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 naïve, 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.  

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