Six Astonishingly Easy Steps for Losing Weight,

Saving Social Security, and Reforming Education


Allen Jay Dennison


About the Author
Author’s Other Works
Full Disclosure


The Laika Crisis
The Rising Tide Crisis
The Ohms Law Crisis
The Crisis Outlook
Point the Finger of Blame Sternly!
Sprout Wings!
Add More Straw—But No More Camels!
Demand Results Now!
Look Backward Fondly!
Bet On Magic!
Board a Bandwagon!
Think Local!
Embrace Jargon!
Dote on Anecdotes!
Quote Right-Thinking Experts
Cite Selected Research
Adopt a New Crisis!


ALLEN JAY DENNISON is not known as a writer, social commentator, or education reformer. In fact, he is not well known at all. All the more reason to pay attention to him, for he comes to this task clean—no prior knowledge, hence no debilitating prejudices, unlike so many authors these days. Because he does not have a reputation to defend at all costs, he can tell it like it is. As his maternal grandmother, a romantic poet of some distinction, once sweetly put it, Truth is his Thing.

But Mr. Dennison is not without more rugged qualifications. While others were spending their time bellyaching about education, he was out actually experiencing it firsthand. By the time he was seven-and-a-half years old, he was already in the first grade. It is sad to report that by Grade Three, he was usually the first one down in the spelling bees. But young Jay Bird, as he was lovingly known, was not undone by this, for he realized that somehow the school was to blame, not himself.  In fact, recovering from misspelling Connecticut, his school career took off. For example, in Grade Five he passed the Palmer Method handwriting test on the third try, in Grade Six he was put in charge of cleaning the chalkboard erasers, and in Grade Seven he was the only one who actually liked diagramming sentences. While he never graduated from high school, he had earned a G.E.D. not long after becoming eligible to order drinks in his neighborhood bar.

Two episodes testify to the rich experience and lasting interest that Allen Jay Dennison has had in educational reform, albeit not at the school level. During the celebrated 1960’s sit-ins at the University of California, Berkeley, Denny Jayson (as he was then known in SNCC) actually sat-in in the chancellor’s office. What is so impressive about this is that he was not a student there, or anywhere else, and so had nothing to gain while exposing himself to the risk of tear gas and police brutality. That’s top-notch commitment.

Then, thirty years later, in the 1990s and again at UC Berkeley, AJ (his Free Speech nom de guerre) once more exposed himself in behalf of education reform. This time literally. He joined the student protesters demanding their Constitutional right to attend classes in the nude. Not being a student, he properly confined his nakedness to the picket line just outside the campus gate.

Little is known about Mr. Dennison’s activities in the years between those two seminal experiences. When asked point blank, he smiles wistfully and says he is not at liberty to disclose what he was up to during those years. Piecing together bits and pieces of information from a variety of anonymous sources leads to two possibilities. The most likely is that he was the shadowy Jay-00, a quadruple counteragent simultaneously spying on and for the CIA, Mafia, KGB, and Vatican. The rumor that he was kin of Pretty Boy Floyd is no more than that, though Dennison refuses to deny it.

The other possibility—and the prose in this book certainly lends credence to it—is that he was the mysterious ghostwriter Demosthenes Allenson. Insiders in the publishing world believe that he was responsible for heavy editing on many of the novels of Philip Roth and the mysteries of Agatha Christie, nearly all of the poetry of Alan Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath, the early movies of Alfred Hitchcock, the less abrasive articles of William F. Buckley, Jr., and the campaign speeches of Eugene McCarthy and Ronald Reagan. Others believe that ghostwriter Allenson himself had a ghostwriter, namely Al “The Pen” Jaylock. Some literary authorities put forward the disturbing thought that they may be one and the same person.

But all of that is behind him now. He is once and for all Allen Jay Dennison, education reform expert. In preparation for writing this book, he spent weeks talking with people at the supermarket checkout counter, reading the National Enquirer every Sunday, and thinking a lot. He even went so far as to watch presidents and first ladies, and would-be presidents and would-be first ladies, on nightly television as they visited classrooms here and there and sat in those little chairs and asked the tykes what they think. There should be no doubt in your mind about this bulldog of an education reformer: Truth is his Co-Pilot.

