Rising test scores are no reason to celebrate, author Alfie Kohn told teachers at the Utah Education Association (UEA) convention on Friday.
Schools that improve test scores do so at the expense of other subjects and ideas, he said.
“When the scores go up, it’s not just meaningless. It’s worrisome,” Kohn told hundreds of educators on the last day of the convention. “What did you sacrifice from my child’s education to raise scores on the test?”
Kohn, who’s written 11 books on human behavior, parenting and schools, spent nearly two hours Friday morning ripping into both established and relatively new education concepts. He slammed merit pay for teachers, competition in schools, Advanced Placement classes, curriculum standards and testing–including Utah’s standards and testing system — drawing mixed reactions from his audience.
“Considering what we hear a lot, it was pure blasphemy,” said Richard Heath, a teacher at Central Davis Junior High School in Layton.
Kohn called merit pay–forms of which many Utah school districts are implementing this year–an “odious” type of control imposed on teachers.
“If you jump through hoops, we’ll give you a doggie biscuit in the form of money,” Kohn said.
He said competition in schools destroys their sense of community. Advanced Placement classes, he claimed, focus more on material but don’t do much to deepen students’ understanding. He said standardized tests are designed so that some students must always fail or they’re considered too easy, and often the students who do poorly are members of minority groups.
“We are creating in this country before our eyes, little by little, what could be described as educational ethnic cleansing,” Kohn said. He called Utah’s standards too specific and the number of tests given to Utah students “mind-boggling.”
He called on teachers to explain such problems to parents and community members.
“The best teachers spend every day of their lives strategically avoiding or subverting the Utah curriculum,” Kohn said.
Many teachers said they agreed with much of Kohn’s talk, but disagreed on some points.
Shauna Cooney, a second grade teacher at Majestic Elementary School in Ogden, said it’s important to have standards that give all children equal opportunities to learn certain concepts before they move forward.
Sidni Jones, an elementary teacher mentor in the Davis School District, agreed that current standardized tests are not as meaningful as other types of assessment, but she said it is hard to fight the current system.
“You can’t just openly rebel against standardized testing because they’re mandated,” Jones said. “That’s part of our jobs.”
Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, who is also a special education teacher at Taylorsville High School, said he walked out of the speech.
“We have got to have some degree of accountability for the public,” Holdaway said. “The public demands it. Sometimes we forget who our customers are in terms of children and families.”
Others, however, largely agreed with Kohn.
“It was awesome,” said Claudia Butter, a teacher at the Open Classroom (good grief, are there still Open Classroom schools around??? Lord help us!) charter school in Salt Lake City. “With little steps we might be able to effect a change.”
UEA President Kim Campbell said the UEA doesn’t necessarily agree with everything Kohn advocates, but chose him as the keynote speaker because of his thought-provoking ideas.
“We want our members to constantly be challenging themselves and be thinking about new ideas and what they’re doing in the classroom,” Campbell said.
some of Alfie Kohn’s books: The Homework Myth; What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated?, And More Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies; Punished by Rewards; No Contest: The Case Against Competition; The Case Against Standardized Testing; Beyond Discipline, etc.]