Reflective Rebels

In a new essay, Alfie Kohn, one of the sharpest and most rational voices in the ed reform discussion, says he wants students to become “reflective rebels”.

His starting point is the “tangle of deeply conservative beliefs” which says that parents are too permissive and as a result, kids are spoiled and narcissistic. Kohn points out that there’s no evidence for this contention and that adults have had a similar view of young people for “approximately forever”.

However, let’s assume the grumblers are correct. What should we do differently so that children are less self-centered and will look beyond themselves?

The answer, I think, is to help them become people who are not only empathic and compassionate but skeptical and courageous. It’s one thing to offer a kind word or a dollar to an individual in distress; it’s something else to address the systemic causes of that distress. The latter requires a willingness to question authority and challenge unjust features of the status quo — to stand up to power. In short, the real alternative to egocentricity is what might be called reflective rebelliousness.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that the same people doing the complaining really don’t like the idea of “rebellious” kids, reflective or otherwise. Society, especially the formal education part of it, is not at all receptive to rebelliousness.

Whether or not it’s stated explicitly, compliance remains the central goal of most classroom management programs, character education initiatives, and parenting resources. Sure, we stress the virtues of independent thinking and assertiveness, but mostly in the context of getting kids to resist peer pressure. If a child has the temerity to resist unreasonable rules and demands imposed by adults, well, then, bring on the “consequences” (read: punishments) to “hold them accountable for their behavior.”

We certainly do talk a lot about wanting our students to learn to be creative, innovative, independent thinkers. But when it comes to their relationship the process of school and the educational system that’s been laid out for them, it’s pretty much all talk. We really don’t know what to do with truly creative kids.

In the end, Kohn says that if we really want kids to develop into “reflective rebels”, to think for themselves, “we ourselves must be rebels” and push back “against the dominant tendency to focus on producing children who do whatever they’re told.”

Reanimating the Corpse of NCLB

Earlier this week, the writers of an op-ed in the Washington Post tried to convince the reader that Congress should reauthorize No Child Left Behind. But the short piece is full of crap from top to bottom, starting with the title pleading not to “undo” the nation’s education progress.

Their rationale for supporting NCLB is all about standardized testing, of course. With three specific suggestions that boil down to 1) collect data, 2) publish data, 3) use data to beat up on schools and teachers.

They finish the column the way they started, with a boat full of red herrings.

As a nation, we must ask ourselves if we are committed to the success of every child. Are we going to bow to the special interests of adults, or will we stand strong for the special interest that has no lobby — our children? We have made great progress for millions of kids since NCLB. Let’s not return to a time when these students were left in the shadows.

I have no idea what these guys mean by “great progress”. The legacy of NCLB has been a narrowing of the school curriculum as schools spent an increasing amount of time on preparing for the high stakes tests.

I certainly don’t understand their accusatory “special interest of adults”. Especially since one major result of NCLB has been the enrichment of the adult investors in the companies that market the required testing infrastructure.

The Case Against STEM

Listen to an education reformer for more than five minutes and you’re likely to hear about STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math. Students, we are told, must study more of these topics, otherwise they will be unable to compete in the world and our economy is doomed. Or something like that.

However, a columnist for the Washington Post says that our obsession with STEM education is not only based on a “fundamental misreading of the facts”, it “puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future”.

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings.

The current overemphasis on STEM is largely related to standardized tests, the core of most ed reform efforts. US students generally score behind many other countries on one particular international testing program, “trailing nations such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia”. STEM advocates declare that our students must be immersed in math and science in order to return the country to the top of the world heap, where we belong.

Except that the US has never been at the top of that particular world heap.

In truth, though, the United States has never done well on international tests, and they are not good predictors of our national success. Since 1964, when the first such exam was administered to 13-year-olds in 12 countries, America has lagged behind its peers, rarely rising above the middle of the pack and doing particularly poorly in science and math. And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country has dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.

Then there’s the matter that even the companies and organizations considered most innovative want their employees to come with “skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum”.

Finally, the writer makes the case that a broad-based, liberal education – one that includes science and math in balance – would be better for both students and the country.

This doesn’t in any way detract from the need for training in technology, but it does suggest that as we work with computers, the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out — yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.

The Blame Belongs to Us

If you don’t live inside the ultimate company town that is the Washington DC metro area, you may not have heard of Politico. It’s basically an inside-the-beltway gossip rag that one writer calls “Tiger Beat On The Potomac”.1

While most of what they publish isn’t worth your bandwidth or time, Politico does have an investigative unit that occasionally produces something worth reading. Like their recent deep dive into Pearson, the 800-pound gorilla of standardized testing, in an aptly titled piece No Profit Left Behind. It’s not especially flattering.

A POLITICO investigation has found that Pearson stands to make tens of millions in taxpayer dollars and cuts in student tuition from deals arranged without competitive bids in states from Florida to Texas. The review also found Pearson’s contracts set forth specific performance targets — but don’t penalize the company when it fails to meet those standards. And in the higher ed realm, the contracts give Pearson extensive access to personal student data, with few constraints on how it is used.

The investigation found that public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective.

And it’s not at all surprising when the writer states “[t]he story of Pearson’s rise is very much a story about America’s obsession with education reform over the past few decades”.

What she misses is that the “obsession” has not really been with “reform” as much as the desire to hold someone accountable for the perceived “decline” in the American education system. The politicians writing the laws needed concrete data, and companies like Pearson crafted the products to deliver it. Right place, right time.2

The worst part about the contracts many states have entered into with Pearson is that they get paid regardless of whether their products and services actually work, or at least do what the company says they will. One example that hits too close to home.

The state of Virginia recertified Pearson as an approved “school turnaround” consultant in 2013 even though the company had, at best, mixed results with that line of work: Just one of the five Virginia schools that Pearson cited as references improved both its math and reading proficiency rates against the state averages. Two schools lost ground in both math and reading and the other two had mixed results. State officials said Pearson met all the criteria they required of consultants.

Our state must have pretty low criteria for consultants. As, it seems, do many districts and states all over the country.

Anyway, go read the whole thing, keeping in mind the bottom line, as I ranted about recently, is that the blame for the educational malpractice described in this piece belongs in large part to us.

“When the federal government starts doing things like requiring all states to test all kids, there’s going to be gold in those hills. The people we’ve elected have created a landscape that’s allowed Pearson to prosper.” – Jonathan Zimmerman, education historian at New York University.

We, dear citizen and taxpayer, enable the pigs to eat at the trough.


  1. That would be Charles Pierce from Esquire’s Politics Blog, referencing the 60’s era teen gossip and fan magazine.

  2. Consider this little bit from the article: “A top executive boasted in 2012 that Pearson is the largest custodian of student data anywhere. And that’s just its K-12 business.”

Not in the Education World

I’m not sure if this story is a reflection on the political nature of education reform or on the superficiality of MOOC.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education is offering three MOOCS — massive open online courses — with “convenient, self-paced modules to accommodate busy schedules” to help you do more to “advance and effectively implement trending reforms.”

So, who are the wise and experienced educators leading these courses?

Along with [Joel] Klein, the former chancellor of New York City public schools, and [John] King, the former New York State education commissioner who is now a top adviser to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, you will hear from people including John White, Louisiana state superintendent of education; Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Bush foundation, who sent the e-mail announcement; and Greg Hughes, Utah Speaker of the House. The 18 people shown on the foundation Web site who are involved in the courses come from the policy and legislative (and not the education) world. [my emphasis]

That “not in the education world” part pretty much summarizes the entire approach to education reform in this country.