Advice for Duncan

The Author

Alfie Kohn, author of
Alfie Kohn, author of "The Schools Our Children Deserve."
Monday, January 12, 2009; 12:00 AM

Chicago public schools chief Arne Duncan goes before a Senate committee on Tuesday for a confirmation hearing. To help him set priorities, Post reporter Valerie Strauss asked folks in the education world to provide their best advice on key issues. Here is a response from Alfie Kohn, author of books including "The Schools Our Children Deserve."

Theory, research, and practice all suggest that carrots (merit pay for teachers, cash rewards for students) and sticks (public shaming, threatening to close down schools that need help) are as ineffective as they are insulting. But a wrong-headed strategy becomes far worse if the criterion for success or failure consists of the scores on fill-in-the-bubble exams. Thus, lesson #1 for the new secretary: Standardized tests measure what matters least. Mediocre schools can often manage to jack up these scores, in part by eviscerating meaningful learning opportunities for students. Terrific schools, meanwhile, may have unimpressive test results because they're busy helping students to think not memorize isolated facts or waste time practicing test-taking skills.

By turning instead to authentic, classroom-based assessments, the secretary would have a clearer picture of where high-quality teaching and learning are present. He would be able to talk about schools that are "high-performing" and "successful" -- and mean something other than those with good scores on bad tests. And he would be able to attend to real disparities in educational opportunities, rather than trying to "close the (test-score) gap" while ignoring, or even widening, the learning gap.

All children should have the chance to think deeply about questions that matter, understand ideas from the inside out, and learn through ambitious projects of their own design. But as long as schools are judged and worse, people are punished or rewarded based on standardized test results, that dream which is to say, real school reform is unlikely to be realized.

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