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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 12/ 9/2010

Kohn: Remember when we had higher standards? Neither do I

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
"In recent years, parents have cried in dismay that their children could not read out loud, could not spell, could not write clearly,” while “employers have said that mechanics could not read simple directions. Many a college has blamed high schools for passing on students . . . who could not read adequately to study college subjects; high schools have had to give remedial reading instruction to boys and girls who did not learn to read properly in elementary schools…"

On and on goes the devastating indictment of our education system. Or -- well, perhaps I shouldn’t say “our” education system, since few of us had much to say about school policy when this article appeared. . . in 1954.

Similar jeremiads were published, of course, in the 1980s (see especially the Reagan administration’s influential and deeply dishonest “Nation at Risk” report) and in the 1970s, but one could argue that those, like today’s denunciations of falling standards and demands for accountability, reflect the same legacy of multiculturalism, radical education professors, and the post-Woodstock cultural realignment that brought down traditional values inside and outside of schools.

But how does one defend such an argument when it turns out that people were saying exactly the same things about America’s dysfunctional education system before Vietnam, before Civil Rights, before feminism – and displaying that same aggressive nostalgia for an earlier era when, you know, excellence really mattered?

And if pundits were throwing up their hands during the Eisenhower era about schools on the decline, about students who could barely read and write, about how we’re being beaten by [insert name of other country here], the obvious question is: When exactly was that golden period that was distinguished by high standards?

The answer, of course, is that it never existed. “The story of declining school quality across the twentieth century is, for the most part, a fable,” says social scientist Richard Rothstein, whose book The Way We Were? cites a series of similar attacks on American education, moving backward one decade at a time.

Each generation invokes the good old days, during which, we discover, people had been doing exactly the same thing. (“Grade inflation” is a case in point: Harvard professors were already grumbling about how A’s were “given too readily” back in 1894, only a few years after letter grades were introduced to the college.)

Of course, this phenomenon isn’t limited to schooling. As I’ve described elsewhere, claims that parents are too permissive, that they fail to set limits, and consequently that “kids today” are spoiled and self-centered, can be found in articles and books that date back decades, if not centuries.

To dig up strikingly familiar observations or sentiments offered by people long dead isn’t just an amusing rhetorical flourish. These echoes deprive us of the myth of uniqueness, and that can be usefully unsettling. Whenever we’re apt to sound off about how contemporary education -- or any other aspect of modern life -- is unprecedented in its capacity to give offense, the knowledge that our grandparents or distant ancestors said much the same thing, give or take a superficial detail, serves to remind us of an observation once offered by Adrienne Rich: "Nostalgia is only amnesia turned around.”

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 9, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alfie Kohn, Guest Bloggers, National Standards  | Tags:  accountability, alfie kohn, common standards, education system, nation at risk, reagan administration, school reform, standards  
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Comments

So, Mr. Kohn's conclusions begs a significant underlying question: What is the motivation behind continuous denigration of public schools? What agendas are at play which promote what Berliner and Biddle have called, a "manufactured crisis?" Perhaps it's related to Naomi Klein's notion of "shock doctrine." To me it seems that the right wants any excuse to funnel taxpayer money away from children and into the hands of corporate bank accounts or to promote highly orthodox religious institutions. The left of course, tries to fan the flames of crisis as well in order to make the case for more money. Any comparisons of American public education to any other country are bogus on their face. No other country is foolish enough to educate all of all abilities in the same classrooms and expect them all to finish at the same finish line in the same amount of time. That flawed goal, a fool's errand, really, is the source of the "crisis." What we have is a crisis of sanity!

Posted by: buckbuck11 | December 9, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

Excellent article. I've long held the kids today are but the kids of the 50s, 60s, and so on.

It reminds me of the religious battle cry "They took prayer out of school." NOT...NOT...NOT...

I started school in '57 and never once...everrrrrrr...prayed in school. Yes we said the pledge of allegiance, but NEVER prayed in pulic school. But that is another debate at another time.

The point is our education system is a result of the same discussion as today. After the Revolutionary War the U.S. had a crime problem. Theory of the day was "education will get them employed and keep them from crime." Sound familiar?

First, we need to stop comparing kids to memories (love that nostalgia comment) and to other kids. It's OK to know where they are, but let's use that "positional data" as it was intended...to increase assistance in those areas...not to create an atmosphere of failure to live up to "standards" (whatever that is.)

Thanks for sharing Mr. Kohn's insight.

