Alfie Kohn  - The Schools Our Children Deserve

My early journey to thinking differently about school was piecemeal before finding Alfie Kohn. Neil Postman’s Teaching As A Subversive Activity was like probing a loose tooth, exposing the tension between what school was and had the potential to be. Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment helped me understand the practical structures I could use to put my budding student-centered ideas into practice and resolve some of that tension; however, one book put all of the contradictions of school into focus at once, reoriented my perspective on children as learners, reframed motivation, and gave me the language — as well as the research — to explain not just what felt so wrong but what I could do about it: Alfie Kohn’s The Schools Our Children Deserve (1999).

I first encountered Alfie Kohn as a new parent and an increasingly frustrated early career teacher, skeptical of the behaviorism I saw in school — though at the time I lacked the language to describe why it unsettled me — and the messages communicated to parents by society about so-called “accountability” and control in our relationships with children.

In contrast with the methods books I had read for coursework and professional development, Kohn’s voice spoke to me with an urgency, a moral weight and clarity which framed dry topics like grading and standardized testing not merely as disagreements over syllabus language and school policy but as a moral conflict for which the continued reluctance and resistance to change came each year at a growing cost. Kohn’s work can be a gateway into humanized, relational parenting and student-focused educational practices, but it can also be a cause for frustration once harm is made apparent, prompting conscientious individuals to take action inside unsupportive and unresponsive systems.

This is an overview of The Schools Our Children Deserve, its key ideas and takeaways, and a brief analysis of Kohn’s ideas through the lens of the two decades passed since the book’s original publication. Have we moved beyond traditional classrooms and tougher standards? What progress has been made and where can go from here?

Have we moved beyond traditional classrooms and tougher standards? What progress has been made and where can go from here?

Though Kohn has published entire books singularly focused on the topics of motivation, competition, homework, standardized testing, among others, The Schools Our Children Deserve manages to elaborate on each of these aspects of his vision for progressive education. What’s more, Kohn supports each topic with an incredible volume of research and related literature — my paperback edition contains 94 pages of notes and references. Each chapter focuses on Kohn’s analysis of the issue and synthesis of the research supporting his interpretation. Here’s my take on 5 of his big ideas from the book:

  1. Intrinsic Motivation > Extrinsic Motivators

Vital to understanding Kohn’s impact on education is the notion that extrinsic motivators simply don’t work the way we think they do. They may motivate children and students in the short-run to accomplish a task but their will to perform ultimately runs out when the rewards vanish. In getting our children and students to perform we insidiously undermine their intrinsic motivation to learn, read, dance, and even make pro-social choices. This may be the central idea of Kohn’s vision of education as systems make decisions and incentivize outcomes for schools, teachers, and students based on the pursuit of measures of achievement, and as the hazards of extrinsic motivation extend from the sticker charts and Positive Behavior Intervention Supports of elementary school to letter grades and standardized test scores that dominate high school life.

An emphasis on achievement “suggests that this emphasis (1) undermines students’ interest in learning, (2) makes failure seem overwhelming, (3) leads students to avoid challenging themselves, (4) reduces the quality of learning, and (5) invites students to think about how smart they are instead of how hard they tried.” (p. 28)

2. Futility & Harm of Grades & Grading

Not only are grades unreliable communicators and grade-related bookkeeping an unproductive use of precious teacher time, like any of the extrinsic measures Kohn criticizes, grades don’t work as we think they do to motivate students. The incentives created by grades also undermine what we say we believe are the goals of education. According to Kohn, grades tend to reduce students’ interest in learning, reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks, and reduce the quality of students’ thinking: “The evidence suggests that, all things being equal, students in a school that uses no letters or numbers to rate them will be more likely to think deeply, love learning, and tackle more challenging tasks” (p. 189). So if I want my students to be motivated and interested in learning; if I want them to take risks and prefer challenging tasks; and if I want to improve the quality of their thinking; why would I choose to invite grades into my classroom?

