Alfie Kohn lectures on education reform

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Alfie Kohn lectures on education reform

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Political Science professor Paul Dosh received an email Wednesday morning with news that educational policy writer and speaker Alfie Kohn had booked a flight for that night to avoid the impending snowstorms on the eastern coast.

“He took the step to change his flight,” Dosh said. “He told me that he had a 25-year record of not missing lecture engagements and he wasn’t about to start.”

The Political Science and Educational Studies departments co-sponsored the educational advocate’s visit as part of the Mitau lecture of Political Science and the Education and Advocacy Summit.

According to Dosh, Kohn spoke to a crowd of about 450 faculty, staff, students and local teachers and parents for the annual Mitau lecture on Thursday at 4:45 p.m. in the Kagin Hill Ballroom.

On Friday at 9:40 a.m., Dosh said 75 students and faculty participated in small group discussions with Kohn led by Educational Studies majors in Weyerhaeuser Boardroom.

Kohn’s early arrival afforded time for an unplanned lunch on the 4th floor of Old Main open to the first 15 respondents to an email sent out to members of the Political Science and Educational Studies Faculty, Dosh said.

Kohn has written twelve books, in which he criticizes education policy in the United States for emphasizing standardized testing and interscholastic comparison over individual assessment.

Educational Studies professor Tina Kruse said that nearly all her department’s courses use at least one of his texts. Kohn’s arguments are well-grounded in social science research, she said, but free of field-specific rhetoric.

“He is a prolific writer and speaker [about] ways to improve [education],” she said. “He writes very accessible, provocative short pieces.”

Dosh said he was excited for Kohn to speak so recently after the proponents of standardized testing gathered at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Education Summit on Feb. 6.

Kohn gave a lecture entitled “Many Children Left Behind: ‘School Reform’ and Corporate-Style Education Policy.” This lecture resembles his talk, “The Deadly Effects Of ‘Tougher Standards’: Challenging High-Stakes Testing and Other Impediments to Learning,” one of the 11 lecture topics listed on his website. The talk criticizes competitive models of education and suggests a new, fluid approach. He will also discuss the Common Core standards.

“One of the engines of school reform is the idea of standardized testing,” Kohn said in an interview on Monday, “so that the idea is not to explore ideas and become more excited about learning, the point is to bubble in more ovals correctly. The only reason you would need to standardize the assessment … is if your goal were to determine who’s beating whom. If the goal was excellence, we could have different types of assessment taking place in different classrooms over time; a more authentic approach.”

He described an overarching economic model motivates a competitive model of education.

“The driving force of corporate-style school reform has less to do with what benefits students than what drives a certain economic model,” he said. ”And that model is based on competition–setting individuals and companies and countries against each other so that all of us can’t succeed.”

Kohn said he rarely speaks at events sponsored by Political Science departments and was intrigued by the idea. He took the opportunity to discuss the political history and implications of education policy.

“…I think the point I’ll bear in mind when I speak is that what happens in the classroom is unavoidably political,” he said on Monday. “I think corporate executives and politicians already know that and they’ve used their power to push education policy in a particular direction. Many classroom teachers are reluctant to become political and it’s important for them to realize that the situation is already political. The only question is whether they’ll become active to push back.”

Kohn said he has tried to draw on multiple academic disciplines to analyze educational policy since writing his first book, “No Contest: The Case Against Competition.”

“It was the topic [of my first book] and the prospect of drawing from many academic fields to explore one issue that I thought had been approached piecemeal,” he said.
Mitau Lecture Series

In its 33rd year, the Mitau lecture, has brought major political figures to campus, from Walter Mondale to Howard Zinn. Named for Theodore Mitau, considered the founder of Macalester’s political science department, the lecture is part of an endowed fund.

The Mitau fund covered Kohn’s speaking fees this year. Kohn charges on a sliding scale asking a higher amount from those with means so that he can speak for free at less well-off organizations. Dosh said that Kohn’s $8,500 fee ranked above the typical rate of $6,000 for Mitau lecturers, but less than past highs over $10,000.

