Almost daily, a colleague I respect posts a link to some amazing tale of classroom innovation, stupendous new education product or article intended to improve teaching practice. Perhaps it is naive to assume that the content has been vetted. However, once I click on the Twitter or Facebook link, I am met by one of the following:

  1. A gee-whiz tale of a teacher doing something obvious once, accompanied by breathless commentary about their personal courage/discovery/innovation/genius and followed by a steam of comments applauding the teacher’s courage/discovery/innovation/genius. Even when the activity is fine, it is often the sort of thing taught to first-semester student teachers.
  2. An article discovering an idea that millions of educators have known for decades, but this time with diminished expectations
  3. An ad for some test-prep snake oil or handful of magic beans
  4. An “app” designed for kids to perform some trivial task, because “it’s so much fun, they won’t know they’re learning.” Thanks to sites like Kickstarter we can now invest in the development of bad software too!
  5. A terrible idea detrimental to teachers, students or public education
  6. An attempt to redefine a sound progressive education idea in order to justify the status quo

I don’t just click on a random link from a stranger, I follow the directions set by a trusted colleague – often a person in a position of authority. When I ask them, “Did you read that article you posted the link to?” the answer is often, “I just re-read it and you’re right. It’s not good.” Or “I’m not endorsing the content at the end of the link, “I’m just passing it along to my PLN.”

First of all, when you tell me to look at something, that is an endorsement. Second, you are responsible for the quality, veracity and ideological bias of the information you distribute. Third, if you arenot taking responsibility for the information you pass along, your PLN is really just a gossip mill.

If you provide a link accompanied by a message, “Look at the revolutionary work my students/colleagues/I did,” the work should be good and in a reasonable state of completion. If not, warn me before I click. Don’t throw around terms like genius, transformative or revolutionary when you’re linking to a kid burping into Voicethread!! If you do waste my time looking at terrible work, don’t blame me for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

Just today, two pieces of dreck were shared with me by people I respect.

1) Before a number of my Facebook friends shared this article, I had already read it in the ASCD daily “Smart” Brief. Several colleagues posted or tweeted links to the article because they yearn for schools to be better – more learner-centered, engaging and meaningful.

One means to those ends is project-based learning.  I’ve been studying, teaching and speaking about project-based learning for 31 years. I’m a fan. I too would like to help every teacher on the planet create the context for kids to engage in personally meaningful projects.

However, sharing the article, Busting myths about project-based learning, will NOT improve education or make classrooms more project-based. In fact, this article so completely perverts project-based learning that it spreads ignorance and will make classroom learning worse, not better.

This hideous article uses PBL, which the author lectures us isn’t just about projects (meaningless word soup), as a compliment to direct instruction, worksheets and tricking students into test-prep they won’t mind as much. That’s right. PBL is best friends with standardized testing and worksheets (perhaps on Planet Dummy). There is no need to abandon the terrible practices that squeeze authentic learning out of the school day. We can just pretend to bring relevance to the classroom by appropriating the once-proud term, project-based learning.

Embedding test-prep into projects as the author suggests demonstrates that the author really has no idea what he is talking about. Forcing distractions into a student’s project work robs them of agency and reduces the activity’s learning potential. The author is also pretty slippery in his use of the term, “scaffolding.” Some of the article doesn’t even make grammatical sense.

Use testing stems as formative assessments and quizzes.

The  article was written by a gentleman who leads professional development for the Buck Institute, an organization that touts itself as a champion of project-based learning, as long as those projects work backwards from dubious testing requirements. This article does not represent innovation. It is a Potemkin Village preserving the status quo while allowing educators to delude themselves into feeling they are doing the right thing.

ASCD should be ashamed of themselves for publishing such trash. My colleagues, many with advanced degrees and in positions where they teach project-based learning, should know better!

If you are interested in effective project-based learning, I’m happy to share these five articles with you.

2) Another colleague urged all of their STEM and computer science-interested friends to explore a site raising money to develop “Fun and Creative Computer Science Curriculum.” Whenever you see fun and creative in the title of an education product, run for the hills! The site is a fund-raising venture to get kids interested in computer science. This is something I advocate every day. What could be so bad?

Thinkersmith teaches computer science with passion and creativity. Right now, we have 20 lessons created, but only 3 packaged. Help us finish by summer!

