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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 1, September 2005

Achievement focus counter-productive

by Nancy Knickerbocker

"I want to impress upon you the urgency of what we face. B.C., like other provinces and states, is facing an educational emergency. It is created and exacerbated by strategies and policies used allegedly to improve education. We need to help parents understand that it is an emergency."

This was the call to action from Boston academic and author Alfie Kohn, in his keynote speech to the more than 600 delegates at the BCTF summer conference, held in August at UBC. Author of 10 books on education, parenting, and human behavior, Kohn’s work has been translated into 10 languages. Among his titles are The Schools Our Children Deserve (1999) and The Case Against Standardized Testing (2000). Unconditional Parenting is his latest. (Read more about his work at www.alfiekohn.org.

Kohn quipped that U.S. President George Bush’s infamous "No Child Left Behind" legislation ought to be called the "Many Children Left Behind Act." Unfortunately though, Canadians are importing destructive policies from south of the border.

"If my goal were to undermine democratic public education, I’d do exactly what this provincial government is doing," he said, pointing to the B.C. Liberals‚ mantra of "It’s all about achievement."

Kohn said there are five fatal flaws to the "tougher standards movement," also known as the "accountability agenda."

  1. It gets motivation wrong.
  2. It gets teaching and learning wrong.
  3. It gets evaluation wrong.
  4. It gets school reform wrong.
  5. It gets improvement wrong.

Kohn said that the idea that achievement is all that matters might sound good, but it flies in the face of growing evidence in educational psychology that reveals a big difference between real learning and test performance.

"I believe excellence is important, and I want to see kids learning well," he said, "but when kids are too focused on how they’re doing rather than what they’re learning, bad things happen."

Kohn said that overemphasizing achievement ignores the factors that motivate students to authentic learning. There are negative consequences for kids:

  • They become less interested in learning for its own sake.
  • They become preoccupied with their abilities.
  • They prefer easy tasks and quick completion.
  • They are devastated by failure.
  • Their quality of learning suffers.

"Research shows that when kids get too focused on achievement, paradoxically achievement declines when measured by deep understanding," Kohn said.

The second fatal flaw of the tougher standards movement is that it gets teaching and learning wrong, Kohn said. It reduces teaching to mere transmission of a "bunch o’ facts" to students who are reduced to "passive receptacles."

He noted that B.C.’s highly prescriptive curriculum is "based on a coverage model" that requires teachers to cover everything, rather than allowing students to discover what they want to learn.

"Thinking is messy, and deep thinking is really messy," Kohn said. "Your curriculum is nothing if not orderly."

The third fatal flaw of the accountability agenda is that it gets evaluation wrong. Raising test scores can mean ruining our schools, in Kohn’s view. He questioned why the B.C. Ministry of Education is uncritically using standardized test scores as its measure of success.

"Don’t let anyone tell you that standardized tests don’t provide accurate measures," he said. "In fact, they are exquisitely accurate measures of the size of the houses near a school."

Kohn asked the assembled teachers: "How many of you know students who are gifted deep thinkers, yet they don’t do well on standardized tests?" Many hands went up. "And how many of you know students who are relatively shallow thinkers who excel on standardized tests?" Again, many hands went up. Indeed, he said, research shows that high test scores correlate to shallow thinking at elementary, middle, and secondary school levels.

The fourth fatal flaw is that the accountability agenda promotes a wrong-headed direction for school reform, Kohn said. "Accountability is just a code word for more control over the classrooms by people who are not in the classrooms. It has the same effect on learning as the noose has on breathing."

Kohn observed that, "the B.C. government’s [education] policy is predicated on intolerance for disagreement." The question is whether governments choose to work with those in schools, or try to compel them to work a certain way. Teachers generally want to improve education and do not oppose the impetus for change in schools. "People don’t resist change. They resist being changed," he said.

Reporting out of test results to rank schools, as the Fraser Institute does in several provinces including B.C., is unethical because it "invites misleading comparisons," Kohn said. He invited audience members to rally together under the banner of "Fighting Reactionary and Stupid Educational Ranking, or FRASER."

The fifth fatal flaw, of the accountability agenda, is that it gets improvement wrong. "Harder isn’t always better," Kohn said, declaring that notion "a simplistic conflation of quality and difficulty."

He decried the "sorting machine" model, in which school systems are designed to separate winners from losers. "It’s all about competition, not co-operation. It’s about rivalry in the marketplace, and making sure that some people always fail."

So, what do we do about all of this? "We fight," Kohn said. "That’s what we do."

He urged teachers to assert policies that deal with quality of their working lives and the quality of education children receive. He encouraged them to inform parents that they and their kids have the right to opt out of standardized tests. And he suggested they try to make every education minister’s worst fear come true—"What if we gave a test and nobody came?"

Kohn pointed out several hopeful signs that Canadians do not support the accountability agenda.

  • Canadians (83%) believe testing should be used to evaluate and improve learning, not rank children.
  • By a two to one margin, Canadians favour teachers’ evaluations of their children’s learning to standardized tests.
  • Parent advisory committees are starting to resist testing.
  • Five Vancouver schools rejected Fraser Institute awards last year.

Kohn challenged teachers to act on their professional concerns about standardized testing and other impediments to quality teaching. "What are you doing to show you are serious in your opposition? How are you trying to minimize the damage? How will you make long-term change?"

Nancy Knickerbocker is the BCTF’s media-relations officer.

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