Alfie Kohn: Read your Lisa Delpit

By 05/04/2011

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Alfie Kohn’s Education Week commentary about the “pedagogy of poverty” has sparked a renewed debate about which kind of education is “best” for poor kids—and whether it’s the same as what affluent children get. After describing a curriculum that “consists of a series of separate skills, with more worksheets than real books, more rote practice than exploration of ideas, more memorization (sometimes assisted with chanting and clapping) than thinking,” Kohn writes:

Is racism to blame here? Or could it be that, at its core, the corporate version of “school reform” was never intended to promote thinking—let alone interest in learning—but merely to improve test results? That pressure is highest in the inner cities, where the scores are lowest. And indeed the pedagogy of poverty can sometimes “work” to raise those scores, but at a huge price. Because the tests measure what matters least, it’s possible for the accountability movement to simultaneously narrow the test-score gap and widen the learning gap.

Set aside the ugly and inaccurate caricature that Kohn paints about high performing schools. (For a more accurate depiction, read David Whitman’s Sweating the Small Stuff. There’s a ton of “thinking” and “learning” going on in the schools he profiles.)

The question of whether affluent and disadvantaged kids need a different kind of education—different instructional strategies, different curriculum, maybe even different kinds of teachers—is a serious one. This discussion is easily demagogued (particularly on Twitter). But it’s not racist to say that poor kids—who generally come to school with much less vocabulary, exposure to print, and much else—might need something different—more intense, more structured—than their well-off, better-prepared peers. Don’t believe me? Consider African American educator Lisa Delpit’s words, from a 1986 issue of Harvard Educational Review. She described her adoption of progressive education techniques in her racially integrated Philadelphia school.

I had an open classroom; I had learning stations; I had children write books and stories to share; I provided games and used weaving to teach math and fine motor skills. I threw out all the desks and added carpeted open learning areas.

So what happened?

My white students zoomed ahead. They worked hard at the learning stations. They did amazing things with books and writing. My black students played the games; they learned how to weave; and they threw the books around the learning stations. They practiced karate moves on the new carpets. Some of them even learned how to read, but none of them as quickly as my white students. I was doing the same thing for all my kids—what was the problem?

She eventually adopted more traditional approaches—the same approaches that most of her African American colleagues used. Probably including some techniques that high-performing charter schools like KIPP still use today.

Bottom line: This is tough stuff, a painful conversation. But let’s not be afraid to have it. And let’s stay open to the possibility that excellent schools in disadvantaged communities and excellent schools in affluent locales might continue to do things differently—without pernicious motivations or consequences.

—Mike Petrilli

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