Alfie Kohn has really pushed the buttons of ed reformers in his Education Week commentary, “How Education Reform Traps Poor Children.” He bemoans the educational techniques of charter school teachers whom, he says, perseverate on mechanical drills and rote learning. This results in a pedagogy that is “noticeably different from the questioning, discovering, arguing, and collaborating that is more common (though by no means universal) among students in suburban and private schools.” In low-income schools, he charges, “not only is the teaching scripted, but a system of almost militaristic behavior control is common, with public humiliation for noncompliance and an array of rewards for obedience that calls to mind the token-economy programs developed in prisons and psychiatric hospitals.”
Phew. Strong stuff. This “pedagogy of poverty” (the phrase comes from a 1991 paper by Wisconsin professor Martin Haberman) is racist, charges Kohn, stemming from an over-emphasis on standardized tests. In the end it “serves to simultaneously narrow the test-score gap and widen the learning gap.”
Kohn’s article has elicited a number of rebuttals. Robert Condisco at Core Knowledge questions his facts, adding, "frankly, I see a lot more damage being done to low-income urban kids in the name of 'authentic learning' and a refusal to acknowledge the cognitive benefits of an information-rich curriculum." Kathleen Porter-McGee says Kohn has created a “pedagogical strawman” by arguing that that a well-managed classroom is somehow “antithetical” to authentic learning, and that he’s ignoring the fact that impoverished districts have a higher percentage of ineffective teachers than wealthier districts. Mike Petrelli notes that the question of whether poor children need a different educational setting in order to be successful deserves serious scrutiny.
But it’s not racist to say that poor kids—who generally come to school with much less vocabulary, exposure to print, and much else—might need something different—more intense, more structured—than their well-off, better-prepared peers.Petrelli then references an article by Lisa Delpit in Harvard Education Review where she describes her experiences as a teacher in a racially and economically diverse public school in Philadelphia. Delpit, who's black, writes that she created an open classroom with learning stations, games, and manipulatives to encourage independent learning. She continues,
My white students zoomed ahead. They worked hard at the learning stations. They did amazing things with books and writing. My black students played the games; they learned how to weave; and they threw the books around the learning stations. They practiced karate moves on the new carpets. Some of them even learned how to read, but none of them as quickly as my white students. In New Jersey we recognize that kids from impoverished backgrounds need more resources to be educationally successful than kids from wealthier backgrounds: free preschool, wrap-around services, special programs. It’s the basis of the Abbott Supreme Court decisions and codified in the School Funding Reform Act, which funnels extra state educational aid to poor children. Is it such a stretch to say that poor kids benefit not only from extra money but also from extra structure? Is the focus on academic content, even in the form of drills, such a bad thing?
In fact, successful educational pedagogies aimed at poor urban students, like those employed by KIPP, incorporate content-based learning with strict classroom management. The acquisition of critical thinking skills and the acquisition of knowledge is not a zero-sum game. Or at least it shouldn't be, whether you live in Newark or Short Hills.