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?”

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