Wednesday, July 22, 2015


My last post, Part I on the contradictory effects of controlling systems of schooling, was written in response to Alfie Kohn’s questioning of the educational truism that puts classroom management ahead of teaching:  the conventional wisdom that before you can teach, you have to establish an orderly classroom.

He referred to my analysis, discussed in my book Contradictions of Control:  School Structure and School Knowledge, showing that a highly controlling environment can actually suppress learning in unexpected ways. 

Before I get back to my own findings, or to the ways a controlling paradigm has been central to debates in Congress to replace NCLB with something called the Every Child Achieves policies, I’ll let Alfie Kohn’s words take us back into the classroom setting to consider what we lose when we think top-down, standardized schools are creating good spaces for learning:

Alfie Kohn, speaking of the premise that classroom management  has been seen as essential to teaching and learning:  “But what if that wasn’t entirely true? What if, at least for some teachers and administrators, an orderly classroom was the ultimate goal? And what if the curriculum and the model of teaching were actually chosen with that goal in mind?
“I first encountered this unsettling possibility some years ago in a book called Contradictions of Control. Its author, Rice University Professor Linda McNeil, had spent a lot of time observing in classrooms and thinking about what she saw. Rather than treating discipline as ‘instrumental to mastering the [academic] content,’ she concluded, ‘many teachers reverse those ends and means. They maintain discipline by the ways they present course content.’”

Kohn continues, “Once I let that idea sink in, I had to admit that a traditional curriculum (lists of facts to be memorized and skills to be practiced) and a traditional approach to pedagogy (lectures, textbooks, worksheets) make it much easier for a teacher to maintain control over students. Just compare that sort of classroom to one in which kids are encouraged to construct meaning and understand ideas from the inside out — an approach that’s collaborative, open-ended, project-based, and driven by students’ interests. If the first model suggests a rehearsed solo performance by the instructor, the second offers instruments to everyone in the room and invites them to participate in a kind of jazz improvisation.”

And then Kohn asks a vital question about the ways we assess children’s learning:  Are we really capturing what children are learning, or is the assessment system more of a system to manage and control? And if the latter, what are we losing in the process?”

“Once that mechanism is in place, the question becomes: What can be reduced most readily to a letter or number: test results or extended projects? Assignments completed by individual students or by groups? A focus on facts or on complex and inventive explorations of ideas? If you test students on factual material, it’s easy (or at least easier) to make them do what they’re told. By contrast, as one educator noticed, ‘If assessment focused on more complex and ambiguous goals, such as independent interpretation and analysis, the teachers seemed to fear that…classroom control could be undermined.’ Which is precisely why many of them preferred old-fashioned tests.

“”….this inversion of the conventional wisdom helps us make sense of practices and policies that otherwise seem mystifying. And given that the demand for conformity and compliance is integral to so many aspects of school life — including elaborate systems of rewards and punishments to elicit obedience — we have to take seriously the possibility that this is indeed an end in itself.”

Kohn may be right that for many teachers, a more controlled, prescribed, worksheet-based model of teaching may bring efficiencies to the management of the classroom itself. 

The larger question is what kind of system of schooling turns teachers into compliant distributors of packaged information (which may or may not rise to the level of “knowledge”)?  Why would school be transformed into a system of controls that reduce an educated professional to a de-skllled conduit of externally derived, reductivist material?  Why would anyone who knows anything about children and the excitement of learning create a system that runs on fear, fear of  of non-compliance? And to what end?

The recent debates in Congress on what kind of federal legislation should replace No Child Left Behind is a case study in the inversion of educational purposes:  far more debate has centered on mandates, sanctions, compliance indicators and jurisdiction over these, than on a serious investment in our children’s education.  Whether the federal government can withdraw funds from schools or states for non-compliance with testing requirements, and who decides how test scores are used for such accountability measures, has displaced any proffer of a vision for creating and sustaining equitable, educationally robust, empowering educational experiences for our children.

Watching even liberal Democrats (Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown, WHAT were you thinking??) vote against parents’ rights to out their kids out of standardized testing, shows that our collective purpose of educating children for their personal development and for their active participation in our democracy has been hijacked by the data-mongers, the anti-kid folks who are very close to normalizing a completely uneducational definition of schooling!

