An evening with Alfie Kohn, "the anti-Arne Duncan"

made me wish President Obama had played basketball with him instead of Arne. But Kohn is way too short and slow.

I blogged earlier this month about Alfie Kohn (website here), famous critic of American education. His comments tonight at Concordia University of Chicago were passionate, but still reasonable–a pleasant break from the obfuscatory Educanese “Education leaders” usually speak.

“If you share my despair and my outrage,” Kohn urged the more than 400 teachers and parents, “you can say to this system, ‘it stops with me.’”

Kohn pointed out what he sees as the four major flaws in public education today in the USA:

  1. A top-down approach to school reform: dangling money in front of state superintendents who will get their superintendents to punish and reward teachers with merit pay? Turning people into what they are not–controllable automatons. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was an actual teacher for two years, is Barack’s basketball pal. In Chicago, he developed a take-over model that labled non-NCLB adequate schools “failures,” sold the interest to a charter school, and called himself the CEO in a business dedicated to nurturing learning. Failing schools, like failing students who do not have sufficient learning as measured by tests–has an, ahem, failing record at increasing student learning. Kohn suggested his audience cite studies on his site when writing thier superintendents and state governors. (As we know, our removed-from the classroom elected officials put great stock in “data-driven” decisions reached on the basis of research.)
  2. “Improve What?” simply “raising the bar” and making classes more “rigorous” in an effort to raise test scores sufficiently each year ignores the issue of what is taught–is it broad, flexible, problem-solving skills, or is it a discrete body of facts and skills that–surprise, year after year affluent white districts do well on? Kohn is famous for one aphorism that is germane here: “It doesn’t matter how motivated students are; what matters is how students are motivated” – [“The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation,” Chronicle of Higher Education].
  3. Learning is not being measured–it is being bastardized and compressed into the old, wrong model of education, packaged into corporately written curricula that are sold to states by the same people who–surprise–also write the tests that validate the curricula for states. How slick is that? Add to the deal the sociological implications of Test-topia on disadvantaged populations whose failing is pre-supposed (a system Kohn called “Educational Ethnic Cleansing”) and you see how one might claim that insofar as their public education dollar goes, the American people are being cheated.
  4. Evaluation has become part of the system, and not the objective information we need when making important decisions. When a state or the federal government measure “effective schools,” they do so on the basis of higher test scores which measure nothing of any lasting significance. Echoing my thoughts when my school’s somewhat higher ACT scores were published this year, Kohn claimed that the state tests are very accurate measures… of the sizes of the houses near a school!

With a zeal appropriate to his church setting, Kohn exhorted his audience to work together to bring about a better tomorrow. He left his audience with some suggestions that can address the flaws both short-term and long-term: teachers can inform parents of what the tests are doing to their child’s education, parents can pressure legislators and governors, and students themselves, as they did at Chicago’s Whitney Young High School, can boycott the annual testing.

My letter to Arne (cc: to BO) is on its way. Thanks, Alfie!

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