Posted by: educ8er | December 9, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

Nostalgia? Oh dear, how the books have changed. I have the books that my father-in-law used in his middle school years (late 1930's). Yes, he attended a private school, nevertheless, he read wonderful books filled with wisdom and richness on many levels. Furthermore, I have enjoyed reading the notes that he wrote on the pages in the books too. I have a small private library of children's books, and it is generally the older ones that I find the most fascinating. Books that were common to kids even 40-50 years ago would surely pose difficult reading to most kids today. Visit the children's section of a large library and compare books of today with yesteryear. Sadly, libraries trash or sell for one dollar many great treasures in order to make way for new books, often of very inferior quality. Sure, there are some that can go, but really, I have picked up some real beauties for a buck!

Oh, on a recent visit to the National Museum of American History, I was astonished at the level of some of the "toys" on display. Note sure of the year since the item was behind glass, but gee, a glass blowing kit for kids. While safety is important, we have sanitized too much along the way. Precautions. My brother's chemistry set from the 1960's was vastly different from the ones available today. But the way, those iron filings from the old chemistry sets (who wore goggles then when playing around with those filings?)....I do recall a warning about MRI's and having been exposed to iron filings as kids (steel workers, etc. too).

Posted by: shadwell1 | December 9, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Not all reforms of past decades have been hollow echoes. Traditions that thwarted the education of girls and laws that allowed the marginalization of minorities were overcome in part by reforms. While I lament the current state of education, I feel that my students overall have a far better and richer high school experience than I had in the 70's.

While we now look back at times when girls weren't allowed past the 8th grade with astonishment, one day we may look back at our current achievement gap the same way. Yes, it may be a fool's errand to believe that our education system can cure all society's ills, including injustice due to income disparity, but we can do our part.

Posted by: 1teacher1 | December 9, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I like what buckbuck had to say, "...educate all of all abilities in the same classroom and expect them all to finish at the same finish line in the same amount of time. That flawed goal, a fool's errand, really, is the source of the "crisis."

In every seat there is a different background, a different ability, as well as a different level of motivation and readiness. So onward we march our students, all on the same lesson at the same time. A fool's errand? How about insanity?

Teachers teach this way essentially from inertia but also out of convenience.

This is the way their parents were taught when they were in school, the way the teachers were taught when they were in school, and the way everyone around them in school still teaches today - one lesson for the whole bloody class. This is the partial explanation for this anachronistic practice.

The other part emanates from teacher convenience. It's more convenient for the teacher to give one lesson to the whole class than it is to try to individualize/customize the instruction for each student. This civil service mentality is at the heart of the problem in our schools.

The teacher shows up Monday morning ready to teach her fourth grade class a lesson on adding compound fractions. In her class of twenty students, three have already learned this skill on their own while at the other end of the spectrum there are kids who still haven't mastered their multiplication tables, or even have a solid command of addition and subtraction facts through twenty for that matter. So here she is with kids all over the map in terms of (un)readiness and she proceeds to attempt to give one lesson to the whole class. Again, insanity but because of inertia, the pedagogy de jure.

The result, of course; the three who already know how to perform this algorithm will be bored. The "lower" kids will be completely overwhelmed, as they have been for most of their school careers.

We've had standards reform and steps toward fiscal reform between districts but not much in the line of pedagogical reform, especially in a traditional heterogeneous classroom. In order for this country to ever realize a significant degree of education reform this practice MUST be addressed.

Posted by: phoss1 | December 9, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

phoss1:
Teachers are not the cause of the insanity, so I'm wondering how you can blame them for the results. Before high stakes tests were imposed from above, teachers had the flexibility to be able to individualize instruction and award progress instead of having to measure students by one measuring stick. Convenience and inertia on the part of teachers (whom you attempt to disparage with the term, "civil servants") have nothing to do with why one-size-fits-all instruction is de rigeur these days. Teachers are expected to deliver the same curriculum to all students. More and more often this is imposed from a bureaucrat with uniform curriculum maps, pacing charts and parallel assessments. Highly paid consultants from ASCD maintain that direct instruction is most effective. You can't have it both ways: You can't have direct instruction administered individually with 20-30 kids in one room with one teacher.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | December 9, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

buckbuck,

I apologize. Teachers are only part of the problem. Yes, teacher colleges, schools of education, bureaucrats mandating pacing charts and scripted lessons are also the culprits to this insanity. It still doesn't make it right.

