Rufus T. Firefly
President: Huxley College

I often explain to graduate students that I don’t play devil’s advocate or any other clever games. Just because I may say something unsaid by others, does not mean that I don’t come to that perspective after careful thought and introspection.

Being an educator is a sacred obligation. Those of us who know better, need to do better and stand between the defenseless children we serve and the madness around us. If a destructive idea needs to be challenged or a right defended, I’ll speak up.

My career allows me to spend time in lots of classrooms around the world and to work with thousands of educators each year. This gives me perspective. I am able to identify patterns, good and bad, often before colleagues become aware of the phenomena. I have been blessed with a some communication skills and avenues for expression. I’ve published hundreds of articles and spoken at even more conferences.

People seem interested in what I have to say and for that I am extremely grateful.

The problem is that I am increasingly called upon to argue against a popular trend. That tends to make me unpopular. In the field of education, where teachers are “nice,” criticism is barely tolerated. Dissent is seen as defect and despite all of my positive contributions to the field, I run the risk of being dismissed as “that negative guy.”

Recently, I have written or been quoted on the following topics:

I’ve also written against homework, NCLB, RTTT, Michelle Rhee, Eli Broad, Joel Klein, standardized testing, Education Nation, Common Core Curriculum Standards, Accelerated Reader, merit pay, Arne Duncan, union-busting, Cory Booker, Teach for America, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, mayoral control, the ISTE NETs, Hooked-on-Phonics, President Obama’s education policies, etc… You get the idea.

The “Jetbow” sandwich at NY’s Carnegie Deli

These are perilous times for educators. When once bad education policy was an amuse-bouche you could easily ignore, it has become a Carnegie Deli-sized shit sandwich. Educators are literally left to pick their own poison, when choice is permitted at all. If I take a stand against a fad or misguided education policy, my intent is to inform and inspire others to think differently or take action.

So why, pray tell am I boring my dear readers with my personal angst? An old friend and colleague just invited me to write a magazine article about the “Flipped Classroom.” Sure, I think the flipped classroom is a preposterous unsustainable trend, masquerading as education reform, in which kids are forced to work a second unpaid shift because adults refuse to edit a morbidly obese curriculum. But….

The question is, “Do I wish to gore yet another sacred cow?” Is speaking truth to power worth the collateral damage done to my career?

In the 1960s, the great Neil Postman urged educators to hone highly-tuned BS and crap detectors. Those detectors need to be set on overdrive today. I’m concerned that I’m the only one being burned.

What to do? What to do?

I don’t know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
No matter what it is
Or who commenced it
I’m against it!

Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
And even when you’ve changed it
Or condensed it
I’m against it!

Whatever It Is, I'm Against It
by Harry Ruby & Bert Kalmar 
From the Marx Bros. film "Horse Feathers" (1932)

 

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has decided to throw a few dollars around for parental involvement to distract the public from the anti-democratic school “reforms” he advocates. Of course this announcement is accompanied by the familiar “mea culpa” that the government hasn’t done enough to involve parents.

This is a total load o’ crap, especially given Duncan’s heavy-handed imposition of Race-to-the-Top and endorsement of anti-democratic measures, such as charter schools and mayoral control of school districts. (Let’s set aside the abysmal record of mayoral control in D.C., Duncan’s Chicago and New York where after 8 1/2 years of heroic mayoral control 28% of African American males now graduate).

Oh yeah, an awful lot of parents are school teachers and union members who don’t appreciate being vilified and having their family’s security jeopardized by the policies of Duncan and his billionaire buddies.

If you want parental involvement/engagement in education, then make them full partners in the operation of public schools. Encourage greater participation in elected school boards and advocate “universal charter school” legislation in which every single American public school is run by the parents and teachers in that school. The only parental involvement ever tolerated by many local schools is when they ask parents to be ATMs and Narcs. Schools want parents to write checks and enforce their rules beyond school hours.

Perhaps, Secretary Duncan can stop blaming kids and parents for the fact that you have created joyless & irrelevant test-prep sweatshops where teachers work in fear and learning is subservient to compliance.

Parental involvement does not require $270,000,000 of Federal investment. It requires a bag of Doritos, a cheap box of wine and an honest partnership between equally empowered stakeholders.

