The following opinion column from the October issue of District Administration Magazine caused the owner (and Editor-in-Chief) of the magazine to publish an apology in the very next issue. The mea culpa was published before any reader or advertiser complained. None did. This column never appeared on the magazine’s web site, so it is published here.

In August 2004, District Administration Magazine published my harsh critique of Senator John Kerry’s education plan. It may be read here.

In other words, the following fact-checked article was deemed unfair when an article critical of the political opponent two months earlier was fair game.

I remain incredibly proud of this article because it was timely, witty, and predicted the ultimate disaster caused by the policies I criticized.

Gary Stager on Direct Instruction

Perhaps it’s time to end political social promotion
From the October 2004 issue of District Administration Magazine

Michael Moore got it wrong.

In his film, Fahrenheit 9/11Moore shows President Bush in a Florida classroom on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The film’s narration said that while America was being attacked, the president read the book, My Pet Goat, to a room full of young children. This is factually inaccurate in three important ways.

  1. The story is actually titled, The Pet Goat.
  2. It is not a book, but an exercise in a heavily scripted basal.
  3. The president did not read the story to the children.

Any perceptive educator watching this would quickly realize what was going on. The president was not in that classroom to demonstrate his love of reading. Being read to is a powerful literacy experience. Having a wonderful story read to you by the president of the United States could create a memory to last a lifetime.

Unlike his wife, mother and Oval Office predecessors, this president had a more important agenda than demonstrating affection for children or for reading. The trip was part of a calculated campaign to sell No Child Left Behind. In what Michael Moore rightly observed as a photo opportunity, young children were used as props to advance the administration’s radical attack on public education.

The Pet Goat is an exercise from a literary classic called, Reading Mastery 2, by the father of Direct Instruction, Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann. In the 1960s, Engelmann invented a controversial pedagogical approach that reduces knowledge to bite-]sized chunks presented in a prescribed sequence enforced by a scripted lesson the teacher is to recite to a classroom of pupils chanting predetermined responses. Every single word the teacher is to utter, including permissible and prohibited words of encouragement, are provided. There is no room for individuality. The Direct Instruction Web site states, “The popular valuing of teacher creativity and autonomy as high priorities must give way to a willingness to follow certain carefully prescribed instructional practices.”

Engelmann told The New Yorker in its July 26, 2004 issue, “We don’t give a damn what the teacher thinks, what the teacher feels. On the teachers’ own time they can hate it. We don’t care, as long as they do it. Traditionalists die over this, but in terms of data we whump the daylights out of them.” It is easy to see how a man of such sensitive temperament could author more than 1,000 literary masterpieces such as The Pet Goat.

While I am sure the Florida school visited is a fine one and the classroom teacher loves children, educational excellence was not being celebrated. This was a party on behalf of Direct Instruction. While Moore made a documentary [some suggest artful propaganda] about the Iraq war, he could have made a movie about the United States government’s ideological attack on the public schools.

The War on Public Education
Engelmann’s publisher is a textbook giant with ties to the Bush family dating back to the 1930s. Company namesakes served on George W. Bush’s transition team and the board of his mother’s literacy foundation. The publishers have received honors from two Bush administrations and they in turn have bestowed awards on Secretary Rod Paige, who then keynoted their business conference. The same company’s former executive vice president is the new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Direct instruction has become synonymous with the “scientifically based methods” required by No Child Left Behind.

The War on Public Education has ratcheted up parental fear with cleverly designed rhetoric of failing schools, data disaggregation, underperforming students, unqualified teachers and clever slogans like, “no excuses.” If you turn public schools, even the best ones, into single-]minded test-]prep factories where teachers drone on from scripted lessons then more people will want that magical voucher. Repeatedly demonize teachers arid the public will lose confidence regardless of their personal experiences with their local school.

So, how are you doing? Is your job now more about compliance than kids? Are sound educational experiences being sacrificed for test­ preparation? Has fear replaced joy in your classrooms? President Reagan might suggest we ask ourselves, “Is your school better off than it was four years ago?”