IMPORTANT OTHER WORKS* by Allen Jay Dennison











*All in progress, and due momentarily, or later. Keep in touch.


FRANKLY, I am surprised to find you here. Reading the preface, that is. Americans are not much given to reading prefaces. Publishers tell me that this is because Americans don’t know a preface from an introduction from a prologue, and so they ignore them all. That says something right there on how badly we teach literature in our schools. My professor friends say it is because Americans, most egregiously college-age Americans, are simply lazy readers, not to mention being intellectually feeble. Professors, as we all know, are voracious readers and intellectuals of the first rank. Still, some of them are likeable enough as long as you don’t take their courses.

But such explanations besmirch the American character excessively. After all, there is no shortage of more interesting ways to besmirch the character of Americans, so complaining about their preface-avoidance proclivities seems altogether unnecessary, if not petty. No, there are better reasons why they are preface shy. One is that we Americans are Capitalists, warp and woof, and as such know instinctively that the goods we pay for in a book begin on Chapter 1, page 1—and that all the iii and xvi stuff (and endnotes and epilogues and addenda) are no more that literary taxes, and therefore to be avoided whenever possible. Which is usually possible, since fortunately there are no preface police to snoop on us. Preface-reading operates on the honor system. And, of course, we all know how to deal with the honor system when push comes to shove. Especially college graduates.

Another, and irrefutable, reason for not reading prefaces and their ilk is that they are usually boring—not plain boring but excruciatingly boring. Authors seem congenitally unable just to sit down and write a book. No, they seem driven to tell us why and how and when and with whose help they wrote it. And maybe what it all means, as though we—dimwits that we are—couldn’t figure out what it means, if anything, by simply reading the book itself. Or maybe that is what an introduction does. I get them mixed up.

So, with your interests in mind, I decided not to write a preface. It’s win-win for both of us.


NEVER MIND that we Americans are not of a single conviction when it comes to most important things, like hip-hop and gay-marriage, for example. But when it comes to education, there is one thing we all agree on: the schools need fixing. Education reform is in!

Just consider that we now seem to have more “education governors” than we have states.  Can you even imagine a politician of any stripe these days who does not put the nation’s education prowess ahead of mere local concerns, like highways and defense contracts? I should think not. No, as a people—and I speak here not alone of politicians, but of more ordinary citizens, such as movie stars and CEOs of HMOs and househusbands and authors of books like this—we are nothing if not determined to change our anemic third-class school system into a powerhouse first-class one. Our nationwide battle cry is: World-class or Bust!–except in New Hampshire, where it is “World-Class or Die.”

Easy to say. Not easy to get to happen. What is a person supposed to do, actually? The system is more than a little confusing, when you get right down to it. It’s hard to get your hands on those three million teachers, thousands of principals and superintendents, 16,000 school districts, each with its bevy of school-board members. And then there are the teachers’ unions, 900-page textbooks, SATs and NAEPs, and claims and counterclaims galore to deal with. Not to mention all those kids! Makes one want to say “goodness gracious!” or “all is lost!” or “my two cents worth wont be worth a plug nickel.” Or to come right out and blaspheme!

But now, for the first time, help is at hand. You personally do not have to figure out how to do your part in reforming our schools. This book lays out six simple steps for would-be reformers. It doesn’t matter who or what you are—teacher, legislator, president, foster parent, tabloid journalist, tax accountant, warden, whatever.  But of course not students. What do they know? They may not eactly be savages, but they are not educated, which is why we have schools in the firse place. However, as long as reforming our schools is your passion, and “World-class or Bust” has pride of place on your T-shirts, The Fandangle Way is for you.

THEN just what is The Fandangle Way? Simple: It is a set of steps that you can take—must take!—in order to do your part. Nothing complicated. Nothing theoretical. You might think that some professors or think-tank habituates or, God forbid, Washington bureaucrats, have made up things for you to do. Not so. These six steps are based on actual experience. No need here for you to reinvent the wheel. Relax. The recommendations in this book are based on what reformers—both self-appointed and officially-anointed—have been doing all along for decades, even though they may deny it.