Whole class instruction is a joke and an embarrassment to the teaching profession. Would a doctor or an attorney ever attempt to employ such a delivery system to their constituents? If they did they'd be out of business by the end of the month.

Posted by: phoss1 | December 9, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

"I know of no college or university in the country that doesn't have to offer most or all of its freshmen courses in remedial English, beginning mathematics, beginning science and beginning foreign language. Consequently, we give two or three years of college and the rest in high school work. Progressive education went too far."

A Los Angeles Times article from March 26, 1946, quoting Princeton University philosophy professor Theodore M. Greene.

Posted by: zoniedude | December 9, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

phoss1--

Individualized instruction--differentiation, as we teachers call it--is incredibly hard to do. It was thought up by people in education schools most of whom taught briefly or not at all. Sounds great but, honestly, it's unrealistic. Personally, I'm weary of being told how to teach by people whose only experience in the classroom is as a student. I don't mean to offend, but there's no comparison.

Posted by: TeacherTalk | December 9, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Phoss1 has a point. Individualization is easy to talk about and very hard to do. It takes training, administrative support and small class sizes. One reason teachers do a poor job is because they get burned out by administrators who preach more than they ever practiced. This does not excuse lazy or poor teaching, but until reformers understand the roots of these problems they will never be effective.

Posted by: 1teacher1 | December 9, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Sorry - TeacherTalk has the point.

Posted by: 1teacher1 | December 9, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

"Individualized instruction--differentiation, as we teachers call it--is incredibly hard to do."

I taught in a traditional classroom for my first year (Massachusetts) and was very dissatisfied with the outcome. Over that summer I developed a model to individualize the pace of instruction for each kid in each of the major disciplines. It was a challenge but extremely rewarding.

And it's NOT unrealistic. It does require great organization and efficiency in time management. These two skills are necessary for any teacher to be proficient at their craft anyway.

I'm really not trying to tell people how to teach, just that there's an alternative model that I found does a much better job. No teacher should be forced into this model; they have to want to do it because they believe it's best for their students.

Over the course of 34 years I had class sizes as high as 32. That was tough, but doable.

Posted by: phoss1 | December 9, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

I will agree that people from older generations will often look at the younger generations and say "Oh, we were never that way." In all reality, that is not necessarily the case. However, I do think that things that are around today make it harder for students to actually want to be focused on school work. There are a lot more distractions. Video games, for one. I'm not saying there were not distractions decades ago, and I'm not saying there were problems in education decades ago. However, I don't think everything is being taken into account here. There are problems and students should be able to read and write at higher capabilities than they do. Whether or not this was present in the 70s is not the issue here. What can we do to fix it now? What is present NOW that we can change to make education better and to make students want to learn? How can we make this a golden period with high standards?

Posted by: LMK87 | December 9, 2010 11:15 PM | Report abuse

I will agree that people from older generations will often look at the younger generations and say "Oh, we were never that way." In all reality, that is not necessarily the case. However, I do think that things that are around today make it harder for students to actually want to be focused on school work. There are a lot more distractions. Video games, for one. I'm not saying there were not distractions decades ago, and I'm not saying there were problems in education decades ago. However, I don't think everything is being taken into account here. There are problems and students should be able to read and write at higher capabilities than they do. Whether or not this was present in the 70s is not the issue here. What can we do to fix it now? What is present NOW that we can change to make education better and to make students want to learn? How can we make this a golden period with high standards?

Posted by: LMK87 | December 9, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

RE: Individualized instruction

"Over the course of 34 years I had class sizes as high as 32. That was tough, but doable."

We're at 36 to a class in some cases now in CA.
So you're telling me that you're giving the same credit to a student who solves a formal proof and a student who does some basic mathematical function drills and attempts part of the proof process? And after a semester of this "differentiation" those two students are both getting credit for the same course?

As buckbuck11 mentioned, teachers are supposed to insure that all levels of learners can access the grade level content. Students are expected to "master" the same content. Have you read NCLB? By 2014 all students are to be proficient. This is what has encouraged the return to teacher centered practices that focus on whole group, and direct instruction.

Sure, I could have everyone doing different assignments. Remember the one room school house? It worked very effectively even with students of different grade levels. That method of teaching doesn't lend itself well to the current regime of pacing calendars and common assessments. One year we're expected to teach to the bottom and another year we're expected to teach to the top. It's more about trying to squeeze out a few extra points on high-stakes testing than it is about actual learning. Ironically, truly differentiated instruction would likely provide substantial growth in high-stakes testing, but it is discouraged by the current doctrine of curriculum implementation. Instead, the current doctrine gives lip service to differentiated instruction while encouraging direct instruction.

