Opposing View (editorials)

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USA TODAY
2000-08

USA Today regularly invites guest writers to offer an “opposing view” to their unsigned editorials on controversial issues, although the writers are allotted only 350 words and do not get an advance look at the essays to which they are responding.


  1. In “Phantom Claims Endanger New Graduation Standards” (May 8, 2000), the paper argued that “there is little evidence linking toughened school standards to increasing dropout rates” and that “higher standards and high-stakes standards” should not be abandoned. 

OPPOSING VIEW: Focus on Tests Hurt Students

By Alfie Kohn

Peer through the fog of rhetoric – “tougher standards,” “accountability,” etc. – and you’ll find yourself facing a disturbing reality: our children’s schools are being turned into giant test-prep centers.

Unfortunately, raising scores is very different from raising the quality of schools. Every hour spent trying to improve kids’ test results is an hour not spent helping students become critical, creative, curious learners.

The test backers say we should get even tougher and deny diplomas to students on the basis of a single test score.

Result: Thousands will be prevented from graduating – or will simply drop out. This represents a potential catastrophe for them, for the cause of equity (because most of those forced out will likely be low-income and minority students), and for democracy.

The test backers insist that we stay the course. But the course never made sense:

* Almost all experts – including the National Research Council — have declared it indefensible to make major decisions based on a single test.

* There is no evidence “high-stakes” testing improves school quality. That means our children are involuntary subjects in a giant experiment. Indeed, this strategy has “failed wherever it has been tried,” writes Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond.

* It’s becoming harder to attract and retain teachers when the curriculum is shaped by legislators and test manufacturers. Those most likely to quit are the most talented educators who can’t stomach the preoccupation with test scores.

* There are many rigorous alternatives to pencil-and-paper tests, including “exhibitions” in which students show what they’ve learned. But now states are forcing all their schools to use the same exam.

From atop Mt. Olympus, almost any policy can be defended in the name of “tougher standards.” But in real classrooms, things look different.

That’s why Wisconsin parents prevailed upon their legislators to reject the governor’s demand for a high-stakes graduation test. It’s why hundreds of students in Massachusetts and Illinois, at considerable personal risk, are boycotting their states’ exams this spring.

Opponents don’t want to lower the bar. They want more meaningful learning for all children – precisely what is undermined by saying, “Pass this test or else!”


  1. In “Selfishness Rules as Rich Parents, Schools Reject Reform” (April 23, 2001), the paper noted that parents in some wealthy districts, such as Scarsdale, N.Y., are rebelling against standardized testing, but argued that such boycotts make it harder to compare one school to another and undermine a system of testing that benefits children in less affluent communities.

OPPOSING VIEW: Pointless Tests Hurt Students

By Alfie Kohn

Should affluent people subject their children to pointless and damaging standardized tests to ensure that poor students get tested? No, because these tests are equally pointless and at least as damaging to poor students.

Educators know better than to claim that such testing is necessary to tell us which schools are in trouble, or which kids need help. Visit classrooms, talk with students, and you’ll know. Moreover, research-backed “authentic assessments” allow students to show what they understand, a superior alternative to stressful pencil-and-paper tests.

Just such alternatives have helped New York City students succeed in innovative schools. But now these schools are threatened with extinction, precisely because New York, like other states, is imposing a one-size-fits-all testing program.

Standardized tests are not accurate measures. They underestimate talented students who simply aren’t good test-takers. They overestimate students who memorize but don’t really understand.

Worse, the second-rate education that many poor kids have received is becoming third-rate as their schools become giant test-prep centers. If it’s not on the test, it’s not taught. Low-income, mostly minority students are often treated like trained seals, barking out answers on command. The result: higher test scores at the expense of meaningful learning, and a wider gap between rich and poor.

When rewards and punishments are based on scores, some of the best teachers are forced out – particularly where they’re most needed. And the current fad of making a high school diploma contingent on passing a single test may produce nothing short of an educational ethnic cleansing.