Skeptics may point out that if what reformers have been doing is so good, how come we are still not numero uno in science education? The answer is as clear as ice-cold bottled water. It is because you have not been on the field of battle. You have been on the sidelines, complaining about education but not doing a damn thing about it. Or worse, because you have been doing things in the name of school reform, but, in all honesty, the wrong things! Fandangle is the Way for you to get with it reformwise. Follow these simple reform rules and science education in America will never be the same again. And you will become a reform hero. You can then expect to be misquoted in newspapers, invited to give Congressional testimony, and reap the other ineffable rewards that come with famehood.

Finally, a word about “you.” This book is written as though you were a person, an individual person. And you are. But you are also a collective you. “You” are parents, or teachers, or employers, or senior citizens, or Internet billionaires, not to mention reality show survivors. Therefore, these six simple but powerful rules are for you personally and collectively. It follows that it is your responsibility to persuade—badger, if need be—your cohorts into becoming one with The Fandangle Way.


ACTUALLY, this book is about education reform only. I’ll admit that the title may suggest otherwise, but the truth of the matter is that there is nothing in this book about losing weight or saving social security. I wouldn’t deceive my army of devoted readers for the world, but you know how publishers are—sales are all they care about. Bottom line uber alles. My editor said that while people are gung ho for education reform, they’re not all that big on reading about it. They need, she said, an incentive to even pick up a book on unadulterated education, let alone shell out real money for it. A hooker, I think is the term she used.

Well, she has a point. After all, if people don’t buy this book, what chance does America have of becoming world-class in science education? Very little. For the sake of civilization in the new millenium and beyond, given that our country is the world’s acknowledged superpower (among lots of other good things), this publication belongs on the New York Times Best Seller list, not to mention Oprah’s, and certainly not on the Barnes & Noble Remainder’s Table. So if the title is a tiny bit misleading, just remember that it is in behalf of a good cause.

But there are, nevertheless, limits to what is acceptable to right-thinking people in the way of the deceptive labeling of drugs, breakfast cereals, computer software, and, yes, even books. Especially, one would think, books on religion, the Chicago Cubs, and education. My editor wanted me to title this book, The Fandangle Way: Six Easy Steps for Losing Weight, Saving Social Security, Having Better Sex, Fighting Off Global Warming, and Reforming Education. I thought that was excessive, and put my foot down on sex and global warming. Now that’s integrity for you. (There is a school of thought that says sex and global warming are related. Environmentalists take note.)

CONTINUING in this admirable truth-telling spirit, there is another admission due the conscientious reader. The Six Astonishingly Easy Steps for Losing Weight, Reforming Social Security, and Reforming Education were originally Thirteen Astonishingly Easy Steps for Reforming Education—remember that Losing Weight and Saving Social Security were jettisoned earlier in the game.

Some overly sensitive, not to say mean spirited, readers may feel they were short-changed and charge us with being miserly, if not dishonesty. That is hardly fair. I ask you, if the title had shouted out “Thirteen Steps!” would those complainers have bought the book? I think not. My editor was very clear on this. She said, number one, there are lots of lazy readers out there who never buy books with lots of chapters in them (except, of course, for romances and murder mysteries), and number two, they are on the whole a superstitious bunch for whom thirteen of anything is to be avoided. Yes, even chapters in a book, especially a book about education reform, although, truth be told, there may be more superstition than logic in education reform.

Also, she said that six is the prefect number because successful self-help books always came in six steps. So seven steps were forthwith consigned to the shredder. Which seven? The least ingenious and powerful, you can be sure. Anyway, the main function of the lopped-off seven was mostly to bulk out the book so it wouldn’t look skinny like a kid’s book. In any case, the remaining six will more than do the job. So it is now up to you to forge ahead starting with Step One – Adopt a Crisis.


Catastrophe Ahoy!

YES, you believe that the American public school system ought to be better and can be better. You believe that in general the quality of life in the future depends upon the quality of education, that the world is changing in a way that demands better education for more people, and that by and large our school system is not good enough. In other words, you are all for education reform.

