Moving the chair, at Penn State and in education

John’s book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon.

The latest example of failed leadership — what I call ‘moving the chair,’ an analogy I’ll explain in one second — comes from Pennsylvania State University. This is a tragic story of sex abuse that apparently went unchecked for years, despite the fact that a fair number of university leaders — including President Graham Spanier and legendary football coach Joe Paterno — knew of the situation.

“Moving the chair” is my analogy for what lousy, ineffective leaders do when faced with a tough decision. Envision a man sitting in his living room watching football on a large flat-screen TV when, suddenly and unexpectedly, water begins dropping on his head. He has a problem: he’s getting wet. He ‘solves’ the problem by moving the chair, and maybe also getting a pot from the kitchen to catch the water drops.

Obviously, the football fan has failed to define the problem, perhaps willfully — because it was a good game, or because he’s lazy, or because it’s a rented house, or whatever. He’s willing to limit the immediate damage, a short-term ‘solution’ that lets him watch the game.

It seems pretty clear that Penn State leaders didn’t want to disrupt their games either, because football is a huge business in Happy Valley, where Coach Paterno is revered and the economic benefits run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

For too long we have simply ‘moved the chair’ in public education, often congratulating ourselves for having solved the problem. Here’s what I mean:

Our so-called cures for whatever is wrong in education don’t work because we haven’t diagnosed the problem correctly. Too many influential people think the problem is abysmal test scores, and those folks then design ‘cures’ with the purpose of raising the scores.

(Unfortunately, it is possible to raise test scores with malleable third and fourth graders, and so the ‘cure’ seems to be working. It’s a mirage, as the inevitable drop in scores in 8th grade and beyond demonstrates. Older kids are not so easy to manipulate. What that means is that the ‘learning’ shown in 4th grade was not genuine, more akin to sleight-of-hand than the deep learning that we should want for our children.)

Spanier and Paterno
Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno, the president and head football coach at Penn State, seem to have simply moved the chair.

Diagnosing the problem requires strong leadership, courage, and an informed electorate.

I believe that our fixation on tests and test scores is responsible for our having lost sight of the aims of education. What is the purpose of school? How about this?

“Schools and teachers are helping to raise adults.” Their job is not, contrary to conventional view to ‘teach children,’ because that’s too narrow an aim.

But if I am right and the job is growing adults, then we need to think about what sort of adults we want children — our own and others’ — to become.

Our founding fathers possessed great wisdom, and many today are fond of quoting Jefferson. However, I call your attention to James Madison, who wrote:

“… A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

To me, as a journalist, that means putting the best possible information in front of the public, trusting it to act wisely and in its own interests. But the public also relies on leaders (like Madison and Jefferson) to do the right thing, to identify problems and possible solutions, and to have the courage to face unpleasant choices instead of running from them.

How often in education do leaders ‘move the chair’ instead of doing the right thing? For that matter, how often do politicians and policy makers go to the heart of the problem, instead of settling for the quick and superficial analysis? It’s a lot easier to focus on quick fixes that are not disruptive of ‘the way we have always done it.’

I’m not sure that courage is rewarded — and challenging the status quo, even when it represents mediocrity, is often a sure fire way to short circuit one’s career.

This is, however, not an academic discussion, because policies based on flawed logic do substantial harm to children and youth, to teachers and administrators, and to the nation’s faith in public education.

What will it take to transform schools so that their essential question, asked about each student, becomes “How are you intelligent?” instead of the ubiquitous “How intelligent are you?”

And what can you do to make it happen?

18 thoughts on “Moving the chair, at Penn State and in education

  1. John–This is a very thought-provoking piece that leaves me wishing we knew how to better prepare teachers to address your final question. Certainly having the time to get to know each student and to care about bringing out the very best in each should be a starting point for every teacher.


  2. Your correct on the test score fiasco look at the bazaar stuff Tennessee has done wihh the test scores. Also the Penn State nightmare reminds what one of the many reasons for tenure. I know teachers who where fired because the choose to do what their superiors told them to do in a child abuse case and it was the it was the wrong choice because of the politics involved


  3. Good analogy John and well said. I don’t know how many you have say that the focus on test scores is disruptive in education before the policymakers listen. They are not listening yet, at least in Washington. They are moving the chair.


  4. The last questions are the answers.

    For too long, education has been run by folks who believe only THEY know the way to teach. That old insult, “those who can’t do – teach” should be turned around to “those who HAVE DONE – teach”. We need to get the thousands of out-of-work “experts” in all fields into our schools. The teaching should come from the bankers and business executives and administrative assistants and marketers and other professions who can share priceless experience and knowledge with our children and their teachers.

