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The NEWS section of alfiekohn.org contains information about AK’s recent or forthcoming publications but also some blog-like commentary on various topics in education and human behavior. Here are selected examples of the latter, in reverse chronological order.

3/11: At a meeting the other night, a mother bragged that she had figured out a way to make her daughter's phone shut down automatically at a certain hour, thereby preventing the girl from texting when, in the mother's opinion, she ought to be doing homework or sleeping. Somewhat undiplomatically, I pointed out that if parenting strategies could be classified as either "doing to" or "working with," this one was a pretty clear example of "doing to." The mother was unfazed. "Sometimes," she replied, "you just have to be the parent."

That phrase was still echoing in my ears the next morning. The mom hadn't objected to the way I characterized her intervention. She seemed perfectly willing to acknowledge that she had excluded her daughter from the process and used coercion to achieve her goal of restricting phone use. Moreover, rather than simply defending that way of handling the situation, she maintained that a "doing to" approach defines the essence of being "the parent." And that troubled me far more than what she had done to her child's phone. Or even to her child.

I believe that, at its core, or at least at its best, parenting is a process of caring, supporting, listening, reconsidering, guiding, teaching, and negotiating. There will be times when we lack the time or the skill or the patience to do these things properly. But if we resort to compelling children to do what we want, or using force (physical or digital) to prevent them from doing what we don't want, then we should be willing to admit that our response was less than ideal. There's a big difference between forgiving ourselves an occasional lapse and not even recognizing that what we did was a lapse.

Imagine, then, that this Mom had instead said: "Sometimes you can't be the parent; you have to resort to being the dictator." I might want to challenge her as to whether that's really true and to ask her to reflect on all that's at stake: the need to help children take more responsibility for (and learn how to regulate) their own actions, the importance of inviting them to figure out how to persuade us that their position is reasonable, the urgency of making sure we take them seriously and treat them respectfully. What's more, a "doing to" approach just teaches kids to use power over others when it's possible and expedient to do so since that's what we've done with them.

This mother might disagree with me about any of this, but at least by distinguishing between a parent and a dictator she wouldn't be rationalizing what she did by pretending that it's implicit in the very idea of parenting. In fact, an even better way of phrasing things would sound something like this: "Sometimes it's easier to impose our will on kids, but we have to resist that temptation -- and be the parent instead."


3/11: A parent writes to express her frustration not only with homework but with the response she hears from teachers when she complains about homework. Even those teachers who are sufficiently knowledgeable and brave to admit that research fails to show any meaningful benefit from making kids do homework -- particularly in elementary school -- tend to insist that pressure to cover an absurd number of topics prescribed by the state standards means they just can't get through it all during the day. Hence the apparent need for homework.

Here are four responses to this claim:

1. Lengthy lists of specific standards and benchmarks for each grade level and in each subject can be just as damaging to learning as the tests used to enforce them. Yet many teachers -- even at the high school level, and certainly below it -- find a way to teach the required material without pushing the burden onto families and making kids work a second shift at home. (See entry below dated 9/08.)

2. The best teachers go a step further: Rather than focusing on how to cover a "bunch o' facts" more efficiently, they see their job as helping students to discover ideas. These are the teachers who really succeed at helping kids to become critical thinkers and excited learners. And, as a rule, these teachers are even less likely to assign homework.

3. Just because the practice of assigning homework seduces some teachers with its promise to make up the gaps in what they're able to get through during the day, that doesn't mean students will actually learn what they're made to do at home on their own. Even supporters of homework generally justify it as a way to have kids practice skills they were taught during the day, not as a way for them to teach themselves new material!

4. In any case, the disadvantages of homework -- frustration, exhaustion, family battles, loss of time for kids to pursue other interests, diminution of interest in learning -- far outweigh any theoretical gain in curriculum coverage.


2/11: What's the single most alarming educational crisis today? That's easy. It's our failure to pay more attention to the academic field of whichever educator happens to be speaking at the moment.

Just listen, then, and learn that while there may be other problems, too, the truly urgent issue these days is that we're just not investing in math and science instruction the way we should be -- with predictably dismaying results. No, it's that kids are outrageously ignorant about history, a subject that ought to be, but never is, a priority. No, it's that even in high school, students still can't write a coherent paragraph. No, the real emergency is that reading skills are far from what they should be. No, it's that music and the arts are shamefully neglected in our schools. And so on.

Now there may be some truth to all of these assertions, and the overarching tragedy is our failure to commit to -- and adequately fund -- education itself. How unsettling, then, to be overwhelmed by a cacophony of claims by educators from different departments forced to compete for attention.

(Let it also be noted that, if we look carefully, not all of these statements are actually comparable: Saying that a specific subject is underfunded or ignored is different from saying that students are doing poorly in that subject, and vice versa. And saying that either of those things is true with respect to an ideal standard is different from saying that it's true relative to what happens in other subjects.)

What interests me at the moment, though, are not empirical claims about who's getting what -- or the competence that students do or don't possess in a given discipline -- but value-based beliefs about what matters most. Does one subject merit special attention, deserve more dollars, constitute the core of what we expect our schools to offer?

To listen to those who shape our society's conversation about education -- not educators but public officials, corporate executives, and journalists -- the answer is yes. At the top of the heap sits the compound discipline of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Thus, for example, President Obama announced an expensive new public-private initiative last November called "Educate to Innovate" that will focus on improving student performance exclusively in STEM subjects. Then, in early January, he was back with a new education project. Was its intent to spread the wealth to other kinds of learning that he had overlooked before? Nope. It was to commit another quarter-billion dollars to improve the teaching of STEM subjects. And a few weeks later, in his State of the Union address, the only academic disciplines he mentioned were, yet again, math and science.

Thought experiment: Try to imagine this, or any other, president giving a speech that calls for a major new commitment to the teaching of literature, backed by generous funding (even during a period of draconian budget cuts). Close your eyes and hear our Chief Executive's stirring words: "Few experiences can compare to savoring truly wonderful fiction, and our obligation is to make sure that all children are invited to do just that. Moreover, we must help them to appreciate what they're reading and encourage them to continue reading for pleasure throughout their lives. At its best, literature enriches our understanding of the human condition and the natural world, while thrilling us with words arranged in combinations that are unexpected and yet perfectly right. The appreciation of the literary imagination is a hallmark of a truly civilized society, yet we have fallen woefully short of making this a priority in our schools. That is why I am announcing today a commitment of $3 billion to establish..."

Yeah. Right.

The point of my example is not to argue in favor of studying literature, per se, or, for that matter, to argue against studying math and science. It is to ask a question rarely posed except by educators in other fields -- namely, why STEM subjects consistently attract so much money and attention.

Among decision leaders and the general public, I suspect that STEM enjoys an immediate advantage simply because it tends to involve numbers. Our society is inclined to regard any topic as more compelling if it can be expressed in numerical terms. Notice how rarely we evaluate schools by their impact on students' interest in learning; we focus on precisely specified achievement effects. Issues that inherently seem qualitative in nature -- intrinsic motivation, say, or the meaning of life -- we consign to the ivory tower. And when questions that don't lend themselves to quantification aren't simply brushed aside, they're reduced to numbers anyway. Witness, for example, how English teachers have been told that they not only can but must use rubrics to quantify their responses to students' writings.

As compared with other, "softer" disciplines, STEM usually provides us with the reassurance of knowing exactly how much, how many, how far, how fast, which means that these subjects are viewed (often incorrectly) as being inherently objective, therefore more reliable another questionable leap), and therefore more valuable yet another one).

Closely related to our comfort with numbers, then, is our preference for practicality. But STEM seems practical with respect to a specific kind of number -- namely, dollars. Putting aside for the moment the fact that reading and writing skills, too, have obvious implications for real-world success -- and, conversely, that theoretical physics and "pure" mathematics do not -- it's easy to see how politicians and corporate leaders would favor the fields that appear to be more directly linked to economic productivity and profit.

Moreover, anyone whose sensibility is shaped by a zero-sum mindset, such that the goal is not success but victory, is far more likely to be drawn to STEM subjects than to the humanities. "The nation that out-educates us today," said President Obama last month, "is going to out-compete us tomorrow." That is a sentence that could have been spoken by the most reactionary Republican you can name. But it is not a sentence likely to be followed by a discussion of the humanities. Those who confuse excellence with competitiveness are most likely to privilege STEM subjects over others -- and vice versa.

Every educator, in fact every citizen, needs to know how profoundly mistaken are the specific empirical claims that we keep hearing on C-Span regarding the relationship between school achievement and jobs and regarding the relative status of U.S. students. Yong Zhao recently did a fine job of rebutting the specific contentions enunciated in the State of the Union address. As Harold Salzman and B. Lindsay Lowell have reported, very few jobs require advanced proficiency in STEM subjects and there is actually "an ample supply of [science and engineering] students whose preparation and performance has been increasing over the past decades." In fact, "each year there are more than three times as many [science and engineering] four-year college graduates as S&E job openings."

But my point here is more basic. The real question we should be asking when we hear yet another speech arguing, explicitly or implicitly, for the unique importance of STEM disciplines is What does this say about the speaker's -- or our society's -- beliefs about the point of education itself? You don't have to be a music or history teacher to say, "Now hold on a minute!" In fact, even algebra teachers should be frowning because the reasons for a politician's (or the Chamber of Commerce's) STEMcentricity carry implications for what's taught within a STEM course, and how it's taught, and whether K-12 education is conceived as nothing more than an elaborate, extended exercise in vocational preparation.

Building on a discussion by the educational historian David Labaree, I once created a simple table, which you can see here, to capture four possible purposes for schooling our children. I am troubled by both the private and public versions of an economic focus, and I am drawn to what, for lack of a better word, might be called the humanistic purposes -- again, in both their private and public expressions.

Yet another respected thinker who recoiled from the educational priorities reflected in President Obama's State of the Union message was Berkeley linguist Robin Lakoff, who called on us to recognize education's "less practical (but equally vital) functions." She added that "education is invaluable not only in its ability to help people and societies get ahead, but equally in helping them develop the perspectives that make them fully human."

Anyone who agrees with that sentiment -- and who worries at least as much about the state of our democracy as about the state of the Dow Jones Industrial Average -- should think not only about education in general but about which subjects are seen as priorities within the field of education. And why.


1/11: If there is a verbal equivalent of a drive-by shooting, it must be the use of that nasty epithet "politically correct." At best, this is a label that allows the intellectually lazy to denigrate anything they don't like without having to offer a reasoned objection. Its political implications, however, are what might prove particularly disturbing -- even, perhaps, to some people who casually toss around the phrase.

Theoretically, any idea or practice that's widely accepted, but which one would like to call into question, could be described as politically correct (PC). But in practice it is not an equal-opportunity sneer; it's almost always wielded by those with more power in order to dismiss objections (to language, policies, or behaviors that harm or offend people) offered by those with less power, and thus to shut them up.