Nice thought, but it will not beget reform. It is too vague, too bland, too unfocused. It doesn’t stir the blood, won’t incite action.

If you are serious, your first step must be to adopt a crisis. As Professor Paul Romer of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business has put it, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”  Education reform thrives on crises. No crisis, no reform. Maybe no reform anyway, even with a crisis—there are other crucial steps awaiting you—but without a crisis you are dead in the water. History is clear: a crisis is the express train of education reform. Notice that this step does not require you to invent a crisis. It calls on you, rather, to look around and find an appropriate crisis that you can latch onto as the justification for promoting whatever education reform measures you have in mind. If none is in view, wait it out, keep your powder dry until suitable crises shows up … then seize it! You may protest that the reform measures you have in mind do not tie closely to the crisis of the moment. That is to miss the point of Step 1, which is that crises are to be used. Please keep in mind that for you, a crisis is only a tool, a vehicle, a necessary means for getting people to pay attention to your reform agenda, whatever it may be.

All right, but what kind of a crisis should you look for? Simple. It must be a crises that is terrifying or humiliating, or, ideally, terrifying and humiliating. It must strike fear in the heart, send chills down the spine, make us want to bow our heads in shame. In short, you want a crisis that has us on the edge of a cliff, on the brink of a disaster of such enormous magnitude that failure to set matters straight will mean that all is lost and over the edge we go. And remember, if it is the educational future of the United States that vexes you, then the crisis you adopt must be of a matching scale. A national crisis is what you need—a daunting external threat to the safety and prosperity of our country, not to mention the American Way of Life. Nothing less will do.

The Honor Roll of Educational Crises

NOW the interesting thing is that your crisis of choice need not be an educational one. National defense and business crises are best of all, of course—as long as they are attributed to the failure of the schools. The Laika Crisis and The Rising Tide Crisis can serve as models. The Ohms Law Crisis illustrates that given the right circumstances, even education-related events can illuminate crises that the rest of us can use to justify our own reform initiatives.

The Laika Crisis

IT WAS BAD ENOUGH when, in 1957, the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik 1 to make the world’s first successful Earth orbit. Following that up with Sputnik 2 featuring Laika, humiliated the United States even further. A dog, for goodness sake! A cosmonaut dog was up there showing off, the whole world marveling, and we literally couldn’t seem to get our space program off the ground, not to mention Lassie.

The Cold War was heating up, and the bad guys were taking control of space. We would be sitting ducks for their space dreadnoughts. The then Soviet Union—better known these days as the former Soviet Union—would bring us to our knees. Democracy and the free enterprise system as we knew it (and ran it for the good of all) were on the verge of extinction, once and for all. Now you can’t ask for a better crisis that that.

Why were we being beaten in the space race? Education, in a word, feeble education, in two. We were being trounced because our schools were so awful. Soviet schools were teaching all their kids calculus, while American schools couldn’t even teach our kids long division. Physics for them, year after year, general science for us once in a while. Their schools were demanding, ours indulgent—clubs, student government, dances, cheerleaders, homemaking, driver’s ed., that sort of thing. The contrast with Russian schools was staggering.

If deplorable education was undermining our space effort, it follows that fixing education would put us back in the game. In short, thanks to Laika. (It is reassuring that not one single American high school adopted Laika as team mascot. Maybe our kids were not well educated, but, my, they were sure loyal.) Everything was now set for reformers to get going. We had a frightening national crisis, the Cold War space race, and we had an education connection, poor schools, to explain our lagging space program. All systems go!

And go they did. The National Science Foundation was created in 1950 to support basic research in science and to promote better education in science and mathematics. The funding provided by Congress for the latter was, however, quite small until Sputnik came arf-arfing along. In the face of this greatest national crisis since Pearl Harbor, NSF funding made it possible for dozens of new K-12 science and mathematics courses to be created, and for teachers by the thousands to attend specially designed summer-long institutes at universities to study in depth the subjects they taught and to acquire new teaching strategies and skills. The National Defense Education Act, notice the title, provided money to outfit school science labs, create foreign-language labs using the latest audio technologies, and underwrite science specialists in the elementary schools. There had never been anything quite like it in the history of education reform in America.

