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Herb Kohl: The Perilous Road We Must Take


Why is the achievement gap so persistent? Herb Kohl thinks we are asking the wrong questions, and our efforts to close the gap are largely misguided. I first got to know Herb Kohl when I was a teen in Berkeley in the 1970s, when he was working to create alternative schools there. You may have seen Kohl's provocative thoughts recently, as he has taken Arne Duncan to task for extending and expanding the education policies of the Bush administration. I thought of Herb again when commenters on my blog raised some questions about how teachers can balance direct instruction with an inquiry approach to best close the achievement gap.


Debra Buffington posted (in part):

I found that minority students learned best in my classroom with direct, hands-on instruction and drill. The old fashioned tried and true methods work for me. Sad to say we are not allowed to use creativity in the classroom any more and are told what to say and what materials to use. I sneak and use what works anyway.

Heidi Werling responded:

Has anyone else noticed the paradox in these posts? I found it interesting to read posts stating that research shows both inquiry based instruction and direct instruction are successful in closing the achievement gap. These two instructional methods are poles apart, yet both seem to work. I wonder if there is another factor at play here? Any ideas?

I wrote to Herb this week and asked him for his thoughts on this paradox. Here is his reply:

The main factor at play in achievement is the willingness of the student to learn what you want to teach. Young people want to learn and do all the time at home, in church, on the streets. They learn through music, by talking with their friends, by listening to TV, going to movies, and by reading - not necessarily what teachers want them to read, but through what they choose to read or what their friends tell them is worth looking at. If you define learning as classroom performance, you impoverish your understanding of who your students are and what the scope and nature of their intelligence is.
The comments I read from your blog talk about that narrow channel of school based, test-oriented learning which, over the course of a lifetime, provides the mind with trivial baggage that is best dumped and replaced with a personal relationship to understanding people, politics, work, nature, and the workings of the imagination and the complexities of living in the current world.
There are many ways to learn and it is foolish to say that specific students have single stylized modes of learning. We all learn in many different ways. Sometimes memorization is essential (for example if you acting in a play or have to perform set routines every day). Other times, attending a lecture is a useful way of absorbing new information or learning about unfamiliar areas of knowledge. Often the best way of learning depends upon experimentation and imaginative speculation, or critical conversation, or project based exploration.
To wonder whether inquiry based instruction or direct teaching is "the best way" is foolish. It depends upon what you are learning, on the demands of the subject matter or problem you are considering. It also depends upon how learning can become integrated into thought and action. Pleasure, motivation, mystery, challenge all drive learning. And even at times external rewards can push one to learn things that are functional.
However I think, from the way the contributors to your blog phrased their arguments, that they are not talking about learning or teaching at all. They are talking about how best to force children to perform on adult created instruments of convenience - that is convenience to the adults who are obsessed with measuring everything and controlling young lives. Narrowing the performance gap requires, most of all, treating poor children and children of color, as intelligent, sensitive imaginative human beings who have been deprived of all the opportunity to learn that more privileged children have.
The achievement gap is not created because privileged kids naturally perform better on standardized tests. These kids perform better because they are provided with multiple opportunities to learn in the sciences and the arts, with occasions to explore the cultural resources of their communities. Their parents and schools resource them, attempt to nurture their minds and imaginations, and, as pay-back, the teachers and parents expect their children to spend part of their time utilizing what they already know and learning to fit it into the straitjacket of high stakes tests.
To expect that children who do not have rich learning environments will perform in a way that is comparable to those who bring more "educational" sophistication to the testing table is probably foolish. The impatience to equalize test results through drill and practice, narrowing the curriculum, and inhibiting teachers' creativity is counterproductive. The best possible case is that students will do well on the test and then discover, in college and later in life, that they learned nothing in school. The worst case is to intensify the gap and the humiliation and frustration it causes. We have to dare to take issues of equity seriously and fight for resources and opportunities for all of our students. During the brief Allende administration in Chile one of the mottos painted on the walls in Santiago was: In the future the only privileged ones will be the children. I believe it is incumbent on all of us to struggle for this, but in the current climate of Duncan's Office of Education, it is a morally necessary but dangerous and perilous road to take.

