Pedagogy of the lost: Alfie Kohn strikes again

Alfie Kohn is the latest to weigh in on ?the pedagogy of poverty,? as he calls it, with his ?How Education Reform Traps Poor Children? commentary in Education Week ? and he does it as crudely as Joe Nocera did it in the Times the other day (see my Education Unbound*): first by distorting ?the proposals collectively known as `school reform,'? then by ignoring the facts. ?(See the letter to the editor of the Times by teacher Neal Suidan, who says that, ?In the absence of an immediate plan to fix poverty, family structure and school funding, the only place where we can influence the fate of these students is in the classroom. That's where the focus should be.?)

Flypaper's Kathleen Porter-Magee jumped all over Kohn for his ?pedagogical strawman? -- ?in fact, she says, ?the pedagogy that is used and encouraged at the most successful urban charter schools around the country? are actually designed to create the conditions where student thinking and learning can actually happen?? -- and Core Knowledge's Robert Pondiscio did an excellent counterpunch by pointing out that ?a lot more damage [is] being done to low-income urban kids in the name of `authentic learning' and a refusal to acknowledge the cognitive benefits of a knowledge-rich core curriculum.?

Indeed, Kohn sticks the ?pedagogy of poverty? labels on the wrong foreheads.? He confuses cause and effect and, in a typical ruse of rhetoric, blames those trying to fix the problem of poor kids not learning with having caused it.? For instance, Kohn quotes Martin Haberman writing that ?`the overly directive, mind-numbing,? anti-intellectual acts' that pass for teaching in most urban schools `not only remain the coin of the realm but have become the gold standard.'?

As Pondiscio says, ?That sounds truly horrible.? Where is this happening?? Perhaps I don't visit as many schools as Kohn, but I haven't witnessed a whole lot of rote memorization and militaristic behavior control.?

I would go further, and argue that several generation of progressive educators, confronted with the need to actually teach children some facts, have reacted to the challenge with mind-numbing, anti-intellectual acts ? like ?teaching to the test? -- that have sabotaged the best efforts of the reformers. Kohn attributes to them ?a system of almost militaristic behavior control,? one littered with ?public humiliation for noncompliance and an array of rewards for obedience that calls to mind the token-economy programs developed in prisons and psychiatric hospitals.?? He quotes one-time reformer and current defender of the status quo Jonathon Kozol as saying that inner-city kids ?are trained for nonreflective acquiescence.?

In fact, it is primarily the fear of facts and the reluctance to teach them that has propelled the establishment to undermine the reformers and continue the damage ? a major reason many reformers prefer to start fresh.

Indeed, such self-proclaimed champions of the moral order as Kohn and Kozol wish to deny poor parents their right to chose to go to better schools ?? and the waiting lists are long ? because, apparently, Kohn and Kozol know better.

As Pondiscio says, ?here's my earnest challenge to the estimable Mr. Kohn.? Show me.? Take me to these schools you decry so that I may see what you see.?? I want to visit the schools that you have visited where all the children sit in rows, memorize by rote, and spend their days filling out worksheets.?

I too want to go on that tour.

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