Already in test-happy Texas more than 40% of African-American and Latino ninth-graders never make it to graduation. In New York City, the dropout rate is climbing due to the state’s high-stakes Regents tests.

So why aren’t other parents boycotting the tests? They are. Scarsdale makes the news, but most families at the predominantly minority Mission Hill School in Boston also sat out tests this month, as did many at an inner-city Tucson, Ariz. elementary school.

It’s not that poor and minority families are silent so much as that they’re silenced. Bottom line: the “accountability” driven testing craze is hurting all our kids.


  1. In “Premature Retreat on Testing Threatens Students’ Progress” (July 31, 2001), the paper warned against “a temptation to return to the good old days” because of “recent setbacks to the education reform movement,” insisting that the “heavily researched teaching models that Memphis schools had been using to boost performance” should not have been abandoned and pointing to success in Charlotte, N.C. and elsewhere as a result of accountability reforms.

OPPOSING VIEW: More Testing Is No Answer

By Alfie Kohn

Critics of the current accountability fad aren’t nostalgic for the old days. Sure, many students and schools have long been neglected. But bullying people into raising scores on bad tests is the kind of attention no one needs.

Already most states are saying that a student can be denied a diploma based on a single exam. Already many of our best teachers and principals have quit in disgust, saying all the testing is driving out the learning.

Bad as things are, though, they will become much worse if Congress approves President Bush’s plan to force every state to test every student every year.

Researchers find that many affluent schools let kids solve real-world math problems and read stories that spark their interest. Low-income students, meanwhile, are apt to be seated in rows, kept busy with worksheets and endless practice tests that focus on vowel sounds or arithmetic rules to be memorized and recited without understanding.

Reforms that aim for higher scores on standardized tests just intensify the worst form of instruction for the have-nots. Result: more kids are left behind – ironically, in the name of “higher expectations.”

Still, many pundits insist that we “stay the course” even when it leads downhill. Ask them for evidence of success and they can only point to higher scores on the very tests that have taken over the curriculum.

Consider Memphis’ school-reform models. The problem isn’t that they failed to raise test scores; it’s that most are devoted only to raising test scores.

These programs – notably one with the Orwellian name “Success for All” – demand rigid, stultified teaching and are limited to schools serving poor, minority students. (Sadly, Memphis is now planning a reading initiative as disappointing as any of the national models it just rejected.)

Charlotte, N.C., like many cities, has adopted a similarly scripted program called “Open Court” that reduces reading to a series of isolated skills. Scores on narrow tests may improve, but at the expense of genuine literacy.

Some superintendents understandably oppose federally mandated annual testing. And the National Education Association, too, is starting to find its voice. “Music, art, scientific discovery – even recess – are being thrown by the wayside in order to prepare students for the almighty test,” says president Bob Chase.

Inner-city kids are harmed most by that kind of “reform.”


  1. In “Philly Teachers Put Jobs Over Struggling Students” (November 23, 2001), the paper asserted that the Edison Project has a “solidly above average” track record that “sparkles compared with that of Philadelphia public schools” and called on educators and others to stop opposing a plan to let Edison manage those schools.

OPPOSING VIEW: Privatization Is No Panacea

By Alfie Kohn

When Edison, Inc. was hired to evaluate Philadelphia’s public schools, it concluded that they were terrible — and then recommended itself to run them.

Some observers say Edison fudged the data in order to conclude that Philadelphia’s schools were especially bad. But let’s assume the problem really is serious. Quiz yourself on why that might be true:

a) Schools are mostly funded by local property taxes, so inner-city districts can’t afford terrific facilities and salaries that will attract excellent teachers.

b) Students must contend with racism and other entrenched social problems that can’t be fixed by schools alone.

c) Students receive a diet of forgettable facts and isolated skills to raise test scores instead of a curriculum based on inquiry and understanding.

d) The schools aren’t being run by a profit-oriented corporation.

