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. Continue reading