Alfie Kohn’s message: Half-crazy, half-true

Alfie Kohn’s arguments are “half-crazy and half-true,” argues Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

Like most demagogues, Kohn knows how to tap into his audience’s raw emotions—anger, feelings of powerlessness, and resentment of a ruling elite. In his case, he puts voice to what many educators already believe: That school reform is a corporate plot to turn young people into docile employees; that an obsession with standardized testing is crowding out any real intellectual engagement in our schools; and that teachers have no say over what happens inside their own classrooms.

Kohn is right about “mindless, soul-killing” schools, writes Petrilli, who concedes test-based accountability has narrowed the curriculum at many inner-city schools. But Kohn is wrong in calling for Dewey-style progressivism, Petrilli writes.

What Kohn refuses to wrestle with is the argument—made by Core Knowledge creator E.D. Hirsch Jr., among others—that progressive education might work well for children of the affluent but tends to be disastrous for children of the poor.

Democratic decision-making, self-directed studies, internal motivation, and the like are wonderful aspirations. But when it comes to lifting children out of poverty, heavy doses of basic skills, rich content, and clear expectations have been proven time and again to be more effective.

The modern school reform movement is is fueled by “outrage at the nation’s lack of social mobility,” Petrilli writes. “Backing away from accountability, teacher effectiveness, and academic ‘rigor’ would likely create an even bleaker future for children growing up in poverty—children for whom school matters most.”



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  1. I agree. Progressive thinking has RUINED schools with high numbers of poor kids. A more structured environment is key to achievement in that group. That includes (possibly) Direct Instruction, heavy Phonics, a structured and sequential approach to learning math, strictly-enforced rules and procedures (like KIPP does), and a traditionally built classroom, without Open Classroom-type arrangements.

    It may not be exciting enough to researchers from the middle to upper classes, but it’s what those kids need.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    Why not an equally victim-centered theory? Progressive education was/is a plot by high status people who want money and power to follow academic success. Progressive education ensures that people from low income backgrounds will not succeed in school and then cannot challenge these high status people in either the money or the power department.

    Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Like saying that the medieval Catholic church was more interested in keeping it’s employees fed than in improving the life of the common people. Who would believe that?

  3. Pot, kettle, right-wing nutjob

  4. There have been schools that were mindless and soul-killing since Robert Blake’s day. I can’t see where test-based accountability has been worse than any other fad in that regard.