Live Event Transcript: Alfie Kohn October 26, 2000
Kathleen/Moderator - It is an honor to introduce Mr. Alfie Kohn to our Teachers.Net community. Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and social theory. Of his eight books, the best known are Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes (1993), No Contest: The Case Against Competition (1986), and The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards" (1999). His most recent book, just published by Heinemann, is The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. We will touch upon testing issues and reward issues.
Kathleen/Moderator - Question submitted by Jeff/OH: Mr. Kohn, what motivates you to dedicate your life to advocating against overuse of tests and extrinsic rewards?
A. Kohn - It's a desire to affirm and support intrinsic motivation, deep understanding, and democracy in everyday life that leads me to oppose the practices that get in the way. The more one wants kids to love learning, the more one is inclined to oppose extrinsic inducements, which have been shown to undermine it.
Kathleen/Moderator - Time magazine described Alfie Kohn as "perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades [and] test scores." His criticisms of competition and rewards have helped to shape the thinking of educators -- as well as parents and managers -- across the country and abroad. Kohn has been featured on hundreds of TV and radio programs, including the "Today" show and two appearances on "Oprah"; his work has been described on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, in U.S. News and World Report, the Harvard Education Letter, and many other magazines and newspapers.
Kathleen/Moderator - Question submitted by Kerry/NY: Does any socioeconomic group respond more favorably than others to your message about testing and extrinsic rewards? I wondered whether more highly educated parents and other members of the public might be more protective of students' creativity and ability to learn without extensive extrinsic motivation.
A. Kohn - It cuts both ways. Tests damage low-income students by reducing their education to test prep - and even leading these kids to consider dropping out. But the tests also destroy innovative curriculum in more affluent schools... Rewards are more complicated: they are instruments of control and, as such, are sometimes preferred by low-SES adults who think it's necessary to compel students to comply. On the other hand, affluent folks, too, can be exquisitely controlling, micromanaging each aspect of kids' lives. I suppose it depends whether rewards are thought of as subtle or ham-handed ways of getting kids to do what you want.
Kathleen/Moderator - The sponsor of tonight's chat with Alfie Kohn is Heinemann http://www.heinemann.com
Kathleen/Moderator - A question submitted by Dr. T. Stewart: 'Alfie Kohn warns, "Every hour spent getting students to be better test takers is an hour not spent helping them to think like historians or scientists. The result is that the demands to raise standards are responsible for dumbing down our schools."' I suggest that Mr. Kohn's approach to the problem is very "linear" and would further suggest that one can teach/learn "test taking", and "thinking like historians", and "thinking like scientists"... all under the umbrella of "scientific thinking". From this limited list: Logical ordering, investigation, experimentation, discovering relationships, appropriate recording and presentation of hypotheses to others, please have Mr. Kohn point out which is NOT a part of the desired outcomes? Alfie?
A. Kohn - Depends how sophisticated the test is. In some cases, where kids are examined on how many dates, definitions, algorithms, and other facts they've crammed into short-term memory, then "investigation, experimentation," etc. are actually a handicap to cranking up the scores. Conversely, preparing kids to do well on the test actively interferes with the best kind of teaching.
ursula/1/mo - What advice do you offer public school teachers who are required to give standardized tests?
A. Kohn - To teachers required to give tests, I'd suggest protecting kids from their worst effects (in the short term) and organizing to oppose these tests (in the long term). I elaborate on both in the last chap. of the book you see on the left of the screen -- and also on my website http://www.alfiekohn.org (http://www.alfiekohn.org/standards/strategies.htm).
Kathleen/Moderator - The Case Against Standardized Testing - Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools by Alfie Kohn, $10.00, Published by Heinemann http://www.heinemann.com
Kathleen/Moderator - Educated at Brown University and the University of Chicago, Kohn lives in the Boston area with his wife and two children.
Kathleen/Moderator - Question submitted by Deborah D.: How do you recommend we report student progress to parents, in terms of reading level etc. without a test score...How do you justify saying "[Child] is not yet reading at grade level," without having test evidence....Remember, we are teaching at a time where people are trying to sue their former teachers because they are not "literate" adults.
A. Kohn - To be "literate" is quite different from scoring well on skills tests. There are plenty of authentic assessments available to give a sense of comprehension -- not necessarily reducing this to "grade level," which is problematic in its own right -- that are based on a teacher's interaction with students over time.
