Huffpost Education
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Gary Stager Headshot

Shameless Shape Shifters

Posted: Updated:

Anyone the least bit familiar with my work over the past 30 years knows that I oppose standardized testing, Teach-for-America, school privatization, merit pay, Common Core Content Standards, mayoral control and get-rich-quick schemes promising to increase teacher accountability or raise achievement with the signing of a purchase order. (read here or here)I have dedicated my life to improving teacher quality by empowering educators to create productive learning environments that amplify the potential of each child. A large part of my work has involved the use of computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression that free learning from the top-down traditions of assembly line schooling.

My journalism has set out to expose the ideologues and profiteers engaged in dismantling the democratic ideals of public education. I warn colleagues to carefully avoid being exploited by the corporate or political forces hell-bent on privatizing public education and teacher-bashing. A bit of air-time or mention in a newspaper article is too high a price to pay when the result is an implicit endorsement of the forces of evil. I am a progressive educator who knows that the "reform" theories espoused by the likes of Gates, Rhee, Broad, Kopp, Duncan and Joel Klein will harm poor children and drive the best teachers from the system.

And yet, I just got hoodwinked by Joel Klein and the Rupert Murdoch-owned company he leads.

Six years ago I created the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators. CMK provides teachers with a rare opportunity to spend four days engaged in creative project development and learning by doing. We ask participants to take off their teacher hats and put on their learner hats because you can't be expected to teach 21st Century learners if you haven't learned this century. We hope educators will remember what it feels like to learn with the creative abandon of an unencumbered child. That's why we fill the CMK learning environment with books, computers, art supplies, toys, electronics, robotics materials and an expert faculty prepared to help each participant achieve their goals. Used properly, computers give children wings to soar high above the low expectations of the existing curriculum and learn in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.

A few years ago, I became aware of a remarkable little girl called Super-Awesome Sylvia. I immediately knew that I needed her as part of the Constructing Modern Knowledge faculty. Sylvia is the star of a series of Super-Awesome Maker Show Web videos in which she explains the wonders of modern electronics, computer science and personal fabrication via project ideas to be enjoyed by learners of all ages.

Sylvia was indeed a member of the CMK faculty in July 2012. Shortly before the event, I received an email from a documentary "filmmaker" interested in making a documentary about Sylvia. Not one to interfere with the attention due the kid, I agreed to allow the "filmmaker" at CMK and even altered our program to better suit their schedule. They agreed to be unobtrusive and quick. They were neither. A crew descended on our event, asked my participants to sign releases and didn't limit their filming to an interview with Sylvia, but used my event as a prop. They didn't have the courtesy to introduce themselves or explain the purpose of their film. After several hours of disruption and chowing down on aromatic takeout during one of our presentations, I threatened the crew with ejection.

Fast-forward two months...

Imagine my surprise when the "documentary" appeared on the front page of the Amplify.com website. Amplify Education is the new kinder gentler branding of the Murdoch-owned drill and test run empire by Joel Klein, a guy known for stamping out classroom creativity. The rebranding was necessary due to the growing unpopularity of the test-prep industry, Murdoch's infamy and a $27 million dollar no-bid contract rejected by the NY State Comptroller.

Super-Awesome Sylvia and our event are being used to lend a patina of innovation to a company hell-bent on replacing learning with data management. Sylvia's imagination, creativity, energy and competence have nothing whatsoever to do with data tracking and stand in stark opposition to Amplify's business model.

Had the "flimmakers" included any of Sylvia's CMK presentation, their audience would hear the tragic story of how the narrowing curriculum, endless test-prep and data obsession resulting from the sorts of products sold by Amplify Education have wrecked her school and how she is now left to do most of her learning at home.

Using Super-Awesome Sylvia to sell products designed to share collections of confidential student test data with testing and textbook companies is like using a happy pelican in a BP commercial.

Corporations, like Amplify Education, will stop at nothing to extract large sums of money from public education. Taxpayers need to click past the photos of cute kids and teachers building with LEGOs to follow the money.

They may have tricked me. Don't let them trick you!