Sound And Fury

March 01, 2000 6 min read
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THE SCHOOLS OUR CHILDREN DESERVE: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards,”by Alfie Kohn. (Houghton Mifflin, $24.) In his influential 1996 book, The Schools Our Children Need, cultural-literacy trailblazer E.D. Hirsch urged educators to reclaim American classrooms from the anything-goes progressivism that, in his mind, had poisoned our educational waters. Schools, he asserted, were turning out graduates so poorly educated—so devoid of the common knowledge that binds society—that our national identity was in jeopardy. Now, in The Schools Our Children Deserve, cultural-literacy archenemy Kohn offers an angry rebuttal, arguing that it isn’t progressivism that has polluted our schools but rather the reigning “bunch o’ facts” orthodoxy promoted by traditionalist zealots like Hirsch.

Certainly both writers exaggerate. While our classrooms are not exactly frontiers of open inquiry and constructivist pursuits, they also are not, with inevitable exceptions, the little hellholes of “drill and kill” that Kohn would have us believe. These days, even the dreary traditional schools Kohn keeps griping about employ a number of his beloved methods, such as cooperative learning and real-world problem-solving.

At some level, Kohn must know this or he wouldn’t assert, as he does, that American schools are not nearly as bad as commonly perceived—a curious claim in light of his insistence that most are defined by worksheets and rote memorization. But, then, Kohn seems less interested in being accurate than in scoring points against his opponents—most notably the purveyors of academic standards and standardized tests.

Throughout the book, Kohn blurs the lines between the two, talking about standards and testing as if they are the same thing. He fails to acknowledge, for example, that the standards movement is not just about coercing students to memorize facts for the test but also about getting students to understand important concepts and learn key skills. Still, if Kohn misfires in his attacks on standards, he is on target with his criticisms of standardized tests, which he believes distort teaching and undermine learning by focusing on a narrow band of basic skills. “If it turns out that the technique known wryly as ‘drill ‘n kill’ does raise test scores,” he writes, “that’s an invitation to reevaluate the superficiality of those tests, not a reason to continue using this technique.”

Kohn is right to lambaste standardized testing—and testing of all kinds, for that matter—when it dictates the core of the academic program, as is sadly the case in Chicago and an increasing number of other districts and states. On the other hand, one doesn’t have to be a fan of standardized tests to see that they have value when kept in perspective. While low student scores on such tests should not induce parental panic, they can, at the very least, alert teachers and parents to possible deficiencies that need to be addressed. Furthermore, if all such tests are simply eliminated, as Kohn would like, parents would lose one of the few tools they have to evaluate their children’s schools.

Of course, Kohn insists that there are much better ways for parents to assess a school’s efforts and their children’s progress. Moms and dads should regularly examine portfolios of their children’s work, he argues, and frequently inquire about classroom activities and their children’s interest in what they are studying. While all of this is sound advice, it ignores the fact that many parents work and lack the time for the kind of in-school engagement Kohn recommends. Parents can’t be blamed for wanting statistical measures of student and school achievement, despite the drawbacks they necessarily entail.

The real problem with this book, though, is not Kohn’s no-holds-barred progressivism—which is sensible enough on many counts—but his hard-nosed, you’re-with-me-or-against-me stance. He’s become a fundamentalist of the educational left, summarily assigning to the enemy camp anyone with kind things to say about academic standards, testing, phonics instruction, and the like. In essence, Kohn wants to stick it to everyone who disagrees with him. It’s an unseemly tactic for someone who has spent years preaching the value of open-minded, noncompetitive schooling.

THE TRACKING WARS: State Reform Meets School Policy, by Tom Loveless. (Brookings Institution Press, $39.95; paper, $16.95.) Loveless sets out to demonstrate that the nationwide movement to do away with public school tracking, launched with the 1985 publication of Jeannie Oakes’ influential Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, is being driven by ideology, not research. This isn’t to say that Loveless objects to the elimination of ability grouping in schools, only that he sees no evidence for doing so on a wide scale.

Why, then, has the anti-tracking movement caught on, particularly in states like California and Massachusetts? Loveless suggests that it has to do with the perceived link between tracking and racism. Many people, he reports, believe that tracking began as a way of keeping African American and other minority children out of demanding academic courses. But he goes on to present historical material demonstrating that this popular interpretationis far too simplistic. In fact, he writes, the progressives of the 1920s first introduced different academic pathways and “dumbed down” courses at all-white schools to keep low-achieving students from dropping out.

Interestingly, the schools that are most tracked today are in affluent, white suburbs—not in the inner cities. “If tracking is bad policy,” Loveless wryly observes, “society’s elites are irrationally reserving it for their own children

ROUND PEG, SQUARE HOLE: A Teacher Lives and Learns in Watts,by John Gust. (Heinemann, $17.) Broke and down on his luck, Gust, a white middle-class education consultant, takes a job teaching 3rd grade at the Compton Avenue Elementary School in Watts. Realizing that he knows nothing about the community and the people who live there, he decides to move from affluent Manhattan Beach to a neighborhood not far from the school.

This book, then, is a rollicking first person account of Gust’s experiences—both in and out of school—wonderfully spiked with self-deprecating humor. In one particularly funny section, a confused Gust describes himself paging through books spread out on his floor, desperately trying to find an educational philosophy that will work with his kids. Yet Gust is no bumbling teacher. After struggling to introduce democratic concepts to his class, he finally gets his message across when he writes on the board “Administrator > Principal > Teacher > Student” and then revises it to read “Administrator > Principal > Teacher = Student.”

Another time, with his class on the brink of chaos, he saves the day by reading aloud Leo Lionni’s picture book Swimmy, about a school of tiny fish who must learn to swim together to survive and flourish.

Although his colleagues advise him to maintain a professional distance from his students, Gust ignores their warnings and gets involved in his kids’ lives. In fact, one of the activities he enjoys most is having kids over to his house to watch Saturday morning cartoons or just hang out.

Only when teachers become friends with their students, he concludes, “does the real learning start.”

—David Ruenzel


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