Dosh said this was not within the Educational Studies department’s budget, so he invited Professors Ruthanne Kurth-Schai and Kruse of the Educational Studies department to collaborate on hosting the lecture at the end of the Spring 2013.

According to Dosh, Kohn was an “unconventional choice” for the Mitau lecture because he does not maintain a notable academic post.

“I think it is an excellent and distinct collaboration with Educational Studies,” he said.

Political Science major and Educational Studies minor, June Ban, agreed.

“Alfie Kohn is a figure that addresses the issues that I find most important and intriguing–the issues that meet the two important academic worlds I love and care,” she wrote in an email.

Dosh said he hoped the lecture would encourage new conversations about education.

“I am most excited for Kohn’s visit to reinvigorate the conversation on campus and Minnesota about education models in Minnesota,” he said.

Education and Advocacy

While the lecture was open to the public, the Educational Studies small group discussions with Kohn were kept within the Macalester community as part of the department’s annual Education and Advocacy event.

“We are more focused on how our students are learning about educational concerns and how they can get involved,” Kruse said.

The small group discussions were led by eight Educational Studies majors, who developed questions about college access using Kohn’s work. Erin Schulz ’14 and Ross Bronfenbrenner ’14 took the lead in organizing the student leaders.

Schulz said that the session will focus on college access and Kohn’s writings on elementary and high school education.

“My capstone was on college access in rural areas, so I doubt it will be focused on,” she said, citing Kohn’s work focused on urban and suburban education. “…but learning about how different areas of Educational Studies inform college access is exciting for me.”
Bronfenbrenner said he was intrigued by the possibility of covering the socioeconomics of higher education.

“I read an article that there are more students from families making over $200,000 a year than under the median income at somewhere like the [University of] Michigan. It’s not something we think about,” he said. “It’s not necessarily overlooked, just assumed constant.”

According to Kruse and Dosh, Kohn sent readings ahead to prepare students for his visit and challenge him with questions.

“[Students] are already doing some reading and thinking about these topics and coming up with questions that I’ll try to answer,” Kohn said.

Off-campus invitations

Kohn said the high level of advertising added to his excitement for the event.

“Apparently there has been an effective publicity campaign to invite many folks off-campus in the Twin Cities, educators parents and others to come, so it looks as if I’ll have the chance to speak to a diverse and motivated group,” he said.

Due to the weather, Dosh said he and Department Coordinator Roxanne Fisher together fielded about 100 emails and phone confirming that Kohn had arrived and the lecture would happen. By Thursday afternoon, Dosh said he set up an auto-response with the subject “Good news: Alfie Kohn lecture is happening as scheduled.”

“If you are emailing about today’s Alfie Kohn lecture, the good news is YES, the talk will begin at 4:45 pm as scheduled, in Kagin Commons,” the message read. “You should arrive early, as we are expecting a full house, despite the weather.”

Dosh said many groups drove several hours to reach the event, including some from Winona, Minn. and University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

Dosh said that the weather did keep some people from attending, but that meant the event did not reach overflow capacity.

“We would have had to turn some away,” he said. “So the snow kind of saved us.”

Dosh said that he was able to use Mitau funds to bus about 65 educators and parents from around the Twin Cities to the event. Although short of the 81 registered to be bussed, Dosh credited the buses for the high attendance.

“We would have lost a lot more without the buses,” he said.
Dosh also said that he invited a group of teachers from South High School in Minneapolis who encouraged students to opt out of the Measuring Academic Progress tests in September.

Kohn said he attempted to cater his remarks to the history of education policy in Minnesota based on knowledge from past speaking engagements, friends and personal research.

Dosh said that the follow-up question & answer session took an unexpected turn when many teachers approached the microphone to tell their stories of “teaching in a system that didn’t value them.”

“One teacher [said] that all her value-added could be summarized by test scores,” he said. “That was an element I hadn’t expected.”

Dosh said he has only heard positive reviews of the entire event, though many have described Kohn as a “controversial choice.”

“Specific critiques didn’t reach my ears, but many have said something like, ‘I’m on board [with Kohn], but he’s too extreme,” he said.