Current Efforts at ‘Reform’ Will Produce Minimal Change: An Interview with Herb Kohl

Herb KohlHere’s some of what Wikipedia has to say about my friend Herb Kohl: “Herbert Kohl is an educator best known for his advocacy of progressive alternative education and as the acclaimed author of more than thirty books on education. He began his teaching career in Harlem in 1962. In his teaching career, he has taught every grade from kindergarten through college.”

I would add my own memories. I remember being inspired by his first book, 36 Children, when I was a beginning teacher in New York. When I was at NPR, I visited Herb and his family at their home in the Redwoods in northern California. He took time away from directing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for his daughter’s elementary school. The challenge, he explained, was that four or five girls wanted to play Puck and had the talent and energy to do it well. His solution was to rewrite the play–they all got to star! Many years later I ran into Herb, then around 70, in New York and learned that he was studying Chinese calligraphy!

A restless intellect who has stayed true to his progressive principles, Herb is also an interesting interview.

The Interview

What’s your quick impression of Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” plans, which include what sounds like serious competition for dollars—and that means winners and losers?  Is this political courage, or is it more federal encroachment on public education?

Arne Duncan, on the official Department of Education website said, “For states, school districts, nonprofits, unions, and businesses, Race to the Top is the equivalent of education reform’s moon shot.”  I thoroughly agree with him.  Remember we went to the moon, not to improve science or the quality of life in our country, but to face down the Soviet Union.  We spent a lot of money doing it, got little return, and never went back. I believe Duncan’s analogy should be taken seriously.

One of the goals he articulates for the program is to be first on international standards of performance.  Good luck – there are no agreed upon international standards.  Another goal is to digitize education information and treat it like the digitize medical information the Administration proposes.  But that simply entrenches specific high stakes tests into the system without delivering any substantial pedagogical change. It also locks the evaluation system into specific instruments of measurement, which are likely to turn out inadequate and consequently abandoned in the future, causing the need for expensive revisions to the system.

There are other provisions, such as improving the quality of teachers and administrators, which are admirable goals that are currently being attempted throughout the country, based on need, and without competitive funding.  The goal of improving low performing schools is also admirable, but there is no reason to believe that Duncan’s little darlings, charter schools, Teach for America, and the Kipp Schools (examples he refers to) can produce long term positive effects on public education as a whole.  He talks about “bringing them up to scale” but, you know, an ant, scaled up to elephant size would collapse under its own weight.

Finally, his proposal to “press” states to accept his agenda, in order to receive funding turns the education reform into a competition where states that apply, given that the agenda itself is vague and has little research behind it, can easily game the system.

Still I do believe that the money should be invested in education.  I don’t have space here to write about what might sensibly be done with 15 billion dollars to improve children’s school learning.  This should be an occasion for a series of dialogs with educators, community groups, and other who have had success in educating the least privileged children in our society.  In fact, I advocate developing these conversions before proceeding with this ill thought out, politically motivated, moon shot driven program.

On balance, has No Child Left Behind done more harm than good? What’s been its greatest benefit? Biggest down side?

It is simply too soon to decide whether NCLB has done more harm than good, but from my perspective, the balance sheet is somewhat negative.  One benefit of NCLB is its ‘no excuses’ strategy that focuses attention on the expectations for, and performance of, all children and especially of poor children and children of color.  There was a need to push educators to make serious attempts to rectify past failure and indifference.  The disaggregation of data, the development of standards, and the focus on teacher and school performance have produced modest progress.  More important, the central issue of what makes for educational success is on the table, and there is a chance, however slight, for open debate on the relationship of pedagogy and performance.  The potential for improvement of schooling for the poor and for minorities has been increased.

So that’s the upside.  What’s the downside?

These attempts have been contaminated by the identification of performance with one particular way of teaching and evaluating educational progress.  There are many different ways to achieve academic success, and teaching based on close conformity to the specifics of high stakes tests has impoverished learning, depressed creative teachers, narrowed the scope of the curriculum, and replaced thoughtful learning with mechanical performance.