The following is an article I published in 2008 that should give you a sense of how terrible the Duncan “parental involvement” plan happens to be when put into practice.

Chief Family Engagement Officer (2008) by Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.

  • Seize control of 1,400 public schools
  • Appoint a prosecutor to lead
  • Disband the democratically elected Board of Education
  • Hold one public hearing in five years
  • Centralize the bureaucracy
  • Maintain files used to discredit critics on the right and left
  • Favor managers over educators
  • Detain teachers in rubber rooms (read additional news accounts here and here)
  • Invent Orwellian job titles for propaganda officers…
  • Stalinist Russia?

    Fughetaboutit! It’s just the New York City Public Schools under Chancellor Joel Klein.

    The March 4, 2008 edition of the New York Times reports on the state of Mayoral control of the public schools in After 5 Years, City Council Holds First Hearing on Mayor’s Control of Public Schools. The article covers a New York City Council hearing where questions about the efficacy of suspending democracy battled the non-educator Chancellor’s argument that “mayoral oversight is critical to turning around the vast system…” and “The fundamental governance structure of mayoral accountability and control, I think, is right and needs to be maintained.” As the title of the Times article suggests, this was the first time the City Council has held a hearing about the Mayor’s school takeover in five years.

    Sure, the Chancellor’s claims of improved test scores, enhanced accountability and greater efficiency went unchallenged. I have come to expect very little from politicians and journalists who suspend their disbelief when matters of public education are discussed. At least once Councilman compared mayoral control to martial law.

    Lack of parental input into governance of their local schools, standardized curricula, no public oversight of the system and powerless administrators are the expected outcomes when political ideologues get to play corporate dress-up and the public schools become their toy.

    None of this surprises me. I was however delighted by the latest Orwellian confection served up by the Chancellor. Klein offered a faux mea culpa about how he had not followed up on the millions he spent to hire “parent coordinators” in each school. (I assume to neutralize desires for parental involvment)

    If the image of full-time paid “parent coordinators” does not paint a clear enough picture of this educational Potemkin Village, Chancellor Klein admitted that “he had waited too long to create the post of a ‘chief family engagement officer’ to oversee the coordinators.”

    Just when I thought the corporate psychosis polluting our public schools had reached its zenith, semantic gems like “chief family engagement officer” are invented. Thank you Chancellor Klein! That’s one for the ages!

    — Gary Stager
    The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate

    2008-03-05

    New Ravitch book I have eagerly anticipated Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education , for many months. I’ve recommended the book in this blog and at conferences since my copy arrived a few days ago.

    I remain excited that a noted education historian is openly criticizing the pandemic of standardized testing, union-busting, teacher-bashing, charter school expansion and heavy-handed policies being driven by political ideologues and corporate profiteers. Diane Ravitch can teach us a lot about school governance, policy and the history of public education. Just don’t expect to learn much about learning from her new book.

    Admittedly, I have only skimmed the book, but it is not hard to find evidence that Dr. Ravitch has not left all of her highly conservative views behind. She blames the familiar bogeymen of the religious right for many of the problems in American public education, notably constructivism and whole language with the selective citing of easily refuted research. Her naive understanding of learning theory or learner-centered pedagogy is like that of a teacher education student or mom who just returned home from a “Tea Party” rally.

    Ravitch dismisses research conducted by noted scholars Lauren Resnick and Richard Ellmore and seems to present the case that Anthony Alvarado is one of the villains whose embrace of balanced literacy (HARDLY a progressive idea) and “constructivist math” (oooh booga-booga) led to the destruction of public education.

    This assertion is not only wrong, but ignores the fact that Dr. Alvarado led many of the pioneering efforts in urban education including the “small schools” movement that resulted in the highly successful Central Park East Schools started by Ravitch’s colleague, Deborah Meier. Calling the reign of San Diego Superintendent and former prosecutor, Alan Bersin “left-wing”  is laughable to anyone with the slightest awareness of his heavy-handed leadership style.

    Ravitch seems to revere A Nation at Risk as gospel created by divine intervention, not the Reagan administration and caricatures efforts of the 60s and 70s to make classrooms more democratic, creative and child-centered. She remains a proponent of national curricula, a patently absurd solution in search of a problem.