For me that understanding takes us back to the larger social issue:  who, or what, benefits from a system of schooling that is highly controlled, even standardized?  Who, or what, might benefit from a teachers too vulnerable, or too inadequately prepared and professionally supported, to resist and refuse the contradictions of such controls?  

And what possibilities open up for our children and our schools when school governance and school management are structured to support, enable, and equitably provision all our schools, rather than control them through standardized trivia that serves no child but is evidently in service of forces aimed at weakening the public’s schools.

In future posts, I’ll explore the larger social control issues at work here, as well as highlight exciting ways teachers and students can join in learning that is credible, empowering, and too complex and messy to be “managed” or “controlled.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


My plan for this blog during the summer was to shift away from critiquing the policies that are increasingly standardizing our schools, silencing the wisdoms of our wonderfully diverse cultures, truncating the knowledge accessible to our kids, de-skilling teachers, and erasing what we know about assessing children’s learning and their development, creating new inequities while reinforcing the old ones, and generally weakening the public’s schools.  We know all of this already.  

My plan was to devote the summer to exploring, and sharing here,  extraordinary possibilities:  possibilities for great teaching (see Pansy Gee’s ways of helping her students find their voice as writers [link to her post]), for creative ways of engaging children’s imaginations, for building a community of support around our schools, for tackling tough social issues with kids in the safe setting of a classroom. 

But the timing – and somewhat below-the-radar process--of Congress’s re-write of No Child Left Behind, and a recent statement by Alfie Kohn, brought me back to my early writings about the ways a school’s  organization and management can support and enhance, or drastically undermine, the quality of teaching and learning.

Alfie Kohn has long been a visionary educator and therefore a persistent, knowledgeable, and valued critic of standardized schools and the ways standardized accountability can invade and distort the whole educational experience.

As quoted in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog, “The Answer Sheet,” Alfie Kohn reflects on the truism that classroom “management” is a pre-requisite to teaching and learning.  He recalled that my analysis, in my book Contradictions of Control, showed that when management becomes controlling rather than supportive, it can produce perverse effects, even preventing learning.

My research pre-dated the standardization of today; the teachers I observed had great latitude over their curriculum, had union protections of course loads and class size, and gave their own tests. They would be the envy of most teachers laboring under our current system.  But arbitrary, top-down decisions by management in three of the schools had trivialized teachers’ roles.  Lacking much authority within the school, the teachers tightened their authority over their students by the ways they dispensed curricular knowledge, limited discussion and generally went through the motions of compliance, in their case “covering the material.”

Students, deprived of a chance to explore and discuss ideas, investigate sources and generally engage with the subject, reduced their efforts to minimal compliance as well, silently taking notes without questioning the lecture but (and this came out in interviews without my asking the question) deciding the “school knowledge” was not credible. Certainly not credible enough to retain beyond the next test.

In that very na├»ve, pre-accountability, moment, I wrote the following summary of my findings:  “The analysis which follows gives evidence that reforms based on increased management controls will prove to be wrong-headed and misguided. In those schools where tensions between the controlling functions and the educational purposes were resolved in favor of controls, teachers felt undermined, professionally threatened and, in my analysis, they began unwittingly to participate in their own de-skilling.  Where teaching and learning were not taken seriously, students recognized the rewards to minimum participation and were perhaps justifiably reluctant to become actively engaged in learning.” (p. xxi)

I did find one high school where the tension between managing and being supportive (a much messier and less exact job!) was “resolved in favor of educational purposes…. teachers put few walls between their personal knowledge and “school knowledge.”  These teachers opened up learning to questioning, to examining complexities, to viewing students more optimistically as contributors to the construction of meaningful learning rather than as passive recipients of “official knowledge.”

In future writings, I’ll have more to say about the ways standardized curricula have become a force of social control, of really re-shaping our collective knowledge and our knowledge of our democratic heritage.  

Friday, July 3, 2015


The monumental Supreme Court rulings of the past few weeks, and the tragic murders of Black worshipers in their South Carolina church, have so captured the nation’s attention, that we may be forgiven for not noticing that our children’s schools are also facing a major milestone:  a decision from Congress to continue the harmful policies of No Child Left Behind, or to get rid of NCLB’s most onerous mandates – starting with the mandate to test every child every year using standardized tests.

