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)


This is video of Dr. Diane Ravitch’s address to the Save Our Schools March, July 30, 2011 in Washington D.C.

Diane Ravitch speaks at the Save Our Schools March from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Other posts from the SOS March:

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On July 18th, the President hosted an education roundtable with key leaders in both the private and public sectors to discuss ways we can ensure a competitive American workforce.

After all, education is about creating competitive members of the workforce, say like the President’s children or the private school darlings of the executives throwing table scraps to America’s public school students. President Obama’s administration has done great violence to America’s children and their teachers through Race-to-the-Top, endless union-busting, teacher-bashing, charter school utopianism and non-sensical get-tough rhetoric unimagined by the Bush administration.

So, rather than keep his word to stand with public school children and their teachers, save teacher jobs or advance a progressive education policy, President Obama invited fat-cat oligarchs to the White House to congratulate them for their pathetic self-serving acts of charity.

The President celebrates the largesse of corporate executives sitting on trillions of dollars worth of savings thanks to the extension of the Bush tax cuts and off-shore money-laundering. Not only do these corporate “leaders” enjoy the gift of the Presidential photo-op and tax-deductibility for their charitable efforts, but the money they pledged is categorical. That means that the corporate executives who have already been setting national policy since A Nation-at-Risk get to determine how the paltry sums will be used.

There is zero-tolerance for pedagogical solutions proposed by qualified educators. The corporate “school as business” fantasies must be followed blindly despite a consistent track record of failure.

Don’t believe me? I suggest you read:

Here is a partial list of suggested alternatives for President Obama the next time he wants to host a corporate bake sale for schools at the White House.

  1. Tell the corporate executives to pay their damned taxes
  2. Ask executives to stop demanding tax abatements in communities where they place corporate facilities
  3. Ask corporate bigwigs to ensure that every American children receive a public school education modeled on the educational experience you purchase for your own children
  4. Require corporations to pay a living wage to the parents of American school children
  5. Support universal health care for America’s children
  6. Stop laying-off Americans while making record profits
  7. Stop corporations from forcing college graduates to work as unpaid interns
  8. Remind corporate geniuses like Eli Broad that schools have little to learn from the corporate leadership lessons of AIG, the company whose Board of Directors he served on until AIG nearly tanked the US economy.
  9. Ask Bill Gates to apologize for Zune, Bob, Windows Vista, Microsoft TV, Microsoft’s labor history, the disastrous Philadelphia School of the “Future” and using America’s public school system as his personal model train set.

Jonathan Kozol has never been afraid to take on big targets. His current best seller, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Education in America (Crown, $25) puts a spotlight on what he calls this country’s biggest education failure. Editor-at-Large Gary Stager spoke with Kozol recently about his latest work and how NCLB is widening, not closing, this gap.

Some suggest the use of the word apartheid in the title is a bit rough. How do you respond to that?

Jonathan Kozol: There is no other word to describe with accuracy what’s happening right now. You know, in our urban public schools segregation has returned with a vengeance. The percentage of black kids who go to truly integrated schools has regressed to the level of 1968. I visit schools with 4,000 black and Latino students and, perhaps, 12 white kids and 6 who are classified as other. And to me, it looks exactly like the photographs from Mississippi 50 years ago.

In the South Bronx school I visit, 99.8 percent of the children are black and Latino. So I suppose technically you could say 2/10 of one percent mark the difference between legally enforced apartheid in the South 50 years ago, and socially and economically enforced apartheid in most of these big city districts now, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

What can be done about that?

Jonathan Kozol: First of all, we need to have urban schools that are so good that they will not be abandoned by white people, and this is impossible without equitable funding. Until we have equitable funding for our urban schools, there’s no chance in the world that white people in large numbers are going to return. So in the short run, the struggle is for not just adequate resources. I don’t like that term, because I think adequate is an ambiguous word. But for genuinely equitable resources at the level of the highest and big suburban districts in this country.

Now in California, some people mistakenly think it’s different because, you know, there is officially a degree of equity in the California schools. But in reality this isn’t so because the affluent school communities in California raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, privately to subsidize their schools.

But what would you do to assist these rigged community funding systems?

Jonathan Kozol: We need an entirely new structure of school finance in this country. It should not depend on local property wealth, nor should it depend on the unpredictable dribbles of state funding that allegedly are intended to equalize, but don’t. Nor should it depend on private initiatives.

These kids do not go to school in America to be the citizens of Sacramento or Albany or Boston. They don’t go to school to be citizens of California or North Dakota either. They go to school to be citizens of the United States.

And ultimately I predict that by the end of the century that we’re beginning now, we will do what almost all modern developed Western societies do, which is to finance the education of every child in our nation on an equitable basis, out of national resources. All the money spent for public education in America ought to come from federal taxes that are equitably distributed with adjustments only for greater or lesser costs of living in various sections of the nation and the greater educational needs of certain children. In fact, we are seeing the stirrings of a movement in that direction, even in this conservative era.

