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on November 3, 1999
A very powerfully written book by a former teacher turned author and lecturer, Alfie Kohn. Kohn criticizes the theories of behaviorists and traditionalists accusing politicians, parents, and teachers of continuing to 'drill and kill' students on a `'bunch o' facts'. The Old School manner of rote memorization joined now with standardized testing is missing the mark on the urgency to motivate students from 'how they are doing in school' to 'why are they doing what they are doing in school.' Kohn uses a remarkable genre of resources from comparing John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and John Holt to B. F. Skinner, Edward K. Thorndike, and E. D. Hirsch, Jr. Stating various research articles and quotes, Kohn supports his theory that classrooms are not failing the schools the issue is that reform is not being grasped and integrated into the classrooms. Kohn presents the facts of previous educational theories by explaining in two parts, first, of how the schools are missing the mark on motivation, teaching and learning, evaluation, reform, and improvement. Secondly, providing suggestions for teachers and parents to reform whether through internal efforts in the classroom or in the community. Kohn walks the reader through each category defining exactly how his research has shown the schools are presently poorly handling the previously mentioned categories. He then follows up with a blue print on how to overhaul the schools by understanding from the conception of the school the intent while not overlooking the importance of reading, writing, and arithmetic yet allowing a move beyond grades and standardized tests to true achievement and motivation of students.
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on June 3, 2000
As a community college physics professor, I found Kohn's book interesting in some ways but unhelpful in others. He's right on target with his criticisms of bad textbooks, rote memorization, and "drill and kill." However, he forces every issue into his predetermined framework of "us" (people who agree with Kohn) and "them" (the traditionalists). Many of the real issues that cry out for reform are not being realistically addressed by either camp:
(1) The factory model. Both Kohn and the traditionalists implicitly buy in to the factory model of education, in which everybody has to move at the same pace because that's the speed of the conveyer belt. The traditionalists try to speed up the conveyer belt, but can only achieve that by turning learning into an exercise in memorization. Kohn wants to slow down the conveyer belt, condemning bright students to a day in school spent explaining things to their slower peers. In my opinion, the solution is a return to tracking.
(2) Quality of teachers. The traditionalists don't want to address this because improving teacher quality would cost money, which is anathema to their politically conservative values. Kohn hardly mentions it either, which is amazing in a book of this length. In the sciencies, there's a long history of failed reforms of the type Kohn describes, precisely because so few K-12 teachers are qualified to teach science.
(3) Textbooks. Traditionalists don't want to admit how bad textbooks are. Kohn never wants to have a child read a chapter from a textbook -- apparently even in high school? As a boy in the California public school system, I never even had _access_ to a textbook in any subject outside the three R's. At least the traditionalists recognize that schools need more books.
(4) The disorganization of the curriculum. Although Kohn pooh-poohs the popularly accepted idea that fuzzy-headed reformers took over education, there's more than a grain of truth in it. As a boy, I never saw any hint of a system when it came to subjects outside the three R's like science and history. Kohn is correct when he says standards should be far less detailed, but there is indeed a need for standards.
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on February 13, 2000
Alfie Kohn's "The Schools Our Children Deserve" helps to make contentious educational insider debates on learning, standards and testing accessible to a general readership. Notably he does this, while making sure to bolster his ideas with copious references to educational research, encouraging more - and, importantly, more honest - appraisal of what research really tells us about learning, schools and the possibilities for public education. Kohn forcefully analyzes the "Tougher Standards" approach dominant in U.S. education reform, seeing it as fundamentally flawed. He describes faulty historical and research perspectives that have led to the standards fixation and describes five specific ways that "Tougher Standards" are troublesome: (1) they create a preoccupation with achievement, constantly focusing students on improving performance, which, according to Kohn, is "not only different from, but often detrimental to, a focus on learning;" (2) the approach favors "Old School teaching," as opposed to progressive, developmental learning, and creates a misguided focus on so-called "basic skills" and "core knowledge;" (3) the movement is "wedded to standardized testing," with teach-to-the-test activities routinely displacing higher level learning opportunities for children; (4) their implementation has created rationales for top-down control, "imposing specific requirements and trying to coerce improvement by specifying exactly what must be taught and learned;" (5) "Tougher Standards," so-called, create assumptions about "rigor" and "challenge" that can be summarized as "harder is better," with the notion that if teaching goes down like distasteful medicine that that is how it should be, regardless of whether it turns large numbers of students off to learning, and doesn't even succeed in providing the "just the facts" kind of education often touted by "basic skills" or "core curriculum" advocates.
Kohn goes on to describe, in a "back to the future" way (citing John Dewey and Jean Piaget as representative educational thinkers) that good, progressive approaches point the way towards something better, something our children deserve. He hopes that there are three ways to convince skeptics: theory, research and examples from practice. Kohn's prose is written in a popular-style, generally stripped of jargon, in order to be more inclusive of parents and community members outside of the education system who may not be privy to many of the coded debates and conflicts that have taken place within the walls of the formal education system. Kohn takes on standardized testing and grading as central culprits in the education reform drama, even outlining social action strategies to oppose current approaches to standardized testing. Alfie Kohn's voice offers a refreshing counterpoint to the sea of unchallenged standards rhetoric, worth listening to, for its attention to both research and a genuine concern for our children's educational future.
