Most school chairs fail the grade

Blaming teachers has been a favorite blood-sport of republicans in America for decades, dating to the famous Reagan-administration “A Nation at Risk” report. Then liberals like Jonathan Kozol entered the fray by pointing out the “savage inequalities” in school funding.

Now education has a new problem: the chairs. Cheapskate school districts and money-hungry corporations have been keeping the kids in crummy seats.

“‘And then there is the classroom chair,’the New York Times reports. ”In New York City public schools, a top chair of choice since the mid-1990s


has been the Model 114, also known as the ‘super stacker,’15 pounds of steel, sawdust and resin that comes in 22 colors and has a basic, unyielding design little changed from its wooden forebears.

“’They don’t die,’ said Ali Salehi, the senior vice president for engineering and operations for Columbia Manufacturing, a 135-year-old company in Westfield, Mass., that makes the super stacker. ‘They just don’t die.’

“The staying power of the super stacker, a version of which can be found in schools all over the United States, is a symbol of continuity in a world of constant change. Children who attend the same schools their parents attended are likely to, at some point, plunk down in the very same kinds of seats, if not the very same seats.

“But in some quarters, the chair and others like it are seen as stubborn holdovers from before the age of ergonomics, when American schools’ main job was to turn out upright citizens, and rote learning was the student’s lot.

“’The chair, in short, originated in the industrial ordering of education,’ said David W. Orr, an environmental studies professor at Oberlin College who frequently writes about design. “It is maintained by profit-seeking school suppliers and unimaginative administrators who see no other possible arrangement of the body, or bodies, or any possible downside to the lower back from six hours of enforced sitting.”

“Wes Bradley, the principal of Thomas Nelson High School in Bardstown, Ky., said he doubted many school districts had ever had a discussion about chairs.

“Never in the six years he taught in a Bronx high school, Mr. Bradley said, had he seen chairs like the 1,000 new ones he put into his school’s 40 classrooms in August — each chair a vessel of student sovereignty.Pupils can turn them to face front or back, or use a handle to pull them into football-like huddles or to fan out for more independent work. While not perfect, Mr. Bradley said, they are “human friendly, form to the body” and come in “energizing colors.”In Albuquerque, as Michael P. Stanton set out to furnish the nex+Gen Academy High School that was opening in 2010, he sought seats to match its progressive philosophy, which relies on common areas and “learning studios” with no doors, instead of classrooms.The new chairs, Dr. Stanton, the principal, said, “are popular.” They come in two styles, both with wheels. One model has holes like a Wiffle ball. The other is fully cushioned.

“I chose them due to their flexibility, in the seat itself, so the students could ‘wiggle’ or move easily without leaving their seat,” Melissa A. Grant, the Albuquerque Public Schools’ interior designer, said in an e-mail.

“Anecdotally, administrators who have used newer, more flexible or free-moving chairs say that children find their new seats more comfortable and that they seem more engaged. Few studies have been conducted on whether chairs affect student performance, though a four-year study of 400 students conducted by a German nonprofit devoted to “posture and mobilization support” said children were able to concentrate for longer periods if they were given more mobile seats, combined with lesson plans that involved moving around.

“But unleashing students is a disputable concept, particularly in complicated learning environments. After all, schools have traditionally been synonymous with a hushed subservience reflected in the Industrial Age’s glib commands: “Do not slouch”; “Respect your elders”; “Speak when spoken to” — notions that some educators still find worthwhile today.


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