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Alfie Kohn Interview: Will the Common Core Benefit Children?

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As the Common Core standards now are being promised to fix everything in the world of education, I remain a skeptic. Scholar and author Alfie Kohn wrote this essay on the subject back in 2010. This week I asked him to share his current thoughts.

Question 1. Where do you think the drive for Common Core standards is coming from?

Alfie Kohn: I don't think we have to speculate; the answer is pretty clear: While some educational theorists have long favored national standards -- and got nowhere with the idea in the '90s -- the current successful push has come principally from corporate executives, politicians, and testing companies. This time they managed to foster the illusion that because the federal government, per se, isn't mandating it, they're not really "national" but just "core" standards, even though all but four states have signed on. It's rather like the effort to reframe vouchers as "choice." They've also been very shrewd this time about co-opting the education organizations by soliciting their counsel. These groups are so desperate for a "seat at the table" of power that they've agreed to confine the discussion to the content of the standards rather than asking whether the whole idea makes sense for children.

If your question is read more broadly -- not just "Who are the players?" but "What's the ideological underpinning?" -- then all you have to do is look at the rhetoric on the Core Standards website, read the defenses published elsewhere, listen to the speeches: This move toward even greater top-down control and uniformity is almost always justified in terms of "competing in the global economy." It's not about doing well, but about beating others. And it's not about intellectual depth and passion for learning, but about dollars and cents.

Question 2: Supporters believe these new standards will move us away from the narrow focus on reading and math tests that has been the downfall of NCLB. What do you think?

Alfie Kohn: Clearly it will encompass more than reading and math, but the question is whether that leads to the narrowing of other disciplines as well, particularly since these new standards will be yoked to some sort of one-size-fits-all test. That's been the dilemma of the whole corporate-styled, test-driven approach to "accountability" and school "reform" for some time now: If you teach English-language learners or kids with special needs, or if you're concerned about social studies, science, or the arts, you're tempted to say, "Test us, too, so we won't be neglected!" But it's like a dysfunctional family, where the main alternative to neglect is abuse. To impose overly specific, prescriptive standards -- enforced with standardized tests -- is to lower the quality of any field or the education of any population of students.


Question 3. What's wrong with making our curriculum more rigorous?

Alfie Kohn: My dictionary defines "rigorous" as harsh, burdensome, rigid. How is that beneficial? In most educational contexts, the word is basically equated with difficulty: A more rigorous school, classroom, text, or test, is merely one that's harder -- that is, one in which more students will not succeed. As I've argued elsewhere, it's not just that something can be too hard as surely as it can be too easy, although that's surely true (and not always acknowledged). The more important point is that difficulty level shouldn't be our primary basis for evaluating something. I've visited classrooms where the assignments weren't particularly hard but were incredibly rich, engaging, and valuable. And I've been to classrooms that were rigorous-with-a-capital-R that I wouldn't send my dog to.


Question 4. Would broad curricular guidelines of any sort be helpful?

Alfie Kohn: Some would, sure, depending on how democratic the process is by which they're formulated, what educational goals they promote, what approach to learning they reflect, and so on. But most standards in American education aren't broad, nor are they guidelines: They end up being quite specific (reflecting a commitment not to excellence but to behaviorism) and they quickly become mandates. As I pointed out in an on-line conversation with Gene Wilhoit more than two years ago, the Core Standards proponents have tried to have it both ways: They keep reassuring teachers that the standards aren't going to interfere with teachers' autonomy, that it's just about pedagogy but not curriculum (or is it the other way around? the two of course are inextricably linked), that educators have nothing to fear -- but at the same time the major selling point of these standards, the whole basis for the claim that they're going to raise the bar and restore America to its proper role of world domination is rooted in the uniformity and specificity of the standards. Just take a look at the track record of the groups behind this initiative -- Achieve, Inc. and other organizations of corporate executives and governors -- and it's not hard to guess which of these two prongs is for real and which is just public relations.

What do you think? Will the Common Core Standards on the whole be beneficial for students?

Alfie Kohn is the author of 12 books on education and human behavior, including The Schools Our Children Deserve, Punished by Rewards, The Case Against Standardized Testing, and, most recently, Feel-Bad Education.

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