“Beware school reformers,” Alfie Kohn warns darkly in The Nation. In the world according to Mr. Kohn there are “educational progressives,” and then there are reformers who are ”disconcertingly allied with conservatives.” To be a school reformer, Kohn writes with no apparent fear of contradiction, is to support:
- a heavy reliance on fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests to evaluate students and schools, generally in place of more authentic forms of assessment;
- the imposition of prescriptive, top-down teaching standards and curriculum mandates;
- a disproportionate emphasis on rote learning–memorizing facts and practicing skills–particularly for poor kids;
- a behaviorist model of motivation in which rewards (notably money) and punishments are used on teachers and students to compel compliance or raise test scores;
- a corporate sensibility and an economic rationale for schooling, the point being to prepare children to “compete” as future employees; and
- charter schools, many run by for-profit companies.
“Notice that these features are already pervasive, writes Kohn, which means “reform” actually signals more of the same.”
(Deep, cleansing breath) It’s hard to know how to begin unwinding all that is argumentative, tendentious and just plain wrong about this uniquely unhelpful little screed, insisting as Kohn does, that there is a political litmus test for favoring certain ideas in education. E.D. Hirsch could write a book about the inability of educators to differentiate progressive ends from progressive means (Wait. He’s already written at least three such books) and Kohn falls right into the same old pattern.
All but the most diehard accountability hawks seem to have accepted the idea that there’s more to student achievement than can be demonstrated by merely bubbling in a reading test once a year. By my count, about 4% of the nation’s 100,000 public schools are charters. That’s Kohn’s defintion of “pervasive?” And prescriptive, top-down teaching standards? Where, pray tell? Mostly we have a collection of empty “performance” (not content) standards that are so loose and impressionistic that virtually any lesson on any subject can be said to meet some standard.
And then there’s that most dogeared of pages in the familiar Alfie Kohn hymnal: ”disproportionate emphasis on rote learning–memorizing facts and practicing skills.” It’s charge he habitually and dishonestly throws at Core Knowledge schools. In what dark satanic mill is all this rote memorization happening? Show me. Given how “pervasive” it is, it shouldn’t be hard.
Matthew Ygelsias also goes after Mr. Kohn, calling the case for national standards pretty clear:
It’s silly for the federal government to invest a significant amount of money in something without articulating any kind of uniform national goals the money is supposed to be supporting. Beyond that, it’s incredibly harmful to children that when they move — a circumstance that disproportionately impacts poor children — there’s no curricular alignment between what they were learning previously and what they’re being taught now.
Update: The wise and wonderful Nancy Flanagan, while not commenting on Kohn’s piece, says it all over at Teacher in a Strange Land. “The worst possible way to approach any productive reform is to set up adversarial camps, and pit them against each other,” she observes. ”Win or lose. Leaving the winner with a constituency that’s half triumphant and half averse.”