If you chose any answer other than d, you would be dubious about this latest, and most audacious, attempt to privatize our public schools.

Edison has yet to show a profit despite generous private grants. Its overtures have been spurned, or its contracts terminated, from New York to San Francisco to Goldsboro, N.C. Its preferred curriculum has favored packaged, regimented instruction geared mostly to raising test scores.

Even so, when Western Michigan University researchers evaluated some of Edison’s longest- running schools last year, they found no overall advantage compared to public schools.

If that changes, it will be because Edison pours money into these schools. But ultimately, the bottom line will demand cuts that will prevent long-term success.

Should public schools be run by companies whose goal is to maximize profit rather than benefit children? Many who say yes regard education as one battle in a larger ideological war to undermine public institutions.

Many parents, teachers, and researchers spoke out against privatizing Philadelphia’s schools at a recent public hearing.

“Privatization would be devastating for our children,” said J. Whyatt Mondesire, local NAACP director. “It would lead to profit-making on the backs of our 210,000, mostly black, students.”

We need a redoubled commitment to public schools, which remain the cornerstone of a democratic society.


  1. In “New Tools Improve Schools” (January 22, 2002), the paper supported “a powerful new tool to hone reform strategies”: audits of schools conducted by organizations like Standard & Poor’s and Just for the Kids. Detailed evaluations and ratings were said to help “identify the most effective treatments.”

OPPOSING VIEW: Measures Fall Short

By Alfie Kohn

In America, you can’t be too rich, too thin, or have too much data. But the new fad of reducing schools to numbers isn’t as sensible as it may seem.

* Quantification isn’t cheap. Michigan is paying Standard & Poor’s a staggering $11 million just to crunch numbers. How many books or new teachers could that sum buy?

* It invites misleading comparisons. True, Philadelphia’s results aren’t much better than Pittsburgh’s, despite spending more per pupil. But the proportion of kids who qualify for lunch subsidies in those cities is 82 and 58%, respectively.

Similarly, a Houston high school gets a stellar rating from Just for the Kids. But many 9th graders were held back a year, reducing the number of 10th-grade test-takers and artificially raising the average score.

* Schools just can’t be rated like laundry detergents. As Rice University professor Linda McNeil put it, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”

Education isn’t one more investment to be justified; it’s the foundation of a democracy. Ratings are also tied to the belief that people should be bribed or threatened into improving, or set against one another in a toxic rivalry. This is conservative ideology posing as common sense.

* The raters equate success with standardized test scores. The more you know about education, the less plausible that equation seems. With enough effort, the scores of any school can be raised. But that doesn’t mean learning has improved.

Ratings can also pressure educators to “align” their instruction with state standards. But that’s not about excellence; it’s about conformity.

One Michigan teacher observed that the pressure to raise scores means “there is little time left to actively engage students’ minds through in-depth study of issues, hands-on experiences… and inquiry.”

Who might want to perpetuate a dependence on test results? Well, Standard & Poor’s is owned by McGraw-Hill, which also owns one of the country’s biggest test producers. You do the math.

To evaluate schools properly, visit them. Look for kids exchanging ideas, designing projects, thinking deeply – not hunched over worksheets or listening passively to lectures.

Observation isn’t just cheaper than hiring fancy firms to report test scores. It’s more meaningful.


  1. In “Summer Schools Targeted” (May 17, 2002), the paper laments the fact that schools are canceling summer programs for budgetary reasons; these programs, when well run, are said to be “hot-weather life rafts for poor urban and rural students.”

OPPOSING VIEW: Classes Are Little Help

By Alfie Kohn

Here’s how it works: mostly poor and minority students are forced to spend their summer in sweltering classrooms – not to grapple with thought-provoking questions but to slog through tedious, heavily scripted lessons. The point isn’t to expand their minds but merely to improve their performance on standardized tests.

The goal is dubious, the technique dreadful, and the implementation unfair. But it’s all justified in the name of “accountability.”

