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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 10/22/2010

Kohn: The pretend reformers

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Alfie Kohn, the author of 12 books about education and human behavior, including "The Schools Our Children Deserve," "The Homework Myth," and the forthcoming "Feel-Bad Education . . . And Other Contrarian Essays on Children & Schooling." He lives (actually) in the Boston area and (virtually) at www.alfiekohn. This post appeared on Kohn's Huffington Post page.

By Alfie Kohn
If you somehow neglected to renew your subscription to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, you may have missed a couple of interesting articles last year. A series of studies conducted by two independent groups of researchers (published in the September and November 2009 issues, respectively) added to an already substantial collection of evidence showing that “people are motivated to perceive existing social arrangements as just and legitimate.”

As is common with social psych studies, all the subjects were college students, so extrapolate to every other member of our species at your peril. Still, in a variety of different experiments, everything from the formula used by a university for funding its departments to unequal gender arrangements in business or politics was likely to be regarded as fair simply because, well, that’s how things are already being done. Subjects also tended to prefer the taste of a beverage if they were told it was an established brand than if they were told it was new.

If possession is nine-tenths of the law, then existence apparently is nine-tenths of rightness. At the same time, though, we seem to enjoy the smell of fresh paint (as Sartre put it). There’s something undeniably alluring about the new-and-improved version of whatever product we’re used to buying -- as long as the product itself hasn’t changed too much. We may be seized by an urge to throw the bums out every other November, but don’t ask us to question the two-party system itself. After all, if that’s how things are done, it must be for good reason.

For a shrewd policy maker, then, the ideal formula would seem to be to let people enjoy the invigorating experience of demanding reform without having to give up whatever they’re used to. And that’s precisely what both liberals and conservatives manage to do: Advertise as a daring departure from the status quo what is actually just a slightly new twist on it.

But conservatives have gone a step further. They’ve figured out how to take policies that actually represent an intensification of the status quo and dress them up as something that’s long overdue. In many cases the values and practices they endorse have already been accepted, but they try to convince us they’ve lost so they can win even more.

This phenomenon is easiest to notice in the realm of public policy. It’s pretty obvious to all but the most doctrinaire libertarian that the financial cataclysm of 2007, from which we’ve yet to recover, was a direct result of inadequate regulation of the investment banking industry. (Even Ayn Rand protégé Alan Greenspan admitted that his faith in the free market was, er, somewhat misplaced.)

This failure to regulate, in turn, reflects a sneering distrust of government that has been carefully cultivated at least since Ronald Reagan took office 30 years ago. And of course it’s not limited to banking. The private sector’s license to function with minimal oversight seems to have played a leading role in one recent disaster after another: the catastrophic BP oil spill, the deadly West Virginia mine explosion, the recall of half a billion eggs following a salmonella outbreak, and the San Bruno gas line explosion, to name only the most prominent examples from only the last half year.

Yet those who have drunk the ideological Kool-Aid -- a lot more than tea is served at these parties -- portray themselves as revolutionaries by virtue of demanding even further restrictions on the ability of democratically elected officials to regulate corporate conduct in the public interest. By framing the primary threat to our well-being as Big Government, conservatives succeed in marketing as something qualitatively new and different what is actually a ramped-up version of the very free-market dogma whose consequences we’ve been experiencing for quite some time.

Interestingly, this same artful maneuver also shows up far from the domain of Goldman Sachs and BP.

Consider the way children are raised in our culture. I think it can be argued that the dominant problem with parenting isn’t permissiveness; it’s a fear of permissiveness that leads us to be excessively controlling. For every example of a child who is permitted to run wild in a public place, there are hundreds of examples of children being restricted unnecessarily, yelled at, threatened, or bullied by their parents, children whose protests are routinely ignored and whose questions are dismissed out of hand, children who have become accustomed to hearing an automatic “No!” in response to their requests, and a “Because I said so!” if they ask for a reason.

But traditionalists -- who, when it comes to children, include a discouraging number of political liberals -- have persuaded us to ignore the epidemic of punitive parenting and focus instead on the occasional example of overindulgence – sometimes even to the point of pronouncing an entire generation spoiled. (It’s revealing that similar alarms have been raised for decades, if not centuries.)

To create the impression that kids today are out of control is to justify a call for even tighter restrictions, tougher discipline, more punishment. And, again, this is billed as a courageous departure from contemporary parenting practices rather than identified for what it is: an intensification of the control-oriented model that, as I’ve argued elsewhere, has already done incalculable damage.