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on January 13, 2002
When asked what a set of national standards should look like, former U.S. commissioner of education, Harold Howe II, stated, "They should be as vague as possible". Alfie Kohn makes a powerful stance against the use of specific standards and standardized testing in his book, The Schools Our Children Deserve.
Education heads the news around the nation today. Everywhere you hear the cry for tougher standards for teachers and students, and accountability for schools and districts. Headlines scream that American children are falling behind their counterparts in other countries. The solution: an educational system that is `back to basics' and has `tougher standards'. Is this the answer? Alfie Kohn states a resounding `No'.
Mr. Kohn's book takes you on a journey to explore how the American educational system is really doing. He then presents standardized tests for what they are: norm-referenced tests in which 50% of all children taking the test will fail. Kohn dissects how the tests are created and changed from year to year, indicating that if too many students get an answer correct, it is thrown out of the test. He delves into how standardized test scores are published in newspapers, and used by the government and school districts to hold schools and teachers hostage. He shows how the use of such scores are creating an educational community that teaches to the test, is devoid of meaningful learning, and does not address the needs of the individual child.
The Schools Our Children Deserve is written for parents and educators alike. It aims to educate its readers, so that they can become informed participants in the design of the schools our children deserve.
W.Joy Lopez
Pepperdine University Doctoral Student
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on February 2, 2000
In times when students, teachers, administrators, and parents become discouraged at society and government's overwhelming emphasis on accountability, words of hope and encouragement are much needed. A fortunate stroke of serendipity, this book could not have been published at a better time. Alfie Kohn's The Schools Our Children Deserve provides valuable insight, clarifies ambiguities, and sheds light on some of the most controversial issues in education today. Kohn's overall goal and recurrent theme is to redirect our focus on not "how well he/she did today" but "what did he/she do today." Kohn's writing style and prose provides an overall clarity and ease of reading. Although he is adamant in his opinions and observations, he provides undeniable, conclusive, and thought-provoking research evidence throughout the entire text. This foundation of citations and quotes from leading experts in the field (Piaget, Holt, and Dewey to name a few) adds an unquestionable credibility to his ideas and their feasibility. The Schools Our Children Deserve taps into and elaborates on five issues:
PREOCCUPATION WITH ACHIEVEMENT
Kohn brings to light a detrimental preoccupation with achievement that has been subtly forced upon students. Students often worry about their achievement and focus on the end-result (the grade) and neglect the valuable process of learning. Paradoxically, this obsession with achievement does not provide us with a student with a well-rounded education but one who knows how to get good grades. Kohn calls for a focus on "what they're doing" rather than on "how well they're doing."
OLD-SCHOOL TEACHING
"Drill and Practice" and/or "Drill and Kill" methods of teaching are slowly resuscitating themselves. Traditional methodology is resurfacing as schools and teachers renew their focus on raising the bar on standards. This renewed focus on "basic skills" or "core knowledge" is actually proving to be detrimental. Ironically, Kohn states this methodology never left but has been present under the guise of different names.
STANDARDIZED TESTING
If your school's results are published in the newspaper for all to see, and you are scrutinized for failing to meet or exceed expectations, then standardized testing could not possibly be good. A call for higher scores does not fix the educational system, as this is what it is attempting to do (school reform and accountability). Standardized testing, on the contrary, transforms the entire educational community and instills it with fear, anxiety, and shame. Interestingly, Kohn states that there is no other country in the world that requires standardized testing for students.
STANDARDS IN THE CLASSROOM
Kohn briefly describes the different meanings implied by the word "standards". One reference to standards is the specific set of guidelines devised by districts and curriculum groups. These guidelines are imposed upon classrooms as required knowledge to be met by a certain timeframe. The very fact that there is so much rigidity and fixedness in standards makes it altogether difficulty for students and teachers alike to focus on learning. Instead of seizing unique opportunities for discussion and learning, for example, teachers are forced to neglect these occasions and focus on measurable paper output and frequent traditional standardized assessments.
WHAT IS THE MEANING OF IMPROVEMENT?
Harder is not necessarily better. This is perhaps the underlying notion and recurring theme expressed throughout the entire book. Kohn makes an important point by discussing the ramifications of assuming that everything must be made harder, challenging, and rigorous for it to improve. As a whole, education and its quality deteriorates and disintegrates. Education is undermined and numbers, statistics, and percentiles are valued. The focus is much greater on the quantity than on the quality of education.
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on August 6, 2005
Not only am I a teacher, but I am a product of the kind of public school for which Alfie Kohn advocates. We definitely and desperately need this voice in the debate over education. I fully approve of his regime. I was not a terrifically motivated kid, academically speaking, before entering Kindergarten, but during my elementary education grew to become a highly self-motivated and intense learner. I not only had projects and assignments at school (which included research papers and even some traditional math work), but was constantly engaged in projects at home (teaching myself French, extremely engrossed in geography, reading articles of interest from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, and designing board games with highly complex probabilities.) Many of my classmates had similar experiences. My school was a public school in an unremarkable, middle-class suburb. Kohn's argument results in the kind of education I got up to 6th grade. We took the standardized tests, and did as well or better than neighboring schools on average. What's all the fear about?

