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Muzzling Dissenting Opinion on Education


Ohanian Comment: First, read the editor's trashing of two opinion columns. Then read the columns. After that, write a letter to the editor.

With education so weighed down by politics, how can a columnist with any integrity not, point out a few political realities? A major reason most of our professional journals are so ineffective is because they pretend they are outside politics.


Editor's Letter
Mea Culpa
By Joe Hanson


I'm writing this column because I'm embarrassed.

Two recent issues of District Administration have carried columns by Gary Stager that have attacked aspects of the educational proposals/decisions of both presidential candidates.

As editor-in-chief, I feel that I erred in permitting publication of these two articles in the months before the presidential elections. The article in our August issue (Gary Stager on Kerry's Education Plan) makes an argument against merit pay for teachers. That's certainly a valid matter for discussion on our editorial pages. What does not belong are Stager's comments such as, "... the Kerry proposal could suggest either a generous desire to increase teacher pay or a cynical scheme to pander to the electorate." In another paragraph he paraphrases Seymour Sarason, "... members of both parties seem to increase in ignorance proportionate to their proximity to schooling decisions. After all, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy co-sponsored No Child Left Behind.

In our October issue (Gary Stager on Direct Instruction), Stager condemns a reading program called Reading Mastery and its inventor, Sigfried Engleman. The article contains some strong arguments against the "controversial pedagogical approach" (although it fails to discuss it's effectiveness or lack thereof.)

Unfortunately, Stager devotes most of his column to attacking President Bush: Unlike his wife, mother and Oval Office predecessors, this president had a more important agenda than demonstrating affection for children or for reading. The trip was part of a calculated campaign to sell No Child Left Behind. In what Michael Moore rightly observed as a photo opportunity, young children were used as props to advance the administration's radical attack on public education. He goes on, Engelmann's publisher is a textbook giant with ties to the Bush family dating back to the 1930s. ... The publishers have received honors from two Bush administrations and they in turn have bestowed awards on Secretary Rod Paige. The same company's former executive vice president is the new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, and continues with phrases such as The War on Public Education, single-minded test-prep factories and magical voucher.

When Stager asks, "Has fear replaced joy in your classrooms? President Reagan might suggest we ask ourselves, "Is your school better off than it was four years ago?," he crosses the line between clever compendium and outright bias.

Stager writes a regular column in District Administration. His opinions are his own. As long as he's writing about educational matters, I'm delighted to keep running his arguments but we will make every effort to avoid running material from him, or anyone else, questioning the motives of elected officials or candidates.

I take full responsibility for running these two columns. Stager has been a valuable contributor to DA for about five years. I took my eye off the ball.

As always, we at District Administration value the open exchange of ideas about improving public education. I invite you to share your thoughts with me.

Editor-in-Chief
jhanson@promediagrp.com

So read the columns and decide for yourself.

August Issue
Gary Stager on Kerry's Education Plan Raise test Scores - win a prize

I was horrified by recent news referring to U.S. Sen. John Kerry's education platform. The newsflash reported that if elected president, Kerry would reward teachers for increased student achievement. The news media may have over-simplified a more comprehensive policy statement or the Kerry campaign may have distributed this bumper sticker slogan for its own purposes. Either hypothesis is plausible since there is so little thoughtful discourse on the status or future of public education.

In his book, Political Leadership and Educational Failure, Seymour Sarason reminds us that although we expect that our elected officials will be briefed by the best and brightest experts when concerned with issues of taxation, highway resurfacing or sewage, no such expectation exists for discussions of education policy. Members of both parties seem to increase in ignorance proportionate to their proximity to schooling decisions. After all, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy co-sponsored No Child Left Behindbr>
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.

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 as the 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 editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.

    October Issue
    Gary Stager on Direct Instruction: Perhaps itís time to end political social promotion


    Michael Moore got it wrong.

    In his film, Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore shows President Bush in a Florida classroom on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The film's narration said that while America was being attacked, the president read the book, My Pet Goat, to a room full of young children. This is factually inaccurate in three important ways.

    1. The story is actually titled, The Pet Goat.

    2. It is not a book, but an exercise in a heavily scripted basal.

    3. The president did not read the story to the children.

    Any perceptive educator watching this would quickly realize what was going on. The president was not in that classroom to demonstrate his love of reading. Being read to is a powerful literacy experience. Having a wonderful story read to you by the president of the United States could create a memory to last a lifetime.

    Unlike his wife, mother and Oval Office predecessors, this president had a more important agenda than demonstrating affection for children or for reading. The trip was part of a calculated campaign to sell No Child Left Behind. In what Michael Moore rightly observed as a photo opportunity, young children were used as props to advance the administration's radical attack on public education.

    The Pet Goat is an exercise from a literary classic called, Reading Mastery 2, by the father of Direct Instruction, Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann. In the 1960s, Engelmann invented a controversial pedagogical approach that reduces knowledge to bite?]sized chunks presented in a prescribed sequence enforced by a scripted lesson the teacher is to recite to a classroom of pupils chanting predetermined responses. Every single word the teacher is to utter, including permissible and prohibited words of encouragement, are provided. There is no room for individuality. The Direct Instruction Web site states, "The popular valuing of teacher creativity and autonomy as high priorities must give way to a willingness to follow certain carefully prescribed instructional practices."

    Engelmann told The New Yorker in its July 26 issue, "We don't give a damn what the teacher thinks, what the teacher feels. On the teachers' own time they can hate it. We don't care, as long as they do it. Traditionalists die over this, but in terms of data we whump the daylights out of them." It is easy to see how a man of such sensitive temperament could author more than 1,000 literary masterpieces such as The Pet Goat.

    While I am sure the Florida school visited is a fine one and the classroom teacher loves children, educational excellence was not being celebrated. This was a party on behalf of Direct Instruction. While Moore made a documentary (some suggest artful propaganda) about the Iraq war, he could have made a movie about the United States government's ideological attack on the public schools.

    The War on Public Education
    Engelmann's publisher is a textbook giant with ties to the Bush family dating back to the 1930s. Company namesakes served on George W. Bush's transition team and the board of his mother's literacy foundation. The publishers have received honors from two Bush administrations and they in turn have bestowed awards on Secretary Rod Paige, who then keynoted their business conference. The same company's former executive vice president is the new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Direct instruction has become synonymous with the "scientifically based methods" required by No Child Left Behind.

    The War on Public Education has ratcheted up parental fear with cleverly designed rhetoric of failing schools, data desegregation, underperforming students, unqualified teachers and clever slogans like, "no excuses." If you turn public schools, even the best ones, into single-minded test-prep factories where teachers drone on from scripted lessons then more people will want that magical voucher. Repeatedly demonize teachers arid the public will lose confidence regardless of their personal experiences with their local school.

    So, how are you doing? Is your job now more about compliance than kids? Are sound educational experiences being sacrificed for test≠ preparation? Has fear replaced joy in your classrooms? President Reagan might suggest we ask ourselves, "Is your school better off than it was four years ago?"

    — Gary Stager
    District Administration

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