Unlike most media outlets, The Huffington Post actually pretends to take an interest in education. However, I continue to believe that their Education section was created to be an advertising platform for the truly awful film, “Waiting for Superman,” remembered as the Howard the Duck of education documentaries by the three other schmucks and I who paid to see it.

Regardless of their motives, The Huffington Post, is a frequent mouthpiece for the charter school movement and unofficial stenographer for corporations trying to make a quick buck off the misery of teachers and students.

The Huffington Post recently featured an article, “The Most Popular Books For Students Right Now,” authored by their Education Editor Rebecca Klein. I clicked on the headline with interest, because I’m a fan of books and reading (I know a truly radical view for an educator). What I found was quite disappointing.

Aside from the fact that six books were the favorite across twelve grade levels, the books fell into two obvious camps; books kids like and books they were required to read by a teacher.

Nonetheless, data is data and Web users like lists.

What I do not like is when basic tenets of journalism, like “follow the money,” are ignored in order to mislead readers. The source for the “independent reading habits of nearly 10 million readers“ is Renaissance Learning, described by The Huffington Post as “an educational software company that helps teachers track the independent reading practices of nearly 10 million students.”

That’s like saying ISIS is a magazine publisher Donald Trump, owner of an ice cream parlor. While factually true, this is what Sarah Palin might call putting lipstick on a pig.

Renaissance Learning is a wildly profitable company that sells Accelerated Reader, a major prophylactic device for children who might otherwise enjoy reading. The product is purchased by dystopian bean counters who view small children as cogs in a Dickensian system of education where nothing matters more than data or achievement.

Their product creates online multiple-choice tests that schools pay for in order to quantify each child’s “independent” reading. If the school doesn’t own the test for a particular book a kid reads, they receive no credit. Kids routinely dumb down their reading in order to score better on the quizzes. Accelerated Reader rewards compliance and speed by turning reading into a blood sport in which winners will be rewarded and their classroom combatants, punished.

Ironically, I wrote about Accelerated Reader in The Huffington Post back in 2012. (Read Mission Accomplished)

When you look at the “favorite” book list featured in The Huffington Post, please consider that kids read The Giver and The Crucible because they are standard parts of the curriculum. This tells us nothing about what kids at grades 7, 8, or 11 actually like to read. Seeing Green Eggs and Ham as the first grade winner should make you sad. Can you imagine taking a comprehension test on this classic??? How vulgar!

The Grade 2 favorite is also likely assigned by teachers, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. The mind reels when I try to imagine the test measuring comprehension of the comic book/graphic novel, named favorite book by 3rd, 4th, 5th, AND 6th graders, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul. First of all, we should be alarmed that this simple book tops the charts for four years, but don’t forget that kids will be tested by a computer on their comprehension of this delightful comic book.

“Nothing forced can ever be beautiful.” – Xenophone

Caveat emptor!

We are cheating our students by turning reading into a game of dodgeball.

There is lots of talk about games and education these days. Educators mystified by students’ indifference to schooling are all too easily taken in by slick talkers drawing grandiose conclusions from some kids’ love aff airs with video games. Rather than take the steps necessary to make school more social, teachers more engaging, and curriculum more relevant, we either shift blame to parents, TV and hip hop, or seek salvation in the lessons of Grand Theft Auto.

Kids have always spent long periods of time engaged in activities different from those valued by school. Most display a talent for developing an encyclopedic knowledge of topics from dinosaurs to sports statistics to gossip. Children whose passion or aptitudes happen to match the tested curriculum are declared “good students.”

While we marvel at the intensity and focus required for children to achieve video game success, we are quick to label the same children as having attention deficits while in class. The capacity of children for intensity is squandered by mountains of worksheets, timed tests and other curricular contradictions.

Students as Workers

While we obviously recognize the value of play in video games, we cancel recess and build schools without playgrounds, referring to students “as workers.” As fewer children enjoy the sportsmanship and healthy competition learned from a friendly game of kickball with classmates, they have been transformed into soldiers in a high-stakes political game of international economic competitiveness.

Perhaps there are many more distractions facing children today, but great teachers continue to create environments where their students want to be and to learn. The answer to bad teaching is better teaching, not another worksheet, get tough movement or quick fix. The sad truth is that schools may be better at destroying interest in a subject than inspiring it.