Thus, someone who calls attention to the fact that every single person selected for a particular distinction happens to be white can be written off as PC. Likewise, an individual who objects to the use of the word girl to describe a grown woman. Or who requests accommodations for people with disabilities. Or who points out that what has just been said about love seems to assume that everyone in the world is heterosexual. In short, any move to be more inclusive in extending consideration or respect, anything that challenges the comfortable world in which certain people quietly maintain their privileged status, may be met with a roll of the eyes and a sarcastic "Oops. I forgot we have to be politically correct here …"

To classify something as PC isn't just to say that one would prefer not to deal with it. It implies that what might be called a liberal sensibility represents the conventional wisdom (of which the challenger is attempting to remind us). But I'd argue that exactly the opposite is true: Our political system and the norms of our culture are largely built on an edifice of conservative beliefs regarding power, tradition, religion, and nationalism, many of them invisible to us precisely because they're so widely and uncritically unaccepted.

If "PC" were just a neutral pin for puncturing any balloon thought to be overinflated, then it might be applied to, say, the view that when the U.S. invades or occupies other countries, it is doing so in the interest of spreading democracy -- or that soldiers who participate in these military adventures around the world are "defending our country." But when did you last hear someone say with a smirk, "I know, I know. It's politically correct to 'Support Our Troops.' But I happen to believe…"?

The same is true of many other assumptions regarding patriotism (attitudes toward our national anthem or treatment of the flag, for example) as well as beliefs overwhelmingly shared about how to raise children, teach students, or manage employees that could be described as deeply conservative -- and that one questions at one's peril.

Imagine someone saying, "Hey, you want proof that political correctness is out of control? Try asking why Christmas is a national holiday. Try exploring how it is that only one person in a classroom is called by her last name. Try challenging the assumption that workers need to be motivated with incentives. These things are all off-limits because they're too PC." If the label seems odd in these contexts it's because "PC" works in only one direction: from right to left.

In addition to defending a conservative status quo from inconvenient challenges -- again, without one's having to offer a substantive defense -- the term serves another important function: self-congratulation. To say that x is PC is to praise oneself for having the courage to see things otherwise. And to warn that something isn't PC is to commend it -- or, in many cases, oneself -- as bold and refreshing. "Now I know what I'm about to say is politically incorrect, but . . ." sounds like a cautionary preface, but it actually invites us to view the speaker as daring even though what follows may be merely conservative. Or offensive.

In fact, no matter how despicable something might be, opposition to it can always be dismissed by framing it as political correctness. In 2004, a book about Benjamin Franklin was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by a staff writer who made it clear he was an admirer of Franklin but then added that "the politically correct would most likely hector him if they could. For Franklin was a slaveholder." Even opposition to slavery apparently qualifies one as merely PC.

By the same token, no matter how conservative you are, there's always the risk that someone to your right may fling the label at you. When, in 1996, the presidential campaign of Republican candidate Patrick Buchanan tried to distance itself from the unsolicited support of neo-Nazi David Duke, Buchanan was accused by a Duke spokesman of -- yup -- political correctness. (And if Pat Buchanan can be called PC, truly none of us is safe.)

But the label serves no legitimate purpose regardless of whom -- or what -- it is used to disparage. Those who merely find it a convenient, perhaps ironic, shorthand ought to consider the political ramifications of its use. And even people who approve of those ramifications ought to be offering logic and evidence to support their views rather than depending on an unpleasant label to bully into silence those with whom they disagree.


12/10: "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."


10/10: Education "reformers" have discovered the source of our schools' problems. It's not poverty or social inequities. It's not enforced student passivity or a standardized curriculum that consists of lists of facts and skills likely to appear on standardized tests. No -- it's …teachers.

Fortunately, there's a two-pronged solution: First, identify the really bad teachers (on the basis of their students' test scores, naturally) and pluck them out like weeds. Second, as a safeguard against the possibility of more widespread incompetence than can be solved by step #1, remove as much authority as possible -- about what's to be taught and how -- from all teachers.

Two articles in the October 2010 issue of Phi Delta Kappan address these strategies. "Incompetent Teachers or Dysfunctional Systems?" by Ken Futernick looks carefully at the premises -- and real-world effects -- of sacking teachers who fail to perform up to expectations. And Maja Wilson's "'There Are a Lot of Really Bad Teachers Out There'" weighs efforts to improve teaching by imposing mandates from above.

We should begin by noting that claims about the contribution of the quality of teaching to student success are often overstated, particularly by "reformers." As Richard Rothstein reminds us, all school-related variables combined can explain only about one-third of the variation in student achievement; most is due to non-school factors. Still, even to the extent that the quality of teaching does matter, Futernick argues that "variations in teaching performance flow largely from variables that have little to do with the qualities of teachers themselves." Lousy classrooms are more likely due to "poorly functioning systems than [to] individual [teachers'] shortcomings."

If, for example, a lot of good teachers are quitting, or are assigned to teach subjects outside their areas of expertise, then a purge of bad teachers isn't going to help -- particularly if that district doesn't have better teachers waiting in the wings to replace them. Moreover, the "bad" teachers may not really be bad at all. Futernick points out that they may just "lack adequate support and resources" that would allow them to succeed. Not only is it unfair to blame them for what is really a systemic failure; it doesn't help kids because that failure will persist even after we shuffle the personnel.

Of course it's a lot easier to pretend the problem rests primarily with incompetent individuals, and therefore that all would be well if we could just eliminate tenure and those damned unions that make it hard to get rid of slackers (or anyone else an administrator would like to fire for whatever reason). In the meantime, though, the Powers That Be are producing uniform standards and curricula that will let them impose their will on classrooms from a distance. "If we can't get rid of teachers' physical selves," says Maja Wilson, "we can replace their teaching selves with the standardized self of the mandated, scripted curriculum" and thereby assure quality.

But whose definition of "quality"? Arne Duncan and Bill Gates have no better grasp of the nuances of how children learn, and what constitutes meaningful evidence of deep understanding, than does your next-door neighbor -- which helps to explain why, when they talk about "quality" (or "achievement"), all they mean is higher standardized test scores. Unlike your neighbor, though, they have the power to compel schools -- whole states, even -- to enact practices that will cement that conflation into place.

Let's assume for the sake of the argument, though, that some people in a position of power really do have an unusually good feel for how children learn. Wilson's point is that great teaching can't be imposed from above: "Mandating practices in the effort to improve teaching paradoxically creates the kind of environment that undermines good teaching…by stunt[ing] teachers' ability to make good decisions in the classroom."

There is simply no shortcut to helping educators "cultivate an active intelligence that allows them to negotiate principles, practices, students' needs, and the ever-changing classroom and school environment." In short, says Wilson (in a sentence that ought to be e-mailed to every administrator and consultant in the country), "Good teaching doesn't rest on specific practices, but on how well the educator actively thinks through hundreds of decisions that no program can script." To try to mandate specific practices -- and Wilson offers some disconcerting examples relating to "literacy systems" -- not only doesn't help teachers to become more accomplished, flexible thinkers; it gets in the way.

Efforts to fire bad teachers and mandate specific practices weren't devised in a vacuum. They emerge from a specific cultural context. Specifically, this double-barreled strategy seems to reflect:

* an arrogance on the part of decision makers that expresses itself in a predilection for top-down control -- doing things to people rather than working with them;

* the low esteem in which the profession of teaching is held. (It would seem outrageous for professionals in most other fields to be told how to do their jobs, particularly by people who aren't even in their field);

* a widespread tendency to blame individuals rather than examining the structural causes of problems -- something that distorts our understanding of such varied topics as cheating, self-discipline, competition, character education, and classroom management;

* the outsize influence on education of business-oriented models, with a particular emphasis on quantification and standardization; and

* the assumption that teaching consists of filling up little pails with information. If learning were understood instead as the active construction of ideas, it would seem odd, to say the least, to mandate certain teaching styles or a single curriculum for all students at a given grade level.

While there's no official name for the dual strategy of micromanaging teachers and trying to root out the bad ones, it might as well be called Operation Discourage Bright People from Wanting to Teach. After all, who would choose to focus on test preparation rather than helping kids to think and question? Who would agree to forego any real professional autonomy? Who would want to be treated like a pet, rewarded with financial doggie biscuits for toeing the line? And who, if he or she had other opportunities, would pick a career that featured a constant threat of public humiliation?

In fact, it does seem likely that more and more college students who become teachers will be those who lack other opportunities. The impact of this isn't difficult to predict. What's less obvious is the ironic fact that it's due, in large part, to what's known -- and uncritically celebrated in the popular press -- as "school reform."


4/10: "If rewards and punishments just make things worse, what should parents do?" The question is perfectly reasonable yet very difficult to answer in a simple and satisfying way. That's true, first, because everything depends on how the question ends: What should parents do . . . to make kids obey? (If we're really looking for how to get mindless compliance, then we may need to rethink the goal rather than just searching for a better technique.) What should parents do to help their kids become generous and compassionate? Happy? More self-sufficient? Lifelong learners and readers? Each set of objectives will lead us to a somewhat different answer. Even for a single goal, moreover, it makes no sense to look for a recipe because so much depends on who the children -- and their parents -- are.

The absence of a step-by-step solution to parenting challenges can be terribly frustrating to people who believe that "practical" advice entails just such a solution. But we really ought to be skeptical about the advisers who do offer such solutions. To say "If your kid does x, you should do y," is to imply that it doesn't matter who you are, who your child is, or why your child is doing x. To that extent, they're being disrespectful both to you and to your child.

Besides, one-size-fits-all strategies usually just turn out to be ways of doing things to children - in other words, a variant of rewards ("positive reinforcement") or punishments ("consequences"). By contrast, there are countless "working with" approaches, and they need to be worked out in each family.

That doesn't mean, of course, that no help can be offered to parents. But what can be said to everyone - rather than just to you about how to help your child with this particular problem - will necessarily take the form of broadly conceived guidelines rather than specific instructions. Here are ten examples.

1. Reconsider your requests. Sometimes when kids don't do what we tell them, the problem isn't with the kids but with what we're telling them to do.

2. Put the relationship first. What matters more than any of the day-to-day details is the connection that we have - or don't have - with our children over the long haul - whether they trust us and know that we trust them.

3. Imagine how things look from your child's perspective. Parents who regularly switch to the child's point of view are better informed, gentler, and likely to set an example of perspective-taking for their children (which is the cornerstone of moral development).

4. Be authentic. Your child needs a human being - flawed, caring, and vulnerable - more than he or she needs someone pretending to be a crisply competent Perfect Parent.

5. Talk less, ask more. Telling is better than yelling, and explaining is better than just telling, but sometimes eliciting (the child's feelings, ideas, and preferences) is even better than explaining.

6. "Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts." Nel Noddings reminds us that kids will live up to, or down to, our expectations, so it's better to assume the best when we don't know for sure why they did what they did.

7. Try to say yes. Don't function on autoparent and unnecessarily deny children the chance to do unusual things. People don't get better at coping with frustration as a result of having been deliberately frustrated when they were young.

