The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Alfie Kohn, demagogue

I came across a commentary titled “Against Competition” by Alfie Kohn in last week’s issue of Education Week. It’s classic Kohn: wrong ideas, logical fallacies, and vague allusions to the utopian world that would be possible if only we were enlightened enough to completely change our way of life.

We’ll get to the article in a minute, but let’s take a quick detour to a statement in which Kohn tackles his subject head-on. What follows is a description of one of his workshops titled “The Case Against Competition:”

The race to be Number One has been described as America's state religion. We have been trained not only to compete frantically, but to believe in the value of beating people -- and to help our children become winners. Research and experience, however, demonstrate that competition is actually destructive to self-esteem, poisonous to relationships, and counterproductive in terms of learning. Spelling bees, awards assemblies, competitive sports, and even informal contests at home teach children to regard other people as potential obstacles to their own success. The result is that everyone ultimately loses in the desperate race to win. Alfie Kohn, author of NO CONTEST: The Case Against Competition, describes the hidden costs of turning the school into a place for triumph. The problem, he argues, is not just that competition is overdone or badly handled; rather, the very win/lose structure itself has damaging consequences for how children come to see themselves, each other, and the act of learning. The alternative is not merely the absence of competition but the construction of caring communities in which people help each other to succeed.

Does this ring true to anyone? Competition is destructive to self-esteem? Awards assemblies teach children to regard other people as obstacles to their own success? There are hidden costs to turning the school into a place of triumph? Really?

I would propose a diametrically opposite view: that competition is the path to true self-esteem - not feel-good smiley-face sticker self esteem, but actual “I accomplished something of importance, and I am a capable person” self esteem – what the psychologists call self-efficacy. That awards assemblies, competitive sports, and the like allow us all to recognize achievement and find a bar that we can all strive to clear. That schools should absolutely be a place of triumph. And that competition, far from separating us, not only creates deep and strong bonds between us unlike any others, but allows us to innovate and create in ways that make life better for us all.

But I’ll say this for Kohn: at least he lets you know where he stands. And now that we understand his world view, let’s consider his commentary.

There are two things that leap out in his piece.

First, it becomes clear that Kohn’s beef is with the competitive nature of capitalism, and he’s using schools as a proxy battleground. He talks quite a bit about the avarice-filled companies who want to turn children into worker drones, and that are willing to use schools as a scapegoat for their own failings. (For bonus points: can anyone name one of these companies in real life? Is Snidely Whiplash running a Fortune 500 company?)

But not once does he talk about the well-being of children: how it is our obligation to help them learn the knowledge and skills they need to succeed after school – to prepare them to live as successful adults, capable of landing well-paying jobs that will allow them to provide for their families and their future. (Or to run their own successful companies if they want out from under Kohn’s alleged corporate jackboot.)

Clearly, to Kohn, children are pawns in a chess game between himself and the capitalists. Their futures are not what’s at stake – rather, it’s his beliefs that must be advanced, no matter the cost in terms of the pieces on the board.

Next, it’s also clear that his goal is not to protect kids from the evils of competition, but rather to eliminate any kind of accountability for the public education system. He decries competition and comparisons both by saying that they’re innately bad for us, and then by saying that any kind of measurable comparisons are faulty or invalid. It’s bad to compare us to others, and all of your attempts to do so will be faulty because it’s impossible to find legitimate criteria and tools.

Eliminating measurement is essential if we’re to adopt his views. Only by eliminating any kind of accountability can he succeed. If we were to build public education on the platform he provides, the results would be catastrophic – but we’d only know that if there were some way to evaluate his results.

Kohn really hits his stride in decrying measurement and comparison. Consider the following from the article:

But just as we shouldn’t justify a wonderful curriculum by claiming it will raise standardized-test scores—first, because such tests measure what matters least, and second, because claims of this sort serve to legitimate these tests—so we should hesitate to defend or criticize educational practices on economic grounds.

We can’t justify a “wonderful” curriculum on some sort of independent measurement. On what basis, then, can we then determine the wonderfulness of the curriculum? Whose determination matters? Without any standards of reference, we’re left to whim, or to divine inspiration. Or, more likely, we should choose materials that further the set of beliefs that Kohn seeks to foist upon us.