And then it stopped. Quite abruptly. Unfortunately for the reform movement of the 1960s, the Laika crisis went away. We made the mistake of getting to the moon before the Soviets, not only thereby “Taking a giant step for mankind,” but also demolishing our space crisis. No crisis, no need for education reform. The Sputnik reforms mostly faded away because they had not yet had time to become entrenched in the schools. But it was great while it lasted, and if it hadn’t been for little Laika, figuratively speaking, we would have missed out on that exhilarating—but in the long run mostly futile—reform binge.

The Rising-Tide Crisis

AFTER A WHILE, however, things began to look up, as is their wont. Destiny is definitely on our side. This time we can thank the Japanese and Germans, instead of the Soviets, for getting us into the crisis mode, which education reformers know is home sweet home. Gradually it was becoming apparent, to even the most patriotic Americans among us, that we were being out manufactured right here on earth. By foreigners. And not just any foreigners, mind you. The leading, but not only, usurpers were the very ones we had so recently vanquished in WWII (and, not to put too fine a point on it, had subsequently put back on their feet).

Something was amiss. Were we being beaten at our own game? Weren’t we the assembly-line capo ever since the Model-T, the electronics-king since the first Philco? So what was with Toyota and Sony? The pretenders to the throne did not seem to grasp the fundamental truth that their proper role was to buy our products, not build better ones to sell to us. And surely it was not seemly for the Japanese corporations to go around buying up Rockefeller Center and MGM.

It is to the credit of Americans everywhere that, in the face of such chutzpa, we were willing to admit that this embarrassing state of affairs was largely of our own doing. Some uninformed people may have been inclined to blamed our CEOs for this sorry mess, but most of us knew better. American business and industry was being hamstrung by poorly educated employees, while Japanese and German companies were blessed with brilliantly-educated ones, especially in science and math.  Our schools had let us down. Once again!

So now seekers of education reform had a new crisis to latch onto, and latch on they did. The president of the United States appointed a committee of outstanding Americans to figure out what was wrong and tell the nation what to do about it. Eighteen months later, in April 1983, the committee submitted its report, A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, as “an open letter to the American people” published by the United States Department of Education. A perfect title.

And a report to match. Clearly we were back in the soup again, just about 25 years later —roughly two student-generations—after Laika’s Sputnik joy ride. Or maybe we never got out of the soup. But in either case, the picture was grim. As the report said in its opening paragraphs:

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.¼ We report to the American people that ¼ the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. (Sorry, Laika.) We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

Nothing mealy mouthed there. A crisis to propel the most laggard reformers into action.

A Nation At Risk went on to recommend changes necessary to achieve excellence in education, and, chastened, we turned once again set out on the path to education reform. The nation had learned its lesson, once and for all time. Again.

The Ohm’s Law Crisis

OR SO ONE would have thought. In 1998—a student-generation after the Rising-Tide crisis of 1983, and three after the Laika crisis of 1957—we were told that a massive international study of student performance in science and mathematics indicated that we had been asleep at the education switch once more.

In 1995 and 1996 we participated in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (known in educational circles by its nickname TIMSS), perhaps the largest and most comprehensive international comparison of education ever undertaken. The study assessed the mathematics and science knowledge of a half-million students from 41 nations at three levels of schooling—the fourth, eighth, and twelfth. A marvelous chance for us to show the world how much our kids know about fractions, congruence, ratio & proportion, the ozone layer, chloroplasts, ions, inclined planes, Ohm’s Law, and other such manifestations of science and mathematics education in their time (and ours).

Here is a brief summary of how well the United States team did in comparison to its competitors:

In mathematics, our fourth graders scored above the international average of the 26 participating countries, though their scores were not significantly different from those of Canada and exceeded those of England. In science, our students also scored above the international average. They outperformed students in every participating country except Korea, though their scores were not significantly different from those of the Japanese students.

In mathematics, our eighth graders scored below the international average of 41 participating countries, but they were not significantly different from those of students in England and Germany. In science, our eighth graders again scored above the international average, though not significantly different than those of Canadian, English, and German students.