In my book I support and endorse a constitutional amendment to establish a high level of equitable funding for education as a national entitlement of all children in this country. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. has introduced such an amendment, and now he has a very large number of co-sponsors. We just did a press event together in Washington the beginning of the book tour. The practical question isn’t will that amendment pass because it won’t immediately. There’s no chance, in the [current] political climate. We have to build a political climate in American in which such a constitutional amendment can be passed and ratified.

It is in the long run not simply a matter of simple justice, but it’s also a matter of national self-interest. That’s why I suspect it will come to pass within the next 100 years. I’d like it to come sooner, rather than later. I mean especially now that the federal government has intervened in local schooling to a degree that it never dared to do before. We’ve got a virtual national test, to some degree national textbooks. And we have a virtual national testing system, and when we apply to college, we’re competing with kids in all cities and all states, not just our own district.

Well, the current government would suggest testing and the national curricula, etc., is a way of good and fair competition to the system.

Jonathan Kozol: The Bush administration has nationalized punishment, but not nationalized equal opportunity. NCLB is sort of the nationalized system of giving school administrators anxiety attacks.

It’s a nationalized system of substituting test prep for learning. It’s a national system of measuring the worth of children, only by their scores in the narrow range of topics that we measure. It offers no national provision for fiscal equity. In fact, it has diminished equity because the lowest performing schools are spending enormous portions of their budget in order to comply with the stipulations of NCLB.

For example, I know schools in which the principal would dearly love to be able to provide every teacher with a wonderful classroom library. These real literary treasures are found almost always in good suburban schools. And that costs a lot of money. [But] if they don’t meet their AYP in two years, they are obliged instead to spend that money to hire companies like Princeton Review or Kaplan to tutor the kids for examinations. In some districts, because we have the damage of cheating, like in Houston and several other Texas districts, the school systems are being obliged actually to create a new profession–anti-cheating monitors.

So …

Jonathan Kozol: And more important, is the loss of time. Up to a quarter of the teacher’s school year is now spent drilling the kids for the exam, instead of teaching them subject matter. In most of the schools I visit there’s at least one assistant principal, sometimes several personnel, are assigned full time to monitoring tests. Do you know what I mean?

Oh absolutely.

Jonathan Kozol: Let me say, this book is not written from a think tank. This book has been written from the first-grade classrooms and from the offices of principals. And in many cases, from the late night, dinner tables where I talk with superintendents. After two glasses of wine, they’re very honest and blunt and they pour out their hearts to me. NCLB has far from equalized opportunity for minority children or poor children. It has lessened their opportunity by diverting so much of the school’s financial resources to practices that have nothing to do with learning, but everything to do with measuring.

How did we get here? I work a lot overseas and in most of the countries we are compared to, the union would have shut the schools down if something like NCLB had been proposed.

Jonathan Kozol: Well look, first of all, my heart goes out to the superintendents of these urban systems. I’ve been very close to many, many superintendents, probably several dozen of the people who now run our major schools.

Because I’m an old teacher, my first identification is with teachers, but I’m very close to many of the principals and the superintendents, especially those who have treated me with unusual trust and camaraderie. I’ve very grateful for that. Some never vent their passions while they’re in office, others do. In my book, I cite Duncan Pritchett, a superintendent in Indianapolis, who excoriated present policies in this nation, especially the charter school movement, which is favored by the White House. I asked him if I could I quote him by name because Indianapolis is a very conservative part of the country and he said, basically, “You know, if we don’t speak out, who will.”

I was just up in Seattle for several days, where I was honored to be introduced to a huge crowd by David Engle, the former principal of a high school who resigned in protest when Seattle began to be resegregate its schools. This was because of the NCLB issue, but this was a related issue. After he had the courage to do this 18 of the other school principals in Seattle wrote a public letter supporting his courage. He also said to me basically, “You know, if we won’t speak out and act on our convictions, how can we expect our students ever to do so?”

I say again and again, I think being an urban superintendent is the hardest job in America. I often think this job was invented so that one man or woman could die for our nation’s sins.

So I understand the pressures they face. What has happened is they have been bludgeoned and bullied not just by NCLB, because this started really more than a decade ago. It really began with–in the era of Bill Bennett, that exemplar of high morality–started excoriating our administrators and disparaging our teachers. They’ve been bullied and bludgeoned, not only by political figures such as Mr. Bennett and then, most recently, by Secretary Rod Paige. But they’ve also been terrorized by local business interests, business CEOs who want the schools which poor children attend to take on a more exclusively corporate agenda by training these children for the kind of entry-level jobs they have available. They don’t bring that pressure to bear on suburban schools by the way. And so these superintendents are under the sword, and they pass that anxiety onto the principals, and then the principals …

Pass it on to the teachers?

Jonathan Kozol: They are terrorized and it’s at that point that the principals say to the teachers, “Look every minute of the day must be on task. Here is our school improvement plan.”

I’ve studied these documents with principals and, frankly, they’re usually 9/10 gobble di gook. They move around unassailable banalities into new configurations. And then they give principals timetables for achieving these objectives and there are too many. I mean, I’m one of the few writers who actually reads this stuff.

Others read the state standards. Then the school has to write its strategic reply to the improvement plan.

