition of learning. This book shaped my thinking deeply and led me to notice how many people can’t manage the distinction between teaching and learning.
  2. Political Leadership and Educational Failure (1998) Once again, Sarason doesn’t blame the child or teachers for the “failure” of the system, but asks a simple question. Why is it that when we hear a Mayor, Governor, President or Prime Minister discuss tax policy, sewerage or road construction we expect that they are being well-informed on the subject by the best and brightest, but have little expectation that the same will occur when education policy is formed?
  3. American Psychology and Schools: A Critique (2001) In this book, Sarason focuses his laser on his peers in the psychology community and asks why they have been silent on two of the most pressing issues facing children, school violence and standardized testing mania?

Teaching as a Performing Art (1999), The Case for Change: Rethinking the Preparation of Educators (1993) and Parental Involvement (1993) and the Political Principle: Why the Existing Governance Structure of Schools Should Be Abolished (1995) are also worthy of your attention.

For those looking for a “quick course” of Sarason, there is an anthology you can read – The Skeptical Visionary: A Seymour Sarason Educational Reader edited by Robert Fried (2002)

Dr. Sarason spent the past couple years of his life in an assisted living facility and had just finished a book designed to blow the lid off of elder care at the time of his death. Centers for Endings. The Coming Crisis in Caring for Aged People (2010), may be downloaded for personal use. Sarason wrote and published his first novel at the age of 86.

Constructing Modern Knowledge Guest Speaker, Deborah Meier, a renowned school reformer and professor of education at New York University, called Sarason an “unusual treasure.”

“He placed our work as teachers within a realistic context, reminding us of both how important it was, and, at the same time, how modest our contribution could be to the larger picture,” Meier said.

“To combine that humility with the insights needed to still influence individual children and colleagues, and being influenced by them is important enough. That skepticism and passion for the task rarely exists within the same person, and above all rarely among academics.” (“Colleagues pay respects,” 2010)

Resources:

References:
Colleagues pay respects to innovative psychologist [new haven register, conn.] . (2010, February 1). Retrieved from http://behavioralhealthcentral.com/index.php/20100201188896/Latest-News/colleagues-pay-respects-to-innovative-psychologist-new-haven-register-conn.html

Grimes, W. (2010, February 8). Seymour b. sarason, leader in community psychology, dies at 91 . Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/08/education/08sarason.html

On December 17, 2008 – one month before Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States, I expressed my fear about his appointees and agenda for public education in a Huffington Post article entitled, “Obama Practices Social Promotion.”

Read the article linked above or pasted below and judge for yourself whether or not I was clairvoyant.

Obama Practices Social Promotion

A curious cartel of billionaire bullies, power hungry politicians and tough-talking school superintendents wage an eternal battle against social promotion — for the good of our children of course. Social promotion, a divisive political term with no basis in reality, like partial-birth abortion, is one of the most popular talking points among the the most vocal critics of public education. The “end of social promotion” has caused tens of thousands of kids as young as 3rd grade to be left-back, despite overwhelming evidence that this practice harms children and increases the drop-out rate.

However, social promotion is a godsend to urban school superintendents in this age of privatization.

On October 19, 2006 I wrote an article, When I Run the Navy, for a now defunct LA Times blog.

Call me Admiral Stager! (October 16, 2006)

I took swimming lessons for seven years, visited the USS Ling submarine in Hackensack, NJ and my father was once in the National Guard. I’ve even been known to giggle at reruns of McHale’s Navy and Gilligan’s Island. However, the best reasons to name me Admiral are:

1) I want the job and
2) I have no qualifications whatsoever!

Ridiculous! Why would someone with zero qualifications be put in charge of a naval fleet?

A similar question might be asked of Vice Admiral David L. Brewer III, just named Superintendent of the 710,000+ student Los Angeles Unified School District.

The always entertaining Los Angeles School Board appointed the retired General with absolutely no advanced degree, educational expertise or teaching experience to lead the second largest school district in the country.

Admiral Brewer may be an impressive leader and heckuva guy. The L.A. School Board may be sticking it to the Mayor for his recent power grab of the school district. Yet, none of this matters much or will improve the quality of education in this troubled lumbering district.

In the topsy-turvy world of public education a lack of qualifications earns you the fast track to big city school leadership and a hefty paycheck.

One of the primary goals of education is the development of expertise, not just political acumen. What sort of example are we setting for students? How much do we respect education when educators are deemed unacceptable as district leaders?

