Review of Speech by Alfie Kohn at Fairport (NY) 
Dec 5, 2001

           Kohn came to Rochester well prepared with advance men, for he
was on a radio talk show (National Public Radio station WXXI) two days
before his scheduled visit to the high school, for which the talk show
appearance was in part an advertisement. Many more people heard that,
moreover, than came to the Fairport High School Auditorium. From what I
have been told, he gave much the same story to both audiences, though in
the case of the talk show he answered telephoned questions. My wife, who
heard part of the talk show, said he was very good at brushing off
delicate questions, or turning them into occasions for prepared commen-
tary of his own; and to be sure, what she said of his comments on
standardized testing accorded with what I heard in Fairport on the after-
noon of the 5th.

           That he would speak here on the 5th was also announced in the
newspapers, but I had to phone the high school to find out precisely when
and where. The secretary there, after enquiring, told me the "first ses-
sion" would be from 4 pm to 6, and the "second session" from 7 to 9. All
in the Auditorium, she said. So, at about 3:45 pm I appeared there.
Fairport, so named because it was founded as one of the ports on the Erie
Canal (other nearby towns are named Brockport, Spencerport, etc.), is an
extreme suburb of Rochester, largely rural but developing. The high school
is rather new, one-floor and rambling in the midst of an otherwise
uninhabited, rather bleak, farm area about two miles from the village
center and perhaps ten miles east of the center of Rochester. The area
contains a practically all-white middle-class population, commuters to
Rochester jobs, or jobs at Xerox (whose home base is in Webster, an
adjacent suburb), though the village center, still on the Erie Canal, is
pleasantly small-town in atmosphere.

           Outside the auditorium there were a couple of tables with
pass-out literature and people with badges, and I overheard some words
about "Registration", so I went straight into the nearly-empty auditorium
and took a seat near the front. Kohn was in shirt-sleeves trying out the
public address system, which featured a wireless microphone attached to
his shirt. "One, two, three, four, testing," he said, "Stop standardized
testing!" He tested the overhead slide display, the first banner of which
read, *What's Wrong With the Standardized Testing Movement?* He turned
that off, spoke cheerfully to the sound technicians or hosts who were
setting things up, was satisfied, and left. Little by little the audience
came in, amounting to about 100 people by 4pm (starting time) and at least
150, maybe even 200, by 4:10, when the program actually began.

           A man from the Jewish Family Service spoke for the sponsors of
the event, which included his agency, a couple of local industries and
foundations, the Rochester Public Schools and the Fairport School
District. He introduced the Superintendent of the Fairport district, who
then introduced Kohn (now wearing a full suit) as the first invited
speaker in a proposed series, the next event in which would be a workshop
directed by the *Coalition for Common Sense*. (I don't know what that is.)

           The auditorium was quite large for a school, certainly holding
1000, hence not very full. Kohn invited the people at the back to come
forward. He asked if we could hear. He asked for a show of hands for
identification: How many were teachers? [80% at least, I'd say] Parents of
school children? Administrators? Professors? Town or county legis- lators?
[1 hand rose; laughter] Generally interested public? There was a
scattering of all of those. He began by saying, "Tonight's meeting is an
exercise in civil liberties." He explained that he had been supporting a
parents' (maybe teachers'?) boycott of exams in Scarsdale, and that the
present audience was being quite brave in coming out to see him.
[Applause] He welcomed dissent, he said, and hoped there would be a few
dissenters in his present audience, so that he might change some minds. He
invited the audience to -- themselves -- steal his ideas and bring them
back to others who had not heard them, or were not yet convinced.

           Learning is an active process, he explained, and he cited a
Colorado 4th grade experiment, for which he would give a scholarly
citation to anyone who asked, concerning accountability andfacilitating” in teaching. The experiment split a class in two parts for
a certain lesson, he said, or maybe series of lessons. One group, and its
teacher, were warned that they would be held  “accountable” for learning
this lesson, and an examination would follow. The other group, and its
teacher, were not told any such thing; but the teacher was told that
rather than teaching in the traditional way, she (or he) was only to
"facilitate" the learning of the children, who would do most of whatever
it was themselves. We could read the details of the experiment on Kohn's
website, he said, . [I looked, the following
day, but couldn't quite find that experiment, though there were many books
and papers cited on the website.] Kohn then said that both groups, after
receiving their lessons, were subjected to the same test on the material,
not a contrived, far-out test, but something pre-existing and well-known,
and GUESS WHICH GROUP SCORED HIGHER? At this point he asked the us all to
look to a neighboring member of the audience, to talk over what we had
just heard, and see if we could come up with an answer, and the reason.

