I recently published my 2017 summer reading suggestions for educators, but here is an equally radical list from 2002! See my 2006 recommendations too.

School’s almost out, and it’s the perfect time to get in some interesting reading that will reinvigorate you for September

From the June 2002 issue of District Administration

One of the best ways to spend the summer is curled up with a good book. The following are nominees for books that will inspire, provoke or entertain educators. Professional development for you and your staff is only a bookstore away. Why not stay connected with your colleagues this summer by starting a book club? You can find all of these books and more here.

Summer Reading
The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith
This may well be the most beautiful, clear and pro-found book ever written about learning and overcoming the obstacles to learning created by schools. Smith paints a gorgeous picture of what real learning is and explains how it differs from what he calls the official theory of learning.

Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope by Jonathan Kozol
Jonathan Kozol’s latest book about the lives and education of poor kids will touch your heart. One of my all-time favorite books.

What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? by Susan Ohanian
I adore every book written by this master teacher, humorist and educational critic. Her most recent book explores the human cost of our current testing-mania, shares teaching anecdotes and discusses what parents are doing to make schools more playful places to learn.

American Psychology and Schools: A Critique by Seymour Sarason
Prolific author, educator and psychologist Sarason candidly investigates the question, “Where has the American psychological community been during the heightened concern over standardized testing and school violence?” He offers hypotheses for this disinterest in schools and explores the damage to the public welfare caused by the collective silence of the psychological community.

The Inner Principal by David Loader
Veteran principal David Loader courageously explores the joys, challenges and inner conflicts of being a school principal. His accomplishments on behalf of kids will inspire school leaders. Teachers will give their principals a hug.

Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom Demarco
The latest book by this management guru argues that effective organizations need slack to nurture out-of-the-box thinking and productivity, particularly among knowledge workers.

One for Each Level
The following books are designed to appeal to elementary, middle school and high school teachers.

The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach Advanced Reflections by Edwards, Gandini and Forman (Editors)
This remarkable book should be read and re-read by every educator. It seems to contain solutions to every educational problem. While the city of Reggio Emilia focuses on early childhood education, there are numerous lessons to be learned by teachers at all levels.

Caught in the Middle—Nonstandard Kids and the Killing Curriculum by Susan Ohanian
Ohanian makes the case for a learner-centered approach to the middle grades from her amusing perspective.

Rethinking High School: Best Practice in Teaching by Daniels, Bizar and Zemelman
A six-year case study of the planning through graduation of a new Chicago school committed to preparing students for the 21st century.

Internet & Computer Ethics for Kids: (and Parents & Teachers Who Haven’t Got a Clue) by Winn Schwartau
This book explores a large quantity of ethical issues facing citizens in the digital age. While written for adolescents, adults will find the description of ethical dilemmas, the law and common sense useful in making sense of this confusing era.

 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.

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editorat- large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.

A few years ago, I turned my friend Will Richardson onto Seymour Sarason‘s great book, And What Do YOU Mean About Learning? Ever since, Will has been asking people to define learning.

Earlier this week, I had a meeting in Reggio Emilia, Italy where I picked up a pamphlet explaining their awe-inspiring approach to early childhood education. It looks like the sort of document you might see scattered at the DMV or local health clinic, but its contents are profound.

Here is how the infant-toddler centers and preschools of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia define learning:

Learning as a process of individual and group construction

Each child, like each human being, is an active constructor of knowledge, competencies, and autonomies, by means of original learning processes that take shape with methods and times that are unique and subjective in the relationship with peers, adults and the environment.

The learning process is fostered by strategies of research, comparison of ideas, and co-participation; it makes use of creativity, uncertainty, intuition, curiosity; it is generated in play and in the aesthetic, emotional relational, and spiritual dimensions, which it interweaves and nurtures; it is based on the centrality of motivation and the pleasure of learning.”

Infant-toddler Centers and Preschools Isituzione of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia. (2011). Indications – Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centres of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia. page 11.

Interested in learning more about the Reggio Emilia Approach to education?

The worlds of education and psychology lost another giant January 28th. Dr. Seymour Sarason passed away at the Seymour Sarasonage of 91.

You can’t be taken seriously as a school reformer, transformer or agent of change without an understanding of Sarason’s work and having read some of the 40+ books he published. His work often asks more questions than it answers, reflecting the reality that humans and school systems are complex. Sarason taught us that serious thought must be given to notions of learning, leadership, governance and change if we are to do better as a society.

Seymour Sarason was not a phony baloney expert on school change or self-proclaimed educational leader, he was a serious scholar who left behind words to guide our thinking and our actions for decades to come.

As a young psychologist working with the mentally retarded in a Massachusetts state institution, Sarason challenged the conventional wisdom that psychological problems were inside of the individual and needed to be treated as such. Sarason became convinced that many psychological problems were created or impacted by social settings and institutional cultures. Sarason investigated whether settings could be created or modified to prevent psychological problems in the first place.

“Stricken with polio in high school, Sarson wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt for treatment his family couldn’t afford. Roosevelt’s secretary promptly responded and arranged a comprehensive six-month, in-patient treatment program.

