Saturday, August 11, 2012

Alfie Kohn on the state of education reform

I was listening to a panel discussion featuring Stephen Downes, Howard Gardner, Alfie Kohn and Gary Stager on Reforming Education Reform.

Here is a portion of what Alfie Kohn had to say about the state of public discourse around education reform:
The discussion that we have about education is only as good as the way that discussion is framed by the people who have ready access to the means of communication. So if public officials and corporate officials and corporate media have framed the conversation in a particular way, then it's likely that we will ask some questions and studiously avoid others. The default assumptions -- the things we take for granted because we've never been invited to reflect on them turns out to be the limits, the barriers, the boundaries to anything we talk about. So for example, if no one invites most people to rethink whether education could be more than just transmitting a set of facts or skills to passive receptacles, then nobody is likely to look around at schools and say, "how come they are still characterized by worksheets, lectures, quizzes, tests, grades and homework just as they were twenty years ago and fifty years ago." Because we think that is how school has to be. 
And if nobody has said standardized tests tend to measure what matters least and there are more meaningful and less destructive ways to assess individual students as well as whole schools then the public discussion will just be based on a sort of monosyllabic  grunting of "test scores go up that's good", and if the larger public conversation assumes that government is always a bad thing and the free market delivers results then we will be inherently suspicious about the great democratic institution of education in this country and we will look for ways to undermine its public status or be receptive to people who attempt to do that. Which is exactly what we are seeing now in the name of choice. 


  1. I think Madeline Levine gets it right. People know how toxic the education system is , but need help to move to something better

    “When apples were sprayed with a chemical at my local supermarket, middle-aged moms turned out, picket signs and all, to protest the possible risk to their children’s health,” Levine reflects. “Yet I’ve seen no similar demonstrations about an educational system that has far more research documenting its own toxicity. We have bought into this system not because we are bad people or are unconcerned about our children’s well-being, but because we have been convinced that any other point of view will put our children at even greater risk.”

    1. I am largely a product of public school. I do not look back to say "my education was toxic" to me. I learned. I'm still learning today at 66.

      I think for the first time, today, I learned that some people will use words like "toxic" to describe a public school system and its dedicated group of professionals working with all children, not just the children of an elite. A vast majority of today's adults, electricians, plumbers, nurses, engineers, athletes, loving parents are like me, products of public education. Most of them would be surprised to think that they had been poisoned by their dozen years in public school. That adults do not remember every one of their teachers with unbridled affection does not equate to calling their K-12 experience a "failure" or "toxic." Today, these are adults who read, write emails, pay their bills, raise their own children. They are not poisoned failures.

      All sorts of hyperbole is tossed around about education today. Some of it is just silly. Describing my education experience as "toxic" is not silly. It is downright awful.

    2. We in Canada and perhaps Israel need to stop hand wringing over American education debates regarding reform.

      In Canada, we don't have a "test scores go up environment in public education." We don't have high stakes testing at all in our public education system.

  2. In Alberta, half of a grade 12 student's final grade is taken from their score on their Diploma Exam. If that's not high stakes, what is it?

    As for grades 3, 6 and 9, many Alberta teachers report that they would rather not teach those grades because they feel judged, ranked and sorted by their scores.

    Alberta, Canada has high stakes testing.

  3. MY education wasn't toxic, and when I first entered the teaching profession 32 years ago, education was not toxic. It's different now. Those who wish to benefit from the privatization of public education are gaining power. Teachers struggle daily to deliver a meaningful education in an environment that no longer supports or even tolerates critical thinking and creativity.

  4. Madeline Levine talks about the toxic nature of the educational system based on personal experience with clients and the research

    see the SDT article on high stakes testing

  5. Suggestion: The root problem with the undue emphasis on testing is that it encourages an instrumental attitude to education ("Why are you doing this course?" "The certificate will help me get a job.") Of course we have to fight against this in school, but at the same time, we have to acknowledge that the school is but one institution in a society that is thriving on instrumentalism - a society that is insisting that everything be instrumentalised, that everything be commodified.


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