In an acceptable language.

Jonathan Kozol: Yes. For example, I mean take a good old-fashioned word like, “skill.” You know, add three syllables, call it a proficiency, and then the accountability technicians just melt into a pool of satisfaction that we’re willing it to be as pretentious as they are.

You write about the champing and the slogans seen in many urban schools…

Jonathan Kozol: Good principals become less interesting human beings as a result, and they pass this on to their teachers.

In my book I quote one principal of a heavily test-driven school in Columbus, Ohio. And who at the very end of the visit, she took me by the arm and said something very poignant like, “I envy principals in suburban schools where they can teach critical thinking to their students.” She just touched my arm wistfully, you know. So an awful lot of very good people are being forced to do things they consider pedagogically harmful in order to cater to the strict accountability demands. And we’re gonna lose a lot of those people because a lot of the best principals tell me they are taking early retirement because they don’t like to betray their principles.

I mean our school systems work so hard to recruit these wonderful, young, idealistic teachers and they’re losing them within a few years. I’ve recruited tens of thousands of the brightest college graduates I meet–whether it’s at Berkeley or the University of Michigan, or Brown or at Harvard, or Amherst, to go into the inner city schools and teach. And they go in and they get certified, or they join Teach for America. Then within two or three years, they call me up at night and they cry and they say, “This betrays everything I believe. I’m being forced to train these kids and turn them into examination soldiers. This is not the kind of education I received, which enabled me to go to Berkley or Harvard.”

They describe it bluntly, as apartheid curriculum. It’s a desperation curriculum for children whom America doesn’t really value. So they quit, and they don’t quit because the job is too hard. They don’t quit because of the kids.

Or the money.

Jonathan Kozol: They love the kids. They quit because they cannot stand being obliged to essentially give up educating children and, instead, train them.

Last night in Portland, Ore., a wonderful teacher who taught three years in Seattle, and quit finally over the demand that she do scripted teaching in a test-driven school, broke down and cried in front of me. She cried for an hour. And she cried because she misses the students.

At some point, don’t we have to stand up against this?

Jonathan Kozol: Oh absolutely. I mean I’m not excusing it. I don’t excuse a bit of it. I was just trying to explain it.

The culture, the climate?

Jonathan Kozol: Yeah, the dynamics of what I call infectious anxiety. We do have to stand up to it. I mean if we won’t speak out, who will? We are the witnesses. We are the frontline witnesses. We see these kids everyday. We know very well that–I mean good principals and good teachers understand the major distinction that’s taking place in America now. They understand that we are educating the children of the privileged and most of the middle class to ask discerning questions, to read with comprehension and intelligent irreverence. To pose probing questions and to find intellectually capacious answers, while we are training another class of children, mostly minority, to perform predictably and provide answers that have been scripted for them in advance. So one class is learning to grow into politically sagacious and culturally rich adulthood. And the other is being trained to perform the least interesting and lowest paid economic functions in our society and essentially to accept the world order as it is dictated by the children of the privileged.

To me this is a bigger divide than the so-called achievement gap. It’s a larger gap than the achievement gap because it doesn’t have to do merely with, you know, how quickly you learn a constant blend, although that is important. It’s a much deeper thing. It doesn’t just have to do with your ability to fill in the right bubble on a high-stake exam. It has to do with your ability to function with authority and wise judgment in a democracy.

Education commentator Seymour Sarason makes an interesting point, which is that we talk a lot about these issues, and we don’t even have a common discussion about what we mean by learning or what is a good school. So, the suburbs are raising money for art and music programs because they don’t have them anymore either.

Jonathan Kozol: Well that’s not entirely true. That may be the case in parts of California because the state has impoverished itself to like the level of operating a third-world school system.

I disagree with those who believe that this is an infliction that’s universally distributed. In the very good suburban school systems that I visited repeatedly while I was writing this book, in order to make comparisons, I still see classrooms in which there’s a terrific and highly successful mix between good sequential disciplined and substantive instruction and a great deal of highly energized, exhilarating inquiry, question posing and sophisticated argumentation.

This is what these elementary school children need if they’re ever going on to high school and take demanding courses and then to college.

I think there’s a huge distinction to be drawn in this country. I regret this trend everywhere and good suburban administrators often tell me that the NCLB accountability demands are just a royal pain in the ass and have almost nothing to do with education. But they still know most of their kids are gonna do well, and so they are not in a state of terror and they still maintain good drama programs. Their students actually read literature. For God’s sake there are thousands of suburban high schools where apart from reading real literature, the1y also read books like mine.

Savage Inequalities and The Shame of the Nation are now being adopted by suburban high schools. So I think something very different is happening in the inner cities. I think we have not just apartheid schools, we have apartheid curriculum.

Superintendents whose intelligence I respect and have known for many years, like Superintendent Roy Romer in Los Angeles, bought right into this and I regret that very much. I think they should speak out. We need more people like Duncan Pritchett who will speak out bluntly, who will protest, who will put their jobs on the line. And I don’t think they should go on bended knee to the private sector. The private sector says we will be your partners, but it’s not a real partnership because the business CEOs tell the teachers, “This is what I need you to do to sharpen my corporation’s competitive edge.” The teachers are not given the right of saying to the business CEOs, “And here’s what I need you to do in order to tax people of your social class high enough to give us the schools we deserve.” So it’s not a real partnership.

Would it be in the corporation’s self-interest to have a better educated populous?

Jonathan Kozol: Well, it depends on whether you mean long-term self-interest or short-term self-interest. Yes, wise business leaders know that over the long term it is to the advantage of business commerce and of the democratic society in which they’ve grown apart, to have a richly educated population. But in the short run, many business leaders, frankly, have written off the academic and truly intellectual potential of minority children and have prepared, instead, to train them to fill the bottom level rungs here in their corporations or factories while they educate their own children to address all the high order questions of society.

I hear this repeatedly when business leaders say to me, in the mistaken notion that I will agree with them, “I’m on your side Jonathan. I want to help you to train these kids so I can hire them for my entry level jobs.” And, you know, if I’ve had a glass of wine sometimes, I’ll look right in their eyes and I’ll say, “If you need entry level laborers, train your own kids for those jobs, educate the little ones I write about so they can be the CEO someday. Or if they want, they can turn their back entirely on your mercantile agenda.”

I say that all the time and some of them who agree say to me, “You’re right Jonathan, I made–I made a myopic short-term choice which ultimately betrays the essence of democracy.”

So like you, I spend time with these kids and have worked most recently with these kids who are incarcerated and I’m always amazed by how powerful a small sort of gesture or a bit of friendship shared with one of these kids can mean. And when I read in your book about, you know, zero tolerance policies and silent recess and–and principals asking the level fours to stand up for applause and not mention any level ones.

Jonathan Kozol: Yes.

How did we get here and what can we do climb out?

Jonathan Kozol: OK. I think it’s too late in the day to waste time finding out how we got there. I think we need to use all the strength we have to figure out how to get out.

OK. So we have a principal who’s calling out the level fours.

Jonathan Kozol: Well in that case, that principal was not at all typical of inner city principals. That principal was tyrannical and there’s nothing I could say that she would hear. I emphasize in my book, in a chapter called Treasured Places, that there are ways in which good principals can accede to the demands of the Federal government enough to survive, but simultaneously denounce the underpinnings of this agenda in a number of constructive and–and I would add–mischievous ways.

For example, here’s one way. You give the test because you have to give the tests, but you don’t tell the children that these tests measure their real value. You don’t tell the children that narrow area of learning that the test measures reflects their value to you as human beings or–or as little intellectuals.

You make certain that you do not allow test prep to interfere with education. You do not cordon off a quarter of the year before the exams. You refuse to allow this to be imposed on the youngest children. School systems have to bring these high stakes test in third grade under NCLB; some schools in desperation are starting much earlier, in first grade, in order to get ready for the test. I describe one district in California where they starting test-prep in kindergarten. The good suburban districts I visit absolutely flat out reject those practices.

They do not consider a kindergarten or first grade child uncompleted product into which value must be added by this kind of miserable agenda. I visit countless suburban schools in which children still are allowed to learn out of a thirst for learning, out of a fascination for learning and where the teachers are able to enjoy the company of children, without becoming drill sergeants for the state or branch managers for the corporations.

It’s the inner city schools that are under the sword of high stakes tests and low performance that this has become a tyrannical agenda and it is not closing the achievement gap.

Occasionally we’re told, you know, I’ve been watching this for 40 years and occasionally we’re told there’s a blip. Fourth-grade scores in reading look better this year. Then I meet the same kids four years later when they’re in the eighth grade, the same kids who allegedly made this 5 percent gain in scores in fourth grade. I meet them in eighth grade and they can’t write a cogent sentence or read a book with any element of comprehension.

If they can read it at all, they read it like phonetic drones. Then by the time they get to twelfth grade, the average black and Latino student in America reads at the level of an average white seventh grader. That comes straight from the Education Trust, which they say is a very politically moderate organization. So these are not real gains. These are testing gains; they are not learning gains. Real gains endure. False gains evaporate.

Every year or so there’s a new plan to turn it all around. You know, for some reason all these are always seven-point plans. I keep running into this and a school system says well we have a new seven-point plan to fix–they love the verb fix–to fix the segregated schools. Or seven scientifically proven ways to make the segregated schools work. Work and fix are the operative verbs. They’re technocratic verbs which imply that the prior problem of our separate and unequal schooling can be resolved in an auto body shop, you know, as a technical tune up of some sort.

My publisher even suggested that I end my book with a list of maybe seven things–a recipe. I didn’t write this book to provide America with a recipe for polishing the apple of apartheid schooling. I wrote this book to force good people in America to stand up and denounce the restoration of this kind of schooling and to simultaneously to denounce the apartheid curriculum that accompanies it.

If there’s one recipe in my book, it’s not, you know, like the better way to teach constant blends, although I do know a few better ways to teach constant blends. I’m a real teacher, you know, I taught phonics believe it or not. I have no problem with phonics.