Some kids need extra help, but help to learn better is different from help to score higher. Moreover, most such programs are not only sterile but also stigmatizing. Your friends, out having fun, know you’re one of the dummies sentenced to the summer camp from hell.

Research overwhelmingly demonstrates that the worst thing you can do for struggling students is hold them back a year. It’s counterproductive and makes them more likely to drop out. Using that threat to compel summer attendance doesn’t offer a real alternative. And few of us can learn in a punitive climate.

Evidence from New York and Chicago suggests that lots of kids refuse to show up for summer school — Who can blame them? — while many who do come will be forced to repeat a grade anyway. Even those who pass may be in the same fix next year. “It’s a desperate fad [and] a waste of resources,” says Harvard professor Gary Orfield.

Even the director of the National Association for Year-Round Education, Marilyn Stenvall, points out that “we no longer have ‘summer school,’ a heterogeneous affair with students of all abilities learning together in the same system. We have summer prison [for] youngsters [who] have committed the crime of failure.”

Or perhaps the schools have failed them — but it’s the children who are punished.

Cutting summer school to save money is the right move for the wrong reason. We need to expose the intellectual bankruptcy of the underlying “tougher standards” craze, which actually reduces the quality of instruction – particularly in low-income schools – and was imposed for political, not educational, reasons.

If cash-starved schools must make cuts, how about something that wastes more than a half-billion dollars a year: the standardized tests themselves.


  1. In “School Reform Critics Ignore Power of Accountability” (December 4, 2003), the paper cites Ronald Ross’s success at “raising standards” in Mt. Vernon, NY, as well as the support of other superintendents who signed a letter written by Education Trust, in defending the accountability rules of the No Child Left Behind Act “requiring schools to identify and help struggling children.”

OPPOSING VIEW: Reform’s “Hammer” Fails

By Alfie Kohn

“The beatings will continue until morale improves.” That’s the theory underlying what should be called the Many Children Left Behind act.

The law’s many critics don’t favor neglecting troubled schools. That poor and minority children long have received an inferior education is true — and disgraceful. But this cure is worse than the disease; it mostly punishes the victims.

Look at the supposed success stories of current policies. What typically improves isn’t learning, just standardized test scores. And the scripted instruction used to raise those scores has dumbed down classrooms. Instead of learning to think, inner-city kids take endless practice tests. If that’s not “lower expectations,” what is?

Thus, Mount Vernon, N.Y., school Superintendent Ronald Ross, who supports accountability in theory, says he’s no fan of “the current test mania engulfing our public schools. … It’s ridiculous to test every year (and) provide scarce support.” In half the states, diplomas are withheld from students based on a single score. The result: More poor kids drop out. The breezy response from Kati Haycock of the Education Trust: “At least they failed something worthwhile.”

I hear anguish and anger about the No Child Left Behind Act from minority educators across the country. Some of the best have quit because good schools are labeled “failures” for falling short of ridiculous requirements. Many Congressional Black Caucus members have denounced the law as a sham. Even early supporters have grown disenchanted.

What’s the point? Can you name a single school whose troubled status was a secret until yet another wave of testing was required? Or is the Bush administration’s real agenda to undermine the public school system? If privatization were my goal, I, too, might favor the reform act.

Schools alone can’t erase the effects of poverty and racism. Those are real barriers, not excuses. Now President Bush is failing to fund the law as promised, leaving states with the bill for annual tests that Washington requires. Meanwhile, a new report by the civil liberties group People for the American Way reveals the administration has funneled $75 million to pro-voucher groups.

Wildly swinging a hammer labeled “accountability” hurts the very kids (and schools) who most need help.


  1. In “How to Fix ‘No Child’ Law,” (May 31, 2007), the editors insisted that NCLB “has helped thousands of poor and minority students” but should be reformed so that “lagging” schools aren’t lumped in with those that are “seriously failing.”