Kathleen/Moderator - Question submitted by Mr. H. related to situations where a teacher may not have the opportunity to nurture up student's inborn desire to learn: I'm a sub who routinely gives tickets & conducts a raffle in order to award prizes. What is your opinion of this, and if negative, what would you suggest as an alternative? Are extrinsic rewards EVER okay to use?
A. Kohn - I've yet to find a situation where extrinsic rewards are either necessary or appropriate. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the more kids are rewarded to do something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to receive the reward. For example, studies overwhelmingly show that kids working for a grade are less interested in learning than those who aren't graded. And kids who receive frequent positive reinforcement are less generous than their peers -- particularly if they're rewarded or praised for generosity. The "alternative" is a big question, and depends in part on your specific goal (e.g., promoting generosity, encouraging reading).
Kathleen/Moderator - A question submitted by Jan Fisher: I am Kohn's greatest fan and follower but I do wonder how we can realistically implement his system within the confines of the public school where parents and administrators expect/demand both rewards and consequences. Also, what do we do to change teachers/administrators/parents who believe in that children are intrinsically bad and that we always approach them with mistrust?
A. Kohn - To J.F.: I understand quite clearly what we're up against here. I often invite administrators, colleagues, or parents to think about their long-term goals for kids -- and then help them see that their daily practices fail to promote (and even undermine) their own objectives. I think you've put your finger on a big part of the reason that manipulative classroom management techniques persist: it gets down to a sour, cynical view of children -- and, by extension, human nature. The best we can do, perhaps, is help folks see the connection and invite them to reconsider their beliefs in light of the evidence, which demonstrates that cynicism is not realism.
Kathleen/Moderator - Lori P/IA submitted this: Mr. Kohn, when I heard you speak last week at the Iowa ASCD Conference, you made reference to framing the content around students' questions and concerns. While I understand that "teaching to the test in order to raise standards" is not in a student's best interest, do you believe that it is necessary to have a framework (standards and benchmarks that specify grade level skills and procedures) so that we are able to use that framework and match it with the exploration of student interests. In other words--are you completely against standards and benchmarks--or just against the way they are being used in today's classrooms?
A. Kohn - I distinguish between "horizontal" standards and "vertical." By the former, I mean guidelines, formulated in large part by the teachers themselves (in conversation with others, and guided by research) that are used to improve the quality of pedagogy. These would ideally be rather vague, dealing with broad notions of intellectual growth. Vertical standards, which is what the current accountability movement is all about, consist of very specific, measurable mandates, imposed on teachers from the top down. There are different criteria for deciding when standards are useful. And, like so many of these questions, it's hard to do this justice in this rapid-fire forum.
Kathleen/Moderator - Submitted by Elizabeth from Florida, and a similar question from Sue C. in Arizona: I totally agree with Mr. Kohn. My question is how do we get legislators to listen to us? They make decisions for education and educators when they don't have the qualifications. We, on the other hand who do have the qualifications, are not even asked our opinions, nor are we consulted about what's best for teaching children. It appears that we receive our degrees to be humiliated because the powers-that-be don't have faith that we can do the jobs for which we received the degrees so they continue to impose more and more stringent requirements which ultimately create less retention and so much frustration. What specifically can we do to break the vicious cycle?" Elizabeth E. A FL teacher under the "curse" of Gov. Jeb Bush's A-plus (HA!) Plan
A. Kohn - To E. and S.C.: I don't expect that legislators will understand the nuances of assessment or teaching -- only that they refrain from imposing their ignorance on us with the force of law. First we try to educate them. If that doesn't work, we become politically active to prevent them from doing what is not in the best interests of kids.
jmo - How should/can schools handle "accountability" and standardization questions (is my child's education equal to that of other children) without a standardized test?
A. Kohn - Again, it's hard for me to summarize what is an entire book chapter (or two) in a paragraph. The best way to hold schools accountable is to invite parents and other members of the community to come visit schools and watch the learning that's taking place. Other criteria: Are kids coming home chattering excitedly about something they figured out that day. If so, something's very impressive about that school. Is it hard to quantify that engagement? Yes. So much the worse for quantification. Even worse than the reflexive desire to reduce such evaluation to numbers is the desire to turn evaluation into a competition, to rank kids or schools or states. The animating spirit of accountability (as currently constituted) is not "How well are kids learning?" but "Who's beating whom?" It's up to us to expose that question as illegitimate and destructive.
