Does School Reform Elevate or Limit Poor Children?

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April 28, 2011; Source: Education Week | Those of us who learned about the need for school reform by reading Jonathan Kozol’s, “Death at an Early Age” and “Savage Inequalities,” sometimes wonder about what has happened to the concept of “reform.” Kozol was (and is) an advocate for not only an equalization of the resources available to richer and poorer schools, but also for a pedagogy that goes beyond proxies of achievement (test scores, etc.) to stimulate an educational process of effervescent intellectual creativity.

Another Boston-area educator, Alfie Kohn, has written a thought-provoking critique of school reform as it is practiced today, describing school reform as “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.”

Reform, in his view, doesn’t pay much “attention to what happens inside classrooms – the particulars of teaching and learning – especially in low-income neighborhoods . . . [and] in a painfully ironic twist, things seem to be getting worse as a direct result of the ‘reform’ strategies pursued by the Bush Administration, then intensified under President Barack Obama, and cheered by corporate executives and journalists.”

Citing Wisconsin professor Martin Haberman, Kohn suggests that “the overly directive, mind-numbing . . . anti-intellectual acts that pass for teaching in most urban schools ‘not only remain the coin of the realm but have become the gold standard.’ It is how you’re supposed to teach kids of color.”

In her article called “The McEducation of the Negro,” Natalie Hopkinson agreed with Haberman and Kohn, saying, “In the name of reform . . . education – for those ‘failing’ urban kids, anyway – is about learning the rules and following directions. Not critical thinking. Not creativity. It’s about how to correctly eliminate three out of four bubbles.”

“Those who demand that we close the achievement gap generally focus on results, which in practice refers only to test scores,” Kohn charges. He cites Kozol’s observation in “The Shame of the Nation:” “The children of the suburbs learn to think and to interrogate reality, whereas inner-city kids ‘are trained for nonreflective acquiescence.’”

Are the nonprofit charter and private schools in the forefront of the school reform movement focusing on achievement measured through rote test scores and other proxies, or are they pursuing what British educator David Gribble described as “the kind of education that honors children’s interests and helps them think deeply about questions that matter?”—Rick Cohen