I’ve been online since 1983 and my own web site dates back to the first term of the Clinton presidency. Along the way, I may have ruffled a few feathers.

Let me tell you about one of my all-time favorite social media brouhahas.

On December 17, 2008, The Huffington Post published an article I wrote entitled, “Obama Practices Social Promotion.

I began the article…

“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. 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.”

…and went on to say…

“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.”

All of my assertions (especially the inflammatory ones), contained links to supporting evidence.

Then it happened

A few days later, right around Christmas, my Google Alert started sounding. Soon it was like a bell warning of  four-alarm fire and the alarm sounded for several straight days. What could possibly have caused such sudden popularity for Little ‘ol me?

It seems that the CEO of Hooked-on-Phonics® was so offended by my joke comparing their qualifications to endorse a federal Secreatary of Education to the ShamWow guy that the company paid a public relations firm to issue a global press release condemning me. “Hooked on Phonics(R) CEO Responds to Gary Stager’s Criticism of President-elect Obama’s Choice of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education,” was released in dozens of countries around the world. Every time one of those press releases went public, my Google alert rang again.

What is so golden about that misguided attempt to make me famous is the lengths to which the CEO of Hooked-on-Phonics® went to avoid offending the ShamWow guy (probably a wise idea since he apparently beat up a cannibal hooker).

“Gary Stager is entitled to his opinions regarding President-elect Obama’s selection of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and education policy generally. However, it is unfortunate he has tried to trivialize my views by likening my company and its product — Hooked on Phonics, a product that has helped millions of children learn to read — to a sponge (with all due respect to the folks at ShamWow).”

Read the entire condemnation of me here. I could not be prouder!

My only regret is that the predictions I made about President-Elect Obama’s education policies and his nominee for Secretary of Education turned out to be even worse than I had feared. Read the five and a half year-old article for yourself here.

In the words of the great political philosopher, Popeye the Sailor Man, “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more.” On the same day that the Obama Administration refused to stand for clean air by not even enforcing the clean air standards of the George W. Bush administration, I received an email from the campaign asking for my money and labor for his re-election.

Full disclosure:
I am a Liberal considerably far to the left of the President. In 2008, he was my 5th choice during the Democratic Primaries. However, once he defeated Senator Clinton, I became an enthusiastic Obama supporter. I donated money and traveled to Washinton D.C. to attend his Inauguration. Although I believed that he was politically naive with few coattails or allies in Washington, I was optimistic. That hope triumphed over what I knew about his hostility towards teacher unions as expressed in my September 2008 article, “First We Kill the Teacher Unions” and my horror at Arne Duncan’s nomination as Secretary of Education, “Obama Practices Social Promotion.”

Getting the President’s Attention
The President’s base is having a heck of a time having their concerns heard or respected by the Obama White House. The “punch a hippie strategy” might work as a political tactic, but not at the expense of increased asthma suffering by children or the survival of the American middle class.

My possibly inconsequential act of dissent was unsubscribing from the Obama political mailing list. Perhaps, the White House political team will take “the base” more seriously if a large number of political supporters sever their ties to the re-election campaign. So, I just unsubscribed and I urge others to do so as well, even if you plan to vote Obama as I do in November 2012.

I only had a small text field in which to express my reasons for unsubscribing. My comment is as follows:

The President’s weakness in negotiating with the GOP House, attack on public education, refusal to march with Wisconsin workers, capitulation on environmental regulation, continuation of questionable interrogation techniques, escalation in Afghanistan, support for soldiers of forture and refusal to fight for qualified nominees like Elizabeth Warren makes me quite unenthusiastic about either donating to his campaign or volunteering my time.

If you too wish to express your dissatisfaction and unsubscribe from Obama’s mailing list, click here.

Please donate to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and/or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee!

Happy Labor Day!

From Whitehouse.gov

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.

teacheroftheyearAmidst the hoopla surrounding the silly tradition of naming a national “Teacher of the Year,” the President of the United States and Council of Chief State School Officers made major policy news by endorsing the unblocking of Internet access in American classrooms – all in pursuit of educational excellence!

A high school English teacher from Iowa who incorporates everything from singing to Facebook in her lessons has been recognized by President Barack Obama as the nation’s top teacher.

Obama introduced Sarah Brown Wessling on Thursday in a ceremony in the Rose Garden.

“Her students don’t just write five-paragraph essays, but they write songs, public service announcements, film story boards, even grant proposals for their own not-for-profit organizations,” the president said, adding that one of Wessling’s students reported that learning in her classroom was never boring.

“I’m not sure I could have said that when I was in school,” said Obama. (original article)

…The Council of Chief State School Officers selects the recipient of the annual honor and cited Wessling’s passion and innovative approaches, including incorporating Facebook in her classes.

So, congratulations are in order for Ms. Wessling and for every teacher in America who can now go tell their school “network nazis” that the President of the United States wants them to stop blocking the Web. Blocking Facebook and other web sites is unpatriotic!

Thank you, Mr. President!


Come to CMK 2010!

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.

Laura Bush Praises Obama, Defends Back-To-School Speech
In an interview with CNN, Mrs. Bush, a former school teacher, said, “There’s a place for the president of the United States to talk to school children and encourage school children” to stay in school. And she said parents and others also need to send that message.

“That certainly is the right of parents to choose what they want their children to hear in school.”

“I also think it’s also really important for everyone to respect the president of the United States,” she said.

Mrs. Bush praised Obama’s performance under difficult circumstances. “He’s tackled a lot to start with and that’s made it difficult,” she said.


