One of my educational favs, Alfie Kohn, offers a "progressive" alternative to the names most often mentioned for Obama's Secretary of Education in his forthcoming Nation article, Beware School "Reformers". (Thanks to Scott McLeod and Gary Stager for pointing this article out and for many far more politically astute bloggers for their analyses.)
Kohn suggests that those currently being regarded as "reformers" support:
- a heavy reliance on fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests to evaluate students and schools, generally in place of more authentic forms of assessment;
- the imposition of prescriptive, top-down teaching standards and curriculum mandates;
- a disproportionate emphasis on rote learning—memorizing facts and practicing skills—particularly for poor kids;
- a behaviorist model of motivation in which rewards (notably money) and punishments are used on teachers and students to compel compliance or raise test scores;
- a corporate sensibility and an economic rationale for schooling, the point being to prepare children to “compete” as future employees; and
- charter schools, many of which are run by for-profit companies.
Notice that these features are already pervasive, which means “reform” actually signals more of the same—or, perhaps, intensification of the status quo with variations like one-size-fits-all national curriculum standards or longer school days (or years). Almost never questioned, meanwhile, are the core elements of traditional schooling, such as lectures, worksheets, quizzes, grades, homework, punitive discipline, and competition. That would require real reform, which of course is off the table.
On Minnesota Public Radion the other day, an interesting comment was made by a caller. He wondered why, if a plane in flight got in trouble, the passengers would not say, "Professional pilots got us in this mess; we need someone who is not a pilot to get us out." But society seems to often say, "Professional educators have messed up our schools; let's get someone from outside the profession to straighten them out." How is it that everyone seems to love individual teachers, but hate the profession?
How has the educational profession lost the public trust? Why do we as a nation love our own neighborhood schools, but remain convinced that public education as a whole stinks? Why are political pundits (many who simply want to bust union and increase public financing of private schools rather than improve education) honored and professional educators ignored?
Distrust of professional educators is the only reasons I can think of why we continue to use bubbled, normed tests in this country instead of formative, criterion-based assessment. More importantly, how does the profession gain public confidence in public schools? Or is it possible?
Regardless of whom Obama choses to lead the Department of Education, most of us will soldier on doing what's right by kids - just adjusting our level of subversiveness to fit the educational climate.