An Interview with Alfie Kohn: National Standards or National Morass?

Jan 19, 2010 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico


Alfie Kohn is the author of 11 books about education, parenting, and human behavior, including

The Schools Our Children Deserve, Punished by Rewards, The Homework Myth, and Unconditional Parenting.  He lives (actually) in the Boston area, and (virtually) at

In this interview, he responds to questions about national standards, tests and testing.


1)      Alfie, you have an essay that Education Week just published about national standards. Briefly, what do you have to say on that subject?


I see this initiative – which, tellingly, has been spearheaded not by educators but by politicians, corporate executives, and testing companies – as a further tightening of the noose.  It’s an intensification of a top-down, test-driven version of school reform that goes the next step to deprive teachers and local communities of autonomy.  It’s a logical extension of what’s already been done to us:  the prescriptive standards and tests issued from state capitals, Many Children Left Behind, and the ghastly “Race to the Top” (which is like a TV reality show designed to see how far state officials are willing to abase themselves, and how many ludicrous and destructive policies they’ll be willing to adopt, for money).


In my Ed Week piece     I argue that there’s absolutely no evidence to show that imposing the identical set of standards or curriculum requirements on every public school classroom in the country helps kids to learn better, let alone to become more excited about learning.  Rather, the whole case for “core” standards rests on a tendency to confuse excellence with uniformity.  High standards don’t require common standards.


Finally, I worry about the ultimate goal here.  A one-size-fits-all approach makes no sense if what you’re looking for is a vibrant democracy or kids who are deep thinkers and good people.  But it may make sense if you think of education in crude economic terms, with children defined principally as future workers whose purpose in life is to improve the profitability of their employers.   And that mindset, further contaminated by an emphasis on “competitiveness” (which itself is very different from excellence), is exactly what drives the current conversation about schools.



2)      Let me ask you some questions that may clarify your thinking as well as my thinking, as well as the readers’ thinking.  First of all, do all children grow at exactly the same pace or rate from kindergarten through 12th grade?


Of course not.  Nor should they.  And therefore the most appalling version of “standards-based education” is the kind that decrees all nth graders should be taught the same thing and expected to acquire the same skills.  All that does is ensure that plenty of children will be gratuitously defined as failures – sometimes at a heartbreakingly early age.  It’s incredible what kind of harm you can do to kids as long as you remember to utter a mantra like “accountability,” “higher standards,” “rigor,” and so on.



3)      Second, and you may regard this as superfluous, but do you think that all children have exactly the same I.Q. or intelligence quotient and why should principals, parents, and policy makers examine this factor?


Whatever the criterion is, you can pretty well count on a wide variation.  But the questions we want to ask are, first, how useful is the criterion (in the case of IQ or similar unitary measure of intelligence, I suspect the answer is “not very”), and second, what significance do we attach to that variation.


4)      Third, and I am sad to say this, but I do know that there are children in this great nation who are blind, deaf, and have autism. I know that mental retardation exists, just as I know Down’s Syndrome exists. How would “national standards“ affect these individuals who through no fault of their own have these problems?


“I’m sad to say that some advocates for children with disabilities think it’s disrespectful or demeaning to those kids if they’re not subject to the same horrible tests and uniform expectations as everyone else.”


They want their kids to be taken seriously, and I’m afraid they’ve fallen into the trap of equating that with the raise-the-bar nonsense.  The “standardistos” (Susan Ohanian’s word) have set up a dilemma:  Either kids with special challenges – which includes those who have simply grown up in poverty – are treated by schools as second-class citizens who get a less “rigorous” education, or we apply a single set of standards to everyone and if those kids fail, so be it.  I reject both options, and, more specifically, I reject the way the issue has been framed.  A single set of national standards doesn’t do justice to the needs and interests of any two kids picked at random, let alone those with disabilities.



5)      Fourth, there is this debate about whether “attention deficit disorder“ or “ hyperactivity “ really exists or not. I can tell you that I have observed these kids in the schools, as just as I know gravity exists, I know some kids are simply more inattentive or hyperactive than others. What would national standards do to their education?


Look — all of us (kids or adults) can be located on a continuum with respect to just about every conceivable attribute.  I see that as more reason to be skeptical about one-size-fits-all standards across a whole state, let alone across a whole diverse country.  That doesn’t helps us in the progress toward greater equity; if anything, it distracts and deflects us from that effort by creating the illusion that treating everyone the same (equally) is tantamount to treating everyone fairly (equitably). 


Yong Zhao at Michigan State recently pointed out that countries with national curricula and tests like China and Singapore are in fact deeply “inequitable.”


Incidentally, when I was researching ADHD in some depth awhile back, I stumbled on some fascinating research that compared kids labeled as hyperactive in a traditional classroom with those in a classroom where instruction was individualized, students were relatively free to move around the room, and the teacher planned lessons in cooperation with the children. The kids in the second classroom were much less likely to be classified as hyperactive by teachers or experimenters – not because progressive education is a successful treatment but because the diagnosis itself says as much about the environment in which a child is placed, the stuff he’s expected to do, as it does about the child himself.



6)      Fifth, we have children that grow up to be wonderful plumbers, carpenters, electricians, auto mechanics and musicians. What would the schools be doing to these kids with these national standards?


The same thing we’re already doing to these kids – except moreso.  We’ve defined intelligence, talent, and success in very limited, and limiting, ways involving mostly linguistic and mathematical skills, and tough luck if those don’t happen to be your strong suits.


7)      Sixth, there are some individuals who have what I would call a vested interest in testing kids—there are these various test companies, that shall remain nameless, but you and I both know there are big bucks here at stake. Who is controlling these individuals and watching their agenda in this regard?


Your question makes the point very well.  Bob Schaeffer at FairTest likes to say that there’s more public oversight of the pet-food industry than there is of the conglomerates that spend billions of our money to test our children and determine their future.


8)       Now, playing devil’s advocate, don’t taxpayers have a right to make sure that a high school diploma means something and that high school seniors can read, write and do math and spell at a certain level of proficiency?


First of all, even though I’m a taxpayer, I tend to think about these issues more in terms of whether we’re doing right by kids than whether we’re getting an acceptable return for our financial investment.  You get carried away with the latter frame of reference and next thing you know you’re letting groups like Achieve, Inc. and the Business Roundtable determine our education policy – and looking to economists for research about schooling.  Of course I’m exaggerating.  We’d never be that crazy…


What you’re asking is what it means to be well educated, a question I wrestled with a few years ago in an article of exactly that title .  I think the question is more complicated than it appears, in part because some people whose math, spelling, and even writing skills are kind of shaky nevertheless have proved themselves to be brilliant and successful.  And right at the heels of the original question comes another one:  Who gets to decide?



I’m not sure I know what every high school senior should be able to do, but I am pretty sure that no one should get to make a hard-and-fast determination for every community in the country.  Least of all the National Governors’ Association or Bill Gates.


And here’s yet another question:  Even if we could agree on what a diploma should signify, how do we assess those proficiencies?  There are many possible bad answers here, but it’s hard to do much worse than “Based on their scores on a standardized test.”  A far more promising response turns on the idea of “exhibitions of mastery” developed by the late Ted Sizer, Debbie Meier, and others associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools.  These folks pioneered the idea of “real standards-based education featuring meaningful, authentic standards of thinking – which is so different from the common use of “standards” that the word is almost a pun.”



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