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.”