We now know after more than a decade under NCLB (and 20 years in states like Texas) that these tests have no educational value, drain hundreds of millions of dollars away from classrooms, reduce children to “data points” used to rate their teachers and their schools, correlate more with family wealth or poverty than with other ways of assessing children’s learning, and actually work against our children’s learning as “test prep” and “benchmark” and “snapshot” tests take the place of substantive, active, engaged learning.

Even more dangerously, low test scores are often being used to punish underfunded schools by closing them or outsourcing those children to private charter chains.   Our system of democratic, public schools is itself a target of the tests.  It’s time to get rid of these tests.

“Opting Out” of the tests has swept across the nation, as parents refuse to let their children’s test scores become the currency of school “reform.”

It’s now time for Congress to join the Opt Out movement – and you can help.  Congress takes up the “Every Child Achieves” bill on July 7.  The current versions of the bill in the US House and Senate still include the mandate for annual testing for every child.  Senator Jon Tester wants to change that.  He proposes an amendment to roll back the federal testing mandate.  His amendment would require that schools test children once each in elementary, middle and high schools.    He has listened to teachers and parents and the research that shows the mandated tests to be against the interests of our children.  Sen. Tester now needs your help in getting your senators to vote for this amendment and get rid of the federal mandate to test every child every year.

A similar amendment has been introduced in the House by Rep. Chris Gibson.  Rep. Gibson needs you to contact your member of  Congress to urge support of this reduction in testing.

Who has time to call or email a member of Congress over the 4th of July holiday? We’re in airports or long car trips, setting up picnics and grills and finding where to park to see the fireworks.

But really, what could be more “4th of July” than declaring our Independence from the testing companies?  We don’t have to dump the answer sheets in the harbor – just contact our Senators with a brief but powerful message that says we’re giving them an opportunity to do right by the kids.  And we’ll be watching at election time to see how they voted on standardized testing.
“Every Child Achieves” is far from perfect; if you get a chance to read the document  – or even a summary – you’ll see still too many “accountability” pieces, a bit more discretion at the state level but not necessarily in classrooms, too little funding for anything – much less an investment in a powerful education for all our children.  But if the old system can’t be totally dismantled in this session of Congress, we can make progress by supporting the Tester and Gibson amendments and, in the process, remind our members of Congress that we’re here for the kids and we’re watching their votes.

Monty Neill and the folks at FairTest are my source for the most up-to-date and informed ways to influence legislation.  Do check out their site as these votes proceed.
Here’s the latest I have from them:

You can help roll back testing overkill by acting today! Tell [YOUR SENATORS] to vote for Sen. Jon Tester’s amendment to reduce federally mandated standardized testing from every-kid-every-year to once each in elementary, middle and high schools.
The Senate will vote the week of July 7 on a new federal education law to replace “No Child Left Behind.” The bill ends federally mandated high stakes for schools and teachers. That’s big progress for assessment reformers! But the proposal maintains annual testing in grades 3-8. Sen. Tester’s amendment will end that counter-productive policy.
We can win if you act now! Every Senator matters. Send this letter.

Please tell the House Rules Committee to allow debate by the full U.S. House of Representatives on Rep. Chris Gibson’s amendment to H.R. 5 that will allow states to test students once each in elementary, middle and high school. You can contact the committee at; Phone: (202) 225-9191; Fax: (202) 225-6763. Gibson introduced his amendment as a bill, H.R. 452.

A Rules Committee hearing on July 7 will determine which amendments can be debated by the full House membership when it takes up a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (H.R. 5) later this month.

Rep. Pete Sessions (TX-32), Chairman
Rep. Virginia Foxx (NC-05) Vice-Chairman
Rep. Tom Cole (OK-04)
Rep. Rob Woodall (GA-07)
Rep. Michael C. Burgess (TX-26) 
Rep. Steve Stivers (OH-15)
Rep. Doug Collins (GA-19)
Rep. Bradly Byrne (R-AL-1) 
Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA-4)

Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter (NY-25), Ranking Member
Rep. James P. McGovern (MA-02)
Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20)
Rep. Jared Polis (CO-02)