Consider the sport of ranking the United States against other nations on standardized tests. Once we’ve debunked the myth that test scores predict economic success, why would we worry about our country’s standing as measured by those scores? To say that our students are first, or 10th, on a list provides no useful information about how much they know or how good our schools are. If all the countries did reasonably well in absolute terms, there would be no shame in (and, perhaps, no statistical significance to) being at the bottom. If all the countries did poorly, there would be no glory in being at the top. Exclamatory headlines about how “our” schools are doing compared to “theirs” suggest that we’re less concerned with the quality of education than with whether we can chant, “We’re number one!”

This is quite a feat of selective hearing on Kohn’s part. In fact, we do spend a great deal of time analyzing the validity, relevance, and meaning of such comparative tests. Keep in mind that there’s no evening gown competition; no one’s juggling or singing. These are not tests with subjective reviews by a judging panel. We’re talking about academic comparisons using internationally respected measurement tools. And these tools can very clearly state what our children can and cannot do at various levels.

And then the coup de grace: in a brilliant bit of Orwellian NewSpeak:

What if we just ignored the status of students in other countries? That wouldn’t be especially neighborly, but at least we wouldn’t be viewing the gains of children in other lands as a troubling development. Better yet, rather than defending whatever policies will ostensibly help our graduates “compete,” we could make decisions on the basis of what will help them collaborate effectively. Educators, too, might think in terms of working with—and learning from—their counterparts in other countries.

Translation: only by eliminating comparisons and measurement can we determine what is of value. Orwell would be proud. Clearly, the truth is that Kohn wants to eliminate independent measures in order to insert his own belief system as the exclusive criterion. That can be the only motivation for such silly talk.

It’s a shame that Kohn’s rejection of competition, and clear advocacy for socialism, is apparently so well accepted in the American education community. And clearly, he is having an impact. When you read about schools banning tag from the playground; when you hear that high schools are eliminating “most likely to” awards; when you find that schools are eliminating academic awards or honor rolls; you see Kohn’s invisible hand at the helm.

As he himself competes in the marketplace of ideas, we can only hope that people will think through the positions he tries to sell them in order to determine what will truly prepare our children to succeed in life, and what will deny them the tools and mindset needed to reach their potential.

Monday, September 24, 2007

School performance in Tennessee: the video

I just produced my first video on behalf of a client - click here to access a 10-minute video explaining Tennessee's value-added assessment system and the School Performance Charts created by the Education Consumers Foundation.

It's not Van Halen's Panama video by any means, but I'm pretty proud of it. :-)

Conference update

We recently announced that we'd be holding a conference on business/education partnerships next year - I'm excited to be able to share more details on this new event.

We've titled this event the "Effective Education Partnerships Conference." It's intended to bring together the various stakeholders in business/education partnerships, including businesspeople, coalition leaders and members (such as chambers of commerce, roundtables, independent partnership groups), school leaders, and other players to share case studies and practical tips on building and maintaining effective partnerships.

The emphasis is on the practical: we want attendees to leave the conference with a long list of things they can take home and immediately apply to their local efforts. And we want to present diverse voices, from both inside and outside the schools, so that attendees can hear the perspectives of various people involved in the typical partnership.

Based in large part on input from people in the field, we have identified the following major themes for this conference:

  • Managing Resources – How to identify, acquire, and manage resources effectively; how to maximize the impact of the resources you have; how to minimize operational and program expenses; and how to measure the return on the resources you invest in your programs.
  • Building Effective Partnerships – How to identify and approach prospective partners of all stripes (businesses, coalitions, higher education, foundations, internal partners, etc.), and how to nurture and grow those relationships over time.
  • Designing and Managing Projects – How to build and manage effective projects, which is distinct from partnership issues. This includes setting desired outcomes prior to project design (this includes both educational and partner-oriented outcomes), how to tap into available research to guide the design of your project, how to track activity and measure outcomes, and how to build sustainable programs.

The conference will be held in Fairfax, Virginia (just a few miles from downtown Washington DC) on July 10th and 11th of next year. We expect attendance between 300 and 400 professionals working in the area of community/school partnerships.