           So, there was a chap sitting in front of me, one seat to the
right, and I had spoken to him for a minute before the lecture began,
asking what the printed material he had picked up in the hallway had
contained, and what was all this about "registration". He then only had
time to show me a sheet advertising the performance (there wasn't much
else in the folder), saying that advance registration was $35 for both
sessions, and $20 for either one separately. I asked him, since he, too,
didn't have a name-tag, whether he had come without paying, like me, and
he said yes, that he hadn't known there was a price. That was about all I
got to say to him before the show began, but in this Kohn-assigned
interval we fell to talking more. He was, he said, a science teacher in
Rochester. I told him my status at the U of R and he asked me if I knew a
certain statistician there (I didn't) who had told him that educational
research wasn't worth much. Was that so? He kept hearing, he said, that
"Research shows ...", but wondered if I also doubted these things. I told
him that his statistician friend was right. I also told him I didn't agree
with what I had been told about Alfie Kohn's ideas on education. But by
then, Kohn was calling the audience to attention, asking the answer.

           The audience knew the answer: The kids who had been
"facilitated" did better than the ones who knew they were going to be
"held accountable." Led by Kohn, the audience tended to agree that the
latter group was being "taught to the test" and were trying to beat the
test and not really trying to learn. That kind of instruction, Kohn said,
"converts teachers into drill-sergeants." Kohn strode up and down the
aisles, often quite close to me though the sound came from the speakers at
the front. "What d'ya want? RESULTS! What does *that* mean?" He explained,
"An overemphasis on assessment can actually undermine the pursuit of
excellence." Sacramento and Albany don't understand this, he told us.
"Those folks literally believe that harder means better."

           "What do you think would happen if they gave a statewide test
and everyone scored 100% Praise the teachers? Take you all out to dinner?
Nah; they would RAISE THE BAR! MAKE IT HARDER!" (Capital letters indicate

           Over the course of the speech he then developed these theses:
That testing is antithetical to learning because it focusses the attention
on the wrong things, and wastes precious time. That, furthermore, it
doesn't measure anything worth knowing. [As to this point I suddenly
recalled the Colorado experiment he had begun with, in which the testing
was the basis on which the experiment had proved something, he had said.
Sounds self-contradictory. If tests measure the wrong thing, and the kids
who had been "taught to the test" scored lower, perhaps that meant they
had actually learned more? I never got to ask him this question.]

           He hated the present-day use of the word "rigorous"; look it up
in the dictionary, he said, and we'll know what he means. [I did, and of
course most of its listed meanings relate to its etymology, by which it is
means stiff, cognate with rigor mortis and so on; but my dictionary also
lists "strict" as a synonym, and "strict", in the same dictionary, has
such things as orderly and straight for meanings. As a linguist, Kohn was
being tendentious; if every word were given only its oldest known
etymological connection, we would have a quite incomprehensible English

           Kohn quoted John Dewey to the effect that thoughtfulness is
to be stimulated, and superior learning not judged by "the greater strain
it imposes." Students, he said, should not be asked to know more than the
average person out there in the world. If those people want the children
to "know" so much, they should be asked themselves to take the tests they
are asking of the children, with the results published in the newspapers.

           Worst of all are the AP courses. They're harder; are they
therefore BETTER? "Don't ever think HARDER is BETTER!" He had the audience
with him here, ready to follow him anywhere. "What would happen if
everybody passed the Regents Test?" Audience, from several places: "RAISE

           Another word he thinks should be stricken from the schooling
vocabulary is "work", as a description of what children are doing there.
It shouldn't be work, he said, it should be ... (I didn't get exactly the
thing he said it should be, because I was busy taking down an aside, a
reference he made to "the Clinton days, when a majority still elected a
President" [laughter].) He quoted a school official he had spoken to who
had actually said, "Low scores show it is a good test." The man had
actually SAID that. Judging a test by its difficulty is like judging an
opera by how many hard notes the singers are compelled to sing. Thus we
see that tests are a sorting machine. Failure is NECESSARY. In fact, he
said, the only thing the tests tell us is the size of the house the child
lives in, and that's the way they want it.

           Now, what about “standards”? As guidelines or suggestions he
considers them a good thing, but as imposition, as "one size fits all",
they are obviously a bad thing. People confuse "specific, measurable stan-
dards" with learning. Then follows testing. This is behaviorism,
discredited many years ago and many times over. Facts are covered? He
quoted Howard Gardner, "Coverage is the enemy of understanding." He speaks
fast, with irony (or sarcasm) much of the time. "Specific"? He scorns it,
comparing the covering of a list of specific goals with the behavior of
the tourist who can't take the time to look around the Louvre because the
bus has to leave for Notre Dame. "Laundry lists!"

           Thinking, he said, is messy. The New York Standards are
specific, and they are no good (though he knows of worse). To regard as a
criterion of value the fact that something is easy to measure is foolish:
"Measurable outcomes may be the least significant result of learning." ---
Linda McNeal. This was put on the overhead projector, as were certain
other quotations, only some of which I have repeated above.