Well the point is that we shouldn’t allow our commonsense as teachers or school officials to be distorted by the false polarities of these culture warriors who basically say “You know, you either use our strict, rigid scientifically proven phonetically fanatical approach, or else [you have] no value as a teacher.” That’s all. We have to resist these crazed extremes.

I go to great length in this book to recognize the dilemmas that school administrators face and to refuse to accept this false polarization between, you know, fanatical drill-and-kill on the one hand, and on the other hand kinds of mindless, random, euphoric education. I say that this is a false dichotomy. The best schools in America have developed and sustained a well-balanced mixture of–of good skill teaching and genuinely inquisitive, deeply intellectual learning in which there is still joy in the classroom.

I argue that our principals and superintendents, especially in inner city schools, should fight for that balance and refuse to be steamrollered by this juggernaut that’s bearing down from Washington.

The teacher in me notices two things in your book. One was your observation that schools named Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks or Paul Robinson or Thurgood Marshall are most likely to be the most segregated.

Jonathan Kozol: Yeah. And they’re usually very bad schools.

It seemed like in some of those schools, you were the first person who asked an 11th grader what they hoped for their life.

Jonathan Kozol: That’s right. I don’t think I was the first… I’m sure there were some teachers who asked that question–if they’re given the time to ask any question, you know.

The second issue is that you say students in those schools do not even know who Martin Luther King or Thurgood Marshall were. How is that possible?

Jonathan Kozol: Well look, in the case of the Thurgood Marshall School in Seattle, the principal, who’s African-American, simply managed to convey the vague impression to the children that Thurgood Marshall is some kind of a manager. OK. I learned that because the slogans manager and self-manager were all over the building.

When I sat down with a group of fourth-grade boys, who were some of the top students in fourth grade, none of them at first could tell me who Thurgood Marshall was. One thought that he ran a camp for boys, a summer camp. One thought he was some kind of a business manager. Only one, finally, told me he was a lawyer who tried to fight to make things more fair in America. And that answer came only after considerable prodding on my part.

But the principal was in a damnably difficult position. I mean what, in fact, could he say to these little kids? This was an elementary school. “Thurgood Marshall dedicated his entire life to the struggle to abolish schools like the one in which you will spend the next five years of your life.” Not too many inner-city principals would want to say that to their students.

We have forced the principals themselves to do all sorts of somersaults in order to avoid naming reality. However, at the high school level I think teachers and principals have an absolute obligation to open up these ironies explicitly to their students. Because by that age, at least some of the students, are well aware of the irony and they ought to be allowed to voice it.

I have tremendous admiration–my breath was taken away by a veteran teacher at the Martin Luther King High School in New York City, which is an overwhelmingly segregated school in the middle of a white middle class upscale neighborhood, right next to Lincoln Center. When she said to me, “If I’m teaching in a segregated school named Martin Luther King, I think my students have the right to know what he stood for.” She made sure they knew what he stood for and as a result, those students developed a very strong consciousness. At least many of her students, as a consequence recognized what I argue repeatedly in Shame of the Nation. Namely, that this nation has trampled the legacy of Dr. King, even while we celebrate his birthday every year. That we have ripped apart the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. That in reality, we are back to Plessy, because our schools are still separate, but they’re nowhere near equal.

I think these subjects ought to be opened up candidly in front of our students. And to be quite blunt about it, it may cause many of these students to be angry and to confront us intellectually. I know that it will liberate them to do some of the best writing they’ve ever done in their lives because for the first time they’ll be writing about something that …


Jonathan Kozol: … that matters to their heart and it’s something which comes out of their heart, rather than out of the over-structured mind of someone in Albany or Sacramento who’s making lists and standards. Most of the state standards are mediocre.

Is what you’re saying that emotional standardization needs lowering?

Jonathan Kozol: I’ll be honest, I came to teaching from a career in literature. I majored in English literature at Harvard. I wrote my thesis on Elizabethan poetry and I went to Europe and studied with older writers–older American writers. [including Richard Wright] Most of the standards are mediocre at best and jargon-ridden to a degree that is insulting to anybody who actually values the written word.

They basically move jargon around mindlessly. Try making a sonnet out of the standards published by the State Board of Education anywhere in the United States. I defy you to do it. So they made things efficient. They made it easier to measure everything empirically, but they have exiled aesthetics. They have abolished any semblance of respect for learning for it’s own sake, To compound all the other inequalities, they have made the school a joyless experience for children of color. We have to stand up and denounce this agenda. And we have to do it quickly and politically and vocally.

If the superintendents say,” It’s hard for me to do it, please do it on my behalf, Jonathan,” I’m willing to take that role. But, I want them to stand up beside me and defend me when sharp knives of the Heritage Foundation come out.

Originally published in the January 2006 issue of District Administration Magazine

I go back a long way with Generation YES, I used to read Dennis Harper‘s articles in The International Logo Exchange journal back in the 1980s before he contributed articles when I became Editor of Logo Exchange in the early 1990s. He brought microcomputers to schools in dozens of developing countries, had taught all over the world and was one of the earliest promoters of microcomputers in education

While Dennis was leaving his last school district position and transitioning the successful Federal Challenge Grant, Generation WHY, into a company, Generation YES, I suggested that he hire my partner Sylvia Martinez to help make the trains run on time. Sylvia is now the President of Generation YES.