2012 Note: The New Hampshire legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto and passed a law this week allowing the parental veto of curriculum. The following is a reference to this sort of power grab from 2009 and the text of a March 2007 article I wrote on the subject for District Administration magazine. I suggested the inevitability of such action five years ago.

Be sure to subscribe to this blog to receive regular access to my crystal ball and predictions about the rapid decline of public education and common sense!

2009 Note: The insanely paranoid right-wing fears about the president of the United States urging American children to be good students scares me. I believe that it is another hysterical attempt to usurp the legitimacy of a democratically elected African-American President. Denying children access to the President of the United States is unpatriotic and miseducative. The teachable moment should be seized to discuss and debate the President’s words in a civil democratic fashion. Surely, that is consistent with the ideals of public education in a free society.

I wrote about what might be in the Obama speech for the Huffington Post – A Sneak Peak at Obama’s Speech to Schoolchildren

I also dug up this article I wrote for the March issue of District Administration Magazine back in 2007.

The Parental Veto of Curriculum
Fanaticism must not overrule district leadership!

An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary addressing environmental policy, hosted by Al Gore, continues to generate educational controversy. A number of parents have objected to the film’s classroom use, accusing it of being inaccurate, in spite of numerous scientists who testify to its veracity. Other critics challenge the messenger, accusing the film of partisanship. This seems peculiar. Is truth Democratic or Republican?

The Federal Way School District in Washington recently banned the film unless specific criteria were met. Teachers who want to show the movie must get the approval of the principal and the superintendent, and must ensure that a “credible, legitimate opposing view will be presented.” And teachers who have already shown the film must now present an “opposing view.”

This policy raises more questions than it answers. What is credible? Does every issue have an equally valid opposing view? Is there only one opposing view? Should the views of the Aryan Nations be included in discussions of the Holocaust or civil rights? Are there worksheets on the upside of slavery?

“Condoms don’t belong in school, and neither does Al Gore.” -Federal Way parent

Must all materials used by a teacher pass muster from the superintendent? How long will that take? Is the superintendent competent to make every judgment? What happened to academic freedom? May teachers discuss current events or share breaking news stories with students?

You’re probably asking, “How did the Federal Way School Board get to this point?” The answer is that one parent, yes one, sent an e-mail message objecting to the showing of the film. Evidently some parents are emboldened to legislate for all students, rather than opting to keep their child out of an activity they find personally offensive.

What sort of educational leadership reverses policy based on a single complaint? How about telling such parents that we trust the judgment of our teachers? Why capitulate so easily?

In fact, Frosty Hardison, the objecting parent, isn’t really concerned about the science of global warming. Like many zealots, Hardison has not seen the film in question, but did say: “Condoms don’t belong in school, and neither does Al Gore. He’s not a schoolteacher…The information that’s being presented is a very cockeyed view of what the truth is …. The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn’t in the DVD.” It’s obvious that Hardison’s motives are concerned with imposing his religious beliefs on the school system. He found an ally in the school board president, who dismissed evolution as “only a theory,” that timeless canard that mangles the definition of theory for ideological gain.

I don’t understand the vitriol directed toward Vice President Gore. Why do so many assume he doesn’t know what he is talking about? When did decades of public service and two terms as vice president become something to be condemned rather than respected? What are the implications for our democracy when elected officials are dismissed out of hand as partisan hacks?

Should any parent be able to change classroom practice with a single e-mail? If parents can opt children out of a health class because it violates their family’s values, can I opt my child out of a course because I think it is a dopey waste of time? Why can’t I select my child’s teachers and demand a personal curriculum? Should I be able to bend the district to my wishes? Is the parental veto a sound idea?

 

The common school is at the center of our democracy. Educational leadership requires the assertion of expertise and a willingness to say “No!”

Some of you may know that I earned a Ph.D. from The University of Melbourne. “Melbourne Uni” is one of Australia’s most elite institutions and ranks routinely as one of the world’s top 20 research universities. You may also know that I have been extremely critical of how the politically liberal Australian Federal government is rushing to emulate the worst American education policies of the NCLB-era.

This makes an entry in the most recent Alumni News email all the more extraordinary. Normally such emails are by their very nature uncontroversial since they’re primarily a fund-raising solicitation.

The lead “news story” in this email reads:

Former Dean of Education urges parents to boycott national school tests

The press release from the university says the following:

Former Dean of Education Brian Caldwell is calling on teachers and parents to boycott national student tests so the results cannot be used to shame under-performers in league tables.

Professor Brian Caldwell (BSc 1962, BEd (PG) 1968) has publicly slammed the Federal Government’s push to create league tables to rank schools, claiming they will be used by other parties to shame struggling schools.

Professor Caldwell said league tables would not accurately reflect how schools compared in terms of performance, and would not inform parents of how their children were performing.

He said league tables would stigmatise many schools, particularly those in disadvantaged settings.

Read the news article about Professor Caldwell’s forthcoming speech against such destructive educational policies. Such a story would be unlikely to make a major US newspaper since what counts as education journalism is too often stenography and billionaire Eli Broad holds remarkable sway over media coverage of public education.

Imagine if just one President or Dean of a prestigious American university had the courage to speak out against the draconian policies of blaming, shaming, name-calling, ranking, sorting and endless testing that are destroying American public schools. Who knows? Every American child might enjoy an education similar to that enjoyed by the Obama children, rather than be subjected to Federal policies that are headed 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

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.