Alfie Kohn’s Message: Half-Crazy, Half-True

This post is drawn from an essay in the March, 2012 edition of Wisconsin Interest.

One hundred years ago, a progressive populist barnstormed the country, delivering fiery speeches and railing against the gold standard. Today another progressive populist barnstorms the country, delivering fiery speeches and railing against academic standards. Meet Alfie Kohn, the William Jennings Bryan of our age.

Like most demagogues, Kohn knows how to tap into his audience’s raw emotions—anger, feelings of powerlessness, and resentment of a ruling elite. In his case, he puts voice to what many educators already believe: That school reform is a corporate plot to turn young people into docile employees; that an obsession with standardized testing is crowding out any real intellectual engagement in our schools; and that teachers have no say over what happens inside their own classrooms.

These arguments are half-crazy and half-true, which is what makes Kohn so effective—and so maddening.

Where Kohn gets it right is in his observation that many American schools are “mindless, soul-killing” institutions, especially the schools serving our most disadvantaged communities. While this has almost certainly been the case for decades, it’s probably true that test-based accountability has made the situation worse, at least in many locales.

Even the most hawkish reformer must blush at depictions of the endless test prep and shamefully narrowed curriculum that is present at too many inner city schools. “That’s not what we intended for them to do,” we reformers say, but the combination of high pressure and low capacity too often leads educators to panic and look for shortcuts to higher test scores. We can’t just look the other way and pretend it’s not happening.

Where Kohn gets it wrong, however, is in his vision for a better education system. Here he’s an unreconstructed John Dewey acolyte, right down the line. He views all the markers of “traditional” education with suspicion, from grading to lecturing to teachers asserting their authority.

He doesn’t just think that the focus on testing has gone overboard, he actually asserts that rising test scores indicate malevolent behavior. If the scores at your child’s school go up, he claimed in a recent speech, “either it’s meaningless or it’s bad news.”

Really? Kohn refuses to consider the hundreds (maybe thousands) of “traditional” schools that produce great test scores and give their students a rich, intellectually stimulating experience. What about Catholic schools, those unabashedly “authoritative” institutions that for 100 years have helped poor, minority and immigrant children get started on a path to the middle class?

What about the nation’s high-flying charter schools, such those in the KIPP network, which boast high student achievement and a well-rounded curriculum (including art and music for everybody!)? And what about Finland—the cause célèbre of progressive educators—which boasts “authentic” learning and sky-high test scores?

What Kohn refuses to wrestle with is the argument—made by Core Knowledge creator E.D. Hirsch Jr., among others—that progressive education might work well for children of the affluent but tends to be disastrous for children of the poor.

Democratic decision-making, self-directed studies, internal motivation, and the like are wonderful aspirations. But when it comes to lifting children out of poverty, heavy doses of basic skills, rich content, and clear expectations have been proven time and again to be more effective.

That’s not to be mistaken for the “mindless, soul-killing” teaching that Kohn bemoans, but it’s also not the progressive utopia he envisions, either.

What Kohn and other reactionaries refuse to acknowledge is that what fuels the modern school reform movement is not acquiescence to Corporate America but outrage at the nation’s lack of social mobility.

As Kati Haycock of the (very liberal) Education Trust has argued, “We take the children who need the most and give them the least”—schools with the least resources, least qualified teachers, and least challenge. Kohn is right that test scores are most closely related to social class; changing that brutal fact is what the reform movement is all about.

But Kohn would rather spar with boogeymen like the “Billionaire Boys Club”—the label Diane Ravitch affixed to reform-minded philanthropists—than the pro-reform civil rights groups they support. Does Kohn think that these organizations—from Education Trust to the National Council of La Raza to the United Negro College Fund and on and on—are dupes when they equate higher test scores for poor kids with better life opportunities?

Kohn might want to familiarize himself with the recent blockbuster study by Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff, which illustrated the enormous impact an effective teacher could have on her students’ life chances. But, as the (liberal) Kevin Carey wrote at the time of its release, it also indicated the connection between test scores and outcomes in the real world:

If you believe standardized tests are worthless or highly flawed or deeply inadequate or even troublingly limited in accuracy and scope—and many reasonable people believe these things—then you could dismiss or downplay value-added measures of teacher effectiveness, by definition. …

But now the [Chetty-Friedman-Rockoff] study says that teachers who are unusually good at helping students score high on standardized tests today aren’t just unusually good at helping students score high on standardized tests tomorrow. They also have an unusual effect on the likelihood of students going to college, going to a good college, earning a good living, living in a nice place, and saving for retirement.

In other words, whatever the limitations of standardized tests may be, test-based value-added scores do, in fact, provide valuable information about the things most people care most about.

Kohn argues that if test scores don’t matter and are antithetical to real learning, then the entire school-reform movement is built on quicksand. But what if test scores do matter—a lot—especially for our society’s most vulnerable children? Is Kohn willing to acknowledge that his progressive vision is too dismissive of the importance of basic knowledge and skills?

Alfie Kohn isn’t evil, as some social conservatives have implied. He’s right that what passes for education in too many of our schools should be the cause of outrage and fundamental change. But he’s wrong that resisting “reform” is a clear path to a better future for our children.

His progressive vision might do no serious harm in schools serving affluent children—kids who are getting the basic skills, strong vocabulary, and internal motivation at home. But backing away from accountability, teacher effectiveness, and academic “rigor” would likely create an even bleaker future for children growing up in poverty—children for whom school matters most.

Kohn’s populism, like William Jennings Bryan’s before him, stirs emotions, but doesn’t point toward a positive program, especially for the poor. There’s plenty to criticize when it comes to testing, merit pay and the rest. Midcourse corrections are called for.

But Mr. Kohn: Education reform shall not be crucified on a cross of “no.”

-Michael Petrilli

This post originally appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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