Since that time I have worked on various projects with Generation YES, including a science and technology improvement project in Brooklyn, NY and as one of the designers of TechYES, the ground-breaking peer-to-peer technology literacy certification program.


While giant testing companies sell multiple-choice tests challenging students to identify the parts of a computer – cassette drive, floppy disk, dot-matrix printer – as a way to satisfy the NCLB 8th grade tech literacy requirement and ISTE standards, TechYES starts from the premise that children are competent and can demonstrate their technological fluency through the creation of personallly meaningful projects that impress their peer mentors.

There are very few companies outside of the members of The Contructivist Consortium committed to student empowerment, creativity, collaboration and computing. It is much easier to sell products that do things to students, rather than amplify their voice and  potential. Generation YES is the rare exception.

I recently found a VHS tape about Generation WHY that includes a stunning appearance by my friend, colleague and mentor Dr. Seymour Papert, saying some very flattering things about what is now known as Generation YES and their educational approach to 21st Century student empowerment, leadership and service.

The short video clip below is well worth watching. You might even take a look at Generation YES and TechYES.

Incidentally, the host of the 1998 video (below) is now serving in the Peace Corps in Africa.

Seymour Papert on Generation YES and Kid Power from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Related articles by Dr. Seymour Papert

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:

I’m writing this column because I’m embarrassed. Joe Hanson

Two recent issues of District Administration have carried columns by Gary Stager that have attacked aspects of the educational proposals/decisions of both presidential candidates.

As editor-in-chief, I feel that I erred in permitting publication of these two articles in the months before the presidential elections. The article in our August issue (Gary Stager on Kerry’s Education Plan) makes an argument against merit pay for teachers. That’s certainly a valid matter for discussion on our editorial pages. What does not belong are Stager’s comments such as, “… the Kerry proposal could suggest either a generous desire to increase teacher pay or a cynical scheme to pander to the electorate.” In another paragraph he paraphrases Seymour Sarason, “… members of both parties seem to increase in ignorance proportionate to their proximity to schooling decisions. After all, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy co-sponsored No Child Left Behind.

In our October issue (Gary Stager on Direct Instruction), Stager condemns a reading program called Reading Mastery and its inventor, Sigfried Engleman. The article contains some strong arguments against the “controversial pedagogical approach” (although it fails to discuss it’s effectiveness or lack thereof.)

Unfortunately, Stager devotes most of his column to attacking President Bush: 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. He goes on, Engelmann’s publisher is a textbook giant with ties to the Bush family dating back to the 1930s. … The publishers have received honors from two Bush administrations and they in turn have bestowed awards on Secretary Rod Paige. The same company’s former executive vice president is the new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, and continues with phrases such as The War on Public Education, single-minded test-prep factories and magical voucher.

When Stager asks, “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?,” he crosses the line between clever compendium and outright bias.

Stager writes a regular opinion column in District Administration. His opinions are his own. As long as he’s writing about educational matters, I’m delighted to keep running his arguments but we will make every effort to avoid running material from him, or anyone else, questioning the motives of elected officials or candidates.

I take full responsibility for running these two columns. Stager has been a valuable contributor to DA for about five years. I took my eye off the ball.

As always, we at District Administration value the open exchange of ideas about improving public education. I invite you to share your thoughts with me.


Originally published in the Novembe 2004 issue of District Administration Magazine.

There’s some serious thought behind the Frappuccino. It is no accident that people are willing to pay over four bucks for a cup of joe and that the average Starbucks customer visits eighteen times per month. Ever see a Starbucks go out of business? Of course not. Starbucks has grown from 1,000 to 13,000 stores in a decade, with 27,000 more planned for the next five years.

Starbucks is an unqualified success. Right? Not so, according to a corporate memo sent by founder and CEO Howard Schultz on February 14:

Over the past ten years, in order to achieve the growth, development, and scale necessary to go from less than 1,000 stores to 13,000 stores and beyond, we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have led to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand.Many of these decisions were probably right at the time, and on their own merit would not have created the dilution of the experience; but in this case, the sum is much greater and, unfortunately, much more damaging than the individual pieces. For example, when we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocca machines. This specific decision became even more damaging when the height of the machines … blocked the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista.

Schultz also complained about the stores feeling “sterile and cookie cutter” like, losing “the warm feel of the neighborhood.” Starbucks’ merchandise is “more art than science,” he said. The menu addition of hot breakfast sandwiches has allowed cheese to burn in the oven and overpower the essential aroma of fresh coffee.

Such attention to detail is the reason customers love Starbucks. Schultz based the company on a desire to combine gourmet coffee with Italian café culture. Starbucks stores are your “third place.” There’s home, work and Starbucks. It’s the American pub. Their products are carefully designed to tell a story about lifestyle or the exotic lands where your drink originated. Their motto is that “geography is a flavor.”

