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Keeping score

By Amelia NewcombStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 1999



BOSTON

If nothing else comes of this current wave of education reform, we'll all be better at keeping score.

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Tests and rankings and higher standards of performance are coming out just as fast as we can think them up. Denver teachers just agreed to a bonus if they can boost their kids' scores on standardized tests. Teachers in California were told last week that their schools can receive cash bonuses if kids read more pages than the competition in neighboring towns. Massachusetts announced recently that it will rank all schools by their performance on the new statewide tests.

It's education as sport, and it's guaranteed to get the fans in a lather (and maybe more money in school coffers). If we want to sell it, we need to measure it - often. That's easiest to do with more fill-in-the-bubble tests, "pages we've read" charts in the cafeteria, and lots of facts in the classroom. Whether any of this yields thoughtful conversation with a young student is another matter.

One skeptic is Alfie Kohn. A bit of a voice in the wilderness at the moment, he is an unabashed advocate of progressive education. That's the movement that pushed beyond "bunch of facts" teaching, emphasizing critical-thinking skills and hands-on learning, among other things. It's also the philosophy that's taking most of the heat for American children's uneven and often unsatisfactory mastery of basic education.

It shouldn't, argues Mr. Kohn, a former teacher, in his timely new book, "The Schools Our Children Deserve" (Houghton Mifflin). It's a read that will warm the hearts of those left cold by the rush "back to basics" and infuriate those who bristle at popular buzzwords like problem-solving and cooperative learning. Those floating in the middle may simply wonder, upon reading Kohn's railings against tradition-bound teaching, if we are simply in the midst of yet another education pendulum swing.

For Kohn, the answer is yes - and it's putting us on nothing less than a high-speed trajectory toward erasing the joy of learning from classrooms. Like "The Teaching Gap," a look at teaching styles in the US, Japan, and Germany, Kohn targets better (read progressive) teaching as crucial to improving schools. Kohn has no use for what he sees as a preference for teaching facts divorced from meaning (see most math classes) or classrooms that allow little time to learn through doing, inventing, and struggling. He questions the growing emphasis on standardized tests that can't measure a broad range of achievement. And he begs to know why we want to push methods that alienated many kids who were poor fits in traditional classes.

Traditional teaching is as much to blame for current woes as progressive ideas, whose biggest failing is poor execution, he argues. Readers may be left wondering how he plans to fix that. But his passion for creativity is inspiring - and suggests that old ways aren't the only paths to top-flight results.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society