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.

National Public Radio’s terrific talk show, Talk of the Nation, interviewed US Education Secretary Arne Duncan this morning and sent out a tweet asking for questions worth posing to the Secretary. I immediately tweeted back a barrage of questions and the host asked a paraphrased version of one the most innocuous questions I submitted.

If goal is raising opportunities & achievement for all kids, isn’t RACE for the top an unfortunate metaphor? (1 winner, many losers)

Engaging in critical debates about Federal education policy in 140 characters is a challenge, but not impossible.

The following are the other questions I “tweeted” to Secretary Arne Duncan (in reverse chronological order) via NPR’s TOTN:

How would Sect. Duncan to respond to the report card given him – A for efficacy and D for policy?

Isn’t firing all of the teachers and charterizing public schools a right-wing utopian fantasy?

Where does Sect. Duncan think the magical teachers & perfect schools will come from after he fires teachers and closes pub schools?

Did you ask Duncan what he thinks of Diane Ravitch’s research disproving the basic assumptions of Obama education policies?

Given the Gates Foundation’s expensive school reform failures, why do they have so much influence within the Dept. of Education?

If you’re a parent in Harlem, should be concerned that nearly all of the local public schools have been turned into boutique charters?

Why should public school facilities be surrendered to private charter school operators?

Which is true: a) The Chicago Public Schools are a mess & failing children b) We should trust Sect. Duncan to do the same for America?

Should Americans be alarmed that most major city districts and the Dept. of Ed are now run by unqualified non-educators?

If goal is raising opportunities & achievement for all kids, isn’t RACE for the top an unfortunate metaphor? (1 winner, many losers)

Why has a “Labor” administration worked so hard to bust the teacher unions across the nation?

Check out the transcript chronicling a debate between Alfie Kohn and Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. The subject of the debate was national curriculum, I mean “common core standards.”

Alfie Kohn: “There’s a strong political interest in representing national standards as being merely “core” standards and to emphasize that the feds aren’t driving it (just funding it!)…

I’m troubled by the P.R. campaign I see: We’ll satisfy the politicians and corporations that want “rigorous, specific, enforceable, clear, defined standards” — but we’ll also reassure teachers that we won’t tell you how to teach. This doesn’t add up.”

Alfie eats his opponents lunch. Note how mr. Wilhoit refuses to answer even the most basic of questions Mr. Kohn asks of him.

I am delighted to have Alfie Kohn on the team for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2010, July 12-15, 2010 in Manchester, NH. Educators across the United States and in countries emulating our race-to-the-bottom owe Alfie a great debt of gratitutde for his wisdom and courage.

CMK 2010

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