Wednesday, January 13, 2010

National Standards: Alfie Kohn Challenged - Part I

By Pam Kenney

A few years ago Time magazine described Alfie Kohn as "perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades [and] test scores." He has written extensively about the current push for national standards, and, for the most part, he doesn't like it. In fact, he labels the standards an "accountability fad." A link to one of his recent articles, "Debunking the Case for National Standards" appeared yesterday in a post on "Learning in Maine."

One of Kohn's concerns is that the adoption of national standards would signal a concomitant shift in the focus of learning from one where students develop and use high-level thinking skills to exchange ideas, grapple with complex viewpoints, and solve problems to a routinized one of memorization, drill, and objective tests. The dismal picture Kohn paints is typical of many critics of national standards, and it's not accurate. To refute Kohn's criticism, I will draw examples only from the mathematics area because I am currently reading math standards from individual U.S. states and five foreign countries.

Yes, all the documents I have studied have objective, measurable standards that require children to memorize addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts, and most mandate that students learn standard algorithms. In addition, however, they contain standards that delineate the understanding of concepts through the application of high-order thinking skills; they concentrate on problem-solving strategies that stress reasoning, demonstrating understanding using several methods, cooperating, and communicating ideas among peers. The national math standards being proposed today are not trying to re-capture the pre-Sputnik philosophies of rote learning and drill and test; they are an attempt to balance understanding and the acquisition of specific skills that are necessary to daily life.

My question is this: Why are the arguments against national standards by writers like Alfie Kohn so black and white? This isn't an "either/or" or "us versus them" debate. Of course, we want our children to have a deep understanding of math concepts. Certainly we want them to reason well mathematically and to solve complex problems. But when a sixth grader in Maine is still looking at a chart to solve 6*8, then perhaps a national standard will force his school district to realize it's just as important for him to learn his multiplication facts as it is for him to draw a picture to explain why the answer is 48.

Tomorrow: Part II: "Who Should Determine the Content of National Standards?"

1 comment:


Pam, thank you for such an extensive argument for national standards. While you probably yourself worry about possible move to skill and drill, I also agree that it doesn't have to be this way.
I worry though that moving to national standards in itself has some sort of a solution to all of our educational problems. Bracey wrote a 2007 report on state of education where he states quite persuasively that higher standards or national standards are not a major factor in improving education systems and educational outcomes. While it probably makes sense to have a system of standards that are measurable a lot more needs to happen in order for our students to be better citizens.