Consider, finally, the case of education. Seymour Papert, known for his work on artificial intelligence, began one of his books by inviting us to imagine a group of surgeons and a group of teachers, both from a century ago, who are magically transported to the present day.

The surgeons visit a modern operating room and struggle to understand what’s going on, but the teachers feel right at home in today’s schools. Kids, they discover, are still segregated by age in rows of classrooms; are still made to sit passively and listen (or practice skills) most of the time; are still tested and graded, rewarded or punished; still set against one another in contests and deprived of any real say about what they’re doing.

Those tempted to point defensively to updates in the delivery system only end up underscoring how education is still about delivering knowledge to empty receptacles. In fact, snazzier technology -- say, posting grades or homework assignments on-line -- mostly serves to distract us from rethinking the pedagogy. Interactive whiteboards in classrooms amount to a 21st-century veneer on old-fashioned, teacher-centered instruction.

But enter now the school “reformers”: Big-city superintendents like Joel Klein and, until recently, Michelle Rhee; big-money people like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and a batch of hedge fund managers; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his ideological soulmates who preceded him in the Bush administration; Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim; and the reporters, editorial writers, and producers at just about every mass media outlet in the U.S. School reform, as these people understand it, and as I’ve discussed in a previous post, involves a relentless regimen of standardized testing; a push to direct funds to charter schools, many of them run by for-profit corporations; a weakening of teachers’ job protection -- and the vilification of unions that represent teachers -- so that those who have failed to raise their students’ test scores can be publicly humiliated or fired; threats to shut down low-scoring schools; initiatives to dangle money in front of teachers who follow orders and raise scores, or even in front of certain (low-income) students; and a contest for funding in which only (some) states willing to adopt this bribe-and-threat agenda will receive desperately needed federal money.

This business-style version of reform is routinely described as “bold” or “daring” -- in contrast to the “failed status quo,” which is blamed on the teachers’ unions. (With education, just as with parenting, even people who are reasonably progressive on other issues suddenly sound as if they’re auditioning for Fox News.) There’s much to be said about each of the policies I’ve listed, but for now the point to be emphasized is that, just as with the Tea Partyers who rally to stop the “tyranny” of mild federal checks on corporate power, or the parenting writers who urge us to “dare to discipline” our children (even though 94 percent of parents of preschoolers admit to spanking their children), the school reformers are in fact accelerating what has already been happening over the last couple of decades.

Even before the implementation of what should be called the Many Children Left Behind Act, states and school districts were busy standardizing curricula, imposing more and more tests, and using an array of rewards and punishments to pressure teachers and students to fall in line -- with the most extreme version of this effort reserved for the inner cities.

Before anyone outside of Texas had heard of George W. Bush, many of us had been calling attention to the fact that these policies were turning schools into glorified test-prep centers, driving some of the most innovative teachers to leave the profession, and increasing the drop-out rate among kids of color.

Yet the so-called reformers have succeeded in convincing people that their top-down, test-driven approach -- in effect, the status quo on steroids -- is a courageous rejection of what we’ve been doing.

Here’s what would be new: Questioning all the stuff that Papert’s early-20th-century visitors would immediately recognize: a regimen of memorizing facts and practicing skills that features lectures, worksheets, quizzes, report cards, and homework.

But the Gates-Bush-Obama version of “school reform” not only fails to call those things into question; it actually intensifies them, particularly in urban schools. The message, as educator Harvey Daniels observed, consists of saying in effect that “what we’re doing [in the classroom] is OK, we just need to do it harder, longer, stronger, louder, meaner....”

Real education reform would require us to consider the elimination of many features that we’ve come to associate with school, so perhaps the reluctance to take such suggestions seriously is just a specific instance of the “whatever is, is right” bias that psychologists keep documenting.

At the same time, traditionalists -- educational or otherwise -- know that it’s politically advantageous to position themselves as being outside the establishment. Our challenge is to peer through the fog of rhetoric, to realize that what’s being billed as reform should seem distinctly familiar -- and not particularly welcome.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 22, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alfie Kohn, Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind, Standardized Tests, Teachers  | Tags:  alfie kohn, davis guggenheim, duncan, george bush, george w. bush, joel k lein, obama, school reform, seymour papert, waiting for superman  
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Within the realm of this reform movement, certain components emerge resembling that of Stockholm syndrome. Since the lifeblood of school systems is necessary money to carry on, and since Duncan and Co. hold the purse strings and shape the criteria for obtaining such monies, and since the media is pumped with molded reports and faulty research supporting such reform, and since Duncan and Co. appear before adorable children in staged educational settings posing with smiling faces with the "for the kids" facade, it seems that the path of least resistance is to bond with Duncan and Co. in order to carry on rather than fight. Why else, other than profiteering, would reasonable people convert to such unseemly reform?