It is no wonder that the struggle to coerce all students into mastering high stakes testing is hardest at the upper grades.  The impoverishment of learning taking place in the early grades naturally leads to boredom and alienation from school based learning. This disengagement is often stigmatized as “attention deficit disorder,” and the responsibility to provide children with challenging content is avoided.  The very capacities that No Child Left Behind is trying to achieve are undermined by the way in which in which the law has been implemented.

In addition, the emphasis on Charter schools, despite evidence showing that most are no more effective than public schools as a whole, is eroding public education, lowering teachers salaries, reducing the amount of money that goes directly to instruction by introducing profit into school budgets, and creating a situation where the public arena will be used for residue schools with students that that charters won’t accept.  None of this bodes well for the development of thoughtful, sensitive, skilled, and effective people who are committed and educated citizens of a democracy.

You sound like you’re throwing in the towel, but I cannot believe that.

To be critical is certainly not a way of throwing in the towel, nor is a realistic assessment of what might happen with current reforms.  I’ve never felt that one gives up a struggle just because things are difficult.  I’m angry about what is going on, and realize, with many other progressive educators, that we have a difficult task ahead of us.  I am convinced that current efforts at “reform” will produce minimal if any change.  In order to develop a strong and coherent opposition to the current rigid and mechanical way of thinking about learning, we have to reframe the language of educational reform in a way that illuminates the ideas of standards in the context of a critical, imaginative, and broad education.  This is the kind of thing Debby Meier and Diane Ravitch, an unlikely alliance, are trying to do.  Mike Rose, in his new book Why School? (The New Press, NY 2009), proposes specific ways of speaking about schools that are not limited to the standards, high stakes testing, “race to the top,” “number one in the world” hysteria.  I know there are many examples of effective humane schooling and very sophisticated qualitative evaluation tools available to assess its results.  It is a question of educating the public and forcing a place for critical progressive conversation over education in the media.

It is also a question of supporting local and state wide opposition to the imposition of mandates that run counter to holisitic pedagogy.  I’m ready, once again, for the battle for decent education for all children, but fully aware that the forces of willful ignorance and simplification are ascendant for the moment.

Just about everyone seems to be endorsing national or common standards. Is this a reason to cheer, or should we be worried–the logic being that, “when everyone is in favor of something, watch out”?

Creating standards is not the same thing as standardizing education, but that is the way it has played out.  Standards do not imply pedagogical approach, but standards locked into specific testing and curriculum does eliminate flexibility, creativity, and sophisticated and thoughtful curriculum content.

In addition, this emphasis on high stakes testing avoids the issue of what students actually learn and what they end up knowing based on their school experiences.  For example, in calculus, it is easy to show students a routine way of solving simple differential equations mechanically and therefore getting them through some test questions.

But this can be done without any understanding of the nature or use of calculus.  Believing they know the subject, students who then come face to face with more advanced studies in mathematics will simply not be prepared, since they have not built up the concepts that underlie complex learning.

In addition, standards are not value free.  Developing standards and locking them into standardized tests determines what will be read, what art will be looked at, what types of mathematical problems will be developed, and what historical and scientific information will be covered.  These are moral, political and cultural decisions, not simply neutral ones.

Moreover, developing national standards eliminates much of the power that communities and parents want over education.  If the standards are clear and minimal, not bound up with content and pedagogy, then they might be useful as guides to the development of curriculum.  Again, the essential thing is that the standards not inhibit imaginative and complex learning by reducing learning to the minimal knowledge required to do well on a standardized test.

Isn’t this a “power to the people” argument, a holdover from the 60’s?  How has your thinking changed, if at all?  After all, we’ve seen how local control has led to segregated and inferior education for all but the privileged.

I have always advocated high, complex, and broad standards for learning.  I am a holdover from the sixties only in the sense that I lived through that decade, but have never thought of myself as “of” the sixties.  My ideas about education emerged from my intellectual development and the moral values I developed during the 1940s and 1950s growing up amongst humane socialists (non-communist, by the way).

As for local control leading to desegregated inferior education – that’s simply wrong.  When I taught in Harlem in the 1960s, it was already segregated.  When some inner city schools across the country became segregated, it was because of white cowardice and fear of people of color.  They pulled their children out – they were not pushed out.

By the way, local control leading to segregated education was more characteristic of suburban schools controlled by white people fleeing blacks than by local urban blacks and Latinos people gaining voices in their own children’s education.