8. Don't be rigid. Predictability can be overdone; the apparent need for inflexible rules may vanish when we stop seeing a troubling behavior as an infraction that must be punished -- and start seeing it as a problem to be solved (together).

9. Give kids more say about their lives. Children learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. Our default response should be to let them choose - unless there's a compelling reason to deny them that opportunity.

10. Love them unconditionally. Kids should know that we care for them just because of who they are, not because of what they do. Punishments (including time-outs) and rewards (including praise) may communicate that they have to earn our love - which is exactly the opposite of what children need, psychologically speaking.

You'll find much more on each of these themes in the book Unconditional Parenting -- and, for those who prefer to watch and listen to a presentation, the DVD of the same name.


1/10: Given that most schools still send home report cards with letter or number grades, and most teachers still put these letters or numbers on students' individual assignments, you would never guess that most studies of the effects of grades find that they're destructive in multiple ways.

For nearly a century, in fact, educators have been pointing out that grades don't make sense and aren't necessary to provide feedback or even evaluation. Max Marshall's Teaching Without Grades and Howard Kirschenbaum et al.'s Wad-Ja-Get have been around for some 40 years - and an impressive batch of journal articles were making the same point well before that. Making Sense of College Grades, by Ohmer Milton and his colleagues, came out 25 years ago. All of these sources are still enormously persuasive - and all-too-relevant - today.

As for the research studies: Collectively, they make it clear that students who are graded tend to differ from those who aren't in three basic ways. They're more likely to lose interest in the learning itself. They're more likely to prefer the easiest possible task. And they're more likely to think in a superficial fashion as well as to forget what they were taught. (For summaries of the relevant research and arguments, see the books Punished by Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve, the article "From Degrading to De-Grading," and the lecture DVD "No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.")

These three unhappy outcomes (diminished motivation, preference for challenge, and achievement) appear to result from grades, per se. When consultants offer elaborate assessment strategies, their premise is that teachers need only change the way they handle grading, tweaking the methods or the criteria. But this is a fool's errand. Some even insist that new techniques will ensure that we are "grading for learning." To paraphrase a '60s-era slogan, this is rather like bombing for peace.

The question, then, is how we can summon the courage to get rid of letter and number grades, replace them with reports of students' progress that are more informative and less destructive, and help parents and students to recognize the value of doing so.

It's always helpful to know that (and how) others have already done this. At The Berkeley School, for example, principal Janet Stork decided a couple of years ago that she simply couldn't justify giving grades to middle school students. Her first step was to call public and private high schools in the area to make sure her kids wouldn't be penalized for having transcripts devoid of grades. These schools assured her it would not be a problem. Stork then presented that information, with verbatim quotes from admissions directors, to her faculty and board as well as to parents and students -- along with a summary of what research shows about the negative effects of grading. Balanced against the powerful reasons to stop giving grades, she argued, there was nothing other than fear or tradition to argue for continuing to do so. She encountered some resistance from students, who for years had been told, in effect, that the whole point of school is to get the best possible marks - a very different objective from, say, understanding ideas. Stork found that those conversations with students became productive learning experiences in their own right.

After the first year without grades, she reports, more graduating students who were heading to selective private high schools were accepted by their top choices than ever before. When she checked in again with those admissions officers, they told her that her school's narrative reports and accompanying materials offered "a far richer understanding of our students" than a GPA could provide. Stork adds that some of the high school folks told her they wished they, too, could go grade-free but were deterred by "the pressures from colleges." She replied that they had more leverage than they thought, particularly if high schools got together and spoke to college admissions officers just as she had spoken to them. [Sadly, Janet Stork, an uncommonly courageous and erudite educator, died in April 2010 at the age of 55.]

What about schools whose administrators are unwilling to do what The Berkeley School did? Teachers have the power to neutralize much of the destructive impact of grades by making them as invisible as possible for as long as possible. This can be done, first, by never putting a letter or number on any individual assignment (only a comment, when time permits), and second, by allowing students to decide on - or at least participate in deciding on - the final course grade.

David Noble, a college instructor, argues that teachers may dismiss these options, finding it easier to rationalize their traditional grade-oriented teaching by pointing out that they're required to give grades, rather than investigating ways to minimize the harm that grades do within their classrooms. Grades are actually convenient for teachers, he argues in this article, a fact he had to acknowledge before deciding to stop using grades in his own classroom.

The ability for forward-thinking teachers to make a difference even in backward-thinking schools isn't limited to those who work in universities. After a year of experimentation that he describes as "liberating," Jim Drier, an English teacher at Mundelein High School in Illinois, is now teaching all of his classes, including an AP class, without any grades. The reaction from those around him has been varied: it was "an adjustment" for the students (particularly those in the AP class), his principal was "very enthusiastic," and his department chair was "tepid at best." Drier sent a letter home to parents explaining exactly what he was doing and why. Rather than offering students comments and grades on their papers - which a fascinating study by Ruth Butler has shown to have no positive effect - he offers comments instead of grades, and the result has been "meaningful, rich conversations." At the end of the term, he meets with each student to determine what grade he should turn in after they review the coursework together.

"Only a few of my colleagues know about what I do," he says. "Our departmental meetings are focused on Power Standards, Shared Curriculum, Common Assessments, improving test scores, and other stuff that makes me sad to be an educator. Those who know what I'm doing are either skeptical or envious." Drier says his next challenge is to build on his success at creating classes that are about learning by securing permission to eliminate the final course grade as well - either by replacing it with an end-of-term narrative or offering the course on a pass/fail basis. *

12/09: To understand the true impact of raise-the-bar, close-the-gap "school reform" - the type demanded by corporate executives, imposed by politicians of both parties, and celebrated by pundits - you need to hear from the people who spend their days in real classrooms. Never mind that no credible evidence has ever shown that children benefit from high-stakes testing, merit pay, national standards, school takeovers, and the like. The absence of improvement wouldn't be so bad. What's intolerable is the substantial harm this approach has caused, a reality to which self-styled reformers seem oblivious.

The following comments from teachers, which are used here by permission, were sent unsolicited to our website just during the last few weeks. They're representative of many, many more in the same vein that have been arriving on a regular basis for a decade now. These teachers are barely hanging on, while untold numbers of their colleagues have already thrown in the towel. From all indications, these are among the most talented and dedicated people in the field. Ominously, they are often replaced by the kind of teachers who obediently teach what (and in the manner) they're told, who may even take comfort from scripted instruction, and, like so many noneducators, tend to confuse high test scores with meaningful learning.

The damage of top-down, test-driven school reform is most severe in the inner cities, where very specific and uniform standards ("All fourth graders will …") have done the most to lower standards, and where NCLB has left the greatest number of children behind. We can expect even more bottom-level teaching as a result of Obama and Duncan's Race to the Top initiative.

But let's hear from the teachers themselves:

I have been teaching for 20 years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. During that time, I have honed my craft, embraced the art of teaching and shown many urban children that there is a whole world out there to discover and embrace--a world beyond their neighborhoods and city. I have loved teaching and could never imagine myself without students in front of me.

The past three years, however, have been a nightmare of epic proportions. As we struggle to meet our "Average Yearly Progress" on the Pennsylvania State System of Assessment, we have, as a District, implemented a managed curriculum that has completely robbed teachers of the ability to practice the art of teaching. The "art" of teaching has instead been replaced by simply being able to deliver facts and formulas that will allow students to better perform. While this may garner us the coveted AYP, it has also had the chilling effect of seeing many of our children lose a sense of self that arts, electives, historic literature and project-based instruction allowed them. Yes, our scores on the PSSAs have gone up, but at what cost? We turn out students who can write an essay but fail to see the beauty in a Renoir or the emotional impact of a Civil War love letter. We have students who, like automatons, can add, subtract and multiply, but will never feel the personal sense of satisfaction and fulfillment after offering voluntary community service--students who will never know the emotional impact of the opera or the symphony. Students to whom I will never be given the opportunity to impart my love of Antigone or Beowulf.

I can't imagine enduring ten more years of this in education.

-- Pennsylvania teacher, 11/09

I am a 5th grade teacher in the western suburbs of Chicago. My district recently purchased the new Pearson/Scott Foresman Reading Street program. We formally administer tests every 6 weeks now in preparation for the ISATS, published by [another] Pearson company. Test scores are all that matter [in my district]. This school year, we will give our students... roughly 20 tests over the course of the year mandated by the district or state. The [reading] tests are so bad we had our district literacy coordinator take one, and she got a B because she simply had to guess at so many answers due to the tricky nature of the test.

The madness is growing. Please tell me it will stop. What is the best way to get people of influence to understand that now is the perfect time for a district to be progressive and show policy makers (almost all non-educators) what true learning should look like?

My love for teaching is sinking like the stock market.

-- Illinois teacher, 11/09

As a "school in improvement," we are under attack from the feds, the state, and sadly, our own superintendent and curriculum director.

We are a great school. Many of us bring our own children (and nieces and nephews) here. 80% of our children live in poverty. 30% are [English Language Learners]. We provide a precious gem of a school for them. Every teacher has an excellent and extensive classroom library. We have amassed a book room containing hundreds of sets of multiple copies of great literature and emergent readers. Teachers focus on individual interests, strengths and needs. We work hard to provide quality experiences in science and the arts. We have a long-running book club.

We are being told to teach the basal with fidelity. We are hammered with test scores constantly and often publicly. We have been told to "Work harder. A two year gap in kindergarten can be closed in three months with good instruction." and "Poverty is a bad word. You should have to put a quarter in a jar every time you use it." Any discussion is ended by putting our test scores on the overhead and saying, "Here is the data."

I have spent 20 years honing my craft. I love this work. I hate to see all our efforts go down in flames. What will happen to the children without us? Our staff is attempting to fight back. But they look pretty dispirited. Our school is losing its glow.

My question is: How do we fight back effectively?

-- Oregon teacher, 11/09

For strategies and resources to answer this last teacher's question, please see the links on our Standards & Testing page as well as these brief comments from teachers who have simply refused to participate in standardized testing. *

10/09: The field of education lost two great men in October. Ted Sizer and Jerry Bracey were distinguished by the issues that animated them and the way they pursued their respective interests, but each made such an enormous contribution that his death leaves us bereft.

In person, Ted Sizer was good-humored and gracious to a fault. Unlike those people who are mightily impressed with their own accomplishments, Ted, whose resume was extraordinary by any measure, mostly wanted to know what you had to say. His empathy for both teachers and students wafts off the pages of his Horace trilogy. If you haven't read these books, you must. If it's been a few years, revisit them. His big ideas are there, laid out in remarkably graceful prose - the notion that "less is more" when it comes to curriculum, the idea of "exhibitions of mastery" that will allow students to show us what they understand rather than just coughing up particles of knowledge they've committed to memory -- but it's his feel for the details of school life that draws you in and wins you over.