That sounds pretty good, one might think—so naturally we don’t need to make much to do about such anti-reform results. But then we found out that: In mathematics and science, our twelfth graders scored below the international average and among the lowest of the 21 participating nations.

According to nearly all commentators, these results were dismal, if not shocking. President Bush (the original) and 50 governors had declared in 1989 that one of our national goals was to be “first in the world in mathematics and science achievement by the year 2000,” but along came the new millennium and lo and behold we were not the world’s numero uno in science and math education yet, but rather still mired down, it seemed, with the also-rans.

We all know, of course, that as the newspapers and newscasts were giving headline treatment of this latest evidence of our educational ineptitude, they were at the same time trumpeting our amazing economic performance. We were enjoying a decade of record low unemployment, stock market out of sight, vanishing inflation, millionaires giving way to billionaires, while Japan, Korea, Germany, and our other tormentors of the Rising-Tide crises struggled. But we know more than to be side-tracked by such news. How could we possibly sustain that pace, our thinking went, given the now-proven weakness of our education system compared to that of our competitors?  We can’t, so it was onward to education reform.

Did it work? History is strongly on the side of no. But then from time to time those folks do the international comparisons over, inevitably showing us as the laggards we are. For example, we now have

Thus for the first time we have education research to thank for something, namely giving us a crisis to latch on when there are no better ones around. But we do have a worry. Suppose in one of the comparisons we turn out to be primo? What would we do for a crisis to spur further educational reform?

The Crises Outlook

NATURALLY you cannot count on Hall-of-Fame crises such as Laika, Rising-Tide, and Ohms-Law to show up on demand. But take heart—a suitable crisis may be just around the corner. You must be constantly on the alert. But keep in mind that we are talking here of dire national crises, not minor ones, not local or regional ones, and certainly not personal ones. The invasion of your part of the country by the senior citizen hordes, for example, does not meet our crisis standard, nor does the fact that Princeton shows little interest in your kid simply because his combined SAT scores only added up to 650.

Yes, the fact is that nearly two decades later we are still dealing with the tiresome Ohm’s-Law Crisis—now known to purists, you recall, as the TIMSS Crisis, although many prefer to think of it as the PISA Crisis in which 15-year-olds all over the world, beat the pants off of 15-year-olds in science and math. We are trying our best to train kids to do better on those tests, even if it means firing lots of teachers whose students are low scorers, but it is slow going.

But suppose that this current crisis turns out to be as fickle as its lamented ancestors? What if, for instance, FIMSS (the inevitable Fourth International Mathematics and Science Study) finds us beating the pants off of all the other countries willing to play the international testing game? That is a worry, all right, akin to what happened when we had the bad judgment to beat the Soviets to the moon. We know that the schools need reforming no matter what the assessment gurus say, and that without a nice crisis on hand, the nation will no longer be aware of its educational shortcomings. Or it may be aware of them and not give a damn, as long as the economy recovers and bubbles along, singing its sweet song.

Unfortunately, we cannot be altogether certain about when the next suitable crisis will present itself. Have you not noticed that even the horoscope in your newspaper, as good as it is in alerting you to what lay ahead in your life, is silent with regard to crises of the first magnitude that may be poised to strike at any moment?  But then where do we turn for a crisis alert? To the prophetic writings of university professors of history and economics? Hardly. To the State of the Union speeches of our presidents? Please be serious.

No, it is up to you. You must rely on your own sensitivity to the possible emergence of a suitable crisis—you simply cannot count on fortunetellers, scholars, op-ed pundits, and politicians. If you have had the gumption to study this chapter through and through, you now understand the necessity of attaching your education reform undertakings to a perceived crisis, and you know that “perceived” is the operational term. It is immaterial what the crisis is, or even whether it is real or not, as long as it is taken to be a serious national crisis that can be seen by whatever logic to be largely the fault of the schools. When those golden moments of opportunity appear, don’t hesitate. Push your reform thing, even knowing that when the crisis abates (or is forgotten), your reform will have no home.