Deborah - I am struggling to get my teachers to teach literature. All I see when I go in rooms is test prep. I stress during my presentations that the kids will learn all the skills they need during instruction, with just a little attention to the test format. How can I help the teachers I am supposed to "develop" to depend on good instruction instead of test prep materials?
A. Kohn - Frankly, I don't think we can always blame the teachers who are doing mind-numbing test prep. Often, the problem lies with the test itself -- and the high-stakes nature of it. We need to spend more time opposing the tests -- even refusing to participate in the process -- instead of trying to make the best of them. That said, there are a couple of books published by Heinemann ( by Calkins et al. and Taylor & Walton) that show teachers how they can do test prep that's a little more thoughtful.
Kathleen/Moderator - A bit of humor related to the topic: One night Mike's parents overheard this prayer. "Now I lay me down to rest, and hope to pass tomorrow's test, if I should die before I wake, that's one less test I have to take."
ursula/1/mo - What advice do you offer public school teachers who are required to give standardized tests? This requirement comes from the state level and we as classroom teachers have no say in those requirements. My school is even starting to talk about incentive pay. It's scary! If we refuse to give the tests we will be fired..
A. Kohn - Please see my previous answer to this question, about short-term and long-term responses -- and the reference to where I've spelled out concrete ways of minimizing the harm and organizing to oppose the tests.
Kathleen/Moderator - A reprint of Alfie's article, "The Trouble With 'Back-to-Basics' and 'Tougher Standards'" is available at http://teachers.net/gazette/SEP00/kohn.html
John - How does Mr. Kohn feel about the validity of one test (MCAS of Massachusetts) determining a student's graduation from high school?
A. Kohn - J.: Even if you disagree with my arguments about the poor quality of the tests (including the MCAS), or the profoundly antidemocratic nature of the imposition of standards, there is virtual unanimity among education researchers and measurement experts that it is unconscionable to make high-stakes decisions (specifically, whether to award a diploma or allow a child to progress to the next grade) on the basis of a single kind of assessment. The prestigious National Research Council came to that conclusion, too. Even parents and others who don't yet understand the limits of the tests can (and, according to polls, generally do) realize that this is unacceptable and must be opposed. There's simply no way to justify saying to a child that 12 years of accomplishment count for nothing, and everything rides on passing a single standardized test.
Kathleen/Moderator - Mr. Kohn's schedule of appearances throughout the U.S. and Canada: http://www.alfiekohn.org/miscellaneous/schedule.htm
saraw - I have read Mr. Kohn's book on standardized testing--gave it to the superintendent. No response. Why are administrators so hooked on this stuff and don't want reality?
A. Kohn - S: I'm honestly not sure. The authority of administrators, too, is being usurped by state-imposed standards and one-size-fits-all testing, so you'd think they'd be angry. All I can say is I've noticed that the people closest to kids are most likely to appreciate the harm done by testing: teachers get it better than principals, principals better than central office administrators, c.a. admins. better than school board members, and s.b. members better than state officials.
freeal - I never do test prep and the scores at my minority school are very high. The point is that testing is just problem solving. I would like to ask Mr. Kohn for his opinion of this.
A. Kohn - F: I'd need to know more about the field being tested (problem solving as prep. for tests is more likely to work in Language Arts than in soc. studies or science), the quality of the test, and so on. Also whether kids in other classrooms at your school are doing well, too. The bottom line is that rich problem solving may prepare me to be a great thinker, but isn't going to tell me what an irrational number or a participle is, or who discovered the St. Lawrence river -- if that's what tests demand that I memorize. Please don't stop teaching this way -- but please don't assume that the tests are innocuous.
Kathleen/Moderator - Access many of Alfie Kohn's articles at http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/articles.htm
silver - How much of this testing craze do you feel is a result of our economy? Since our nation is good economic times, it seems that the shift has turned to education and testing? In CA we are asked to teach more to the STAR 9 test than to the content. Often, you are made to feel that other subjects are not important because it is not tested. As a result, my school has been criticized for our low test scores yet, we do a the Learning Record as our report card.