Ted advised us to follow a high school student around for a full day in case we've forgotten what it's like "to change subjects abruptly every hour, to be talked at incessantly, to be asked to sit still for long periods, to be endlessly tested and measured against others, to be moved around in cohorts by people who really do not know who you are, to be denied any civility like a coffee break and asked to eat lunch in twenty-three minutes, to be rarely trusted, and to repeat the same regimen with virtually no variation for week after week, year after year."

Ted was a big-picture school reformer, with a keen sense of how structural changes ought to be made - major changes, at that; he exhibited a polite but persistent impatience with incrementalism - but he was nothing like the camera-ready school reformers whose call to arms is based on corporate abstractions. He never forgot that the goal isn't Tougher Standards or Accountability. It's to help kids engage in "serious thought, respectful skepticism, and curiosity about much of what lies beyond their immediate lives." He and Debbie Meier hatched the Coalition of Essential Schools to create real standards-based reform, not to promulgate standards that are lists of "things that will be covered . . . put into the head of the student." He wasn't interested in "delivering instruction," a metaphor employed unself-consciously by the kind of people whose idea of school improvement, he once said, involves "testing the kids until they begged for mercy."

Ted watched with the eye of a novelist, noticing the "rows of twitching Adidas" on a classroom floor, feeling the teachers' barely suppressed outrage at yet another interruption by the "malevolent intruder" known as the public address system. He spotted the wink-wink conspiracy between burnt-out teachers and burnt-out kids in traditional schools, the "façade of orderly purposefulness" they created together that allowed both parties to minimize hassle even though that meant little real learning was taking place.

But he knew these deficiencies weren't randomly distributed. "Tell me the incomes of your students' families," he wrote, "and I'll describe to you your school." He grasped the macro -- how hard it is to change a school so it stays changed - but also the micro, such as how teaching honors-track seniors in the fall (when all they can think about is college) is very different from teaching them in the spring (when their goal is "to have a party and, if white, to get a tan").

If we lived in a country where a real thinker like Ted Sizer, rather than clueless managerial types and cliché-spouting politicians, got to be the Secretary of Education, maybe we wouldn't need his wisdom so badly.

Nor would we need Jerry Bracey's compulsive, perpetually irritated truth-telling. Where Ted charmed even his ideological opponents, Jerry pissed off even some of his allies. In what was apparently the last missive he banged out before going to sleep for the last time, a response to a newspaper article about "value-added" assessment techniques, he began as follows: "I can't believe that this piece of crap appeared in the L.A. Times." This he wrote to people who worked at the L.A. Times.

But then he went on to show exactly why it was crap and cited the National Research Council (with a link attached to the appropriate report). When he knew exactly what the data showed on a subject, which was often, he was impatient with people who didn't. He was even less forgiving of people who wrote about the subject as if they knew what they were talking about when that obviously wasn't true. Worst of all were those politicians, researchers, and journalists who deliberately distorted the data. Those people he skewered without mercy or tact.

Jerry was my go-to guy for the numbers, as he was for many others. He had an unerring crap detector, an amazing quantitative skill set, and the patience to drill down into thick reports to find their mistaken premises, their statistical flaws, the reason that their confident conclusions weren't worth the paper they were written on. Nobody was his equal in debunking empirical claims about charter schools and the effects of retention, the dubious connection between student achievement and economic productivity, the fatal methodological problems with international comparisons (TIMSS, PISA) and the results of NAEP exams (too few kids "proficient"? don't get him started). Forget the theory and politics underlying the Nation at Risk report; when Jerry got through with the numbers, it was exposed for the ideological piece of garbage it was. Same for the Heritage Foundation's "No Excuses" paper with its list of low-income schools that ostensibly proved poverty wasn't a real barrier if you just buckled down.

Jerry had an ego - who doesn't? - but he didn't want us to depend on him to dissect a report. His books, Setting the Record Straight, Reading Educational Research, Bail Me Out, and, most recently, Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality, were intended not only to expose the public-school bashers as frauds, and not only to show us exactly what kinds of games they were playing with numbers, but to teach us how we, too, could spot errors and lies.

I hate not being able to e-mail Jerry with a question now, as I did a few days before he died, so he could spare me from doing my own analysis. I hate not having Ted around to remind us what schools should be about and how they can be restructured to do right by kids. Thankfully each man left us a substantial collection of books and articles to remind us of his work and to inspire us to carry it on. *

9/09: About a year ago, I was invited to write a chapter for an education anthology on the subject of "21st-century skills." I replied as follows: "To be perfectly honest, I'm never sure what's meant by the phrase '21st century' when it's used as a modifier for 'skills,' 'standards,' or 'schooling.' The stuff that interests me, such as student-centered learning, critical thinking, understanding ideas from the inside out, compassion, collaboration, democracy, authentic assessment, and so on, are fairly timeless, which means that attaching the name of the current time period to them seems more a marketing ploy than a meaningful modifier."

That was the end of this particular exchange - and of the publisher's interest in having me contribute to the book. But the phrase in question has been bandied about so often during the last year or so that I find myself pondering the more complicated ways it's come to be used. To be precise, there seem to be three distinct but occasionally overlapping usages.

First, it continues to be wielded as an empty catchphrase. Just about anything one likes can be presented as a component of "21st-century" schooling. It's like "new and improved" except that here we're selling books and conferences instead of dessert toppings and floor waxes. The appropriate response to this use, I believe, is either to roll your eyes or to point out that this particular emperor is parading around in his birthday suit.

Second, to invoke the current century is sometimes meant to suggest an economic justification (and direction) for schooling rather than a focus on what kids need. Notice how often terms like "competitiveness" and "global economy" tend to accompany "21st century skills." The appropriate response here is alarm and active resistance, for reasons I tried to explain in this article.

For awhile, I got the sense that these were the two dominant connotations of the phrase, so I made fun of both of them in a satirical essay and thought that was the end of that. But now it turns out there's a third use, which is more substantive than the first and more encouraging than the second. A fair number of educators are using "21st-century skills" to refer to relatively sophisticated intellectual activity - the sort that includes critical thinking, creativity, and learning about ideas "in a context and for a purpose" (as I like to say). Notice that this instructional agenda has two separate implications: It favors higher-order skills as opposed to low-level skills, and it emphasizes the importance of skills -- ways of learning and thinking -- as opposed to facts.

Of course, the need to bring about both of these shifts, and particularly the latter, was defended quite ably by a number of pre-21st-century thinkers, including John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead. In his 1941 book Escape From Freedom, meanwhile, the psychoanalyst and social critic Erich Fromm wrote: "The pathetic superstition prevails that by knowing more and more facts one arrives at knowledge of reality. Hundreds of scattered and unrelated facts are dumped into the heads of students; their time and energy are taken up by learning more and more facts so that there is little left for thinking. To be sure, thinking without a knowledge of facts remains empty and fictitious; but 'information' alone can be just as much of an obstacle to thinking as the lack of it."

We're certainly better off if this venerable sentiment is warmed over for the modern age than if it's ignored. But wouldn't you know it - this third meaning of "21st-century," the only one that's actually kind of progressive, is the one that's come under a withering and apparently coordinated attack from the "core knowledge" contingent. To be fair, when they point out that there is nothing particularly new about this argument, that dressing it up with the "new and improved" label is silly and self-serving, they are absolutely right - and I wish that label would go away. (What approach to pedagogy do you support in the 21st century that wasn't just as relevant in the 20th?) But when they argue against the position by claiming that the main problem with schools is that not enough time is spent getting kids to memorize facts, or by caricaturing the opposing position -- as if progressive educators believe that learning how to learn means that knowledge doesn't matter -- then we should take them on. (See, for example, this excerpt from The Schools Our Children Deserve.)

This controversy has implications for assessment, too, of course. If the twenty-firsters are saying that standardized tests are no longer particularly useful, I'm willing just to nod rather than pointing out that they never were. But beware of accepting another dichotomy that's been offered to us (for example, in an op-ed by E.D. Hirsch last spring): giving kids standardized tests that just measure test-taking skills or giving them a bunch-o'-facts curriculum with matching tests to make sure enough of those facts have been stuffed into short-term memory. Put me down for "none of the above," please.

Apart from the unfortunate label and general faddishness of the whole 21st-century thing - the first bandwagon educators are hopping on in the new century involves references to the century itself - we should make sure that the second use of the term doesn't leach into the third. This approach to education is worth endorsing only if we are very clear that the reason for helping kids to think deeply and critically, to evaluate and apply knowledge, is because these capacities will enrich their lives and contribute to the common good in a democratic society. Not because it will outfit them with skills that will be useful to the corporations where they may eventually work, thereby allowing one company -- or country - to triumph over another.

In other words, apart from the means by which we educate (facts or skills, basic or advanced), we have to think about the ends. Even if there really were something new about 21st-century schooling, fostering "competitiveness in a global economy" is a wretched rationale for providing it. And that will continue to be true even when the next century rolls around. *

8/09: "Obama is, in effect, giving George W. Bush a third term in education," remarked Diane Ravitch, who worked in the elder Bush’s administration. Was she exaggerating? Well, for starters, notice that two of the most enthusiastic endorsements of President Obama’s choice of Arne Duncan as secretary of education came from the individuals who had held that position under GWB. Margaret Spellings pronounced herself “thrilled” with the selection, while Rod Paige called Duncan “a budding hero in the education business.”

More to the point, pay attention to the remarkable overlap between the specific policies of the two administrations, including the reliance on high-stakes standardized tests; threats to close down schools with low scores; and enthusiasm about transferring resources to charter schools, using merit pay to “motivate” teachers, and forcing struggling students to repeat a grade.

Finally, there’s the rhetoric of the presidents themselves. Read each of these quotations and try to decide whether it came from the current Democratic chief executive or his Republican predecessor. (Answers follow.)

1. "We will insist on high standards and accountability because we believe that every school should teach and every child can learn."

2. "We're seeing what children from all walks of life can and will achieve when we set high standards, have high expectations, when we do a good job preparing them. ... [W]e will cultivate a new culture of accountability in schools."

3. “We want to . . . not only raise standards, but make the changes that are required to actually meet those standards, by having the best teachers and principals, by having the kind of data collection that tells us whether improvements are actually happening, and tying student achievement to assessments of teachers, by making sure that there's a focus on low-performing schools, by making sure that the standards that have been set are ones that mean a kid who graduates can compete at the international level… [and by] ending the practice of social promotion.”

4. "Too many American children are segregated into schools without standards, shuffled from grade to grade because of their age, regardless of their knowledge. This is discrimination, pure and simple."

5. "Accountability is an exercise in hope. When we raise academic standards, children raise their academic sights. When children are regularly tested, teachers know where and how to improve. When scores are known to parents, parents are empowered to push for change. When accountability for our schools is real, the results for our children are real."