OPPOSING VIEW: “Too Destructive to Salvage”

By Alfie Kohn

It’s time to say in a national newspaper what millions of teachers, students and parents already know: No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is an appalling and unredeemable experiment that has done incalculable damage to our schools – particularly those serving poor, minority, and limited-English-proficiency students.

It’s a stretch even to call the law “well-intentioned” given that its creators, including the Bush administration and the right-wing Heritage Foundation, want to privatize public education. Hence NCLB’s merciless testing, absurd timetables, and reliance on threats.

Let’s be clear: This law has nothing to do with improving learning. At best, it’s about raising scores on multiple-choice exams. This law is not about discovering which schools need help; we already know. This law is not about narrowing the achievement gap; its main effect has been to sentence poor children to an endless regimen of test-preparation drills. Thus, even if the scores do rise, it’s at the expense of a quality education. Affluent schools are better able to maintain good teaching – and retain good teachers – despite NCLB, so the gap widens.

Sure, it’s senseless for Washington to impose requirements without adequate funding. But more money to implement a bad law isn’t the answer.

Indeed, according to a recent 50-state survey by Teachers Network, a non-profit education organization, exactly 3% of teachers think NCLB helps them to teach more effectively. No wonder 129 education and civil rights organizations have endorsed a letter to Congress deploring the law’s overemphasis on standardized testing and punitive sanctions. No wonder 30,000 people (so far) have signed a petition at educatorroundtable.org calling the law “too destructive to salvage.”

NCLB didn’t invent the scourge of high-stakes testing, nor is it responsible for the egregious disparity between the education received by America’s haves and have-nots. But by intensifying the former, it exacerbates the latter.

This law cannot be fixed by sanding its rough edges. It must be replaced with a policy that honors local autonomy, employs better assessments, addresses the root causes of inequity, and supports a rich curriculum.

The question isn’t how to save NCLB; it’s how to save our schools – and kids – fromNCLB.


  1. In “Cut the Knowledge Deficit” (December 26, 2007), the editors praised E. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge approach for providing students with a broad knowledge base, saying it will help them on tests and in life.

OPPOSING VIEW: “Program ‘Deadens’ Vitality”

By Alfie Kohn

“U.S. high school students are . . . ignorant of things (that elementary) school students would have known a generation ago,” a national magazine announced in a special report entitled “Crisis in Education.” Added a well-known historian: “Fifty years ago a high-school diploma meant something.”

Both comments were published in 1958.

Such dire warnings — our schools are failing! our standards are falling! – predictably issue from two sources: people trying to discredit public education for political reasons and people nostalgic for a golden age that never existed.

Particularly troubling are efforts to cite this alleged knowledge deficit as justification for creating, and then teaching, a list of facts everyone should know. For starters, we may be skeptical about what’s on the list and what isn’t. More important, though, this isn’t the best way to learn. That’s why a group of Chicago education experts described Hirsch’s Core Knowledge model as a “curriculum of superficiality.”

It’s not that knowledge isn’t important. It’s that efforts to base schooling on the goal of knowing a lot of stuff – even dressed up with pretentious labels like “cultural literacy” -steal time from more meaningful objectives, such as learning how to think critically.

The best classrooms aren’t organized around a “bunch ‘o facts” but around problems, projects, and questions. Students do acquire knowledge, but in a context and for a purpose. The emphasis is on depth rather than breadth, and on discovering ideas rather than covering a prescribed curriculum.

This is more motivating to students and also helps them remember, understand, and apply what they’ve learned to new situations. Those capabilities matter more than the temporary acquisition of facts about polygons, sonnets, or famous battles.

Harvard’s Howard Gardner, an expert on cognition, is right: Core Knowledge “seems destined to deaden . . . the vitality of the culture for most students.” Worse, it treats them not as active participants in their own schooling but as interchangeable receptacles into which facts are poured.

Most of the facts we adults had to memorize were forgotten long ago. So why subject our children to a more prescriptive version of that same kind of traditional schooling?