And so it goes.

Posted by: stevendphoto | December 10, 2010 12:37 AM | Report abuse

Steven,

"So you're telling me that you're giving the same credit to a student who solves a formal proof and a student who does some basic mathematical function drills and attempts part of the proof process?"

You're correct when you contend both students are getting "credit" for this math course, however they do earn different grades for the course, an important distinction to consider. Beyond this point, how does the student able to perform only basic mathematical functions get into the geometry class with kids who have honestly earned their way into the class?

In a truly individualized approach (different than differentiated instruction because there is far less emphasis on the misnomer of learning "styles") the emphasis is on pacing. It allows the brighter kids to go as fast as they can demonstrate mastery while allowing the slower learners the time they need to adequately learn the skill/concept. In an individualized classroom no one should be bored and no one need be overwhelmed. They're all working at their own pace.

Posted by: phoss1 | December 10, 2010 7:00 AM | Report abuse

"Beyond this point, how does the student able to perform only basic mathematical functions get into the geometry class with kids who have honestly earned their way into the class?"

These students are forced to be into the geometry class. All CA high school students take algebra I, geometry, and algebra II, regardless of their past performance or ability levels. Again, this is a symptom of the doctrine being pushed down from the top. It's unfair to place the burden on teachers.

I am interested to know more about how you tiered the student's grades.

As you mentioned, truly individualized instruction is about pacing. And the system pushed by many districts and school sites doesn't allow for this variation in pacing. Each discipline has a certain number of standards to get through each semester. Individualized instruction, with its modified pacing, doesn't fit this schema. The one-size-fits-all curriculum is a symptom of NCLB, the US Dept of Ed and the reform current "Rheeform movement."

Another issue with individualized instruction is the fact that students need to buy into it for it to be effective. Often times, the advanced students in a class are not willing to go above and beyond what is expected of other students in the class.

Posted by: stevendphoto | December 10, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

Advanced students LOVED this model. They never had to wait for anyone. They never got bored waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. More work for these kids? Not really. They had the same work responsibilities as everyone else. They were simply at a higher level in the sequence of the curriculum.

Grading is another issue. In an individually paced class some kids go faster and others slower. What was constantly emphasized was kids needed to always be doing their best. Grading is something protected by academic freedom, at least that was always my experience. Bottom line: the kids who went faster got "higher" grades but effort is also a variable on most report cards and a variable strongly emphasized in this kind of classroom.

"...the system pushed by many districts and school sites doesn't allow for this variation in pacing." Here's where administrators and school boards need a bit of coaching on pedagogy. They need to be told, in no uncertain terms, it's about the individual student and not the NCLB test. Interestingly enough, employing individualized pacing is significantly more efficient at getting kids through a required body of knowledge (standards). It wasn't at all uncommon for the faster learners to finish the requirements for the year sometime in March. From there, I kept moving them ahead, to the point where many got a good dose of the curricula for the next grade before the end of the year. Even most of the "slower" kids managed to get through the required material before the end of the year. What was great about this model the level of understanding/comprehension/mastery necessary to advance. They were not allowed to move on to the next skill or concept until they demonstrated mastery on the existing one. It took some kids awhile to figure this out at the beginning of the year but once they did they realized there was no place for shenanigans or trying to fudge the teacher. They had to learn the material or they were going nowhere.

Posted by: phoss1 | December 10, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

One of the reasons for less achievement is more students. In the days of the one-room school, each student moved at his or her own pace. My mother moved frequently and attended a lot of different sizes and types of schools. Each time, the teacher placed her according to her work; she might move from fourth to sixth grade in one school and back to the fifth in the next, and graduated from high school at age 17.

Secondly, these supposedly advanced students of the past were the cream of the crop. My mother was told her parents had done her a favor by letting her attend high school instead of insisting she go to work after 8th grade, and even as late as the 1950s, a local school board president objected to the state requirement that a rural school make arrangements for high school classes: "Eight years book learning is enough for any kid." Universal high school was not a response to a need for more education; during the Depression of the '30s (we have to specify which Great Depression now), teenage boys were encouraged to stay in school to avoid competing with family men for jobs, and teenage girls were not as likely to receive marriage proposals.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | December 13, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

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