1. GWB. From his Presidential radio address, Jan. 3, 2004, cited by Education Week, April 8, 2009

2. BO. From an address to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, March 10, 2009, cited by Education Week, April 8, 2009

3. BO. From an interview with the Washington Post, July 23, 2009

4. GWB. From his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, August 3, 2000

5. GWB. From a speech at a Student Achievement and School Accountability conference, October 2002

How did you do? More to the point, how well will our children do under a continuation (or even intensification) of the same basic corporate-style model of schooling, an approach that confuses competitiveness with excellence and high test scores with successful learning? *

5/09: REVISITING THE FAILURE OF INCENTIVES: Punished by Rewards is surely the only book from which excerpts were simultaneously published in Parents magazine and the Harvard Business Review - evidence of how pervasive is our culture's embrace of pop-behaviorism. In the family, the workplace, and the classroom, more-powerful people try to control less-powerful people by dangling some sort of reward in front of them if they do what they're told. And evidence continues to accumulate that this strategy not only doesn't work but tends to make things worse in various ways.

In an op-ed just published in USA Today, AK, who recently keynoted a national conference devoted to the subject of health promotion, summarizes what the research says about the use of financial incentives to help people quit smoking or lose weight. What the research says is that they don't work, at least not for very long. Rewards for becoming healthier aren't just less effective than other strategies - they actually tend to undermine the effectiveness of those other strategies.

But for evidence of the perverse effects of incentives, you don't need to read reports in academic journals. The daily paper will do.

Take the current financial crisis. "Questions are being asked about what role lavish bonuses played in the debacle," as a recent front-page story in the New York Times delicately put it. But the point isn't just that bonuses are lavish (or in some cases funded by our taxes). "Pay was tied to profit, and profit to the easy, borrowed money that could be invested in markets like mortgage securities." Meanwhile, senior managers who should have halted reckless speculation by the traders didn't do so . . . because their bonuses, too, were on the line.

An even darker example appeared in the Times last fall: "Colombia's security forces are increasingly murdering civilians and making it look as if they were killed in combat, often by planting weapons by the bodies or dressing them in guerrilla fatigues." One can understand the motive for that post-mortem deception after the accidental killing of an innocent. But why the widespread, deliberate murder of civilians in the first place? Ideological fervor? It turns out that soldiers have been "under intense pressure in recent years to register combat kills to earn promotions and benefits like time off and extra pay."

It's an extreme, gruesome illustration of a familiar pattern. Offer performance bonuses to auto mechanics, and unnecessary repairs will be performed on a regular basis. (When that happened at Sears in the early '90s, the company finally was forced to eliminate its incentive pay system.) Offer rewards to educators for high test scores, and reports of improprieties in the administration of testing will show up repeatedly. Behaviorists keep insisting that we're just rewarding the wrong things and need only tweak the incentives. But after enough disasters it becomes harder to avoid the suspicion that the problem is inherent to the very idea of "do this, and you'll get that."

Even beyond the abuses, rewards simply don't produce quality. Some say it's just because the rewards aren't large enough to make a difference. But a brand-new series of experiments published in the Review of Economic Studies finds that relatively large incentives are especially detrimental to performance, notably on tasks that require "even rudimentary cognitive skills," according to lead author Dan Ariely of Duke University. It appears that the provocative conclusion offered in PBR is still accurate after 16 years: No controlled study has ever found a long-term improvement in the quality of work as a result of any kind of incentive plan. And yet those plans are as popular as ever.

Again: the trouble isn't with the size of the rewards, or the type, or the schedule on which they're offered. The trouble is with the inadequate model of motivation on which rewards, per se, are based. And the data continue to roll in. A few months ago, two researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany reported (in the journal Developmental Psychology) that, while "children are highly motivated from an early age to help others," those who received a reward for being helpful subsequently became less likely to help.

Many earlier studies had supported the general principle that the more people are rewarded for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward (see PBR, chapter 5). Some of those studies had even confirmed that this is true of helpfulness and caring in particular. But the new study is the first to show that rewards can do their damage even before children are two years old. And what they do to a toddler's altruistic tendencies they also do to an investment banker's common sense. *

3/09: Merit pay is Exhibit A for the proposition that the relevant distinction in education policy is not between Democrat and Republican but between those who have some understanding of the nuances of learning, teaching, and motivation - and those who haven't a clue. President Obama - who chose for his Secretary of Education someone who would have felt right at home in the Bush administration - recently offered enthusiastic support for a concept that has been tried and found wanting over and over again: dangle more money in front of teachers to make them perform better.

For a little more about why pay-for-performance plans turn out to be as counterproductive as they are insulting, see the article called "The Folly of Merit Pay." For a lot more on the misconceptions about motivation that underlie such plans, see the book Punished by Rewards. Anyone who possesses a bit of historical perspective realizes that what we're living through now is just the latest in a series of waves during which the alleged miracle of behaviorism is rediscovered - all evidence to the contrary having vanished down the memory hole. You want better teaching (read: higher test scores)? Just offer more money to teachers who jump through the right hoops. And why stop at teachers? Let's pay off students - particularly low-income students of color -- who take more tests, or score well on those tests, or sign up for tutoring, or get better grades, or show up at school even though they can't see any reason why they should.

It's telling that much of the research about education policy being published these days - or at least being featured in the popular press - isn't conducted by people in the field of education but by economists. These are folks who tend to believe that human beings are driven by incentives. That's not a hypothesis to be tested but a premise to be accepted on faith. All motivation is extrinsic, so it's just a matter of getting the incentives right. Their discipline, including the hipper variant known as behavioral economics, is constructed on a decidedly outdated set of assumptions about human psychology. And what they write about education not only proceeds from a stunted view of motivation but also reveals the depths of their ignorance about what happens in classrooms - particularly really good classrooms. Economists, and the popular writers who draw from their work, rarely seem to understand the difference between meaningful learning, on the one hand, and higher scores on standardized tests, on the other. The latter is just assumed to be a marker for the former, in part because this discipline also believes that everything can be reduced to numbers.

Perhaps it's unfair to expect economists or politicians to be well-versed in the nature of learning or the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for doing something (which, in fact, are often inversely related). But surely it's not too much to expect that economists will know what they don't know, will show a little humility rather than assuming that all human endeavors, including education, lend themselves to the methods of their own field. And surely it's reasonable to ask that politicians, including our new president, refrain from imposing their ignorance on our children and teachers with the force of law. *

12/08: Political progressives are in short supply on the president-elect's list of cabinet nominees. Now that he has finally turned his attention to the Department of Education, how surprised should we be that he failed to choose someone who is educationally progressive?

Such an individual was said to be in the running - Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who has been directing Obama's education transition team - and, not coincidentally, she has been singled out for scorn in editorials in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Boston Globe, as well as in a New York Times column by David Brooks, a New Republic essay, and a Newsweek blog. The thrust of all these articles, using eerily similar language, is that we must reject the "forces of the status quo" which are "allied with the teachers' unions" and choose someone who represents "serious education reform."

To decode how that last word is being used here, recall its meaning in the context of welfare (under Clinton) or environmental laws (under Reagan and Bush). For Republicans, education "reform" typically includes support for vouchers and other forms of privatization. But groups with names like Democrats for Education Reform-along with many mainstream publications-are disconcertingly allied with conservatives in just about every other respect. To be a school "reformer" 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 of which are run by for-profit companies.

Notice that these features are already pervasive, which means "reform" actually signals more of the same-or, perhaps, intensification of the status quo with variations like one-size-fits-all national curriculum standards or longer school days (or years). Almost never questioned, meanwhile, are the core elements of traditional schooling, such as lectures, worksheets, quizzes, grades, homework, punitive discipline, and competition. That would require real reform, which of course is off the table.

Obama's choice, Arne Duncan, whose all-too-apt title is "chief executive officer" of Chicago Public Schools, is a "reformer" only in the Orwellian sense of the word. He has been called a "budding hero in the education business" by Bush's former Education secretary Rod Paige - and, indeed, it's not difficult to imagine Duncan having been picked by Bush. Just as the test-crazy nightmare of Paige's Houston served as a national model (when it should have been a cautionary tale) in 2001, so Duncan may try to bring to Washington an agenda based on his pet project called "Renaissance 2010," which Chicago education activist Michael Klonsky describes as a blend of "more standardized testing, closing neighborhood schools, militarization, and the privatization of school management." Even before NCLB, Duncan boasted, "Chicago took the initiative to hold students accountable to annual state assessments" and to get "back to basics with our curriculum, aligning it to the state academic standards all the way down to optional daily lesson plans."

Like New York City's Joel Klein and D.C.'s Michelle Rhee, Duncan prides himself on a program that pays students for higher grades or scores. He has also championed the practice of flunking low-scoring students and forcing them to repeat a grade. (Research overwhelmingly finds both strategies to be counterproductive.) Coincidentally, Darling-Hammond wrote about just such campaigns against "social promotion" in New York and Chicago, pointing out that politicians keep trotting out the same failed get-tough strategies "with no sense of irony or institutional memory." In that same 2001 essay, she also showed how earlier experiments with high-stakes testing have mostly served to increase the dropout rate.

Some years ago, Darling-Hammond remarked, "If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet." Consider how difficult it is to imagine a comparable insight coming from Arne Duncan or from any of the other spreadsheet-oriented, pump-up-the-scores "reformers" (or, for that matter, from any previous Education secretary). That's because she understands what they don't: how all the talk of "rigor" and "raising the bar" has produced a sterile, scripted curriculum that has been imposed disproportionately on children of color. Her viewpoint, in short, is that of an educator, not a corporate manager.

Once again, however, the Department of Education will be run by the latter rather than the former.

(This essay is adapted from an article that appeared in the issue of The Nation magazine dated December 29, 2008.) *

9/08: Is it really possible to completely eliminate homework - or at least to assign it rarely, only when it's truly needed - even in high school? We keep hearing from educators who say it's not only possible but preferable to do so.

Some of these folks were influenced by the arguments and data contained in The Homework Myth, while others came to realize on their own that it simply isn't necessary to make students work a "second shift" after a full day in school.

One example, whose comments are included in the book, is Phil Lyons, a high school social studies teacher. He noticed that homework contributes to a situation where students see learning as just an unpleasant means to an end --"a way to accrue points." Homework typically consists of tasks that are "time-consuming, dreary, uninspiring and serve only to kill whatever motivation remains in students," Lyons says. Interestingly, he confesses having assigned a lot of homework at the beginning of his career "as a crutch, to compensate for poor lessons. . . . But as I mastered the material, homework ceased to be necessary." And so he assigned less and less of it as the years went by. Today he assigns none at all, even to his A.P. classes.

"In addition to reinforcement type worksheets which I do not assign for homework I also do not assign reading to be done at home," says Lyons. "Instead, I begin each day with an article (1-2 pages tops) that relates to the topics we're studying. Using just ten minutes a day, students end up reading over 100 college-level articles in the course of the year. Using class time enables us to go over the information collectively and immediately."