You have been an observer of, and an activist in, public education since the late 60’s. Are you optimistic about the direction we’re heading in now?

I’m not optimistic but then I don’t believe in optimism: I believe in hope which, realized or not, drives my vision of a socially just and imaginative education for all children.

I am distressed by the way the ways in which question of educational reform has been polluted by political, religious, and economic agendas.  Reform can mean anything from eliminating schools altogether to privatizing or restructuring them.  Educators have little voice in determining the best way of going about educating young people.  Worse, every politician and think tank expert confidently expresses and advocates ideas about education without having any experience in the classroom or any knowledge of the diverse students that attend public schools.

I am not a conspiracy theorist but, reading some conservative literature emerging from well funded institutes and think tanks, I sense a movement to privatize public education and even, in the most extreme cases, eliminate education as a public entitlement altogether.  This comes from the same cynical, anti-democratic people who advocate the elimination of social security and Medicare.

The hope I have comes from the young people who, themselves, have been victims of boring and authoritarian schooling, are developing new media and becoming adapt at grassroots organizing for democratic reform. They do not want to reproduce the same schooling that they had, and I feel a movement to revitalize and transform progressive educational ideas and create democratic schools whose curriculum and style is more fitted to life in a flourishing democracy.

If Arne Duncan asked you for one piece of advice, what would you say?

I would advise him to make, as part of the re-authorization of NCLB, the clear statement that standards and evaluation are not identical with standardization and high stakes testing.  I would have him advocate and fund education that, while trying to achieve the standards, takes imaginative routes to developing skills and knowledge, and to providing clear evaluation of the achievements such education produces or fails to produce.  I would most of all have him advocate imaginative, thoughtful, socially responsible, and content rich learning.

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12 thoughts on “Current Efforts at ‘Reform’ Will Produce Minimal Change: An Interview with Herb Kohl

  1. Herb Kohl gives deep thought to issues that the politicians reduce to slogans and half-truths. The comparison of the Race to the Top with the Race to the Moon is dead-on, as is the reminder that having strong standards does not require standardized teaching.

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  2. I enjoyed the perspectives shared. To achieve meaningful improvements we need to eliminate political control (including unions!), bring all parties into the needed meaningful dialog, get patents and friends engaged in meaningful ways, AND develop a variety of appropriate assessment tools.

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  3. The “Race to the Top” standards, at their most damaging, is nothing more than bravado without sound pedagogy. Of equal concern is the removal of the human element (imagination, social responsibility, engagement)from education in favor of hollow data that can be digitized. On a positive note, hopefully this scenario will stimulate a discourse about education, learning and teaching; reflection upon the antithesis can often crystallize the ideas around progressive education.

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  4. Thank you so much for this magnificent interview with a magnificent thinker/activist. One of the major challenges that deserves this nation’s attention is this: How can working with children in schools be configured so as to attract the Herb Kohls of the future. Without a massive infusion of the type of wisdom he exemplifies, too many schools are destined to be joyless places in which true learning is nothing but a peripheral concern. We need to do whatever it takes to encourage passionate and wise educators to make a career-long commitment to working in schools. Without true educators in classrooms and principals’ offices, educational reform will be debased to little more than a matter of carrots and sticks.

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  5. Herb Kohl inspired me in the ’60’s when I first read 36 Children and he continues to do so today. Thank you for this excellent interview.

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  6. What an elegant interview, even if one disagrees with certain points. I’m obliged to note that Kohl’s ant/elephant metaphor, despite its wit, isn’t entirely apt. Charter schools already account for more than 20% of public school population in 13 cities, and their performance-at-scale in New Orleans, DC and other places is plenty encouraging. (Sorry, but I’m stuck for a better metaphor.) And are charters “eroding” public education by taking “public school” dollars? Not if you understand that charters are in fact public schools that educate higher percentages of poor and minority students than traditional districts. Dr. Kohl needs to visit some charters — they spring from the same impulses that have driven his inspiring work.

