Moving Beyond Traditional

Classrooms And "Tougher Standards"

By Alfie Kohn

Houghton Mifflin. 344 pp. $24

Reviewed by Linda Perlstein

For a while on the campaign trail, George W. Bush was criticized for talking more in vague platitudes (think "not leaving anyone behind") than about specific plans. Then, last month in Los Angeles, he made his first major policy address, about what must be done to improve the country's schools.

Here the candidate was talking specifics, "accountability" and "rigorous standards" and "measurable goals" and "academic basics" -- words that are now ubiquitous at school board meetings, conferences, even barbecues, wherever Americans (liberal or conservative) discuss the state of education. These are words so powerful they quieted many of Bush's critics, at least temporarily.

People may wonder what the rallying cries of "accountability" and "standards" really mean. In public schools across the country, they mean this: Teachers teach concepts, facts and processes that are laid out from above. They model their teaching around the regular exams that test how well students have learned those concepts, facts and processes. From the test scores, we the people know how well our children are doing. When scores rise, educators congratulate themselves. When scores fall, officials threaten to dismantle schools or parents transfer their children elsewhere -- because they assume that children with higher scores are being better educated.

But are they? We know that focusing on these tests raises scores. But is anyone asking whether raising scores really has anything to do with improving learning? Are our children getting smarter? Or just better at the tests?

In the mania of school improvement (which has at its base a worthy desire to make sure schools aren't allowed to be awful), the tests are de rigueur, so it's a relief that Alfie Kohn tries to answer these questions in The Schools Our Children Deserve. Kohn, who makes a living writing and lecturing about schools, thinks the testing fad is dangerous for many reasons: He contends that high scores on standardized tests are correlated with shallow thinking; that the focus on "performance" makes both teachers and students choke in the clutch; and that the tests themselves -- and the standards they measure -- are artificial, preparing children better for an appearance on "Jeopardy!" than for the "real world" that all the educational critics fret about.

These are all important points that legislators and other accountability fans should be ashamed not to discuss. But Kohn's argument revolves around the assumption that taking standardized tests -- and the teaching that prepares children for them -- consists just of regurgitating facts. That's the case in only a few states. There may not be such a thing as a perfect test, but there are better ones. On Maryland's test, for example, children work on science experiments in groups. They write essays comparing poems. After they graph an equation, they write a paragraph explaining how they figured it out.

Kohn is a former teacher, but his neglect of details like this makes it hard to figure out how much time he spends in schools. His examples are mostly secondhand, and many are dated or just inaccurate. He writes that "such objectives as wanting students to learn how to write persuasively or solve problems effectively are dismissed as `mushy'." But in Maryland "writing to persuade" is an explicit goal. He says teachers "can be evaluated on the basis of their students' scores and then find their paychecks swollen or shrunk accordingly." No teachers lose money when scores drop; what union would allow it?

While some examples are stale, however, Kohn's underlying concerns are important. And the book is far more than a critique of testing. He takes on grades, the focus on the "correct" answer, worksheets and drills, textbooks, a teacher-set agenda -- basically, everything that is typical in schools.

His critique of grades is based on a belief (like many in this book, backed with research citations) that a focus on performance makes children avoid challenges. Along the same lines, Kohn says learning is crippled when the point of an exercise is getting the right answer. Whether a student answers "12" or "13" to "What is eight plus five," Kohn writes, the response should be the same: "How did you get that?" The process is what's important, and too often neglected.

Kohn has it in, too, for spelling drills and worksheets that he says suck the joy out of reading. One of the strongest parts of the book is his great defense of teaching reading through "whole language," including a critique of the sticklers for accuracy who would prefer a student to write about a "bad dog" rather than a "froshus dobrmn pesnr."

But his disdain for drilling students in the basics assumes a great leap. Instead of memorizing facts about Civil War battles, he says, students should write a diary as if they were soldiers. Kids should learn math through hands-on projects instead of by memorizing the times tables. (He would hate some of the currently popular tricks, such as the story to remember four times four is 16: You have to be 16 years old to drive a 4x4!) The activities that he suggests are wonderful. But somehow, children must learn the facts of the matter -- that the North fought the South, that the "sh" sound can be spelled "ci," as in "ferocious" -- and Kohn never quite explains how they should.

Kohn believes school should be "more about producing thinkers than walking repositories of knowledge, more about creating an ethic of questioning than of preserving the status quo, more about teaching and learning than sorting and selecting." It's an inspiring philosophy, and with the first half of the book devoted to slamming bad practices (with a tiresome surfeit of footnotes), he doesn't get to it fast enough.

Once he begins explaining the kind of classrooms parents, legislators and educators should insist on, the book zips. He's right that too many classrooms are lifeless and children inattentive and bored -- and that there are ways to change that. Children aren't empty containers waiting to be filled; education isn't something done to them but with them and even by them. He writes of classrooms where teachers nudge patiently as children puzzle through challenges they have discovered themselves, where problems take days to unravel, where math and science and writing unite in ongoing, interdisciplinary and relevant projects.

Kohn acknowledges that with demands the way they are now, creating such a classroom will be hard for even the best teachers. But once they read about the class that spent half a year building and analyzing animal habitats, or the children who discovered how to measure things by flopping themselves inside an imaginary boat (learning things that may or may not wind up on a test one day), teachers, their employers and the people who hold them all accountable may be inspired to seek a better path toward learning.

Linda Perlstein covers education for the Metro section of The Washington Post.