Learning is more complex than supply chain management. It seems as if any unemployed member of the military, failed businessman or police officer is thought better qualified to run schools than educators.

I’m sick of it. How about you?

Perhaps we need federal legislation requiring a fully qualified superintendent in every school district!

Last week, the Los Angeles Unified School District gave Admiral Brewer at least $517,000 to make him disappear. Half a million bucks in an age of budget cut backs and economic crises. It’s not clear if that includes his $45,000 expense account or $36,000 housing allowance.

Who could have possibly predicted that a person with absolutely no education experience, wisdom, vision or accomplishments would fail as the leader of a major US school system? Call me Nostradamus!

It is truly bizarre that the public education system, which at least in-part is dedicated to preparing people for careers and life, would devalue expertise.

Arne Duncan Fails Upward

Today’s nomination of Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan to be the Barack Obama’s Secretary Education is a spectacular example of social promotion. Duncan, who as been the CEO or Chief of Staff of the Chicago Public Schools for the past ten years has done such a swell job of “reform” that his best friend and basketball buddy, Barack Obama, would not send his own children to the public schools. President-elect Obama is like Eli Broad, Bill Gates and the members of the Business Roundtable who kill public schools with their kindness while turning them into the sort of joyless test-prep sweatshops unworthy of children they love.

Arne Duncan is a darling of the charter school movement, Eli Broad, the right-wing Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, anti-union “Democrats” and I kid you not — Hooked-on-Phonics. President-elect Obama eagerly awaits recommendations on nuclear proliferation from Billy Mays, Ron Popeil and the ShamWow guy.

Duncan spends millions on standardized testing, turns public schools into military academies and endorses Teach for America, an organization built upon the perverse proposition that the most qualified teachers are those without qualifications. Teach for America’s political wing, Leadership for Education Equity, fought hard to ensure that a competent teacher educator would not be nominated. They sure got their wish with Arne Duncan.

Arne Duncan is a strong supporter of merit pay, which like social promotion is based on ideology and wishful thinking, not fact. He is also a proponent of paying children for good grades.

Riddle me this. If Arne Duncan is such a “reformer with results” who did such a swell job leading the Chicago Public Schools, why did President-elect Obama send his daughters to private school?

Duncan is a fan of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and never met a standardized test he didn’t love. His education policies and practices are indistinguishable from those of the Bush Administration. In fact, the current unqualified Secretary of Education Spellings virtually endorsed Duncan while she posed for for a photo-op with him four days ago. Today she praised Duncan’s nomination while spinning her own tall tale and invoking romantic visions of student accountabily.

“Arne Duncan is a visionary leader and fellow reformer [emphasis mine] who cares deeply about students.” (Margaret Spellings — 12/16/08)

Apparently, “change you can believe in” stops at the school metal detector.

The mainstream media covers education issues as if they were writing for Pravda. Today’s news accounts of the Duncan nomination were stenography with no questions asked or facts checked. It’s not difficult to find examples of Duncan’s creative interpretation of data or how he is a political appointee of the Daley machine in Chicago.

Obama was never asked to define school reform or explain why he relied on questionable standardized test score gains to justify nominating Duncan, the Harriet Miers of his administration.

Across the political spectrum, the mainstream media sleepwalks through any education news. NPR reported, “He’s focused on improving struggling schools, closing those that fail and getting better teachers,” without providing any supporting evidence while Fox News praised Duncan as a “Bona Fide Reformer.” The media repeats how Duncan closed and then reopened schools like he turned water into wine.

The “Chicago Miracle” may prove no better than the fraudulent “Houston Miracle” on which NCLB and the six billion dollar Reading First boondoggle were based. Arne Duncan is no better qualified to be Secretary of Education than Coach Rod Paige.

Bloggers and a handful of independent journalists were more conscientious. Veteran education journalist Alexander Russo writes:

I hope that the national press will look a little bit deeper into the Chicago miracle, and take a moment to ponder why the folks they’re quoting are saying such nice things about him. No one’s looked at Chicago’s lame NAEP scores or anemic charter program. Most of the folks who are gushing about him don’t really know him (or Chicago) that well, or hope to work for him in the near future, or are approving of him because they think that they can beat him in DC.

Veteran Chicago educator and journalist, George Schmidt responded to the oft-repeated claim that American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten “has a good relationship with Duncan.”