“[The abolition of traditional grades] is based on the observation that almost all kids will come to accept that the point of going to school is to get A’s and, as a result, their learning will be hurt. The more we stay focused on our long-term goals for our kids, the more we’ll do everything in our power to help them forget about grades to they can become excited about ideas.” (p. 44)

Even standards-based grading, despite its current popularity, often fails to address the negative consequences of grades and of being graded in its inconsistent implementation and fatal attachment to traditional incentives. Kohn refers to SBG in a recent Tweet as “lipstick on a pig”.

3. Futility & Harm of Standardized Testing

Kohn dedicates the entire fourth chapter,“The Case Against Standardized Tests”, to dispelling the myths about standardized tests and their use in schools. Beginning with our cultural “preoccupation with that which can be seen and measured”, Kohn writes, “Any aspect of learning (or life) that resists being reduced to numbers is regarded as vaguely suspicious. By contrast, anything that appears in numerical form seems reassuringly scientific…” (p. 75). These tests, which take up so much of our national conversation and energy around “school improvement”, measure little of what schools can control and even littler of what is worth learning and doing. To exacerbate the damage, norm-referenced test results — which report student results in relation to other students — are frequently interpreted and used incorrectly in educational decision-making about children, schools, and curriculum. The net effect is that the purpose of school seems to be more about managing standardized quantitative measures of inflated and artificial importance. Kohn laments that success, performance, and achievement have become the organizing principles of schooling while curiosity, discovery, and exploration are “nowhere to be seen or heard” (p. 88).

4. Cooperation & Collaboration > Competition

In his public appearances and lectures, Kohn frequently asks his audiences to list their fondest hopes and outcomes for their own children. While it might be difficult to imagine that any healthy response to this exercise would rely too heavily on relative measures of wealth, health, or happiness — “I just hope they do better than…” — embedded throughout the structure of school is education as a competition for the purpose of sorting out the “winners and losers”. Setting aside competition in education as a perpetuation of systemic injustice and social and economic inequality, Kohn makes very clear the rational case against competition:

“The research supporting these claims is there for anyone who cares to find it. These studies show quite clearly that:

Students who have come to equate success with doing better than others are more likely to think in a “surface level” way,

Students are more likely to attribute the results of a competition to factors outside their control (compared with how they explain non-competitive success or failure),

A competitive learning environment causes students to dislike school and show less interest in a given subject,

People of different abilities tend to learn more effectively on a range of tasks when they’re able to cooperate with one another than when they’re trying to defeat one another.”

And so on and so on. If competition were a consumer product rather than an ideology, it would have been banned long ago.” (p. 38)

5. Working With > Doing To

This last big idea is one of Kohn’s broadest critiques of the traditional model of school. The “doing to” model encompasses classroom structures like seating charts and bathroom policies; instruction and assessment strategies that presume outcomes and rubrics and weigh kids accordingly; and a standardized curriculum model emphasizing coverage, transmission, and passive recall of information. But at the core of Kohn’s criticism of the traditional “doing to” model of school is an implicit — and sometimes explicit — distrust and disrespect of children as learners:

“These adults basically don’t trust that kids turned loose on arithmetic problems could ever find their way to the right answer without being handed a step-by-step procedure. They don’t believe that kids can do justice to controversial issues in social studies and complicated themes in literature; they must be told what’s what. (By the same token, it’s assumed that kids are incapable of deciding what kind of classroom environment they want to have and must instead be rewarded and threatened into meeting the teacher’s specific expectations for how to behave.)” (p. 65)

When students “fail” to learn by the measures of the traditional model it is assumed to be the student’s fault and they are given a double dose of “accountability” to make up for it, as Kohn writes, “The more that traditional methods fail, the more they are prescribed.” (p. 66) So-called “at-risk” or “failing schools” in which the students come from predominately low-income communities of color “suffer most from a proficiency-driven curriculum” where the stakes for standardized testing are highest. Drill-and-kill direct instruction curriculum has been shown to slightly improve test scores in the short run, but the research is damning for its long-term impact on student mental health and it keeps students trapped in the kind of low-level thinking valued and assessed on exams. Kohn cites a study of 32 California preschool and kindergarten classrooms which demonstrated higher reading test scores for the “basic skills” classes compared to a “child-centered” classes and showed no difference on math assessment between the two, while the children in the basic skills class had “lowered expectations of themselves, worried more about school, were more dependent on adults, and preferred easier tasks” (p. 217).

