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Beware School 'Reformers' | The Nation

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Beware School 'Reformers'

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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.   --Linda Darling-Hammond

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Alfie Kohn
Alfie Kohn is the author of eleven books, including The Schools Our Children Deserve, The Case Against Standardized...

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TV shows that tell you how not to raise your children.

Progressives are in short supply on the president-elect's list of cabinet nominees. When he turns his attention to the Education Department, what are the chances he'll choose someone who is educationally progressive?

In fact, just such a person is said to be in the running and, perhaps for that very reason, has been singled out for scorn in Washington Post and Chicago Tribune editorials, a New York Times column by David Brooks and a New Republic article, all published almost simultaneously this month. The thrust of the 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 stand-ards 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 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.

Sadly, all but one of the people reportedly being considered for Education secretary are reformers only in this Orwellian sense of the word. The exception is Linda Darling-Hammond, a former teacher, expert on teacher quality and professor of education at Stanford. The favored contenders include assorted governors and two corporate-style school chiefs: Arne Duncan, whose all-too-apt title is "chief executive officer" of Chicago Public Schools, and his counterpart in New York City, former CEO and high-powered lawyer Joel Klein.

Duncan, a basketball buddy of Obama's, has been called a "budding hero in the education business" by Bush's former Education secretary, Rod Paige. 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 would bring to Washington an agenda based on 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."

Duncan's philosophy is shared by Klein, who is despised by educators and parents in his district perhaps more than any superintendent in the nation [see Lynnell Hancock, "School's Out," July 9, 2007]. In a survey of 62,000 New York City teachers this past summer, roughly 80 percent disapproved of his approach. Indeed, talk of his candidacy has prompted three separate anti-Klein petitions that rapidly collected thousands of signatures. One, at StopJoelKlein.org, describes his administration as "a public relations exercise camouflaging the systematic elimination of parental involvement; an obsessively test-driven culture; a growing atmosphere of fear, disillusionment, and intimidation experienced by professionals; and a flagrant manipulation of school data." (The only petition I know of to promote an Education secretary candidate is one for Darling-Hammond, at www.petitiononline.com/DHammond/petition.html.)

Duncan and Klein pride themselves on new programs that pay students for higher grades or scores. Both champion the practice of forcing low-scoring students to repeat a grade--a strategy that research overwhelmingly finds counterproductive. Coincidentally, Darling-Hammond wrote in 2001 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 essay, she also showed how earlier experiments with high-stakes testing have mostly served to increase the dropout rate.

Duncan and Klein, along with virulently antiprogressive DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, are celebrated by politicians and pundits. Darling-Hammond, meanwhile, tends to be the choice of people who understand how children learn. Consider her wry comment that introduces this article: it's impossible to imagine a comparable insight coming from any of the spreadsheet-oriented, pump-up-the-scores "reformers" (or, for that matter, from any previous Education secretary). Darling-Hammond knows how all the talk of "rigor" and "raising the bar" has produced sterile, scripted curriculums that have been imposed disproportionately on children of color. Her viewpoint is that of an educator, not a corporate manager.

Imagine--an educator running the Education Department.

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