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 22, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Total blather. People have been trying new educational approaches for years - no grades, students deciding their own curricula, no classrooms -and these experiments continue today. The reason we have classrooms and tests and worksheets is because they work (or they can work, with involved parents and reasonable class sizes). Just because a study shows that people resist change, doesn't mean that everything in the status quo would be improved by change. And of course, the author supports change and reform but doesn't actually mention a single specific program or approach that they would institute.

Posted by: msw13 | October 22, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

As an educator of 35 years, I have seen this same rhetoric before. Most "change" occurs after a national crisis. It could be a war, it could be a depression, etc. etc. Those of us in neighboring states, were warned about GW Bush (as governor at that time) and his "new educational" reform. It didn't matter, we are now all awash in standardized testing and using test results to drive instruction. The bottom line: our nation has no real regard for education (case in point...look at the popularity of ignorant politicians), our nation has no real regard for teachers (that is why so many innovative teachers have left the profession), and for some reason....."reformers" still have not figured out what education truly is. With overloaded classrooms, closed libraries, testing mandates, school boards who know little, and the failure of parental support, our educational system cannot succeed. Ask the really good experienced teachers in your school system and they will tell what they fight on a day to day basis.

Posted by: esg719 | October 22, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

I wish Mr. Kohn would take more time editing his windy treatises. The good points he makes are diluted by his side jaunts into peripheral axe-grinding. Was the paragraph on permissive parenting needed? No, but by including this irrelevant aside, Kohn distracts and perhaps, alienates potential advocates of his main point about the current misguided reform efforts of the Obama administration. Where Kohn has always failed in his occasionally valid criticisms is that he is unable to offer a cost-effective, successful and reproducible alternative to the current delivery of public schooling that would work across demographic divides.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | October 22, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Kohn makes some good points, by which I mean “points I agree with.” Annoyingly, however, he also offers blather and axe-grinding, by which I mean “points I disagree with.” Rather than reconsider my own beliefs, I find it more convenient to just dismiss his critique since, by definition, what I don’t like has no merit.

Posted by: jiji1 | October 22, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

To make this essay more sensible, try substituting "citizen-taxpayer" for "parents" and "teachers" for "kids" and "children."

Posted by: axolotl | October 22, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

"But conservatives have gone a step further. They’ve figured out how to take policies that actually represent an intensification of the status quo and dress them up as something that’s long overdue."

Really? Conservatives are to blame?

Last I checked, it was Obama and the DNC that were promoting policies that amount to NCLB on steroids.

Then again, what would I expect from Mr. Kohn other than specious arguments and straw-man theories.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | October 22, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

I saw Alfie Kohn speak back in 2004 at Radford University. Back then, he was telling everyone at the conference that we should eliminate any kind of "competition" fom schools (sports, spelling bees, tests, etc.) Alfie's problem is that he goes on these non-sensical tirades to the point that any good points he may have become lost in the madness. I agree with what he said about Michelle Rhee though.

Posted by: thebandit | October 22, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Seymour Papert was a visionary. There have been many visionaries since he wrote "The Childrens' Machine", including Uri Treisman and now Dan Meyer, who have developed promising innovations in instruction. Carol Twigg's groups The National Center for Academic Transformation has developed a method of math instruction that increases student achievement. If student achievement was the goal, America would be leading the world. K12 education is about making nice to the grownups. They are the more articulate and the loudest complainers, blaming children and parents, before looking at their own practices. The best that can be said is that they are too close to the problems to lead the way toward a better instructional model. The most damning and evident statement in this article is “people are motivated to perceive existing social arrangements as just and legitimate.” Is it possible to overcome this national personality trait or are we doomed?

