Book Reviews: Holistic Learning

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WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A CLASSROOM . . . and Other Essays,
by Alfie Kohn. (Jossey-Bass, $25.) Kohn is a devotee of what might be called the School of Intrinsic Learning. In a string of influential books and essays, he has damned anything smacking of behaviorism, from honor rolls to discipline schemes involving rewards and sanctions. Learning, he has repeatedly asserted, should be its own reward; the teacher's job should not be to coerce but to provide students with "engaging tasks and a supportive environment."

This holistic perspective does not exactly make Kohn a big fan of the '90s brand of school reform, which he sees as a drab, conventional, Father-Knows-Best kind of affair. School uniforms, standardized testing, the establishment of state academic standards--to Kohn, these all emanate from education's dark side and impinge upon teachers and students who yearn to be free. "The call for 'higher standards,' which typically skips over the question of how students feel about what they are doing, would thus seem to be fatally misguided," Kohn asserts.

But to those parents whose children attend failing urban schools, Kohn's dismissal of standards and virtually every other school-accountability effort would probably seem fatally flawed. Popular school reform initiatives of the 1980s, like Ted Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools, set forth a Kohn-type progressive agenda--yet they met with meager success. It's not that a philosophy based on smaller schools, personalization, and intellectual exploration is not sound--it most certainly is. But such progressive ideas must be coupled with measures to hold teachers and schools responsible for improved student achievement.

In his essay "The Five Hundred Pound Gorilla," Kohn criticizes newspapers for publishing test scores of schools and school districts, claiming that it induces competition instead of collaboration. But such an argument fails to acknowledge that the school- accountability movement was launched in part by parents frustrated at being kept in the dark. Parents--especially parents of the poorest, most disadvantaged students--need evidence that their children are making academic progress.

Kohn argues repeatedly in these essays that what he labels "drill and skill"--e.g., filling out worksheets--has little to do with genuine learning. But here he is being as disingenuous as his ideological opponent, cultural literacy icon E.D. Hirsch. While Hirsch caricatures America's classrooms as playpens of fuzzy progressivism, Kohn describes them almost as factory floors, with schoolchildren sitting passively at their desks waiting to be molded. In reality, the truth lies somewhere between the rhetoric of these two scholars.

Even progressive educators should be wary of Kohn's harping upon "intrinsic interest," the deep engagement that he believes students must feel before they acquire skill and knowledge. At least some of the time, student interest is not intrinsic; people often learn to do something well and then, with increasing mastery, develop a keen interest. But this too closely fits the definition of "work," a term Kohn strangely equates with a dehumanizing business-style approach to school reform. Indeed, Kohn too often shudders at the notion of work--which, after all, is a necessary and dignified human endeavor.

THE REAL EBONICS DEBATE: Power, Language, and the Education of African American Children, edited by Theresa Perry and Lisa Delpit. (Beacon Press, $12.) When the Oakland school board passed its infamous Ebonics resolution on December 21, 1996, declaring its intention to maintain the "legitimacy and richness" of Black English, the media responded with mirthful scorn. As one columnist put it, "Ebonics ain't proper answer." But as two Oakland teachers on the front lines suggest in this collection of essays and interviews, hammering kids with standard English isn't the answer either. That had long been tried in Oakland, with the result that an astounding number of African Americans were dumped into special education classes.

A point made repeatedly and convincingly in The Real Ebonics Debate is that Ebonics is not a kind of street slang that black kids must surrender and denounce. Rather, as Delpit argues, it is "a language intimately connected with loved ones, community, and personal identity." As a result, the teacher who insistently corrects her students' "flawed" speech is unwittingly disrespecting the child's culture.

A better way to teach stand- ard English, says veteran 5th grade teacher Carrie Secret, is to take the tack, "We are teaching you a second language, not fixing the home language." One essayist, Mary Rhodes Hoover of Howard University, argues similarly that highly structured phonics-based reading programs are "appropriate for Ebonics-speaking students because they are similar to foreign-language teaching methods."

The writers here, like the members of the Oakland school board, clearly want black children to master standard English. But they're not willing to marginalize Black English and culture to accomplish that.

FINANCING SCHOOLS FOR HIGH PERFORMANCE: Strategies for Improving the Use of Educational Resources, by Allan Odden and Carolyn Busch (Jossey-Bass, $31.95.) Odden and Busch, two nationally recognized school finance gurus, tell us here that, contrary to public perception, spending for public education has experienced "relentless growth" over the past few decades. So why do we not have better schools and improved student achievement? Inequitable spending, for one thing--the rich school districts have gotten richer, and the poor ones have gotten poorer. But increased investment in schools has not paid off for another, more important reason, the authors conclude: Only a relatively small amount of the new money has been directed to regular classroom instruction. In the United States, they demonstrate, increased funding has paid for an army of specialists in areas like special education, bilingual education, and a plethora of "pull out" programs.

What's needed, the authors argue, is more funding of things they believe influence student achievement: curriculum development, class-size reduction, and instruction. The best way to do this, they say, is a finance system in which 80 percent of education funding would go directly to the school, which would then spend it as it wishes. In exchange for this autonomy, schools would be held accountable for better student performance.

In essence, Odden and Busch are sending a message to policymakers preaching the gospel of school accountability: If schools are to succeed in the system you have set up, they must be given the freedom they need to make change. Schools, the two authors wisely suggest, cannot be expected to control their destiny until they are given control of the purse strings.


Vol. 10, Issue 2, Pages 52-53

Published in Print: November 1, 1998, as Book Reviews: Holistic Learning
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