Monday, April 9, 2012

The Pedagogy of Poverty: Alfie Kohn v. Mike Petrelli

In a recent issue of Wisconsin Interest that also appears (in abridged form) in Fordham's Flypaper blog, Mike Petrelli considers the educational politics of Alfie Kohn, the prolific education writer, parenting guru, and decrier of high-stakes testing and narrowed curricula. Kohn has been a staunch critic of education reform, particularly the “pedagogy of poverty,” the uncomfortable idea that kids from deprived backgrounds might need a different learning experience than kids from enriched homes.

Here’s a sample of Kohn's views, from an article in Education Week called "How Education Reform Traps Poor Children":
[T]he proposals collectively known as “school reform” are mostly top-down policies: Divert public money to quasi-private charter schools, pit states against one another in a race for federal funding, offer rewards when test scores go up, fire the teachers or close the schools when they don’t.
But how does he really feel about education reform (via the Huffington Post)?
"Reform" also means diverting scarce public funds to charter schools, many of them run by for-profit corporations. It means standardizing what's taught (and ultimately tested) from coast to coast, as if uniformity was synonymous with quality. It means reducing job security for teachers, even though tenure just provides due-process protections so people can't be sacked arbitrarily. It means attacking unions at every opportunity, thereby winning plaudits from the folks who, no matter what the question, mutter menacingly about how the damned unions are to blame.
Mike Petrelli says that Kohn's views are “half crazy, half true,” and it’s the “half true” part that commands Petrelli’s attention. He concedes,
Even the most hawkish reformer must blush at depictions of the endless test prep and shamefully narrowed curriculum that is present at too many inner city schools. “That’s not what we intended for them to do,” we reformers say, but the combination of high pressure and low capacity too often leads educators to panic and look for shortcuts to higher test scores. We can’t just look the other way and pretend it’s not happening.
However, Petrelli continues, what Kohn fails to address is the uncomfortable reality 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.”

Children from impoverished backgrounds usually come to school less prepared than children from more affluent backgrounds. For example, at a K-6 school in Camden, Dudley Elementary School, 86.4% of third-graders failed the ASK3 in language arts. In neighboring Cherry Hill, only 9.5% of third-graders at Thomas Paine Elementary School failed the same test. It’s not unreasonable to assume that these two cohorts of young children need different programming.
But that’s a slippery slope. Would you then assume that the kids in Cherry Hill “have time” for art and music, or need less instruction in general knowledge? Do we create one curricula for haves and another for have-nots?

Petrelli concludes,
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.

That’s not to be mistaken for the “mindless, soul-killing” teaching that Kohn bemoans, but it’s also not the progressive utopia he envisions, either.
What Kohn and other reactionaries refuse to acknowledge is that what fuels the modern school reform movement is not acquiescence to Corporate America but outrage at the nation’s lack of social mobility.

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