And the result? "Each year my students have performed better on the [A.P.] test....I would feel justified encroaching on students' free time and I'd be willing to do the grading if I saw tangible returns, but with no quantifiable benefit it makes no sense to impose [homework] on them or me."

However, Lyons did notice one clear difference after eliminating homework: "Students come in all the time and hand me articles about something we talked about in class or tell me about a news report they saw. When intrigued by a good lesson and given freedom [from homework], they naturally seek out more knowledge." Academically speaking, then, the absence of homework -- even in a high-level high school course -- created absolutely no problems. Intellectually speaking, it has been positively beneficial.

Yet, Lyons observes, the prospect of questioning homework leads some people to react in much the same way that creationists do "when you try to explain evolution to them….Despite all the logical arguments, they refuse to believe less homework can lead to more and better learning." But he quickly adds that, even in the sorts of communities where high school is regarded mostly as a source of credentials for the purpose of admission to selective colleges, people can be successfully invited to reconsider their assumptions:

I've encountered a lot of hostility from parents who think their children are being shortchanged because they came home and said they didn't get any homework. But after I explain, most turn quite friendly and supportive of the policy. Adults freely admit that they can't remember anything about the election of 1876 from their high school U.S. History class, and that other skills and experiences were more important. Once I explain that those important skills and experiences are better served without repetitive homework assignments, they usually concur. Testimony from other teachers has been rolling in since The Homework Myth's publication. To wit:

"For the past month of the final term I assigned no outside homework. I teach English, so all reading and writing was done in class. I had to plan more carefully and navigate those times when the quicker readers or writers finished earlier. There are many positives that resulted. The kids were better rested, more interested in what we were doing in class, and the quality of the work they did in class was better. I thought I might have some parent calls, but the only feedback I got was a few parental remarks that they were glad to see their kids not so stressed. [The students' written] reflections convinced me that homework has a long-term detrimental impact on student learning. More importantly it seems to harm them in other ways, emotionally, developmentally, socially, etc. I regret not having done this earlier in the year. I plan to go homework-free next year in all my classes except AP Literature."

-- Jim Drier, English teacher, Mundelein (IL) High School

"I've assigned homework once this semester. That was Geometry. In Algebra, I'm not sure I've assigned any… [I believe] students need a certain amount of practice for each new concept. That amount certainly varies by the student, however. [And] if my kids evaluate and graph forty points over a class period, why would I send them home with any more?....The issue for most math teachers, I believe, is one of time management. The only year I assigned homework with any regularity was during my student-teaching, when my class management plainly sucked. By assigning whatever practice we didn't finish [as] homework, I was transferring the cost of my poor teaching onto my students." [Mr. Meyer investigated this issue for his Masters thesis and found no statistically significant difference in achievement between students who were and were not assigned homework. Students' attitudes about learning, and about math, were much lower for those who got homework, however.]

-- Dan Meyer, high school math teacher in CA [from his blog]

"I always felt weird about assigning specific books for kids to read. How could you possibly find a book that is at all 34 kids' reading levels. Not to mention the fact they would all have to be excited about reading the book! . . . [With most homework, students] do what they already did in class, and the ones that get it waste their time doing it again and the ones that didn't just get discouraged and struggle through it. It particularly would break my heart when parents would tell me. . . how nights would be ruined. How could any teacher not feel bad about that? Then I would correct it and put it in their files and then they would stuff it in their backpacks never to be looked at again. Not to mention the inequity of some kids' parents being able to help and some not. . . . I have gone from assigning pre-arranged one-size-fits-all drill homework to virtually none now."

-- Richard Coleman, San Diego teacher

"Assigning homework was something I did without really thinking because it was something that had always been done…. Not assigning homework has drastically cut down on the amount of time I spend mindlessly grading student homework and has increased the amount of time I spend preparing for lessons . . . looking for interesting activities and … finding 'real world' examples of mathematics…"

-- Kate Degner, math teacher, Williamsburg (IA) High School [from her Master's thesis]

"I first read The Homework Myth while trying to get my daughter through a middle school that was obsessed with making kids do 2-3 hours of homework every night. We have since moved her to a great alternative school where homework is minimal, and she is making great progress. After reading your book, I thought about how I was teaching my [college] classes -- lecture, then assign pages in the text workbook to be turned in at the next class. I realized that what I needed to do was more 'hands on' teaching in the classroom. I eliminated most of the homework assignments (except for major projects), and had the students do the exercises in class while I walked around giving help where needed. I told the students that the few assignments I would give are for the purpose of giving me feedback -- 'Are they getting it?' This has made for a lot less busywork for me and for the students, and has brought me into closer contact with the students and how they are learning."

-- David Moore, music theory teacher, Univ. of Tulsa

"Many kids are burned out on school and learning before they leave 3rd grade due to the increasing amount of homework being demanded of them. Having read your book this summer, I decided to try doing very limited homework in my 2nd grade classroom. What I've found is that the kids are less confused in math [as a result]. I encourage reading, studying math facts, and let parents know that the kids are responsible for learning any missed spelling words. (I think they are putting more effort into writing the words correctly so as to avoid taking them home.) My parents are all happy and other 2nd grade teachers are trying it."

-- Carol Tuveson, elementary school teacher, Stratham (NH) Memorial School

We've also heard about whole schools that have virtually eliminated homework rather than merely adjusting the amount or tweaking the details of its implementation:

-- After Christine Hendricks, the principal of Grant Elementary School in Glenrock, WY, implemented a no-homework policy, a survey of parents revealed that children had more time to play, sleep, read, and eat dinner with their families and spent less time watching TV. Children also had an improved attitude towards going to school and parents found themselves in fewer conflicts with their children. [Source: stophomework.com]

-- Banks County Middle School in Homer, GA, a lower-income, rural, public school, has eliminated virtually all homework. Principal Matthew Cooper explained: "First, I want our students to have the opportunity to be kids. If they cannot learn what they need in seven hours, something is wrong. A 'No Homework' policy actually results in better classroom instruction. It puts more responsibility on teachers to maximize class time. Second, homework was setting many of our students up for failure. It resulted in lower grades and lower self-esteem. Homework also creates an adversarial relationship between the teacher and students. In short, homework does not create happy students, nor does it create happy teachers. And it definitely does not create successful students." The abolition of homework, he reports, has had a positive effect even when judged by conventional measures such as grades and the number of students meeting state standards. [Source: personal communication from Matthew Cooper]

-- "Oak Knoll Elementary in Menlo Park [California] has mostly banned homework, except reading, occasional projects or catch-up work. Addison Elementary in Palo Alto and the Berryessa School District in San Jose are discussing the issue. Since Bubb Elementary School in Mountain View relaxed its homework regimen, fourth-grader Elyse Fitzsimons has been reading on her own, 'devouring books,'' said her mother, Renée Fitzsimons. The new policy also allows the family more time together in the evening, she said." [Source: San Jose Mercury News - February 25, 2007]

(For more examples of teachers who have eliminated homework, and suggested strategies for parents who are concerned about the toll homework is taking on their children, please see the book The Homework Myth and the DVD No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.)


5/08: What if they gave a test and nobody came? Or what if all the students came, but the teachers refused to give them a test? The civil rights movement succeeded not only because good laws were eventually passed (mandating desegregation) but because ordinary people refused to obey bad laws. Rather than just complaining about policies they thought were immoral, they withheld their consent through disciplined disobedience.

In May, virtually the entire eighth grade at a South Bronx, NY middle school handed in blank sheets of paper rather than take yet another practice exam for the state test - along with a petition that protested the "constant, excessive and stressful testing" that comes at the expense of "valuable instructional time with our teachers." In California, activists are currently working to convince parents to boycott that state's endless STAR testing program. "We have written and read and talked for years about the damage tests are doing to our children, our teachers, our schools and our democracy," their website says. Now "it's time to act."

There have been other examples of protests by parents and students - from Scarsdale to San Antonio -- but let's take a moment to honor the people who have put their jobs on the line to say no: teachers who have stood up alone in their communities and said they just can't in good conscience participate in - and thereby perpetuate -- this suffocating regimen of testing. When the history of the current "accountability" fad in education is written, these teachers will be likened to the folks who bravely challenged Jim Crow laws in the South.

"My conscience bothered me. I thought, 'How can I continue to do something I think is harmful for my students?' I simply had to stop giving the [state test]."

-- Carl Chew, Washington teacher

"They've taken my job away from me as long as I have to spend my time teaching to the test. I can't do that anymore. So I have nothing to lose [by refusing to participate in the testing]."

-- Jim Bougas, Massachusetts teacher

"Every single time I administer these tests, children are upset. I felt this year that I had three options, since continuing with this practice was not an option. I should either (a) spend a lot of time teaching my students about tests to try to lessen the stress, or (b) tell them exactly what to write down for every question, or (c) stand up for what I believe in and risk discipline, while protecting my students from this nonsense. . . . [In choosing (c), I'm] attempting to represent the views of so many of us who feel helpless in this horrible, spiraling descent of our education system."

-- Kathryn Sihota, British Columbia teacher

"I have to look at myself in the mirror, and I know these tests are wrong. Frankly, I'm not a teacher when I teach to a test like this [or] when I administer a test like this."

-- Don Perl, Colorado teacher

"Someone needs to use a little common sense and say, 'I am just not going to do it.'"

-- Doug Ward, North Carolina teacher

"How can I teach my kids to stand up for what they believe in if I'm not doing that myself?"

-- Katie Hogan, 1 of 12 boycotters at a Chicago school

When Thoreau was imprisoned for refusing to pay war taxes, the jail faced the street. One day, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was walking by and said, "Henry! What are you doing in there?" To which Thoreau replied, "The question is what are you doing out there?" For any teacher who shares the outrage and grief felt by these dissenters, the challenge is to explain why he or she is helping to perpetuate that policy by breaking the shrink wrap and handing out the tests to students - in short, by following orders that he or she knows are wrong.

Of course we applaud the courage of educators who have taken a stand against this insanity. But what will it take for us to summon our own courage and join them? *

4/08: MORE GLEANINGS - that is, writings from various sources likely to be of interest to anyone drawn to AK's work. This month, we feature an article, a website, a quote, and news of an important campaign of resistance. Also, note that a new essay by AK (about progressive education) has been posted elsewhere on this site.

Act of Resistance: There is something uncomfortably inconsistent about denouncing the terrible effects of the current standardized testing fad, on the one hand, but continuing to participate in that testing (and thereby helping to perpetuate it), on the other. The most powerful weapon against what Ted Sizer once called the "test 'em until they bleed" approach to school reform is civil disobedience - that is, organized noncooperation. Perhaps sensing this, officials have relied on crude threats to discourage such resistance. For example, NCLB decrees that if participation in the testing falls below a certain level at a given school, that school will be labeled as failing, and punished. This effectively turns local school administrators into enforcers of an agenda about which they may harbor their own doubts.