A friend used to require his students to write a weekly television show review. This satisfied a variety of language arts objectives and shared the unintended consequence of the traditional book report: Students’ interest in TV would decrease with each report required.

Illiteracy is not a problem among preschoolers. Every toddler enjoys books. It isn’t until children attend school that they begin to feel self-conscious or failures as readers. We tell kids what to read. We interrupt their reading with comprehension quizzes. We rush, test, score, fail and recover them. We reduce the world of literature to “Fawn at Dawn.” In way too many cases, school has a highly effective prophylactic affect on reading. An alarming number of learning disabilities result.

Winning Points

Too often, schools respond to the literacy crises they create by turning reading into a game. I remember being told that I read 750 words per minute, a feat unmatched by TV’s Steve Austin. The secret behind my bionic ability was a talent for guessing answers to multiple-choice questions, not superhuman comprehension.

Many classrooms today use a popular software program to test student reading. No longer do students read for pleasure or information. They read to win points in a misguided effort to mechanize teaching and learning. This perverse notion of motivation turns reading into a contest with winners and losers. Strong readers choose simpler books to rack up points quickly, while struggling readers are humiliated by the public nature of their scores.

Guess what? Teachers tend to become dependent on teacher-proof systems and stop exercising professional judgment. While the company behind this system has been very nimble and creates tests for new books, teachers are unlikely to value the reading of a book not in the system.

Reading for fun wastes time you could spend crushing your classmates. With score tables automatically generated and parents alerted to their child’s pole position, teachers will invariably use the points in grading students regardless of the program’s intent.

Turning reading into a game is neither effective nor very good for inspiring lifelong readers.

Originally published in District Administration Magazine – April 2008

Last week, my 7 year-old nephew, (let’s call him) Homer, brought home another stupendous homework assignment. He was required to read a phonics primer to his parents, get his parents to sign that they had been sufficiently tortured by the experience and then answer comprehension questions on a worksheet.

The book was titled, Fawn at Dawn.

Here is an excerpt from this classic tale…

I saw a fawn. I saw a fawn at dawn… I saw a fawn at dawn on my lawn…”

Homer then whipped out his worksheet and assumed the role of literary critic.

Question #1: The story was about?
The story was about a girl named Jenny who saw a fawn, but nobody believed her.

Question #2: Favorite part of the book?
The end because the story was very porly (sic) written

The teacher corrected the spelling of “poorly” despite the mistake being wholly consistent with phonics instruction. Then things began to get a bit ugly.

Question #3: Who else do you think would like this book?
I don’t think anyone would like this book. It’s just aw aw aw awful!

On Homer’s paper the teacher wrote something to the effect of “I’m sorry you didn’t like it. I guess you have the right to your opinion.” (as if she LOVED the book) In class the teacher dismissed Homer’s critique by reminding the kids that this was a phonics lesson so the stories don’t have to be good.

The moral of this story?
Homer has been reading fluently for three years and loves books, but this one-size-fits-all assignment made no allowances for his skill or personal interests. In fact, there would be no time for pleasure reading that night because by the time this second grader gets off the bus at 4:30 PM, does his homework and eats dinner there is rarely any time left to waste on playing with friends, practicing an instrument, visiting with his parents or reading a good book.

Couldn’t Homer read a real book and make a list of the “aw” words he encountered?

If I were to suspend my disbelief and stipulate that every child learns to read by systematically mastering 43 phonemes I am left with a simple question. Once a child can read shouldn’t phonics instruction end? Why has phonics become a separate subject rather than a decoding strategy?

Why should Homer and his literate friends be subjected to crummy reading materials until middle school when a bumper crop of high-quality high-interest literature is available?

Originally published Sunday, March 18, 2007 in The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate

The world lost another great educator recently. Donald Graves, passed away at 80 years-old in late September. Graves was the author of numerous books on teaching and literacy. His most important contribution was as “the father of the writing process.”

If you are not familiar with Dr. Graves’ work or many books, your students would benefit from you reading his classic book, A Fresh Look at Writing or Writing: Teachers & Children at Work. Graves also authored the terrific small book, Testing Is Not Teaching: What Should Count in Education