  1. In “Charter School Successes Supply a Lesson Plan,” (June 18, 2008), the editors contended that “elite charter school organizations” have been more successful than “‘mom and pop’ charters” at raising test scores, primarily in high-poverty neighborhoods, thereby providing “a lesson plan for education reformers.”

OPPOSING VIEW: “A Frightening Prospect”

By Alfie Kohn

Charter schools run the gamut from inspiring to wretched. But the whole idea of “publicly funded private schools,” as one critic calls them, is unsettling. And the prospect of more charters managed from afar by business-like entities trying to pump up test scores is truly frightening.

Sure, it’s great to give local educational visionaries a chance to experiment. But we should ask:

* Will charters strengthen public education — or pave the way for vouchers and other privatization policies? As superintendents George and Mary Garcia warned, “The law of supply and demand, where winners make all the money and losers go broke, is a tragic idea to introduce into an institution whose purpose is to transmit democratic values and ensure equity for all.”

* Are charters inclusive, or do they increase segregation of students by race, income and special needs? A 2003 Harvard study found that 70% of African-American children attending charters were in schools where almost all students were minorities.

* Do charters really promote innovative teaching? It’s present in some schools, but there’s no evidence that the charter movement itself improves educational quality.

In fact, charter schools don’t even have higher average test scores once you adjust for school and student variables. Studies, including one released in March by Western Michigan University researchers, consistently show either no difference or slightly poorer performance for charter students.

Likewise, charter schools run by non-profit management organizations or for-profit management companies can’t claim an advantage, says Bryan Hassel, a national consultant on charters.

In any case, test scores mostly reflect family income or how much time was spent preparing kids for the tests, often at the expense of meaningful learning. Plenty of celebrated schools with rising scores are just glorified test-prep centers. Sadly, bottom-line-oriented management organizations may use tedious scripted curricula just to raise scores.

Aren’t public schools supposed to be controlled by the community? It’s time to worry if charters are run by distant companies, serve homogeneous populations, focus on standardized tests, or weaken our commitment to democratic public education.


  1. In “Low-Cost Ways to Fix Schools,” (December 18, 2008), the editors declare that NCLB “has worked” and urge government support for charter schools as well as “extend[ing] accountability to higher education.”

OPPOSING VIEW: “Too Much Reform”

By Alfie Kohn

Our children can’t take much more education “reform.” Oddly, that word has come to signify a continuation, or intensification, of the current disastrous approach that’s exemplified by the No Child Left Behind Act. Our schools – and particularly those in the inner city – are being turned into test-prep factories. The last thing we need is more of the same.

“Reformers” – many of whom have the sensibility of corporate managers rather than educators — apparently think the way to make change is to bribe or threaten teachers and students. They also assume that anything harder (more “rigorous”) must be better. And they talk about “achievement” and “world-class standards” when all they mean are higher scores on fill-in-the-bubble exams.

NCLB has provided no new information about which schools need help, nor has it provided that help. Instead – in the name of “accountability” — it has created pressure to ratchet up the least valuable forms of instruction. Alarmingly, proponents would apply similarly simplistic and heavy-handed tactics to preschools and universities, too.

Consider some alternative principles that might guide the Obama administration:

* Supporting schools doesn’t mean pretending they can solve deeper social problems like racism and poverty.

* Equitable resources and opportunities must precede demands for equal results.

* All children, regardless of race or class, should have the chance to think deeply about questions that matter, fall in love with books, understand ideas from the inside out, and learn through projects of their own design – rather than just practicing skills and memorizing facts on cue.

* Teaching and learning ought to be assessed based on students’ success with real classroom tasks, not with one-shot, one-size-fits-all multiple-choice tests.

* Children (and learning) have intrinsic value; they’re not just means to economic ends, such as boosting the “competitiveness” of U.S. corporations.

* Every student should be encouraged to think critically (not just obey authority) and to collaborate (not succeed at the expense of others).

Now that would be school reform worth celebrating.

Copyright © 2000-2008 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page.
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