A. Kohn - Silver: I'm not sure, but it seems that the testing aficionados can use any economic climate to argue for what they're doing. There are probably other forces and ideologies driving this. Calif. now has piled layer upon layer of illegitimate practices, not only giving too many tests, but rating and ranking schools on the basis of tests -- and, as if that weren't bad enough, using a manifestly inappropriate test, the norm-referenced SAT-9 for that purpose . . . even though such tests were never designed to measure the quality of teaching and learning. The Learning Record, by the way, is a good answer to those who ask How else could you assess kids' learning, hold schools accountable, etc. Worth looking into. It was developed during the ever-so-brief period in the early '90s when Calif. was actually experimenting with authentic assessment and meaningful teaching - before the right-wing, back-to-basics folks reasserted their authority.
Kathleen/Moderator - Alfie, do you believe that the results of the upcoming presidential election have any real impact upon the direction of education in the US?
A. Kohn - K: As far as I can tell, the only issue that distinguishes Gore from Bush is vouchers, which the latter supports (but never mentions by name because most people don't want to see our democratic public school system destroyed). On every other issue having to do with standards, testing, pedagogy, and so on, I can't see a dime's worth of difference between the two. The first debate made that painfully clear: they competed to see who was demanding a harsher, more simplistic testing program. By the way, I hope all of you saw the
RAND report released yesterday that proved what many of us having been saying -- that Texas's success is a sham. The rising scores on the TAAS test appear to be due to explicit coaching on that test, which doesn't translate into higher achievement on other measures.
silver - The Learning Record in my opinion is the only authentic form of assessing. Unfortunately, it is in too few public schools.
david - This sounds too familiar to schools in South Carolina. The newest version of the Educational Oversight Committee is to be released next fall. There are approx. 270 schools that will be deemed UNSATISFACTORY as a result of the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test results. I agree with your comments so much.
A. Kohn - D: Yup. S.C and several other southern states are among the worst. The most pernicious tests, with the most destructive bribe-and-threat system attached to compel students and teachers to focus on these tests.
frol21 - What suggestions do you have to change the way the TAAS system is run in Texas? I am a new teacher, teaching at-risk students. The methodology is literally TAAS formatted texts. Our school does encourage independent reading, too, but it is not necessarily supported by the district.
A. Kohn - Frol21: Same answer: political activism, with teachers, administrators, and parents becoming a formidable force to challenge the nightmare that is TAAS-prep. Arm yourself with the relevant research. Read Walt Haney's report debunking claims of success in Texas (accessible through my website), Linda McNeil's new book Contradictions Of School Reform. And begin lobbying legislators, writing op-eds, checking in with others at http://www.taasblues.com, and realizing that the TAAS -- like all the state tests -- is not something like the weather, to be accepted as inevitable. These tests are the result of political decisions, which can be questioned, challenged, and reversed.
Kathleen/Moderator - It's sad to see educators buying into the bribe-and-threat system to elevate test scores
Deborah - As an educator in Texas, all I can do is give a resounding AMEN to the RAND report.
Ry - At a recent faculty meeting, the staff was approached with a $1,000 reward for the high scores achieved from the latest standardized test scores. It was given to the school by some organization. I am proud to say that one of the staff members spoke up and stated that it would be sending a bad message to the public if we, as teachers, accepted money based on the achievements of the students because we are just doing our job. I totally agreed! Furthermore, the students should be expected to do their best and nothing more. Last years group was bright and this years group may not be. Will that mean that the school should be punished for doing the same job and the teachers putting in the same effort--which is usually, from my experience, above and beyond.
A. Kohn - Ry: Teachers in Fla., N.C., and elsewhere are publicly refusing test-related bonuses awarded them by their states. Makes for a powerful protest.
nancylong - Mr. Kohn, suppose you were running for president and you felt that federal tax dollars should be tied to evidence of student achievement. What would YOU accept as evidence of student achievement from school districts?
A. Kohn - Nancylong: Hard for me to accept this premise because I'm so acutely aware of the unfairness and counterproductive nature of making tax dollars contingent on evidence of achievement. (For starters, it's the areas with the *lowest* achievement that need the money most.) But if you're asking me what constitutes evidence of achievement, I'd refer you to my earlier comments: difficult-to-quanitfy evidence of student engagement plus, perhaps, a sampling of portfolios, performance assessments, and other authentic accounts of students' actual achievements over time.
A. Kohn - I think I'm going to have to sign off now. Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful questions.
Kathleen/Moderator - Thank you Alfie, we hope you'll return to Teachers.Net again in the future. Thanks to all who attended and participated, and goodnight! :o)