    Kids learn by example and we have too few examples of the many occupations and intelligences ( did I just make up a word there?) adults possess that are not being demonstrated.

    Teachers have a critical role in “educating” our children. But “education” can come from many different sources. Education is sharing what you know with others and opening the door for them to learn more on their own.

    Don’t just ‘move the chair’… open the front door and let education, in.


    • I agree almost completely, only want to change your final thought. My bumper sticker thought is “Keep the building but ignore the walls.” By which I mean that kids in Paris, Texas, can and should be connected to kids in Paris, France; Berlin NH and Berlin, Germany; Greenwich, CT and Greenwich, England; Springfield MA and Springfield IL and so on. You get the point: use the technology to connect and enable kids to create knowledge.
      Computers have all or most of the answers, but they don’t have the questions. Our job is to help young people formulate the questions, and more questions. That way leads to knowledge. I write about this in “The Influence of Teachers,” which I hope a lot of you have read or will read. This is vitally important to our nation’s future


  5. For generations, poor schools operated under the “move the chair” approach, but in most cases those schools had no capacity for any real options. We got used to the process, and got used to the resulting culture of compliance.

    “Reformers” came on the scene, and, rightly, were outraged. These newcomers had money out the wazoo, but they didn’t take the time to diagnose the problem. So, ironically, they wasted tons of money and ended up, as you explain, with standardized testing as the new move the chair reaction.

    By the way, we should not prejudge the facts and individuals, even though its clear that something was wrong at Penn St. And we should remember Elliot’s point. without tenure, it would be the rare person who put principle over survival on the job. Fixing and maintaining tenure as sacrosaint (sp?) is a cheap price to pay for a system where people can act with integrity.


  6. Very thoughtful comment John. I heartily agree with your assessment of schools including Penn State as a systems problem, one we fall into waaaay too often. And while my initial assessment of the tragic Penn State situation — which truly hurts my heart: a great institution known for high standards and integrity – was that the leaders didn’t have enough information, more recent evidence – including Paterno’s statement that he didn’t do enough — suggests that they ignored deeper and more important issues such as the children for immediate pressures. Let’s hope things look better with more information.


    • Nope, that’s not the way things have broken, unfortunately. Lots of failures, including that young assistant who SAW a boy being subjected to anal sex and did nothing–he went home and told his father!
      But Coach Paterno’s legalistic response is the most disheartening, because of his iconic status and reputation.
      All gone….
      It’s not even ‘who steal my purse steals trash,’ because no one stole his good name. He gave it away, left it behind.


  7. Paterno was at least in the room long enough to move the chair a couple times. In K-12 today, leadership doesn’t need to fix the leak because they’re getting up to move to a different room entirely.


  8. I think your final question is where we ought to begin: the 15 year old who blew the whistle on a long term abuser was far more intelligent than those who got blown away. And had infinitely more integrity, courage, and, ironically, wisdom than the men who moved the chairs.

    Ironically, we won’t listen to the 15 year olds that memorizing things about Abigail Adams is a lot less useful in an age when a cell phone can find the answer faster, better and more relevant than that 15 year old’s memory of trivia. And the kid’s memory of what that Coach did in the shower has a lot more consequence…. It is painfully (in all that implies) obvious that the 15 year old is often far more right – and sometimes a lot more mature – than most accept. Failing to even give him a private hearing before respectful adults disrespects both the kid and the truth of his story, whether the story’s about Abigail or the Coach!


  9. “I believe that our fixation on tests and test scores is responsible for our having lost sight of the aims of education. What is the purpose of school? ..”, John Merrow writes.

    I’m willing to argue that our fixation on competitive team sports (and in the case of football, dangerous sports) also is responsible for having lost sight of the aims of education. What is the purpose of school? Better health through exercise is a respectable purpose, but spending the sums of money and time that the US devotes to sports in schools and universities is not the purpose of schools or higher education.


  10. As one who spent a lifetime trying to make education about how children learn instead of changing the test, changing the program, changing the text or, “moving the chair”, I know the challenges. As long as we pay baseball, football, basketball players, bankers, etc. enormous salaries and pay educators less than a living salary we will be faced with problems. As long as we let anyone who wants to take a couple of free courses in a university mentor student teachers without visiting their classrooms to see if they have something to offer an student teacher and as long as most teachers can shut their doors and just keep their kids quiet, we will have substandard education. Actually, substandard is a misnomer. There really is no standard; so anything goes.

