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) 

 

“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

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

duncanobama2On September 3, 2008 I published this article, First We Kill the Teacher Unions, in the Huffington Post. The article reported on some evidence that the first “labor” President of the 21st Century and his “liberal” friend were going to use teachers as public policy piñatas.

So, was I right? Did I understate the assault on public education and its practitioners by the Obama administration?

Feel free to copy links to articles related to this issue in your comments.

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!

Thus far, President Obama and his disappointing pick for Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, show little evidence of an education policy different from that of his predecessor. Of all the stupid ideas, distractions and crackpot educational fantasies being offered, teacher merit pay may take the cake. There seems to be a part of a politician’s reptilian brain hardwired to believe that teachers are deliberately suppressing the almighty student standardized test scores until the government awards them an extra buck a day.

I published the following article in the August 2004 issue of District Administration Magazine. You may note that bad education policies are bipartisan.

Kerry’s Education Plan


Raise test Scores – win a prize

I was horrified by recent news referring to U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s education platform. The newsflash reported that if elected president, Kerry would reward teachers for increased student achievement. The news media may have over-simplified a more comprehensive policy statement or the Kerry campaign may have distributed this bumper sticker slogan for its own purposes. Either hypothesis is plausible since there is so little thoughtful discourse on the status or future of public education.

In his book, Political Leadership and Educational Failure, Seymour Sarason reminds us that although we expect that our elected officials will be briefed by the best and brightest experts when concerned with issues of taxation, highway resurfacing or sewage, no such expectation exists for discussions of education policy. Members of both parties seem to increase in ignorance proportionate to their proximity to schooling decisions. After all, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy cosponsored No Child Left Behind.

Taken at face value, reports of the Kerry proposal could suggest either a generous desire to increase teacher pay or a cynical scheme to pander to the electorate. While I’m supportive of dramatic increases in teacher compensation, merit pay is a mischievous idea that continues to plague public education.

Is the key to educational quality a tip jar for teachers?

In a Harvard Business Review article, Alfie Kohn states, “… at least two dozen studies over the last three decades have conclusively shown that people who expect to receive a reward for completing a task … simply do not perform as well as those who expect no reward at all. … Incentives [or bribes] simply can’t work in the workplace.”

You don’t have to agree with fuzzy teacher lovers like Kohn. The week of the Kerry announcement I read articles in Business Week and Business 2.0 stating unequivocally that incentive pay does not work in the workplace. W. Edward Demings opposes the destructive effects of merit pay as do Peopleware authors Lister and DeMarco. They detail how extrinsic rewards and performance reviews contribute to teamicide, the unintentional destruction of well-jelled teams. Most people believe they do the best job possible and reviews that merely reflect this fact lead to disappointment, lower morale and drive a wedge between colleagues. Even seemingly innocuous schemes like “employee of the month” do little to motivate excellent employees, but can increase resentment.

Countless psychologists have demonstrated how extrinsic rewards are unsustainable since the bribe must be continuously increased in order to maintain the same level of performance.

Making Enemies

Perhaps teachers are different. Could it be that they are more mercenary than Enron employees or waiters jockeying for tips? If it doesn’t work in industry, why is it constantly touted asthe cure for all educational ills? Merit pay is a ridiculous idea for improving teacher quality for a number of reasons. Let me share a few:

Teachers are not in it for the money. Remuneration is low on the list of reasons why people become and remain educators. While all teachers would prefer to earn more money, it is not a high priority.

Merit pay shifts all responsibility to teachers. Teachers would like to be treated more professionally and have their judgment trusted. Merit pay denies teachers autonomy through a top-down manipulation, yet holds them responsible for student performance.

Student performance is based on multiple factors. A good teacher can make a huge impact on the life and development of a student. However, human development is complex and learning is not merely the result of being taught.

Merit pay makes students the enemy. Linking teacher pay to test score increases invariably leads to teacher resentment of the very kids they are employed to serve.

Will Teach for Bonuses

The message implicit in political demands for pay linked to accountability is that teachers are failing to assist students until they get an extra food pellet. Demonizing teachers is so much easier than assuming responsibility for meaningful education policy.

According to his campaign Web site, Senator Kerry appears to offer a more comprehensive, less punitive vision for public education. Regardless of this November’s election results, I hope public policy will lead a serious national effort to benefit children without scapegoating teachers.