Read this book. If you are a parent or educator, you REALLY need to read this book.
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on January 11, 2002
In light of President Bush's recent signing of a national educational plan that promotes standards and high-stakes testing, The Schools Our Children Deserve offers readers insights into social, economic, and moral consequences of these policies. An easy read with plenty of data and thought provoking questions, Kohn challenges these trends to objectify students and teachers through a careful analysis of the process and consequences of these policies.
One of the myths perpetuated by politicians and businesspeople, is that raising school standards and high-stakes testing will improve learning. Kohn examines the historical context of the myth within the system. He offers readers data and research that contradict the myth. He has organized the book to examine the destructive nature of implementing standards based education and high testing through a variety of lens: social, emotional, and economic.
With an emphasis on grades and competitive test scores that rank students, teachers, and schools, Kohn argues that education has shifted away from student-centered learning. Schools forced to implement standardize curriculum to support high stakes testing have objectified students and teachers. The consequences of these policies results in a curriculum that lacks authentic context and educational goals that are based on grades and test results.
The impact on teachers forced to implement rigid curriculum that changes the role of classroom teachers to classroom technicians whose only responsibility is to transmit facts and data through transmission teaching. The impact on children is a misguided educational experience that may have long term emotional and psychological reprucussions. With an emphasis on scores, rigid and mediocre curriculum is designed to improve tests scores but fail to offer students an authentic and engaging learning experience. The reader is reminded that the cost of focusing on "how well" students are doing verses "what" they're doing results in a disintegration of student's interest and motivation. With an emphasis on student grades and school scores, the purpose of education is no longer about providing an authentic learning experience for child, it is about test scores and ranking.
Because of the impact that high stake testing has on schools and children, Kohn takes time to examine the variations in testing formats, inequalities, and failures. Since high-stakes tests are norm-reference, he provides readers with an understanding of how these test are used and the consequences awaiting 50% of the testing population that are predestined to fail.
Kohn offers compelling arguments to rethink these practices and the purpose of education. If we want to focus on test scores that rank students, standardized curriculums and high-stakes testing will fill the bill. However, if our goal is to create meaningful, authentic learning experiences for our children, these policies must be challenged and abandoned.
This book not only informs the reader, but it places a moral responsibility on each of us to become more informed and involved with the purpose of learning in our schools. Kohn's agenda is simple. He is not a politician looking for votes. He is an advocate for children. Kohn is promoting authentic learning opportunities that respect the natural curiosity and motivation of children.
After reading this book, Kohn places a moral responsibility on all of us to become informed, involved, and pro-active in the development of schools that our children deserve.
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on February 27, 2012
In The Schools Our Children Deserve, Alfie Kohn delves into the research that demonstrates what I have always felt in my bones: the educational system needs a massive overhaul. Yes, there are great schools out there. There are even more great teachers. But ask a great teacher, and many will tell you that they, too, feel hamstrung by a system that is overly concerned with achievement, competition, coercion, standardized testing, and the belief that 'harder equals better.'