My experience in education suggests that once you package something, it dies. Ok Stager, I know you’re suspicious of the site and the product searching for micro-investors, but watch the video they produced. It has cute kids in it!

So, I watched the video…

Guess what? Thinkersmith teaches computer science with passion and creativity – and best of all? YOU DON’T EVEN NEED A COMPUTER!!!!!!

Fantastic! Computer science instruction without computers! This is like piano lessons with a piano worksheet. Yes siree ladies and gentleman, there will be no computing in this computer science instruction.

A visitor to the site also has no idea who is writing this groundbreaking fake curriculum or their qualifications to waste kids’ time.

Here we take one of the jewels of human ingenuity, computer science, a field impacting every other discipline and rather than make a serious attempt to bring it to children with the time and attention it deserves, chuckleheads create cup stacking activities and simplistic games.

There are any number of new “apps” on the market promising to teach kids about computer science and programming while we should be teaching children to be computer scientists and programmers.

At the root of this anti-intellectualism is a deep-seated belief that teachers are lazy or incompetent. Yet, I have taught thousands of teachers to teach programming to children and in the 1980s, perhaps a million teachers taught programming in some form to children. The software is better. The hardware is more abundant, reliable and accessible. And yet, the best we can do is sing songs, stack cups and color in 2013?

What really makes me want to scream is that the folks cooking up all of these “amazing” ideas seem incapable of using the Google or reading a book. There is a great deal of collected wisdom on teaching computer science to children, created by committed experts and rooted in decades worth of experience.

If you want to learn how to teach computer science to children, ask me, attend my institute, take a course. I’ll gladly provide advice, share resources, recommend expert colleagues and even help debug student programs. If you put forth some effort, I’m happy to match it.

There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.
-Sir Joshua Reynolds

Don’t lecture me about the power of social media, the genius of your PLN, the imperative for media literacy or information curation if you are unwilling to edit what you share. I share plenty of terrible articles via Twitter and Facebook, but I always make clear that I am doing so for purposes or warning or parody. The junk is always clearly labeled.

Please filter the impurities out of your social media stream.You have a responsibility to your audience.

Thank you


* Let the hysterical flaming begin! Comments are now open.

Before accepting overtesting as inevitable, try debating the issue with parents and students
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine – July 2003

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.

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 Active
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.


I created Pencilsdown.org around 2000, long before today’s opt-out movement. It has been inactive for a number of years, but you may find a copy of the opt-out form I distributed back in 2003 here.

The year following my initial opt-out activism,I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper urging parents to opt-out. Fearing a loss of federal money as a result of not making AYP due to testing resistance, the Torrance Unified School District lied to parents about the legitimacy of the testing process. I responded with a freedom of information request about funding, personnel, policy, costs and time dedicated to STAR testing. This tied the district office in knots for months. If I can find the request, I will share it.

Here is a list of recommended books for parents and educators interested in opposing standardized testing.

Dear colleagues and friends of progressive education,

It is time for us to stop arguing against high-stakes testing. Americans LOVE the idea of high-stakes as long as it means that their kid beats someone else’s kids at school.

We are losing both the battle and the war of ideas.

I humbly suggest that we replace high-stakes testing with the term, constant testing.

Parents, policy-makers and taxpayers are likely unaware that kids in some jurisdictions spend dozens of days each school year taking standardized tests. That doesn’t include the costs or time wasted on endless test-prep. This practice is obviously unsustainable, excessive and nonsensical.

This subtle rhetorical shift to constant testing has the potential to move public opinion in our direction.

“I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents. I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.” (Academy-Award Winner Matt Damon, March to Save Our Schools, July 30, 2011)

Matt Damon is one of the world’s most popular action-heroes, but you educators do realize that is make-believe. Right?

Saturday, July 30th, thousands of educators from across the country spent many hours in sweltering heat as part of the March to Save Our Schools. Leading educators, Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah Meier, Jonathan Kozol, Pedro Noguera, Diane Ravitch and fed-up courageous Texas school superintendent John Kuhn inspired the crowd.