This scenario has everything to do with the state of public education. The change in course Schultz advocates acknowledges that the attempts by Starbucks to homogenize, or in school parlance, “teacher-proof,” their processes for short-term gains may have destructive long-term consequences. Is our quest for multiple-choice miracles and reduction of children into aggregated data destroying the educational experience? If so, what will you say in the memo to your “partners”? What is your school’s story?

Since 2004, 25,000 “partners” have graduated from an optional Coffee Master course in which they learn to discern the subtleties of regional flavor with rituals similar to wine tasting. Distinctive aprons and business cards honor their learned expertise.

How many teachers in your district have business cards?
Schultz stated boldly that Starbucks’ “problems are self-induced” and that success is “not an entitlement.” He concluded, “I take full responsibility myself, but we desperately need to look into the mirror and realize it’s time to get back to the core and make the changes necessary to evoke the heritage, the tradition, and the passion that we all have for the true Starbucks experience.”

Will you have the courage to lead a change in course, or will the stench of burnt cheese waft through your corridors?

Originally published in the July 2007 issue of District Administration Magazine

In 1963, Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist began a series of studies “intended to measure the willingness of a participant to obey an authority who instructs the participant to do something that may conflict with the participant’s personal conscience.”[i] Milgram began his experiments a few months after the start of the Adolph Eichman trial in Nuremberg. Milgram was fascinated by the possibility that the heinous crimes committed by Eichman his fellow Nazis were actually the result of just following orders.

Several web sites refer to the Milgram Experiments as a study of depravity. It certainly tests a person’s obedience and compliance to authority, if not their level of sadism.

These experiments and others like them requiring potential harm to human subjects have been deemed unethical for the past forty years. That must have sounded like a perfect invitation for the ABC news primetime magazine television show, Primetime Live. On January 3rd, 2007, Primetime Live, dedicated an hour to the Milgram and other related experiments. Video clips from The Science of Evil may be seen here.

The Experiment
A pair of subjects are hired for $50 and told they will be part of an experiment. They can keep the money whether they complete the experiment or not.

One person is the teacher and the other, the learner. The two participants are given the illusion that the roles were assigned randomly. Each participant is placed in separate rooms with a solid wall between them. In some versions of the experiment the learner tells the teacher and researcher that he or she has a heart problem (this version was featured on ABC). The learner then has electrodes attached to his or her hand while the teacher and researcher go into the other room.

The learner is in on the ruse and will act like he or she is being shocked or a tape recording of a person screaming will be played on cue. The teacher is told that he or she must administer a word memory test to the learner on the other side of the wall. Each time the learner gives an incorrect answer the teacher must throw a switch labeled with an increasing voltage. Throwing that switch will electrocute the learner and the learner will undoubtedly scream. The range of voltage delivered by the machine was from 45 to 450 volts. In some experiments the teacher was given a blast of 45 volts to demonstrate that the machine was not dangerous albeit unpleasant.



The researcher wears a lab coat and sits behind the teacher administering the test and the punishment. If the teacher’s conscience or sense of morality caused them to question the experiment or worry about the learner, the researcher would offer a series of verbal prods in the following order:

    1. Please continue.
    2. The experiment requires that you continue.
    3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
    4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

No other threats or acts of coercion are employed.

If the teacher refused to continue, the experiment would be halted. The experiment would also end after the learner had received shocks of the maximum 450-volts three times in succession.

In Milgram’s original Yale Study 65% of subjects administered the maximum shock, regardless of their discomfort or misgivings. None of his subjects quit before 300 volts – more than twice-household AC voltage. Primetime Live, for ethical purposes, terminated the experiment at 150 volts, but found similar results to the 1963 study.

There mere presence of an unknown authority figure in a lab coat caused a majority of men and women (on the ABC program more women complied) to electrocute a complete stranger. The producers of Primetime Live made the timely and inevitable comparisons to the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.


Why is this Being Discussed in an Education Publication?
While watching the television show I began thinking about how the Milgram Experiments relate to educator conduct during the No Child Left Behind and the growing obsession with student accountability as manifest in testing. Surely educators know that teaching to the test robs the curriculum of its relevance and richness. They must know that recess, art, music, science, electives and extra-curricular activities are good for children. The absence of these opportunities is harmful. Teachers know about student anxiety, vomiting and pants wetting invoked by the tests. Heck, products are sold to help students manage their test-induced anxiety and teachers are provided instructions for handling vomit soaked answer sheets. Reports of cheating and physical abuse of students linked to test scores are becoming more common.

Could such irrational behavior harmful to innocent victims be related to the Milgram Experiments? Did I really want to connect standardized testing to the Nazis and electrocuting strangers?

I did not have to! Primetime Live did it for me!
One of the subjects in the television program was a 7th grade teacher who explained that she didn’t stop shocking the learner because as a teacher she had learned when a student’s complaints were phony. I thought to myself, “Has she electrocuted many students?”

The teacher asked the researcher, “There isn’t going to be any lawsuit from this medical facility, right?” When told that the teacher was not liable, she replied, “That’s what I needed to know.” It is however worth noting that this was after she induced the maximum shock and the learner demanded that the experiment be terminated.