    Schools that produce teachers need to be examined and and need to know what they have to do to up the ante toward producing more skilled teachers. School districts need to know what the standards are and how to get the teachers and students to meet those standards. Professional development is extremely important to student development and Unions have to be like Bar Associations. They need to work with School Districts to make them successful and help remove those who hinder the process.

    By the way, most bankers, CEO’s, marketers etc. would leave the classrooms in tears after the first week. Teaching is not for the weak of heart, it’s for those who have the heart to make sure that every student learns, feels supported, cared for and most of all capable.

    This is just the smoke of the volcano that still bubbles in my poor retired heart.


    • And Renee was and is a volcano, a force for good in Philadelphia and perhaps elsewhere. I got to know her a little bit when I was following David Hornbeck’s 6-year effort to change the schools there. If you want to see Renee in action (and a lot of David too), grab “Toughest Job in America,” our documentary. You won’t be disappointed. Well, maybe you will be depressed by the outcome of the struggle, but you will enjoy the ride.
      Renee may not remember me, but I recall how she locked the HS doors at 8, a shock to kids who had grown accustomed to ambling in minutes and even hours late. Some parents called David and/or the cops, but Renee stood her ground (and David backed her up, as I recall).
      go to and search the site. It’s downloadable, if there is such a word.


  11. There is a wealth of knowledge of what needs to be done already in our schools, but we tend to ignore it. There are thoughtful teachers who could contribute much to the conversations we need to have, but their voices are ignored. If they are still in the classroom the ‘experts’ and ‘reformers” don’t think they have the proper perspective. Instead we get the likes of Teach for America types who spend two years “teaching” (actually, most of them are still learning HOW to teach) before they move on and soon some of them are increasingly in positions driving the discussions about educational policy – we now have University Deans and State Commissioners of Education, not to mention the increasing numbers of staffers on Capitol Hill.

    Teachers should not have to leave serving their students in order to be able to participate in these discussions.

    The teaching profession needs to be redefined, included what Barnett Berry and his co-authors of Teaching 2030 have called a hybrid role.

    Thus teachers should not only serve as mentors to student teachers in the schools, but some should be serving as instructors in the university setting as well. And in participating in helping rethink and redesign how we recruit, train, induct, mentor, and supervise those we want to bring into our teaching corps.

    For all17 years I have been teaching I have tried to be a voice from the classroom. But there are only so many hours, and I cannot allow that role to interfere with my immediate responsibility to my students. Thus like many I find myself between Scylla and Charybdis, or having to make a Hobson’s choice. If I want to bring what I think I have to offer in helping rethink what we are doing with public schools before they are totally destroyed – and believe me, John’s imagery of moving the chairs is far too gentle to describe some of what is happening in the name of “reform” – then I may have to choose to leave the classroom. That is the question with which, as John well knows, I wrestle right now. Do I have an obligation to the broader needs of public education that requires me to leave what fuels my passion, which is continuing to be in the classroom each day with up to 180 students in my six classes.

    Instead we get Secretaries of Education at state and national levels who have either never themselves taught or had minimal experience, and yet again the voices of teachers, which could contribute greatly to the discussion, pointing out the pitfalls of the paths we now follow, are not part of the conversation.

    And as a result we will drive away those we most want to keep – the creative, dedicated to their students, teachers who are the ones who are remembered for making a POSITIVE difference in the lives of their students.

    The nation will be far poorer as a result. In every sense of that phrase.


  12. 3 points.
    1. I’m not sure we make progress by making angels of all teachers and demons of all politicians. Yes, there’s a wealth of knowledge in some teachers…and some are having opportunities to share their insights. There also is a wealth of knowledge in some political leaders. I’m not sure we make progress by making angels of teachers while demonizing political leaders, some of whom also have great insights and courage.
    2. Yes, I agree that some teachers should be helping to train the next generation of teachers. In fact, we helped create legislation that would have allowed that to happen. It is disappointing that more outstanding current teachers are not spending part of their time. Part of the success of Teach for American (and it’s not always successful) is that outstanding teachers are being asked to help training new teachers.
    3. Finally, I’ve just spent a couple of days with hundreds of educators from district & charter public schools, parents, young people and political leaders, learning with and from Dr. Joyce Epstein. She did terrific work to help people develop partnerships that will help produce progress. John, perhaps you can find a way to give her marvelous efforts broader national visibility. She is pragmatic, positive and very productive.


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