Two forces now dominate the theory and practice of American education. The first, using the language of "tougher standards" and "accountability," is a heavy-handed, top-down, test-driven version of school reform which assumes that harder is always better. The second is an aggressive traditionalism that has resulted in treating today's students like their counterparts were treated in years gone by -- as passive receptacles into which facts and skills are poured. Both doctrines are accepted on faith by politicians, parents, and pundits -- and both come in for sharp scrutiny by Alfie Kohn, the author of paradigm-shattering books on competition and rewards.
Drawing on a wealth of research, Kohn argues that the demand for tougher standards reflects a lack of understanding about how and why children actually learn. When we encourage students to become obsessed with how well they're doing in school, they often lose interest in what they're doing, and ultimately they think less deeply. Worse, when we use standardized tests to measure how well they're doing, we squeeze the intellectual life out of classrooms and turn them into test-prep centers.
Better Schools Than We Had is Alfie Kohn's most timely and powerful work. Written for a general audience of parents and all those concerned with education reform, the book offers an ambitious yet practical vision of what should replace the "bunch o' facts" model in our children's classrooms. It is guaranteed to change the way readers think about school.
A devout critic of the American educational system's dependence on grades and test scores, Kohn (Punished by Rewards, etc.) has long questioned the priority given to basics, rote learning and other "mind-numbing strategies" in the traditional classroom. In his latest assessment, he advocates challenging students to relinquish their passive role in the learning process and to think critically. Tougher standards proposed by politicians and the business community, the author notes, may not be an effective cure-all since they put increased demands on students already overwhelmed by an abundance of facts and homework. "The difference between learning and achievement is hard enough to grasp; the difference between doing well and doing better than others is especially confusing in a society so obsessed with being Number One that the ideas of excellence and winning have been thoroughly conflated," he writes. While some sectors of American schools may be troubled, Kohn concludes, the overall state of the educational system is in better shape than previously thought, in part because negative statistics are blown out of proportion, and partly because standardized tests are flawed indicators of educational quality. Using current research, Kohn advances a series of well-reasoned arguments against traditional education without the usual storm of tree-shaking and excessive rhetoric. This is another balanced effort from an advocate who believes that taking our youth seriously and honoring their abilities and potential may be the first major step toward reform. Agent, Kim Witherspoon; 5-city author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.