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  7. Brilliant post, brilliant thinking. Herb Kohl has a clear way of thinking and presenting the core of the arguments surrounding NCLB and it’s latest offspring, Race To the Top. Some of the points that really struck a chord and will resonate within me for some time include:
    ~One benefit of NCLB is its ‘no excuses’ strategy that focuses attention on the expectations for, and performance of, all children and especially of poor children and children of color.
    ~In order to develop a strong and coherent opposition to the current rigid and mechanical way of thinking about learning, we have to reframe the language of educational reform in a way that illuminates the ideas of standards in the context of a critical, imaginative, and broad education.
    ~I’m ready, once again, for the battle for decent education for all children, but fully aware that the forces of willful ignorance and simplification are ascendant for the moment.
    ~Standards do not imply pedagogical approach, but standards locked into specific testing and curriculum does eliminate flexibility, creativity, and sophisticated and thoughtful curriculum content.
    ~In addition, this emphasis on high stakes testing avoids the issue of what students actually learn and what they end up knowing based on their school experiences.
    ~I would advise him to make, as part of the re-authorization of NCLB, the clear statement that standards and evaluation are not identical with standardization and high stakes testing. I would have him advocate and fund education that, while trying to achieve the standards, takes imaginative routes to developing skills and knowledge, and to providing clear evaluation of the achievements such education produces or fails to produce. I would most of all have him advocate imaginative, thoughtful, socially responsible, and content rich learning.

    Like

  8. Herb Kohl analysis of “Race to the Top” plans hits the nail on the head across the board –from comparing it to an educational moon shot to his description of NCLB . We believe his take on high-stakes testing is correct. In our recent book The Paradoxes of High-Stakes Testing: How they Affect Students, Their Parents, Teachers, Principals, and Society we describe the history of high-stakes testing from BTCE to NCLB. The lesson from the sociology, history, and technology of testing have been overlooked in the focus on using high-stakes tests to drive “reform”. Also ignored in the rush to test is the fact that there is no independent organization to which policy makers, educators, parents or test takes can turn to for assurances on the technical quality, valid use, or unintended consequences of high-stakes tests. Thee other points: First, attaching high-stakes to test scores eventually corrupts the measure. Second, whatever educational “standards” are developed the metric used to determine if it is met becomes the de factor standard. Third, history clearly shows that the metric most commonly used to determine if the standards have been met is a test – one that that is administratively convenient, cheap, paper and pencil and machine scored but loaded with paradoxes.

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  9. Thank you for this wonderful interview. Dr. Kohl’s advise is inspiring; and as a teacher who feels that she must constantly fight to maintain “thoughtful learning” instead of “mechanical performance” in my classroom, inspiration is always helpful!

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  10. In N.Y. we incorporate Career and Technical Education standards into multi-year sequence, leading to workplace skills and career planning that parallel the NYC performance standards. The CTE programs incorporate specific career objectives with a flexible curriculum….in a standard, comprehensive school…I think that is what works and meet the 21st Century goals.

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  11. I too was inspired by Herb Kohl’s “36 Children” — early in my half century of trying to underatand why American public education keeps violating its excellent educational values and resisting the changes needed to realize them. And this latest interview inspires me anew. Nevertheless, neither the interview nor the many thoughtful comments posted so far deal with a major underlying problem: Basic assumptions of our present system — e.g. the delegation of education to bureaucratized school systems, the definition of their mission as the “delivery of educational services,” and the definition of the roles of teachers, principals, students and parents to fit these assumptions — will continue to thwart Kohl’s values until we reconceive public education as a shared responsibility of home, school, and community which requires more of a partnership of the participants than a bureaucratic “delivery of services.” President Obama could be using his incredible leadership, community organization, and communications skills to help us make this fundamental shift, instead of focusing on piecemeal reforms that will never work effectively within our fundamentally flawed basic system. Let’s turn hope into reality by mobilizing around a new vision for public education that includes not only the right values, but new forms of organization and relationships that can realize these values.

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  12. In 1983, I had the pleasure of working briefly for Herb Kohl on the Commodore 64 Puzzlements book. I was a fresh high school dropout, and he handed me his then new book Basic Skills, which helped me a great deal.

    I’m now an unschooling dad and recently wrote my own book about education: Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar. I sure hope you’re doing well Herb, and I’d love to send you a copy if I can find you!

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