A few details on our progress:

  • We now have a conference website at Right now it's just a contact page, but we'll be posting more information as it's available.
  • We're close to selecting our site - it's between three hotels in Fairfax VA (just outside of DC), all of which would be fantastic hosts. We'll have this nailed down by early next month.
  • We've just released a call for presenters - click here to download information on hosting a session.
  • We've also put together our sponsorship package - contact me if you'd like to learn more about the national visibility you can receive by supporting this event.

There's much more in the works, including announcements of keynote speakers and more details on the event - stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Education gifts, with strings attached

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal today (subscription required), a group of philanthropists have announced the creation of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a nonprofit organization that will advise individuals and foundations interested in giving to colleges on how to attach legally enforceable conditions to their gifts.

There have been some high-profile disputes recently as to whether universities have been fulfilling the stated wishes of major donors. Princeton, for example, has been fighting the Robertson family (heirs to the A&P supermarket fortune) over whether a gift made in 1961 to train students for federal government service has been diverted to other purposes by the university.

This is apparently far from an isolated case. From the article:

Mr. Templeton, known for philanthropy seeking to reconcile religion and science, has long been skeptical about giving to colleges. "Anybody who trusts a university on a handshake is a fool," says Charles Harper, the Templeton Foundation's senior vice president.

How long before we see a similar step taken in K-12 education?

As noted in Education Week (subscription required), we've already seen several major foundations, including the Atlantic Philanthropies, Pew Charitable Trusts, Kellogg Foundation, and others either stop giving to K-12 education entirely or radically revise their giving guidelines.

Obviously university and K-12 giving are very different in nature. The issue in K-12 education is not likely to be whether the money is spent towards a particular end, but whether it's being used effectively and achieving the results that donors intended.

As noted above, the Robertson family isn't worried about whether Princeton is spending their gift effectively, just whether it's being spent in the area they wanted it spent. In contrast, donors to K-12 education don't usually worry about whether their money is being spent in the area they desired, but rather whether it's making any kind of discernable impact.

I can see a time in the future when a K-12 version of this new Center for Excellence in Higher Education is formed, not to help donors ensure their money is spent on their areas of interest, but rather to help them ensure it's achieving a return on investment (ROI).

It would be fascinating to see what happens after that. I've argued in the past that the best way to increase business' involvement in education is to give them a return on their contribution - would such a move finally make ROI a standard element of contributions and partnerships? I believe it would - and I believe the floodgates of corporate and foundation giving would open for schools and districts.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Race to the bottom

Hat tip to Ken DeRosa of D-Ed Reckoning, who highlighted a new report from the Department of Education while writing on the Kitchen Table Math blog.

The report is called Mapping 2005 State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales, and compares the proficiency scores of state tests against those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP (known colloquially as the Nation's Report Card).

Here's the comparison in 4th grade reading:

As you can see, a "proficient" rating on the tests of most states falls at or below even the "basic" ranking on the NAEP (and in some cases, far below).

Using Tennessee as an example, this explains why we see an average K-8 proficient/advanced score of 88% in math as reported by the state, while far fewer of those same students show up as proficient or advanced on the NAEP math assessment: specifically, 31% proficient/advanced in 4th grade, and 24% in 8th grade (click here and go to Tennessee).

As Ken notes in his post, it's a race to the bottom: in order to trick citizens into thinking their schools are performing well, states are watering down their tests to increase pass rates. If we keep this up, in the words of Stephen Colbert, we'll get to the point where passing the math test means you move when poked by a stick, and passing the reading test means that your breath fogs a mirror.

Is this really what we want?

Monday, September 10, 2007

If you can't improve results, make the test easier

This is just galling.

The difficulty of a reading test used to judge students across New York State dropped by as many as six grade levels between 2004 and 2005, according to an internal study by the New York City teachers union obtained by The New York Sun.

The study, written in March 2006, found that passages in the 2005 test hovered around third- and fourth-grade reading levels, down from a ninth-grade level in 2004. It also found that the 2004 test was characterized by longer passages, smaller print, crammed text, and more complex questions, such as asking a student to make an inference versus asking the main idea. Despite this apparent drop in difficulty, however, the number of correct answers needed to pass -- known as the "cut score" -- was just slightly higher in 2005 than in 2004.

Many states have reduced the difficulty of their assessments in order to post better results without actually improving - see here for more on that. But the boldness of what was done in New York - whether it's reducing reading difficulty by six grade levels or five - is simply unbelievable.

