False Promise: The Ersatz Language of School Reform

An article by Alfie Kohn in The Nation is a timely reminder of how language is so easily co-opted to mean quite the reverse of the usual understanding.  The polluters bring us “Clear Skies” and the armaments industry brings us the B36 bomber – “The Peacemaker”.  And now those  touted as school “reformers” are heralded for ushering in a new educational era of the status quo.


Cyril Power: The Exam Room” 1934

What could be wrong with school reform?  After all – isn’t there much to lament about the current fashion for standardized thinking and the obsession with what can be measured and teaching to the test?  Why yes,  of course. But the educators who challenge such thinking are preempted and sidelined by the “reformers” who want to refine and promote it a new solution.

Real change in schools would mean questioning ” …  the core elements of traditional schooling, such as lectures, worksheets, quizzes, grades, homework, punitive discipline and competition. That would require real reform, which of course is off the table.”

In George Orwell’s  1984, the Ministry of Peace was charged with maintaining a state of war. And now we will have “reformers” who bring us a more sophisticated version of the same old stale recipes and status quo.

Here is how Kohn decodes the Orwellian  “reform” agenda as including:

* a heavy reliance on fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests to evaluate students and schools, generally in place of more authentic forms of assessment;

* the imposition of prescriptive, top-down teaching standards and curriculum mandates;

* a disproportionate emphasis on rote learning—memorizing facts and practicing skills—particularly for poor kids;

* a behaviorist model of motivation in which rewards (notably money) and punishments are used on teachers and students to compel compliance or raise test scores;

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