The solution is to organize enough parents (or teachers) to take part in a mass boycott of the tests so that a critical mass is reached and it would be absurd for the government to punish all the participating schools or individuals, particularly when it's obvious that the low participation rate isn't due to apathy but to the very opposite: a collective act of conscience.

A group of educators in California is trying to do just that. If you're a parent who lives in that state and has concerns about the amount of time your children are forced to spend taking and preparing for standardized tests - or doubts about whether the resulting scores accurately capture what's most important about your child - then please check out CalCare.org right now. If you're a teacher in California, let the parents in your school know about this campaign so they can make up their own minds about whether to participate. If you live elsewhere, please spread the word to any Californians of your acquaintance.

Article: It's called "Death to the Syllabus," it's by Mano Singham, it's focused primarily on higher education (but is relevant to high schools as well), it's available HERE, and it begins as follows: "It is time to declare war on the traditional course syllabus. If there is one single artifact that pinpoints the degradation of liberal education, it is the rule-infested, punitive, controlling syllabus that is handed out to students on the first day of class. I have seen long and highly detailed syllabi that carefully lay out rules for attendance, punctuality, extra credit, grades, and penalties for missing deadlines, as well as detailed writing assignment requirements that specify page and word length, spacing, margins, and even font style and size. The syllabi use boldface, underlining, italics, and exclamation points for added emphasis; the net effect is that of the teacher yelling at the student. What such syllabi often omit is any mention of learning."

Website: ExcellenceWithoutAP.org [subsequently renamed IndependentCurriculum.org] lists dozens of prestigious high schools that have eliminated all Advanced Placement courses. The trick to figuring out why that move makes sense is to realize that harder isn't the same thing as better. The most "rigorous" courses are often dreadful - and that's particularly true when those courses exist not to enhance students' understanding or enthusiasm about learning but merely to prepare them for an exam.

Quotation: "If there had been even an ounce of genuine concern over American schools in three decades of federal goals-oriented policy intended to fix public education, past presidents and other high-ranking officials might have asked educators to be involved in the search for solutions. But beyond involving teachers in the preparation of standards, educators have been left out of virtually all decision making. Look at the selection of presidential appointees to the office of secretary of education since Reagan took office. It is impossible to look at that list and say, with a straight face, that there was even a little presidential concern for the state of public education in America. Had there been such a concern, educators of world renown would have occupied that office. John Goodlad would have been there, and James Comer, Theodore Sizer, Nel Noddings; the list of highly qualified individuals could go on." -- Paul G. Theobald, "Elevating Education's Public Purpose," in Education and the Making of a Democratic People, ed. by John I. Goodlad, Roger Soder, and Bonnie McDaniel (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008) *

11/07: Several years ago, a teacher who regularly invited her students to "drop everything and read" their favorite books was asked by a colleague whether she was still setting aside class time for that purpose. She replied, "We haven't been doing any reading since we started preparing the kids for the reading test."

That response says as much about the collateral damage of our focus on test scores as it does about the poor quality of the tests themselves -- and thus how little the resulting scores really tell us. I thought of that teacher's comment just before Thanksgiving, when the National Endowment for the Arts released a report claiming that young Americans spend less time reading for pleasure these days.

At least one expert, Stephen Krashen, has his doubts about whether the data really support that conclusion. But let's assume it's true, and further, as the report contends, that this helps to explain why test scores are lagging. We're confronted, then, with a terrible irony: Our preoccupation with those very scores may be why kids aren't reading as much in the first place.

To see how that's true, consider what's been found to promote, or to undermine, a love of reading. Positive factors include ready access to books, time to read them, exposure to adults who read for pleasure, and the chance to decide what to read. Research is very clear about that last item: The more choice kids have, the more likely that they'll enjoy reading and get better at it.

The ostensible decline in pleasure reading is often blamed on TV and other technology, but the data offer weak and inconsistent support for that hypothesis, at best. More likely to smother interest is the practice of offering kids rewards for reading. Scores of studies have found that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they come to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.

Potential excitement about reading also evaporates as a result of the kind of instruction that focuses on narrow, isolated decoding skills. That doesn't mean phonics don't matter. It means learning to "break the code" should be part of a rich literacy curriculum that has kids reading real stories, not facing endless worksheets and contrived fragments of text harnessed to the skill of the week. (Hence the teacher who was heard saying to a child, "Put that book away and do your reading!")

"Hooked on phonics"? Please. No child has ever gotten hooked on the cr sound. For that matter, no child cares whether Pat's rat has a hat. Impoverished, scripted curriculums -- devoid of meaning, context, and joy -- teach kids that reading is something you'd never want to do. And that's what older students learn when they have to outline chapters or write book reports, or are made to read so many pages, or for so many minutes. Now the child's question isn't "Why did she [the character in the story] do that? Is she nuts??" It's: "How much more do I have to read?"

Sadder still, children are forced to work what amounts to a second shift after school is over, as more and more homework is loaded on younger and younger children. It's not just that the time eaten up by those assignments leaves less time for pleasure reading. It's that many of those assignments adversely affect their attitude about the written word.

One reason for the push for more homework as well as more frantic drilling -- particularly for low-income kids - is the current testing mania, exemplified and intensified by the No Child Left Behind Act. This legislation, and the whole corporate-styled "accountability" fad that gave rise to it, brings us back to that hapless teacher who is so busy trying to raise her students' scores on the reading test that there's no time to let them read.

In fact, a study of middle schools published in the journal Language Arts found that "the most frequently cited reason for not providing regular opportunities for free choice reading was the pressure teachers felt to explicitly cover the skills students needed to do well on the statewide competency test."

The NEA report has it half right: Kids who love to read also read more proficiently. But standardized tests are poor measures of that proficiency and, more important, our concern with the results of those tests drives teachers to desperate measures to jack up the scores - at the expense of an engaging curriculum, a well-rounded education, and a desire on the part of children to keep reading after the last school bell has rung. *

9/07: Almost as much as one yearns for a solution to the achievement gap, one searches for a fresh way of thinking about this problem. Most of what's published seems awfully familiar by now, so it's worth celebrating the exceptions. In this installment of the occasional feature called Gleanings, we mention some recent books and articles of interest.

Jonathan Kozol has a way of speaking in a calm, measured tone even as he grabs us by the collar. In his latest book, Letters to a Young Teacher, he emphasizes the extent to which we are still a segregated nation. If a photo were taken today in a school in almost any black or Hispanic neighborhood, he remarks, "it would be indistinguishable from photos taken of the children in the all-black schools in Mississippi back in 1925 or 1930 - precisely the same photos that are reproduced in textbooks now in order to convince our children of the moral progress that our nation has made since." Moreover, the kind of education that these children usually receive - particularly with ghastly programs like KIPP, Success for All, and Open Court - drives home the truth that segregation is indeed inherently unequal. "Children of the suburbs learn to think and to interrogate reality," says Kozol, while "inner-city kids are trained for nonreflective acquiescence." ("Work hard, be nice.")

Part of the reason that education for children of color has become an endless ritual of test preparation has to do with NCLB and state variants thereof. But part of the blame can be laid at the feet of colleges, a new study suggests. Writing in the August 2007 issue of the American Sociological Review, Sigal Alon and Marta Tienda cite data showing that "over time [colleges and universities] have relied more heavily on standardized test scores to screen applicants . . . despite the mounting evidence that test scores have low predictive validity for future academic success." This is partly because colleges are classified as "selective" not on the basis of the quality of their teaching but purely on the basis of the SAT scores of their incoming students. (Thanks to U.S. News & World Report for reminding us once again that competitiveness and excellence are two entirely different things.) The more tests matter, the less diverse colleges will be; in fact, "if selective institutions based their admissions decisions entirely on test scores, fewer than 2 percent of their students would be black." But here's the punch line: The widely discussed trade-off between merit and diversity - or between quality and equality -- "exists only when merit is narrowly defined by SAT scores." When you throw out the scores, which aren't contributing much information of value in any case, "the need for affirmative action diminishes," Alon and Tienda conclude.

In 2005, Mano Singham, a physicist who directs the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education at Case Western University, published a book called The Achievement Gap in U.S. Education that should have received a lot more attention than it did. His contention is that the solution to the gap isn't remediation (particularly in the form of skill-based instruction that's liable to destroy kids' interest in learning); it's better teaching for everyone. "We are not doing a good job of teaching in general," he says, "and the size of the achievement gap should be viewed as a measure of our failure to teach all students. . . . White students underachieve, and black students underachieve even more." He cites some impressive research showing that when the quality of instruction improves - when it's about deep understanding rather than memorizing facts and practicing skills, when students play a more active role in designing the curriculum, and so on - all students benefit, but minority students benefit the most. Taken seriously, this simple insight has the potential to revolutionize what we're doing to help those who are being left behind.

If Singham invites us to rethink the reasons for (and solutions to) the gap, Jim Crawford, an activist on bilingual education, asks us to rethink the tendency to talk about an "achievement gap" in the first place. In his June 6, 2007 commentary in Education Week, Crawford wonders how any civil rights groups could possibly support a policy like NCLB, which is disproportionately destructive to the education of minority students. His answer: The whole idea of educational equity has been shifted (by the Bush administration, among others, for political reasons) from talk of equal educational opportunity to talk of "achievement gaps." The latter is "all about measurable 'outputs' - standardized-test scores - and not about equalizing resources, addressing poverty, combating segregation, or guaranteeing children an opportunity to learn," Crawford suggests. "Dropping equal educational opportunity shifts the entire burden of reform from legislators and policymakers to teachers and kids and schools. . . . In other words, despite its stated goals, NCLB represents a diminished vision of civil rights. Educational equity is reduced to equalizing test scores. The effect has been to impoverish the educational experience of minority students."

Once the problem has been framed as closing a gap in achievement (i.e., reducing disparities in test results), therefore, the solutions are bound to be unsatisfying, if not counterproductive. It's roughly analogous to a point that Joan Goodman made years ago about special education: Once teachers are required to use Individual Educational Programs (IEPs) that spell out discrete, narrow, measurable goals for children, the worst sort of instruction - focused on skills, mired in behaviorism, driven by extrinsic motivators, uninformed by children's choices (or, for that matter, their needs) - is virtually mandated.

What matter isn't just what we're doing; it's the earlier decisions about what we should be aiming for that quietly determine what we're doing. *

6/07: "Hey, if it was bad enough for me, it's bad enough for my kids": Many of us cheerfully acknowledge that we’ve always hated math or were never any good at it. In the next breath, though, we may insist that our children be taught the same way we were – with an emphasis on memorizing facts, filling out worksheets, mindlessly applying procedures and formulas they don’t understand – in short, the very approach for whose inadequacy we are walking advertisements. The irony would be amusing if it weren’t for the fact that better math programs, along with the people who introduce, teach, or defend them, are being battered. And our kids are getting an inadequate education as a result.