Update: It's not just reading, either.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

School funding crunch, part 4

One more note on the pending crunch in education funding.

In addition to the factors I've already highlighted as contributing to a near-future financial challenge for public education, we should also consider the impact of the current subprime mortgage lending issue. Remember that close to half of the money for public education comes from local sources, primarily property taxes (see here), and unlike the federal government, state and local governments do try to maintain a balanced budget (see here - $$ required for full story).

It's possible that city, county, and state governments will get hit hard by challenges in the housing market, since there's a cascade effect involved here.

First, we'll see defaults on a certain number of subprime mortgages, and this is projected to get worse over the next year or so. According to this article, 2 million mortgages will reset this year and next to higher rates. And local governments will lose out on property taxes on these homes.

But these homes aren't out in a field somewhere - they're embedded in communities. And whether it's just one or two homes or a whole cluster, abandoned homes will bring down the property values of other homes in the area - and, as the Wall Street Journal notes (here again), homeowners will be quick to demand reappraisals.

Furthermore, with more homes on the market, fewer new homes will be built, which means few licenses and permits (also revenue sources for local governments), fewer construction jobs, and fewer sales of housing materials. And even beyond that (again, according to the WSJ), we can expect to see reduced sales in home improvement, home services (landscaping), and even luxury items, as people see their equity go down.

All of this will tighten local tax purses, which will certainly hit public education at some point in the very near future; in fact, the National Council of State Legislators have already stated that revenues have peaked and are on their way down. Adding this to other, longer-term issues, like the aging population, and it looks like the long-term funding crisis may see something of an early start.

How will schools and districts react? Will they batten down the hatches, or reach out their community stakeholders to ensure their vitality?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The education funding crisis - one step closer

I've mentioned the anticipated funding crunch in education a few times (here and here in particular). One of the primary reasons for this pending crisis is the aging of the baby boomers. As they get older, their support for public education will wane, since they'll have fewer personal connections to the system, and they'll have less empathy for a student body that doesn't look like them demographically. The pool of available money will also begin to shrink substantially, since their retirements mean that money stops going into the system and starts going out, and their needs (in terms of social security and medicare) will eclipse those of the schools. And don't think their voices will be ignored: the elderly are historically the most powerful voting bloc in the country.

This issue was brought to mind while reading the local paper over the weekend. Charlotte (NC) saw a bond referendum fail in 2005, and there's great anticipation over a new one to be voted on in November. The Charlotte Observer polled likely voters on the issue, and early responses are encouraging: overall, 65% state that they'd vote for the bonds. But here's the dark cloud on the horizon:

Some of the stiffest opposition came from voters ages 55 to 64 (35.6% oppose) and older than 65 (44.8% oppose). The latter voters are the only polled group where a majority said they'd vote "no" (42.5% said they'd support the bond, 12.7% undecided).

This is an early peek into what's going to be a major problem down the road - or an opportunity, depending on your point of view...

Ruffled feathers

So often when people talk about education reform, they do so in the abstract, debating policy and change platforms without facing the real-world implications of the changes they're proposing. What you don't hear much about is the strength and the will required to actually implement major change. It can be rough going in practical terms: in order to do new things, the old things have to be broken up and changed, and people on the receiving end of reform won't necessarily like the changes (particularly when they find themselves out of a job).

That's why it's good to see articles like this one in The Boston Globe, which tells the story of an on-the-ground reformer in Arlington VA. A few lessons shine through:

  • Any real change is going to face resistance. Plan for it; be strong enough to see it through.
  • Communication is a huge part of successful change. People inside the system need to hear loudly, clearly, and repeatedly what's happening and why. And people outside the system need to hear it as well: they're your source of support, and ultimately your customers.
  • The challenges you face will rarely, if ever, be head-on. People won't challenge you based on the issues: no one's going to argue against a goal of 100% literacy for example. They'll argue about how you implement your plans, or take you on in an unrelated area.

It would be great to create a plan for substantive change that everyone can get on board with, but it's just not realistic. As one of the sArlington chool board members states in the article, "In any model of change, those who bring about change will encounter people who are resistant." Reformers would be wise to anticipate resistance and know how they're going to deal with it.