Key takeaways

The Schools Our Children Deserve is a representative sample of Kohn’s powerful critique of the “old school” as well as his positive vision for progressive education (what Kohn calls “nontraditional” teaching). It’s also a book for educators exasperated by mainstream professional development texts prescribing a recipe for teaching to the status quo — “here’s what works” — and want a new language to describe and challenge the contradictions between the mission statement hung in the foyer and the reality of school.

So where does that leave us? Perhaps as we look at Postman’s now half-century old Teaching As a Subversive Activity as a product of the counterculture’s mistrust of authority and suspicion of the authoritarian aims of education in the context of the Vietnam War and Cold War anti-communism, “white rage” in the reaction to the progress of the Civil Rights movement and the Great Society, and other political and cultural flashpoints of the 1960s. Kohn’s published work belongs in some ways to an earlier era of the conditions and debates over public education more relevant to my experience of school as an “old Millennial” graduating high school under No Child Left Behind than of the high school students I teach today. 

The education system has undoubtedly taken steps in Kohn’s direction: NCLB is dead (though we live in the fallout of punitive accountability and “performance gaps”), and we’ve moved past Race to the Top. Though “high performing” schools are still pressured to improve AP scores and expand course offerings, since 2016 at least the AP humanities exams have undergone a restructuring in an attempt to move away from assessing merely rote memorization. A growing criticism of the testing industry and a spotlight on rigging and discrimination in the college admission process has lead some colleges to adopt the Mastery Transcript and has led graduate programs to drop GRE requirements. Mainstream skepticism of decades of flat NAEP scores have led teachers and systems to move beyond accountability to focus instead on best serving communities and combating sources of inequality. A renewed conversation around equity and antiracism has pushed restorative justice to the center of educational decision-making, and arguments bolstered not in the least by Kohn’s work and two decades of other research exposing the harm of grading have supported a growing numbers of teachers who are “going gradeless”. And even though state budgets have been ravaged by privatization and tax cuts, desperate and conscientious educators in Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, Virginia, West Virginia, and elsewhere have successfully gone on strike to wrest power back from enemies of education to help improve salaries and improve working and learning conditions.

But like early sailors who dared not risk losing sight of the shore, we always seem to keep the “old school” in our minds-eye as we think about students and systems. PBIS, for example, as a means of controlling and rewarding student behavior is widely practiced at all grade levels across the country. It has a mandate in my own state even as restorative justice approaches are becoming more widespread. There is a schism in the way educators talk about which practices are or aren’t supported by a narrowly defined cognitive science of learning which treats students as data to managed and attempts to replicate the results of controlled experiments in a live classroom environment. Alternatively, teachers are offered individualistic solutions and are encouraged to bear the burden of raising test scores and rescue students from oppressive systems simply by “teaching like a…”. Funding for public schools is a smaller portion of state & federal budgets, and politicians have cynically used the results of standardized assessments and the narrative of “failing schools” to push voucher programs that put public money into private pockets.

Even two decades after The Schools Our Children Deserve, Kohn responded briefly to this “new world” of behaviorism in a Sept 2018 article titled “It’s Not About Behavior”: “Some of these variants are marketed as new innovations. But if competence or proficiency is still defined as the mastery of discrete skills or bits of knowledge, it reflects the same Skinnerian model that was developed on rodents and pigeons. Similarly, grades are no less destructive just because they are ‘standards-based.’ Formative assessment can be as reductive as summative tests, particularly if it’s done continuously. Reward programs are controlling and counterproductive even when they’re implemented with a cute app.” So although our cultural and educational context has certainly changed as we head into the third decade of this century, clearly we’ve still got work to do to move our classrooms, schools, and systems toward collaborative, equitable, humanized outcomes for kids. Alfie Kohn’s voice continues to be a vital part of that effort.

Nearly all of Alfie Kohn’s work is available on his website, which is frequently updated, and he is active on twitter @alfiekohn. Check out our interview with Alfie Kohn on our podcast “Things Fall Apart”.