What do you think? Do you agree with Kohl's redefinition of the achievement gap? What sorts of learning opportunities should children of color and poverty be given?

photo by Anthony Cody


First of all, I resonated with what Debra Buffington wrote about direct, hands-on instruction and drill and found it to be true in my classroom. I loved Herb Kohl's answer too. Just like the false whole language/phonics dichotomy, there is room for many different ways to teach.
Secondly, I tend to agree with Herb's assessment of the achievement gap. He places the responsibility for the achievement gap on the community at large, not just teachers and administrators, who struggle to make up for what are essentially cultural problems. Some children come to school unmotivated to learn because it is devalued at home, or because of undiscovered learning difficulties. Many children come from families that do not know of, or cannot make available for one reason or another, the rich cultural activities that wealthier or more savvy families can provide for their children. Perhaps the answers do not solely lie in how teachers teach a subject; perhaps money can be funneled into schools to provide after-school activities that give background knowledge to our under-priviledged youngsters, such as field trips.
Children really do want to learn, and we must absolutely let children be children and allow them to learn in ways that are natural to them. Then maybe we'll see some changes in the achievement gap.
Thanks for a great article.

Anthony, I want to thank you for bringing to light what I also often hear as a "dichotomy" in the discourse about instruction and the achievement gap. Herb Kohl, someone whose work has inspired me for a couple of decades and seems to manage to look squarely at the dysfunctions of the American educational system and STILL stay engaged, active, and powerfully perceptive (something else I admire), points to an absolutely central piece of this dilemma in his opening sentence. "The main factor at play in achievement is the willingness of the student to learn what you want to teach." In every step of our analysis of the achievement gap, we fail to fully appreciate the complex, rounded human being--the student--who is in fact making choices about whether and what to learn, based on all the information and experiences that inform the student's complicated world. Until we see students as dynamic, fully rounded individuals--and I think this is something Herb Kohl has made a point of doing throughout his career--and understand how the institutions in which we work constrain our ability to do so--such gaps will persist.

I deeply appreciate your column and I really especially am grateful for the way you've pushed to explore the complexities in this apparent dilemma. Dichotomous thinking about "what works," as we all know, tends to produce flat, ultimately not very helpful understandings of our problems.

Thank you! Herb Kohl's comments inspire.
Running an educational lottery with stimulus funds disguised as improving teacher quality reminds of past mistakes. Enriching environment, supporting individual growth and opportunities levels the playing field. We need every trained professional to combat our drop out emergency. Since thousands of teachers are collecting unemployment checks, this doesn't seem like the time to be rewarding institutions for their ability to write impressive grants.

Marsha writes:
"Since thousands of teachers are collecting unemployment checks, this doesn't seem like the time to be rewarding institutions for their ability to write impressive grants."

On the contrary, this is precisely when those with grant dollars have maximum leverage. The schools are starved for funds, so they are desperate for grants, and the foundations (or in this case the Federal government) can use a token investment to get the entire system to follow their lead. This actually undermines the public nature of public schools. Elected school boards are rendered impotent as financial crises are used to sideline them, and put the educational philanthropists in charge. This is fundamentally undemocratic.

Thank you Andy Cody for the Dialog “: Living Dialogue”. I have been a student of school improvement for more years than I like to think about and have concluded that we have missed the boat on so many topic and since there are many interrelated and interacting issues, involved, it is impossible to delineate there individual effectiveness. Except for cost effectiveness concerns they can, for the most part, be separated as good, bad or indifferent or ineffective. Real data can help scalars with this type valuable analysis.

My experience keeps coming to one complicated conclusion and I realize that I am beginning to sound as a stake-holder; a term I detest.

I believe that there is not one odder of innate difference between students of the rich or poor, white or black, un-common ethnicity, students from different nationhood, education of parents or any of the characteristics we ascribe to. However as children grow, differences develop. And, the differences are based on the neurotic traits they develop. They develop traits based on their life experiences. How else can we explain how a kid from the inner city, deprived parents, single or no parents, poor schools, become successful in life? It can not be luck because luck is fleeting. We as educators can not control the ideal life experiences that lead to success, even though we can attempt to stack the odds towards success. Therefore, we are left with the question of how we educate all children equally. And by all children, I do mean the good, the, bad and the ugly.

My best shoot at this question, is to teach students how to identify the good traits, the bad traits and more importantly the consequences of the good and bad traits. How to execute this type teaching is beyond my pay grade but I did take a shot at in my newly released book “Prelude to Chaos”. But, if successful with our efforts, we will reduce crime, and divorce rates, school discipline problems and host of other social ills

John V. Patrick
[email protected]

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