The demands of the march were unequivocal:

  1. Equitable funding for all public school communities
  2. An end to high stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation
  3. Teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policies
  4. Curriculum developed for and by local school communities

Matt Damon was the day’s final speaker delivering a barnburner that got the lazy media’s attention. [transcript]

I had a front row perch. Matt Damon is a real mensch. He flew all-night from a film shoot in Vancouver to stand with public school educators on behalf of their jobs, dignity and the critical importance of public schools to a democracy.

That is precisely the problem.

Washington D.C. is less than a day’s drive from hundreds of thousands of teachers. Why was Matt Damon fighting for their profession while they stayed home?

Make no mistake ladies and gentlemen. We no longer engaged in genteel academic debates over differing approaches to spelling instruction.

There are well-funded powerful forces out to destroy public education and deprive educators of their livelihoods. Despite this, most educators remain silent and defenseless. The “bold ones” fantasize about Twitter saving the world while their dignity, expertise, paychecks and pensions are being attacked.

Educators, if you will not stand up and take care of yourselves, how can we count on you to care for other people’s children?

If you will not stand between students and the madness of “the system,” who will?

Matt Damon can’t save you. You need to be the action hero for America’s children!

Matt Damon addresses the Save Our Schools March on D.C. from Gary Stager on Vimeo.


Here is another fabulous video clip of Damon responding forcefully to questions from a Libertarian crackpot at the March.


Check out his comments on charter schools at 1:33

Uber-edublogger Will Richardson recently published a blog post entitled, Valuing Change. In the article, he reiterated the frequent lament that teachers don’t “consider” or “value” change especially when the Web allows students to “connect outside of the classroom.” The who, what or why of connecting isn’t discussed.

Will’s article illustrates a teacher’s unwillingness to embrace change by showing how a topic like gerrymandering could be made more engaging through the use of information technologies. Will recognizes the challenges facing teachers and offers an olive branch by suggesting that we can “do both” – teach what will likely be on the test and do so more meaningly.

It should come as no surprise that I disagree, especially given the example used.

As I write this, there are two dozen comments in addition to the few I contributed. Either blog commenters don’t consider the ideas of other commenters or my argument was not clear enough.

Perhaps, as much as you would like it to be otherwise, the incrementalism of “doing both” is really the problem.

Why would you Skype someone involved “in the process?” What process? Who? State legislators? What are they likely to tell a student that can’t be found out in a book or article?

The connections you speak of, now matter how much you yearn for them may be as inauthentic as the task itself. Perhaps they just make a task nobody cares about even more arduous. The “you can use Google ____ or Skype with someone” suggestions have become as automatic and meaningless as when a politician says, “We need to pay teachers more, but hold them accountable.”

One of the lessons I learned from Seymour Papert (http://dailypapert.com) was that you cannot transform school just by changing teaching practices or even the technology used. You must rethink, challenge or reinforce the content of the curriculum. The “what” has a great deal of impact on the how and the why of learning something.

Papert once asked me, “What are you thinking about doing with the students next?” When I replied, “We were thinking of doing some geography…,” he shot back with, “And what can they DO with that?”

“Whatever you ‘teach’ kids should have a high liklihood of leading to the construction of a bigger question or a larger theory (NOW – not later), otherwise, why bother?”

Like so much of schooling, the topic of gerrymandering is really just a vocabulary exercise. Memorize the definition and move on. I’m not sure you can put lipstick on that pig.

I do not believe that it is possible to make schools more productive contexts for learning (the how we teach) without calling the curriculum into question (the what we teach).

When Will requested “The Stager Plan,” I replied…

If I wasn’t clear enough above, a substantial aspect of “The Stager Plan” includes expending some serious effort at every school to determine what is worth being taught.

Pedagogical strategies should reflect the content and the learning styles of students.

The ideas proposed for making gerrymandering more engaging only add false complexity to what is a vocabulary term, likely taught in isolation as the curriculum whizzes by.

My other concern is how we tend to reduce education to information access (or trading information) and how the emphasis on using computers as information appliances reinforces the status quo while depriving learners of authentic experiences.

In addition to commenters reminding us of the wonders of Web 2.0 technology, the author repeates the familiar cliché, “We need to use technology to get kids engaged in the curriculum, not just in the technology.”

Why is this so? Should teachers be so compliant and teach anything they’re told to, regardless of context or value?

Also, why is engaging with the “technology” so quickly dismissed as being inferior to the curriculum?