When we focus on how we are doing, we are not paying as much attention to what we are doing. In education, this means that the more important we make grades, the less the students actually learn. This creates a classroom environment where the student's priority becomes 'Is this going to be on the test?' rather than `How does this relate to everything else I know?' This focus on rank has more insidious effects, as well. If we need to give children grades, then we may only assign them work that is easy to grade. Multiple choice quizzes give a tangible number that the instructor can write in a grade book. It is much harder to grade students on a lively, classroom debate on a topic that isn't even covered in the textbook. Which do you think makes a deeper impression on the student? Where is more learning taking place?

This focus on ranking creates a climate of competition. Classmates are looked at as people to outdo, obstacles on the road to the top. Winning becomes more important than learning. Collaboration is left at the door. This is unfortunate, and has implications beyond childhood. Research demonstrates that deeper learning happens when people collaborate then when people are isolated. Collaboration fosters creativity, communication, and mutual understanding. Working together is essential in the modern world; the problems of the 21st century are far too big for any individual to solve alone. Collaboration is a skill we can develop and nurture, yet we give it little time in the traditional school. Those schools that do make the space for collaborative effort often find it has extraordinary outcomes.

Learning to submit to authority begins early in the traditional school, where students must ask permission to tend to their bodily functions, and get gold stars when they do exactly what is expected of them. Kohn covers the inherent problem of Punishments and Rewards in his book by that name. This behaviorist approach to child development stems from the work of B. F. Skinner, and likens the human mind to a machine or pet that can be trained to the 'right' response by the proper use of reward and punishment. We are not pets or machines, though. Children can be taught to give the right response through these behaviorist methods, but true understanding is not inherent in such rote learning. Understanding comes through engagement with the material because learning is an active process, not merely the memorization of data. One way helps them win at Trivial Pursuit; the other way fosters problem solving and critical thinking.

Conditioning our children to submit to authority has more ominous implications, as well. In 1963 Stanley Milgram published a well-known study in which he learned that people will do surprising things, things far outside their comfort level, if they are told to do so by someone they believe to be in authority. Such studies question the wisdom of raising generations of children who have learned to 'do what they are told.'

As if all of this isn't convincing enough, Kohn takes on standardized testing as well. Textbook and testing companies have been given enormous power to decide what our children should know. But corporations aren't people, and have different goals than people. What is best for business is not necessarily what is best for our children. These companies design tests which have proven confusing even to professional adults, and give us little meaningful information about what our children actually know. Yet budgets, salaries, and other important decisions are being made using these numbers. Remember, testing companies are in business to make money for the stockholders. When the law requires every child to take their test, the company can be sure that they will leave no profit behind.

Finally, Kohn calls into question the idea that 'harder equals better.' If test scores are down, drill them on testing more. If they aren't learning in school, send more of the same work home with them. If a strategy is ineffective, why do we act as if more of the same will eventually get the results we are aiming for? This perspective is endemic in our culture, and we shouldn't be surprised to find it in our schools. It would be funny if it weren't so sad. Neuroscience tells us that learning is an active process, but also an integrative one. Sometimes, we need to let our mental fields lie fallow for a while so they can grow a new harvest. Harder isn't always better. As John Holt once remarked, "One ironical consequence of the drive for so-called higher standards in schools is that the children are too busy to think."

So what is better? Learners learn better when they are actively engaged in the material. They become more engaged when they are allowed choice in their education, when they are allowed to collaborate, and when they are allowed to make mistakes. We can take the pressure off of our kids to produce tangible results, and free up energy for them to pursue that which they are passionate about. In some ways, this may be easier for a homeschooler, or a private school to accomplish. But teachers across the country are growing weary of methods that don't work, and recognizing that they might have to think outside the box if they really want to reach students and rediscover the joy and passion in their work. As more people wake up to the ways in which the current educational model doesn't serve us, they will demand a different approach that honors the humanity and creativity in everyone.The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards"
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on March 1, 2015
Alfie Kohn brings a lot of good points, backed by science. He shows how grades negatively affect student learning. He shows that phonics-only training hinders students' reading development. He, between this book and his others, also shows how rewards and punishments in the classroom damages students emotional development, and that student autonomy is indeed significant.
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on January 3, 2001
This is a well argued and researched book (with 95/344 pages of footnotes) that challenges educators to move beyond "traditional classrooms and 'tougher standards'". In Part One, the author persuasively pointed out the 5 fatal flaws in traditional education that relies on extrinsic measures, rote memory and hard work rather than native interest, actual learning, thinking and understanding. The harm of confusing one's self-worth (identity) with performance (behavior) is so in-built into everyone through such a system! Part Two clarifies and illustrates what better education consists of . "The goal is to create a learning experience that arouses and sustains children's curiosity, enriching their capacities and responding to their questions in ways that are deeply engaging." (p.130) It is learner-centred, democratic and cooperative. The author devotes much space to defending Whole Language approach that helps students "learn to read by reading". He has the knack in giving succinct captions, e.g. "What versus How Well", "Harder is Better", "Beyond the Right Answer", "What Replaces Grades"¡K He raises many probing questions and challenges the research evidence quoted by the Old School. He writes with passion and gives wise cautions so that progressive school reforms won't founder. (p. 183) One big hurdle to any educational reform is to have enough teachers who will be able to implement the vision and make education so interesting and appropriate for students. Another reservation is that no matter what our approach is, most probably we'd still get a fair portion of those who do well and many who don't. E.g., cooperative project work can be done by only one diligent member of a team. The author at least arouses much controversy and reflection. Though the author is careful not to impose his own assumptions of the purpose of schools (pp. 117-120), given his competence, I hope he could spell out more clearly in a sequel his whole philosophy of education, the assumptions of the human good and learning that education seeks to serve instead of relying on sporadic quotes ......
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