Posted by: suenoir | October 22, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I tend to agree with buckbuck11, too many side jaunts. Except I do believe Kohn offers, in his books, a cost-effective, successful and reproducible alternative to the current delivery of public schooling that would work across demographic divides. Is this really a right vs left issue? It appears more like a profit vs kids issue; create a system that will inevitably discredit public schools so that big-business can save the day. Unfortunately, the business-model hasn’t provided evidence of success. At best it’s more status-quo and at worst the business-model performs well below the status-quo. During my discussion with friends about this article, Kohn’s thesis was unclear. I wonder what do other readers detect as the thesis: (1). poorly proposed policies actually represent an intensification of the status quo and dress them up as something that’s long overdue. (2). the top-down, test-driven approach -- in effect, the status quo on steroids -- is a courageous rejection of what we’ve been doing (3). both liberals and conservatives manage to advertise as a daring departure from the status quo what is actually just a slightly new twist on it. (4). conservatives (and liberals don’t na-na) succeed in marketing as something qualitatively new and different what is actually a ramped-up version of the very free-market dogma whose consequences we’ve been experiencing for quite some time (5) all of the above (6) something else?

Posted by: Robert0063 | October 22, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

What's it all about Alfie, aka the convoluted Kohn, fails to raise one important bit of information (how could that possibly be coming from the Alfie Kohn?).

What this great pretender, this pseudo-intellectual fails to remind his readers is that these reforms have now been enacted and sanctioned by both political parties, that's correct. Left wing, right wing, liberals and conservatives have both come to the same conclusion; public education in this country, especially in our urban areas, is and has been an unmitigated disaster and something, anything, must be done to change this embarrassing situation.

As well, both parties have essentially excluded the educational establishment from entering into the reform dialogue. Why? Because they know they'll insist that the status quo has been working, that their litany of failed policies and practices are what is best for America's schools and its children. Remarkably, no one can convince them otherwise.

Alfie needs to go write another book attempting to snow his followers into believing that even from behind the magic curtain inside the palace of Oz he really knows what's best for students and schools. What a facade. What a joke.

How appropriate for him to be here with Miss Val's Ding Dong School of education philosophy.

The Answer Sheet? Answer to what? What to ignore in the area of education reform by the likes of Valerie Strauss, Alfie Kohn, Deborah Meier, et al. And the Washington Post actually publishes this drivel? OMG!!!

Posted by: phoss1 | October 22, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse


"The reason we have classrooms and tests and worksheets is because they work (or they can work, with involved parents and reasonable class sizes)"

No, involved parents do not want their children to sit in a classroom with tests and worksheets. Wander out of DCPS and into high performing suburbs- tests and worksheets do not drive teaching and learning. A teachers curriculum would not consist of gaming the Massachusetts, Virginia or Maryland standardized tests- at least not to the extent DCPS teachers have to cover.

However, in urban areas: tests, worksheets and uninvolved parents work quite well. Parents have no idea what their kids are 'learning' in school, either because they are indifferent or because they don't know any better.

The students of DCPS desperately need a quality curriculum and not to be subjected to mere test taking skills: when you are taught well, you can ace anything, including the standardly low DC-CAS.

If the white kids in the 'burbs are given high quality education, why do the poor black kids in DC have to spend their time filling in bubbles?

Posted by: vnm202 | October 23, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Kohn, like so many education pundits, should open a charter/family of charter schools and implement his theories. After 5-7 years he'll have some instruction is killing education.

I gather data all the time on my students; every teacher does (or should). If schools were more intimate in their relations with parents/communities this data becomes more transparent thus useful for parents/communities. If I'm communicating regularly about student progress/effort parents can make better decisions for helping their child, even if that help means our school isn't serving their child. The standardized test-driven data we gather today serves the education bureaucracy, not parents and students. Free schools to serve families communities versus bureaucracies per the demands of those families and communities and schools will provide the data families and communities need to educate their children as they feel is best.

Posted by: pdexiii | October 23, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

The problem is, the pretend reformers have all the money and power. They can upend education and then take no responsibility for it. Do you see Arnie Duncan taking responsibility for the mess in Chicago?

Posted by: jlp19 | October 23, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Two proposals that offer radical change and reform that are never considered.

1) Schools should not be in the business of providing sports and dances. Cut them.

2) Schools should not be a physical space that students go to for 6+ hours a day.

Posted by: someguy100 | October 23, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

"Really? Conservatives are to blame?

Last I checked, it was Obama and the DNC that were promoting policies that amount to NCLB on steroids."

Yeah, um....Obama is very conservative. He can call himself a Democrat all he wants, but he is far too conservative for my tastes!

Also, I love Alfie Kohn. HE is one of the few people who is liberal enough for my tastes....and by that I mean that he actually sees reason! Anyone who thinks that kids in huge classes who come from underprivileged backgrounds should be doing as well in school as kids who have everything is full of crap.

Posted by: annecollin | October 23, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

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