Here’s a thought experiment…

What if we DID do everything in our power to engage kids in the technology? (I don’t think you can engage someone else, but I’ll leave that aside)

This might be the first real engagement kids experience.

Learning computer programming might actually lead to different thinking, different thinking about thinking, student agency and provide a window for teachers into the intellectual capabilities of kids.

I wish there was a way for me to run a hands-on workshop for every teacher in the world during which they could experience the intellectual rigor and creative joy experienced while computing. Not only is this workshop necessary for teachers who don’t use “technology” in the ways Will’s post urges, but educators excited by Web 2.0 would do well to expand their computing fluency as well.

Educators interested in spending four days on creative computing projects with a world-class faculty and amazing guest speakers this summer should check out Constructing Modern Knowledge. Act quickly, this very special event may sell-out!

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

Please subscribe to my very occasional newsletter!

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.

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 Active
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.

Anti-testing books

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.

Originally published in District Administration Magazine – July 2003

I just received the following email with the subject above. It’s a political critique of Governor Christie by my 13 year-old nephew, Mathew. I’ve posted it here verbatim.

That’s it Christie! I’m moving to Nauru!
Read Mathew’s recent critique of public school policy in New Jersey, posted in September.

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 …

Matters?

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

My nephew Mathew is a terrific 13 year-old with lots of interests and much to my chagrin, he loves school. In fact, he has never missed a day of school despite schools undeserving of his loyalty. He lives in NJ and is a good student.

I just received the following unsolicited email from Mathew. I haven’t spoken with him in several months due to travel and anyone with children will understand how difficult it is to get a kid to correspond via email. That’s what makes the passion of his email message a delightful surprise that is at once heartwarming and heart-breaking.

I have not touched a character in Mathew’s message to me. He gave me permission to publish it. Feel free to share your love in via comments below.

(Note: The NJ ASK is the NJ New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge)

TOO FAR

by Mathew M.

The charming governer of New Jersey has just launched some new laws regarding education. From what I heard, he is paying teachers based on how well kids do on the NJ ASK. What?! I don’t know if Christie knows this, but the teachers already feed us this garbage so we do well on the test. Now that it affects their pay, we will learn NOTHING but the junk for the test. Nothing. What happened to education? This is not education. The only education we are getting is how to take a standardized test. Does the government honestly believe that standardized tests will get us into Harvard or Yale? That we will become the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs? What about the special-education teachers? Will they get payed less because their students are bound to flunk the NJ ASK? Something needs to be done about this. This goes right to Washington. We NEED to get rid of standardized tests.

Just in case you didn’t think teachers have enough to contend with after massive budget cuts, layoffs, standardized testing and scores published by teacher in the Los Angeles Times. The President of the United States applauded a school that fired all of its teachers. NBC news is dedicating an unprecedented number of hours to one-sided discussions about education. A film blaming everything but global warming on the sudden catclysmic epidemic of bad teachers and money-hungry unions is coming to a cineplex near you.

Yesterday, Her Royal Highness, Oprah Winfrey piled on by doing an entire show on bad teachers. Her guests were two of the 3 or 4 Americans allowed to discuss education on television, Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee.

I have written quite a bit about Bill Gates’ hostile takeover of public education in GOOD Magazine, The Huffington Post and my own blog.

Oprah Winfrey, for all of the good she has done falls for the same handful of magic education beans over and over again. Bill Gates has been a guest before to provide Oprah with a reason to tell poor children that poverty and race no longer matter if you just do enough homework and learn to take standardized tests.

I wrote about Oprah’s troublesome views on education for District Administration Magazine back in 2007 when she was about to open her private school in South Africa.

Here is an excerpt from Oprah’s Edifice Complex. (June 2007)

Even a casual Oprah watcher can name Ms. Winfrey’s best friend, favorite actors, party planner, beloved authors, mentors, medical expert, personal trainer, hair stylist, home decorator, chef, financial advisor and spiritual guru. Oprah shares her favorite experts, friends and ideas with her audience. That’s her brand. If Oprah thinks it, you might too. If Oprah loves a product, you need to run out and buy one.

I have read and watched everything I could to learn more about Oprah’s school, and yet nagging questions remain. What is the educational philosophy of the school?

What do you think? Please comment below.