           After saying that tests measure house sizes he said that
differences in pedagogy only account for ten percent of the variation in
test results. And that doesn't count the vomiting and weeping of students
fearful of testing day. He quoted an ECONOMIST, someone without a TRACE of
human feeling (from the Hoover Institution, you see) -- yet buttressing
Kohn's case -- who said that even without comparisons and high stakes,
longitudinal results with the same population can show increases of as
much as 80% without any really improved learning, for they have been shown
to reflect various forms of "cheating", from getting kids specially
prepared once the new variety of test is known, to downright shifty
measures like exempting ever-increasing numbers of "disabled" children and
using only the scores of the better ones. They urge the ones who don't
score well to stay home with a cold on exam days.

           And even without all this, "How many of you know students who
score badly on tests, and yet who you know are learning, and will be a
success in life? And how many of you know students who are the other way
round?" [He pauses at such times to look at the audience for answers, or
nodding of heads.] "Let's look at research. I can name you here three
studies that show an inverse relationship between test scores and real
learning. So you may well ask, if you are a parent, 'What have you taken
FROM my child to improve his test scores?'" What are we giving up?
Democratic skills, for example. Think about 9/11 in New York; that was a
teaching event. Also the last, stolen, election. "But of course, current
events aren't going to be on the test" [heavy sarcasm]

           He quotes one teacher who in response to a question about what
her kids were reading replied, "We haven't done any reading since we
started preparing for the reading test." Kohn here tells us that "Open
Court” could only be given to children of color, because [the affluent]
wouldn't stand for it."

          [There was big applause here, so I had to back up to quote him,
as you see, imperfectly, not having realized in time that he was saying
something significant. *Open Court* is, I believe, a phonics reading
program, and he was saying it was deemed fit for only the lower classes,
"children of color" was his phrase, actually, to keep them in their place.
Thus I deduce he was indicating a judgment in favor of "whole language"
reading instruction and presuming his audience agreed. But I haven't been
following the details of the reading controversy in New York. RAR]

           Well, this gets repetitious, and went on quite a while. Kohn
has a special animus towards norm-referenced tests, because half the class
has to score badly. This doesn't close the gap between the rich and
the poor, he said. It has bias built in. He attacked the New York State
Superintendent of schools by name (Richard Mills, who seems to have come
to us from a previous position in Vermont), saying that when in Vermont he
was opposed to statewide standardized testing, and now suddenly, in NY, is
touting them. Why the change? Kohn left me with the impression that his
audience would recognize the implication that Mills had been bought by
moneyed interests. Mills wants the kids to "cough up" what the Authorities
want them to think, rather than think for themselves; " turn children
of color into trained seals, barking out phonemes on command."

           These Standards and tests, he said, will "drive out of business
the most innovative schools in the state. And the dropout rate rises in
response to these tests. Look at Texas, where only 40% of the blacks and
Latinos get high school diplomas.

           So -- what do we DO about it? Reduce test-prep time, and get
back to the curriculum as soon as possible. In science, for example,
students should learn to behave like scientists, do projects, collect
soil samples. These are things experts say is real education! (He used
the word "experts" but didn't say whether it referred to expert educators
or practicing scientists.)  He also advised against giving tests of *any*
sort until past the third grade. (Not just statewide, but in class) Every
one of us, he said, has a level, student, teacher, principal, supervisor:
Your duty is "to educate those above you and to protect those below." "We
have to band together for the long term..." And from here to the end of
the talk, maybe for five more minutes, Kohn explicitly roused the crowd to
protest testing, to boycott, or encourage parents to boycott, the tests
Mills has decreed.  "Make sure your child and your neighbor's child have
colds. What if they gave a test and nobody came?" Kohn explicitly exempted
the diploma-level test from this advice, for after all the kid needs a
high school diploma, but he recommends boycotts at least at the 4th and
8th grade level. And protest. The law cannot punish you for that.


         In looking back on what I heard, apart from the demagoguery what
most strikes me is the lack of any reference to intellectual substance in
the educational program. A couple of exceptions: At one point in the talk
he scornfully referred to children learning useless things about the
Iroquois Confederation and "sea-shell sediments", things the man in the
street doesn't need to know, and the children will probably never remember
either: That sort of thing is facts, not thinking. And towards the end he
mentions science, real science, "soil samples". Those were the only places
where curriculum *content* occurred, but such references were as if by
accident. The speech was on a higher plane than curriculum or the details
of knowledge, or the ways, apart from the development of thinking skills,
that knowledge gets used.

         The 7 pm session was to be entitled Punished by Rewards, but I
didn't come back for the 7:00 session. I wondered about the $20 fee and
who paid it for all the teachers in the audience. Probably their school
districts, under the heading of *professional development*, but I didn't
stay to find out from whom *I* had stolen the $20 for the first session.
I decided not to steal one of the folders too, but sneaked home to dinner.

Ralph A. Raimi
December 10, 2001