Those experiences hammered home the importance of the role that social context plays in realizing one’s potential.” (“Colleagues pay respects,” 2010)

Sarason taught at Yale for forty-five years and founded the Psycho-Educational Institute, a clinic developing new approaches to treating the psychological problems of children and adolescents. Sarason and his graduate students went into schools, day care centers and prisons to work with personnel in those facilities to create settings that minimized psychological and learning pathologies. He came to believe that institutions intended to help individuals could do more harm than good, while consistently being reminded of human potential when an individual finds herself in the right environment. This work led Dr. Sarason to be credited as the founder of the field of community psychology.

This was the basis for his critical work on learning, educational institutions and school reform. Andy Hargreaves of Boston College says about Sarason, “He was one of the very first people to write in an explicit way about educational reform and the culture of the school from the perspective of the people who experience the change — teachers and students.” (Grimes, 2010)

Sarason coined a phrase, “productive contexts for learning,” that shapes much of my work. Despite his education as a clinical psychologist, Sarason weighed-in on complex political issues surrounding public education, the change process and even charter schools.

His optimism regarding each human’s potential to create, learn and grow was tempered by his understanding of how the institutions we find ourselves in can inhibit our progress.

I met Sarason a decade or so ago at the American Association of School Administrators Conference in San Diego. I attended the conference so I could hear him speak. I remember the setting vividly. Sarason spoke in a cavernous room with more than 500 chairs and a handful of people in attendance. I suppose the thousands of school superintendents attending the conference were investigating the “vending machine solution” or playing golf. Sarason was brilliant and very kind during the brief conversation we had about his current interest in race and economic deprivation.

When we met, Sarason had just published his first of two books on charter schools, Charter Schools: Another Flawed Educational Reform? (1998) A decade before charter schools would enter the public consciousness, Dr. Sarason was asking us to think more deeply about such changes in public school governance. In 2002, his second book on the subject, Questions You Should Ask About Charter Schools and Vouchers, was published.

In 1990, Sarason published The Predictable Failure of School Reform: Can We Change Course Before It’s Too Late? 1990! The first part of the book’s title predicted failure, but the second part asked if we could change the result. Several of Sarason’s book titles ended in question marks as a way of asking us to decide if we were up to the challenge of doing the right thing. Sarason also published, Revisiting “the Culture of the School and the Problem of Change” (1996) and Educational Reform: A Self-Scrutinizing Memoir (2002) in which he reflects on the evolution of his thinking over the decades of writing about school reform.

Sure, at times Seymour Sarason could be quite the curmudgeon, but what separated him from other cranky critics of school reform, such as Larry Cuban, was Sarason’s faith that it is possible to build better classrooms, institutions and social systems. Like Seymour Papert, Sarason wasn’t just complaining, he knew that the potential existed for us to do better by the children in our care.

My three favorite books by Seymour Sarason ask deceptively simple questions in the best Socratic tradition:

  1. And What do YOU Mean by Learning? (2004) suggests that we cannot change a classroom, let alone the entire educational system, if we ourselves cannot articulate a definition of learning. This book shaped my thinking deeply and led me to notice how many people can’t manage the distinction between teaching and learning.
  2. Political Leadership and Educational Failure (1998) Once again, Sarason doesn’t blame the child or teachers for the “failure” of the system, but asks a simple question. Why is it that when we hear a Mayor, Governor, President or Prime Minister discuss tax policy, sewerage or road construction we expect that they are being well-informed on the subject by the best and brightest, but have little expectation that the same will occur when education policy is formed?
  3. American Psychology and Schools: A Critique (2001) In this book, Sarason focuses his laser on his peers in the psychology community and asks why they have been silent on two of the most pressing issues facing children, school violence and standardized testing mania?

Teaching as a Performing Art (1999), The Case for Change: Rethinking the Preparation of Educators (1993) and Parental Involvement (1993) and the Political Principle: Why the Existing Governance Structure of Schools Should Be Abolished (1995) are also worthy of your attention.

For those looking for a “quick course” of Sarason, there is an anthology you can read – The Skeptical Visionary: A Seymour Sarason Educational Reader edited by Robert Fried (2002)

Dr. Sarason spent the past couple years of his life in an assisted living facility and had just finished a book designed to blow the lid off of elder care at the time of his death. Centers for Endings. The Coming Crisis in Caring for Aged People (2010), may be downloaded for personal use. Sarason wrote and published his first novel at the age of 86.

Constructing Modern Knowledge Guest Speaker, Deborah Meier, a renowned school reformer and professor of education at New York University, called Sarason an “unusual treasure.”

“He placed our work as teachers within a realistic context, reminding us of both how important it was, and, at the same time, how modest our contribution could be to the larger picture,” Meier said.

“To combine that humility with the insights needed to still influence individual children and colleagues, and being influenced by them is important enough. That skepticism and passion for the task rarely exists within the same person, and above all rarely among academics.” (“Colleagues pay respects,” 2010)


Colleagues pay respects to innovative psychologist [new haven register, conn.] . (2010, February 1). Retrieved from http://behavioralhealthcentral.com/index.php/20100201188896/Latest-News/colleagues-pay-respects-to-innovative-psychologist-new-haven-register-conn.html

Grimes, W. (2010, February 8). Seymour b. sarason, leader in community psychology, dies at 91 . Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/08/education/08sarason.html