Other subjects said that they inflicted the pain because they were not responsible for what occurred. The researcher was responsible since he told them to do it, even if he never left his desk or raised his voice.

But then ABC News and the teacher herself gave me a perfectly wrapped gift suitable for sharing with you.

When informed of the experimental ruse and asked why she was so willing to inflict pain on a stranger, the teacher looked straight into the camera and participated in the following exchange with ABC News reporter Chris Cuomo.

Cuomo: “You heard the man say, ‘my heart hurts’.”

Teacher: “I did.”

Cuomo: “Just having the guy in the lab coat say, ‘keep going; it’s fine; I’m telling you it’s fine;’ somewhat divorced you from your own decision-making power?”

Teacher: “Oh sure, It’s just like when I’m told to administer the state tests for hours on end.”

Cuomo: “You’re doing your job?”

Teacher: “I’m doing my job.”

If that exchange does not send a chill down your spine, nothing will.

Many of my colleagues and I have heard an increasing number of educators justify a variety of bizarre or unsavory pedagogical practices based on a need for compliance or obedience to authority. What would Milgram say about this trend?

In his 2001 book, American Psychology and Schools – A Critique, Seymour Sarason asks why the American psychological community has been so silent on the explosion of high-stakes testing and other school-related issues pertaining to children. If the APA has banned human experiments such as those performed by Milgram shouldn’t they raise their collective voices against high-stakes testing? How about going on Primetime Live or Good Morning America and at least sharing some concern?

“The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.” (Stanley Milgram, 1974)[v]







This article was originally published in The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate on Thursday, January 04, 2007 8:26 AM

Before accepting over-testing as inevitable, try debating the issue with parents and students

Our schools are in the midst of a mass panic not seen since the swine flu epidemic–standardized testing. We are swept up in a wave of “the tests are important,” “parents demand accountability,” and “they make us do it.” This uncritical groupthink will destroy public education unless we wake up, form alliances and tell the public the truth.

Democrats and Republicans alike caught a bad case of testing fever and voted overwhelmingly for No Child Left Behind, perhaps the greatest intrusion of the federal government into local education in history. NCLB will compel states to test their students every year from grades 2-12 in order to rank schools and shut many of them down. Our Proctor-in-Chief, George W. Bush, is extending the joys of standardized testing into Head Start.

Since many administrators and school board members have no idea how many standardized tests they need to administer, NCLB will undoubtedly add additional tests and draconian consequences to a school year already diminished by weeks of testing and test preparation.

Books to help educatoes and parents resist standardized testing

Without so much as a public debate on what we would want for our schools, testing mania has been allowed to spread like a plague on our educational process. If some testing is good, more is better. If the youngest students can’t yet hold a pencil or read, of course they can bubble-in answers to math problems for several hours at a time. Head Start should be a reading program. You got a problem with three-year-olds reading? Why then, you must suffer from “the bigotry of low expectations.” The end of recess does not affect obesity. Replacing art and music with scripted curricula won’t lead to increased school violence or discipline problems. Down is up, black is white.

Education Week’s annual report “Technology Counts,” states an alarming trend–schools are not spending enough money on using computers for the purposes of standardized testing! Apparently, the years I’ve spent helping schools use computers to enhance learning have been wasted. It never occurred to me that computers should be used to replace #2 pencils and scan sheets. Tech-based testing reminds me of the old Gaines Burger commercial that asked, “Is your dog getting enough cheese?”

The Education Week “research” is replete with charts and graphs designed to whip child-centered educators into line. EdWeek loves winners and losers nearly as much as the testing industry. Coincidentally, a giant publisher of standardized tests, textbooks and test preparation systems, funded their “study.”

In such a climate of confusion and hysteria, educators feel powerless. Parents trust that you will do the right thing. Misconceptions about high-stakes testing are amplified by an unwillingness to engage the community in conversation.

Getting Activeistock_000001759016xsmall-1
Inspired by Juanita Doyon’s terrific new book, Not With Our Kids You Don’t: Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools, and a desire to show my kids that you can make a difference, I decided to try my hand at activism.

I designed a flier answering some of the myths about standardized testing and telling parents that California state law allows them to exempt their child from the STAR tests. Two days before testing was to begin I stood in front of my daughter’s high school and passed out 150 fliers in about 10 minutes. I felt a bit creepy, but the kids told me that I was cool (a first).

I have since learned that 46 students opted out of the tests. That’s a one-third hit-rate. Not since the Pet Rock has a marketing effort been so successful with so little effort Think about it–a kid had to take a piece of paper from a stranger, bring it home, convince his parents to write a letter disobeying the wishes of the school and bring the letter back to school the next day. Perhaps the public isn’t as hungry for increased accountability as we have been led to believe?

One parent said she didn’t know her tax money was spent on standardized testing. Can you imagine the public being less engaged in a matter so important?

It is incumbent upon each of us to tell parents what we know and engage the community in serious discussions about schooling. We may find that we have many more allies than there are politicians telling us what’s best for kids.

Here is a collection of resources related to testing resistance

By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine – July 2003

© 2003 Professional Media Group LLC