    That said, I will read the rest of the book and share my thoughts as warranted. I just felt it was my obligation to warn my friends and colleagues that although I recommend  The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,  you should read it with a fresh new battery in your BS detector.

    New Ravitch bookEducation historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education for the first President Bush, Diane Ravitch has just published an extraordinary book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. The book should be required reading for every policy-maker, citizen and educator.

    The extraordinary reporting found in the book can not help but convince Americans that their public education system is endangered by the politicians, billionaire mischief-makers, foundations and business groups professing to “fix” the “broken” system.

    Similar accusations have been leveled before in books by Alfie Kohn, Susan Ohanian, Gerald Bracey, Herb Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Linda Darling-Hammond and others. What makes this book so extraordinary is that it was written by a proponent of many of the reforms Ravitch herself now admits are destroying public education.

    That’s right, Dr. Ravitch is the rare scholar/leader who when confronted by the actual application of theory is capable of rethinking her assumptions. Ravitch has also severed ties to many of the conservative think-tanks with whom she no longer shares similar views and has had the courage to expose her change-of-heart and mind publicly in this book and in the spectacular blog, Bridging Differences, she writes with (CMK 2010 guest speaker) Deborah Meier.

    Ravitch challenges the current fetishes of merit pay, mayoral control, charter schools, vouchers and standardized testing while also questioning the statistical plausibility of the test score miracles being touted by politicians like Arne Duncan and NYC Mayor Bloomberg. At the same time, Ravitch advocates a national curriculum (albeit a richer one than proposed), an idea I find extremely troublesome. Without sentimentality, Ravitch’s new book is a love letter to public education and the democratic ideals it fosters.

    The story of personal transformation late in life is generating an unprecedented level of publicity for a book about education. I am most grateful to Dr. Ravitch for placing these issues at the center of mainstream media debate for the first time. I intend to write something substantive about the book once I have an adequate chance to digest it. In the meantime, I recommend you read the following reviews of the book.

    1. Little Dead Schoolhouse – Boston Globe 2/28/10
    2. “Teacher Ken’s” comprehensive review of the book for the Daily Kos – 2/28/10 (highly recommended)
    3. Business principles won’t work for school reform,  former supporter Ravitch says – Washington Post – 2/26/10
    4. Los Angeles Times review – 2/28/10
    5. Why You Should Read Diane Ravitch’s New Book – Washington Post – 2/26/10

    You might also find these resources useful:

    I can’t wait to return to my “second home” in Melbourne to keynote the 2010 Australian Conference on EducationalACEC 2010 Computing Conference, April 6-9, 2010.

    2010 marks an important anniversary for me. It represents twenty years of working in schools across Australia. I recently reflected on my the experience of leading professional development at the world’s first two “laptop schools” Downunder in 1990, in Hard and Easy: Reflections on my ancient history in 1:1 computing. That early work was also documented in the book, Never Mind the Laptops…

    In 1992, I delivered my first keynote address at the biennial Australian Computers in Education Conference in my beloved Melbourne. That’s why it’s so exciting to be a keynote speaker at this year’s ACEC, April 6-9, 2010 in Melbourne, Australia! I will be presenting a brand new keynote designed specifically for the Australian audience entitled, “You Say You Want a Revolution?”

    Sylvia Martinez and Alan November are two of the other keynote speakers.

    I will also lead a Q&A session following my keynote and participate in a panel discussion, Diverse Tales from the Digital Crypt – What Effective Computer-Using Educators Know about Teaching: An International Perspective.

    Tuesday morning I will host a ticketed breakfast session on creativity, computing and leadership.

    The following is the abstract for my new keynote address:

    You Say You Want a Revolution?
    This keynote will explore the notion of the digital learning revolution and its assumptions while addressing such questions as, “What happened to the last digital revolution in Australia?” Were there lessons learned? If not, why not?

    Who are the combatants in this latest revolution? Will children, democracy and creativity be the first casualties.

    Gary Stager will reflect upon his experiences of working in Australian schools for the past twenty years and insights gained from similar top-down “reform” efforts being imposed across the United States.

    Gary will remind ACEC attendees why he is still excited by the potential of computers in education as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression and challenge the audience to raise their game in order to realize the opportunities computing affords learners. This of course will be accomplished with humour, candor and provocative examples of student learning.


    Resources related to my upcoming keynote address: