Book Reviews

Books Offer a Contrarian View of Education Reform

The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas
By Frederick M. Hess
Harvard University Press, 286 pages

Feel-Bad Education and Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling

By Alfie Kohn
Beacon Press, 208 pages


“Some children are going to be left behind,” writes Frederick M. Hess, expressing his contempt for the way politicians oversell their ideas for improving the American education system.

But Hess does not limit his criticism to No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era attempt at school reform that no longer enjoys popular support. His book, which details the many successive attempts to reform education over the past two centuries, is appropriately named The Same Thing Over and Over.

An oft-quoted scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Hess is by no means the only education expert with a jaundiced view of the way Americans approach school reform. Indeed, there seem to be as many cynics writing books as there are proponents of one idea or another. Like Hess, Alfie Kohn, author of Feel-Bad Education, qualifies as a contrarian.

The problem, simply put, is that the public schools are failing an untold number of students, most of them from low-income families, who are either dropping out before getting their diplomas or graduating without being proficient in reading and math. Although Republicans, as well as Democrats, supported the No Child Left Behind bill when it was enacted in 2002, its emphasis on testing and accountability did not produce the anticipated improvement in student achievement.

Hess calls the enactment of NCLB “a powerful and familiar cautionary tale of a good idea applied recklessly.” The politicians oversold the idea by promising it would bring about “universal proficiency” in reading and math, he says, and then they failed to understand the limitations involved in using test scores to create accountability. As Hess explains, “the law faltered because it forced a jury-rigged system of targets, rules and procedures on the states without attending to the incentives or organizational dynamics involved in making it work.” As a result, the federal government is now spending $3.5 billion on “turnaround grants” for 730 schools that have persistently failed to meet the law’s rising expectations.

Hess’ prescription for fixing U.S. schools is no prescription. He argues that different approaches should be applied in different circumstances, and government officials should know better than to expect “a single orthodoxy” to work in every location. “We’ve spent too many years trying to fix schools in a hurry,” he writes. “That very urgency tends to feed the search for quick, one-size-fits-all solutions. The key to real lasting improvement may lie not in frenzied activity but in finding the will to loosen the grip of old dogmas and open our eyes to new solutions.”

The first step to real reform, he argues, should be to tear down some of the historical barriers that prevent creative solutions. Among the traditions he would abolish: teaching as a life-long career, administering public education solely through local school boards and clinging to the traditional school-year schedule. He condemns those who yield to the status quo, as well as those who want dramatic change.

“In confronting the stubborn challenges of our system of schooling, we generally make two kinds of mistakes,” Hess writes. “More common is that made by defenders of the status quo, who imagine more money, expertise and support will see us through. Among those convinced of the need for dramatic change like today’s new progressives, however, there is a parallel mistake – a hankering to replace stifling policies and practices with new orthodoxies. An emancipator reformer (Hess himself) believes the way out of this thicket begins not with haste but with diagnosis and deliberation.”

If Hess were writing this review of Kohn’s book, he would surely put the author of Feel-Bad Education in the category of those who want to create a new orthodoxy. Kohn argues that only “unconditional acceptance” of every school-age child by his or her teachers can effectively improve the scholastic performance of American children. Although many teachers agree with this strategy, he says, most of them are still manipulating children by accepting only those who are well-behaved and meeting their standards for success.

Kohn argues that unconditional acceptance is the only way to keep children genuinely interested in learning. He condemns an array of current education policies that teachers and administrators rely upon that make their acceptance of the children conditional. These include policies that stimulate competition among students, benchmarks or rubrics for achievement at each level and, of course, the standardized tests.

“I am convinced,” he writes, “that historians will look back at our era of ever-higher standards and increasingly standardized instruction as a dark period in American education.”

Dependence on standards and tests has fostered what Kohn calls “the Listerine theory of education,” borrowing from the mouthwash advertising that asserts that something that tastes bad must be good for you. That’s why he also calls it “feel-bad education.”

While Kohn’s argument is theoretically appealing, it is unlikely to appeal to those school administrators who are preoccupied with truancy, school violence and managing the dropout rate. Imagine how they might react when the author attacks the basic premise that students must be taught self-discipline. “… A lack of self-control isn’t always bad,” Kohn says, “because it may provide the basis for spontaneity, flexibility, expressions of interpersonal warmth, openness to experience and creative recognitions.”

One thing Kohn and Hess seem to share, however, is a lack of patience with the idea that every child can succeed. As he notes, “The assurance that you can achieve anything you desire through hard work stretches the truth beyond recognition.”


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