Education author and lecturer Alfie Kohn believes that we have yet to address the real cheating scandal going on in Atlanta schools and many others around the country.
“The real cheating scandal that has been going on for years is that kids are being cheated out of meaningful learning by focusing on test scores,” said Kohn, author of 12 books on education and parenting, including “The Homework Myth” and “Unconditional Parenting.”
“Standardized tests like the CRCT measure what matters least. The more you know about education, the less likely you would ever be to measure teachers, schools or kids based on test scores,” said Kohn.
“Focusing on the CRCT as a matter of policy writes off low-income kids of color by turning their classrooms into sterile test-prep centers.”
An influential voice in what is known as “progressive education,” Kohn expounds on these themes with equal amounts indignation and passion in his new book “Feel-Bad Education.”
In a telephone interview this week, Kohn said accountability and testing are crushing the spirit of teachers and students. Rather than nourishing children’s excitement about learning and helping them to be good people, school now acclimates them to years of mind-numbing chores and drills.
With “vinegary moralism,” Kohn said we stamp out children’s natural inquisitiveness and degrade school from an adventure in learning to a daily grind of prefabricated lessons, worksheets, letter grades and bubble tests. The aim is not to promote thinking or the joy of discovery, but to raise test scores.
Yet, the research shows that students learn more, that “richer thinking is more likely to occur in an atmosphere of exuberant discovery, in the kind of place where kids plunge into their projects and can’t wait to pick up where they left off yesterday,” said Kohn.
Kohn spares no schools in his critique, saying that publics, charters and privates have fallen under the spell of a corporate culture that wants to reduce children to test scores and that prizes efficiency over exploration.
Now, we even measure reading by assigning books and turning on timers to ensure that children put in their 20 minutes a night.
The widespread embrace of off-the-shelf reading programs that award students points based on how well they perform on computer quizzes “are the most efficient way to teach kids that reading isn’t pleasurable in its own right,” he says.
Kohn has special disdain for schools that place children in uniforms and straight lines and hold pep rallies where kids shout, “Yes, we can!” In many schools, poor urban kids are being told, “Their job is to shut up and listen. They are bribed or threatened into mindless obedience.”
“That so few children seem to take pleasure from what they’re doing on a given weekday morning, that the default emotional state in classrooms seems to alternate between anxiety and boredom, doesn’t even alarm us,’’ he said.
Complaints from teachers about the ever-tightening straitjacket on what they can teach and how they can teach are being marginalized, Kohn said.
So, the talented teachers are fleeing the classroom. “It’s the mediocre teachers who are happy reading from a script. This drives out the creative teachers,” Kohn said.
“We don’t say anything as obvious as ‘Don’t listen to the people teaching our children,’’’ he said. “We’re told it’s their unions that we shouldn’t listen to. That’s become the most expedient way to discredit their profession.”
Kohn blames former President George Bush and President Barack Obama, along with Bill Gates and corporate America, for creating a compliance-driven, test-fixated education system under a mantra of global competitiveness and accountability.
“Competitiveness and excellence are not the same thing,” he said.
Kohn opposes the national standards movement, which will only lead to national testing and more wreckage, he says. He contends that teachers ought to decide which curriculum is best for their schools rather than a remote committee of strangers.
Kohn maintains that schools communicate whether they are centers of learning or factories of compliance in big and small ways.
He finds a troubling subscript in all the chirpy hallway posters that proclaim “I know I’m smart,” or “Achievement is within your grasp,” noting that such affirmations are seldom found in suburban schools where no one needs to be reminded of the potential of students.
Kohn would prefer to see posters that dare students to “Question authority,” or “Think for yourself; The teacher might be wrong.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled