Reforming Toward the Center

Writing in The Nation, Alfie Kohn criticizes the “education reform” movement and opens with the good point that this term gets thrown around in a pretty loosey-goosey and unprincipled manner when the movement actually has some pretty specific commitments. Here’s his debunking:

But groups with names like Democrats for Education Reform — along with many mainstream publications — are disconcertingly allied with conservatives in just about every other respect [i.e., other than support for vouchers]. To be a school “reformer” is to support:

  • A heavy reliance on fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests to evaluate students and schools, generally in place of more authentic forms of assessment;
  • The imposition of prescriptive, top-down teaching standards and curriculum mandates;
  • A disproportionate emphasis on rote learning — memorizing facts and practicing skills — particularly for poor kids;
  • A behaviorist model of motivation in which rewards (notably money) and punishments are used on teachers and students to compel compliance or raise test scores;
  • A corporate sensibility and an economic rationale for schooling, the point being to prepare children to “compete” as future employees; and
  • Charter schools, many run by for-profit companies.

Notice that these features are already pervasive, which means “reform” actually signals more of the same — or, perhaps, intensification of the status quo with variations like one-size-fits-all national curriculum standards or longer school days (or years).

The structure of his article calls for this list of bullet points to be a tendentious caricature of what soi disant school reformers want, but with the exception of “corporate sensibility” I would actually say that I’m pretty much on board for this agenda. Indeed, I actually wish school reformers would be considerably more aggressive in pushing for genuine national standards.


I would, however, deny that this is a “conservative” agenda in any particular way. I think there are two aspects of education policy debates that have substantial linkage with the basic left-right ideological conflict. One concerns levels of spending. The right generally wants to spend less on social services (such as education) and the left generally wants to spend more. Another concerns centralization. The left generally supports federal action, national standards, and a strong center to prevent slippage whereas the right tends to favor decentralization as a means of weakening state capabilities. Nothing on Kohn’s list is relevant to the issue of spending, where certainly I like a very conventional “left” person would favor high levels of spending. And on the issue of centralization Kohn has, for no real reason I can see, decided that it’s conservative to believe in national standards. In fact it’s the reverse, and a strong belief in school decentralization is something many conservative legislators adhere to. It has, therefore, been a useful thing for left-wing NCLB opponents to latch on to in order to build a coalition with right-wing NCLB opponents. But I think it’s a little sad to see some people confusing their alliances of convenience with their real principles.

At any rate, the case for national standards of some kind is, I think, pretty clear — it’s silly for the federal government to invest a significant amount of money in something without articulating any kind of uniform national goals the money is supposed to be supporting. Beyond that, it’s incredibly harmful to children that when they move — a circumstance that disproportionately impacts poor children — there’s no curricular alignment between what they were learning previously and what they’re being taught now.