After you’ve read up about Chicago from the grass roots, then circulate nonsense about whether the “teachers” and the “union” support Arne Duncan.Randi Weingarten is a lawyer who has less real teaching experience than the average veteran substitute teacher. Arne Duncan is an educational administrator who has as much teaching experience as Randi Weingarten.

It figures they would be scratching each others’ backs.

Journalists have an obligation to ask Obama where he stands on private school vouchers since he raised the issue today.

For years, we have talked our education problems to death in Washington, but failed to act, stuck in the same tired debates that have stymied our progress and left schools and parents to fend for themselves: Democrat versus Republican; vouchers versus the status quo… (Barack Obama — 12/16/08)

The President-elect also needs to clarify his stance on unions since 1) the teacher unions supported him; 2) he is a democrat; and 3) the auto “bailout” may destroy the American labor movement (and middle class) once and for all.

Reformers vs. Teachers

If Arne Duncan turns out to be the most effective Secretary of Education in history, I will be delighted to praise him.

However, Obama and his transition team have done great violence to millions of committed educators by framing the selection of Duncan as a choice between “reformers” and those who care about teachers and children. Progressive author Alfie Kohn explores this dishonest choice in a thoughtful article in The Nation, Beware of School “Reformers.” Kohn writes:

Sadly, all but one of the people reportedly being considered for Secretary of Education are reformers only in this Orwellian sense of the word. The exception is Linda Darling-Hammond, a former teacher, expert on teacher quality, and professor of education at Stanford.

President-elect Obama has remained silent as one his advisors, Dr. Darling-Hammond, a highly respected and accomplished educator was ridiculed and insulted in the media. To paraphrase former Reagan offiicial Ray Donovan, “Which office does Dr. Darling-Hammond go to get her reputation back?

If you view the world through left/right glasses, I suggest you consider the words of education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch who served in George H.W. Bush’s Department of Education and is a Fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and Board of Trustees of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Many years ago, Linda Darling-Hammond and I were colleagues at Teachers College. We sometimes crossed swords over issues, but I always found her to be smart, thoughtful, and deeply devoted to the well-being of teachers and children. I don’t think that makes her a leader of the “status quo” crowd. I have always thought that she is above all interested in improving schools, helping teachers, and doing right by kids. What’s wrong with that?As for the new breed of superintendents who are supposedly going to “save” American education, I have a very different take on them from the editorialists. They say they are Democrats, but their policies are truly the Republican agenda. The Republican education experts and conservative think tanks have always wanted more accountability, more choice, merit pay, and a tough anti-union stance. Thus, it is one of the amusing ironies of our time that the people who now espouse this agenda call themselves “reformers” and are acclaimed as such by the national media. They are reformers indeed, but the reforms they are advocating and implementing come right out of the Republican playbook. (Diane Ravitch — 12/16/08)

Gary Stager’s web site

School Wars – Politicians, billionaires, and mavericks all want to fix public schools. They won’t. Parents will. (from GOOD Magazine)

Related books on progressive education

Champions of public education, teachers and students lost an important ally recently when Gerald Bracey passed away unexpectedly. I wrote about the loss of Dr. Bracey here. Alfie Kohn, Deborah Meier, USA Today and others did so as well.

Bracey had a highly-tuned BS detector as Neil Postman called for four decades ago, but he used the tools of a scientist, wisdom of a scholar and heart of a teacher to make his arguments irrefutable.

One of Gerald Bracey’s most important contributions to education was the Annual Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education. The final report has just been published after having been finished posthumously by his friend, Susan Ohanian. If you do not know Susan’s work, you should read her web site daily!

This report is brought to us by the Education and Public Interest Center of the University of Colorado at Boulder & the Education Policy Research Unit of Arizona State University.

The current (and perhaps final) Bracey report tackles the “the research support for what the author considers to be three of the most important assumptions about how to reform public education:” (http://epicpolicy.org/publication/Bracey-Report)

  1. High-quality schools can eliminate the achievement gap between whites and minorities.
  2. Mayoral control of public schools is an improvement over the more common elected board governance systems.
  3. Higher standards will improve the performance of public schools.

I was pleased to read that Bracey identified the “do as I say, not as I do,” contradictions in Obama’s education policies as I wrote last year in Obama Practices Social Promotion (which incurred the global wrath of the CEO of Hooked-on-Phonics) and in Why I’m Scared to Death About Obama’s Education Policies.

Download the report, Read it! Circulate it to friends, neighbors, administrators, school board members and public officials!