The latest casualty is a very fine superintendent who, according to the New York Times, was pressured into declining a job in an affluent New Jersey district by angry parents who wanted to roll back the clock and replace a math curriculum called Investigations with a return to what one writer has called Parrot Math: worksheet and quiz, listen and repeat, drill and kill. It’s an approach that tends to be favored by three overlapping groups: nervous parents, political conservatives, and professional mathematicians (not to be confused with math educators).

In reality, we should be concerned if our kids are still getting traditional math instruction. We should be relieved if they’re getting a richer, more meaning-based curriculum, regardless of whether it looks unfamiliar to us. To learn why this is so – and to see what the research finds when the two approaches are carefully compared – click here for an excerpt from The Schools Our Children Deserve. *

4/07: GLEANINGS – A new feature in this space that will appear from time to time: Mentions of (and snippets from) articles and books written by various people -- some just published, some discovered belatedly – and likely to be of interest to anyone drawn to AK’s work. To wit: five resources worth checking out:

* Mara Sapon-Shevin’s new book, Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms, isn’t just an argument against segregating kids with special needs. It’s about inclusion as a deeper commitment, about our discomfort with differences, about the arrogance of expecting “those kids” to fit in to the mainstream. The book is full of sly observations about disability and social change, noting that “you can’t say you can’t play” doesn’t go far enough, and revealing how arguments against inclusion often assume a traditional approach to instruction that actually isn’t ideal for any students.

* Speaking of differences (and segregation), someone at a recent AK lecture stood up during the Q&A to thank him for talking about children -- rather than about boys and girls as two distinct species. Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke recently reminded us that “we don’t have a male brain or a female brain; we have a human brain, with a whole lot of commonality.” At a time when entire careers are being constructed on the claim that we should segregate children by gender – and that boys are suffering a unique crisis – it's well worth reading Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers’s article in the Winter 2007 issue of Independent School: “Gender Myths & the Education of Boys” -- or their slightly shorter essay "The Difference Myth," published in the Boston Globe in October 2007.

* Few of us can pick up anything by Deborah Meier without feeling illuminated, refreshed, perhaps a bit startled. That’s even true of her short essays, such as the foreword she wrote to Chris Gallagher’s new book, Reclaiming Assessment (Heinemann, 2007) – a useful review of Nebraska’s struggle to pursue more authentic forms of assessment at a time when the most appalling forms of standardization are justified in the name of “accountability.” Says Meier: “Even if we teachers and parents have been attacked by friend and foe alike for resisting reform, we forget at our peril that our capacity for resisting is our true salvation.”

* In “What Are You Thinking?”, which appeared in last October’s Educational Leadership, Katie Wood Ray distinguishes between memorizing the definition of an ellipsis and asking kids what they're thinking about an ellipsis. The latter, she adds, requires them to “have a writing life in which to imagine...how they might use” it. Then she tells a story about being a guest writing teacher in a fifth-grade classroom where the students had been assigned to write persuasive letters to the principal about changing the school: “I asked the first student I met with (who had written about four sentences) to tell me why she had decided to start her letter in the particular way that she did. ‘What were you thinking?’ I asked. As one of the observing teachers noted, the young girl looked at me as though she had just had a frontal lobotomy. All my wonderful wait time provided no answer. I finally realized it was because there wasn't any answer. The student hadn't been asked to do any thinking or decision making in this writing at all. The topic had been assigned, a graphic organizer told her exactly what to include in each part, and when I sat down next to her, she was simply transferring information from the organizer to a worksheet on which she was supposed to write the letter. The point is, it’s difficult for students to answer questions about their thinking when the work they are doing doesn’t require them to think.”

* Finally, have a look at “Contradiction, Paradox, and Irony: The World of Classroom Management,” a 10-year-old essay by Barbara McEwan Landau. It raises troubling but vital questions about our need for control, the ubiquitous demand for quick fixes, and a tendency to reproduce the very cruelties to which we were subject as children. Even educators committed to thoughtful curricular practices may resort to “authoritarian management measures, despite the contradiction,” she observes. This essay was originally published in a little-noticed academic-press anthology, but Landau has just posted it as a pdf file, so you can read it here. *

3/07: AK once asked the late John Nicholls, an expert on motivation and achievement, for his assessment of Pizza Hut’s “Book It!” program, which uses fast food as a reward for reading. Nicholls dryly observed that the most likely result would be “a lot of fat kids who don’t like to read.” This spring AK joins the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in calling for an end to this depressingly pervasive program.

CCFC argues that there are three distinct problems with Book It!, any one of which would be reason for concern. First, it’s a prominent example of how corporations are turning schools – and, by extension, kids – into sources of profit. This program is a cheesy gimmick for developing brand loyalty in children while also increasing sales in the short-term because parents presumably will have to buy food for themselves when the child redeems a coupon for a free personal pizza. (For more on corporate inroads into our schools, see the article “The 500-Pound Gorilla” and the anthology Education, Inc.: Turning Learning into a Business.)

If treating children as a captive market isn’t disturbing enough, consider what the product is here. Depending on whether a topping is included, personal pizzas contain 27 to 39 grams of fat. Why would educators want to facilitate the marketing of junk food to kids just as we’re finally waking up to the childhood obesity epidemic in America?

Finally, and most surprising to some, Book It! is educationally counterproductive. As AK put it in CCFC’s press release: “If I were trying to design a program that would undermine children's interest in books, lead them to read in a shallow fashion, and convince them to avoid challenging texts, I honestly don't think I could top Book It! Dangling pizza in front of kids as a reward for reading, much as one might use treats to house-train a puppy, reflects a completely discredited theory of motivation. Indeed, by teaching children that reading is just a means to an end, the program is likely to be not merely ineffective but positively harmful.” (For more, see Punished by Rewards, or this excerpt from the book dealing with reading incentive programs [including the equally pernicious “Accelerated Reader”], or the article “Newt Gingrich’s Reading Plan.”)

Several correspondents have recently tried to defend Book It! One points out that Pizza Hut is hardly the only company using the schools to advertise or sell things to children. It’s not clear, however, why that fact would make any given example less troubling. (Such logic would imply that all problematic practices are justified whenever other, similar practices are also in evidence.)

We might respond similarly to the argument that junk food, too, is ubiquitous. Surely we ought to do whatever we can to stem the tide. In any case, educators shouldn’t be lending their imprimatur to it. An implicit alliance between the purveyors of high-calorie food and schools is disturbing for the same reason that we recoil from finding McDonald’s outlets in hospital lobbies.

Finally, several people seemed perplexed that anyone would oppose a program that gets kids to read more. This understandable reaction reflects a widespread tendency to look only at behaviors rather than the reasons and motives underlying behavior. As AK has often explained, scores of psychological studies have shown that the more people are rewarded for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. It doesn’t matter whether children can be induced to read an extra book today; what counts is whether they will still want to read tomorrow. Or, to put it differently, it doesn’t matter whether they’re motivated; it matters what kind of motivation they develop. Extrinsic inducements like pizza, payment, prizes, and praise are so insidious precisely because they’re likely to undermine children’s intrinsic motivation – in this case, to read. In fact, the more strongly we want children to become lifelong readers, the more we should work for the abolition of reading-for-reward programs. *

12/06: “Boy, I’ll bet you’re real popular with kids!” is one of the more common responses AK has heard from reporters after having done more than 90 TV, radio, and print interviews to discuss The Homework Myth. He begins by admitting that he has indeed received a number of fan letters from those not old enough to vote, but then points out that a lot of parents and teachers have a similar reaction to the book’s thesis; the realization that most homework is not particularly useful is by no means limited to the people who are compelled to do it.

But look a little deeper and ask what is implied by this remark about children’s reactions. Many adults miss (or dismiss) the significance of the fact that the vast majority of students dislike homework, regarding their reaction as predictable and therefore not worth taking seriously. The obvious question would seem to be, If most kids see homework as (at best) something to be gotten over with as quickly as possible, how could we expect that it would benefit them? What assumptions about the nature of learning underlie the belief that the learner’s attitude about what he or she is doing has no bearing on the outcome?

It’s been gratifying to hear that educators – from Lake County, Ohio, to Glade Spring, Virginia -- are reading the book together and reexamining their practices and assumptions. Some individual teachers, meanwhile, have decided to call a moratorium on homework, if only to see what happens. One teacher, in Falmouth, Massachusetts, mentioned the role of The Homework Myth to her fifth- and sixth-graders in helping her realize it was time to change. As one of her students subsequently explained, “My teacher said that if we understand what we are doing we should not get homework” but “if we do not [understand] she will help us understand.” (One of her classmates plans to recommend the book to another teacher who “gives way too much homework,” “gives us homework that we don’t understand,” and “does not care what we say about it.”) *

8/06: Back around the turn of the century (ca. 2000), AK was invited to deliver the keynote address at an education conference in western Massachusetts that brought together people from regular public schools and charter schools to address issues they all faced. The organizers decided that one such issue was the pressure on students and teachers caused by MCAS, the state's standardized test, and they asked him to speak on that topic. When officials from the state’s Department of Education discovered this, they contacted the conference organizers and effectively threatened to shut down the event if Kohn was permitted to speak -- even though a grant from the state helping to fund the event wasn't paying for the speakers' fees. When a reporter broke the story in the spring of 2001, the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kohn and several attendees who had wanted to him. It’s taken half a decade, but a ruling was finally issued on July 28, 2006: A State Superior Court Judge agreed that the Department of Education’s action was an illegal attempt to silence those who disagreed with its pro-testing policies.

“Just as standardized tests interfere with meaningful learning,” Kohn remarked, “so the DOE attempted to interfere with a free exchange of ideas about education. Happily, the court caught them at it, determined that they'd violated the Constitution, and will now issue an order to stop them from trying to do it again.” (For an ACLU press release with more information, click here.) *

6/06: Interesting quote: “Education can be based on aims, but not on outcomes. . . . To say that education should be outcome-based – so that the curriculum is constructed by ‘designing down’ [or ‘backwards’] from the outcomes . . . is to misunderstand the function of ends. . . . If we … allow the ultimate outcomes to prescribe prior ends, the term training would be more appropriate [than education].”

-- Maurice Holt, in the Journal of Curriculum & Supervision, Fall 1993 *

12/05: REINDEER RUMINATIONS -- When my daughter was about three, she had a mad crush on Clifford the Big Red Dog. You can imagine her delight when she spotted a six-foot Clifford greeting children at a fair one afternoon. She dashed over and wrapped her arms around his fur, excitedly informing him that she had seen him on television. After a few minutes, she trotted over to me and said in a confidential whisper, "Daddy, you know that isn't really Clifford. It's just someone dressed up like him" -- at which point she scooted back over and resumed her hugging. The fact that my daughter understood it was all pretend didn't dilute her joy one bit. The same is true of the endless imaginative games that all kids play: It's enormous fun even though they know it's make-believe. Why, then, do so many adults assume children can't enjoy the Santa myth unless it's presented as literal truth? Given that it's possible for kids to have fun without our having to deceive them, why not have the best of both worlds: gaiety and honesty? – AK

Copyright © 2005-2008 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page.

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