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

Comment on this article
  • David Weingartner says:

    My daughter attends a higher poverty community school that I think does both styles well for a wide range of learners. We focus on the arts, projects, we have a science and inventors fair and music programs yet have a rigourous Core Knowledge curriculum. Students are working on difficult math concepts, but also need to memorize multiplication tables. Last year our students had the number one and two growth in math and reading of any school in the city.

    As our Principal states, our schools need to be fun and kids need to be engaged in the learning process.

    Urban schools that receive Title 1 funding are put under tremendous pressure to get an unrealistic percentage of often highly mobile, special ed, ELL, and students in poverty to pass NCLB tests. A small number of students can bring down an entire school. Unfortuntaly some of the desperate measures used simply don’t work. High poverty schools face a level of accountability that our federal government does not hold our low poverty schools to.

    Down the street from me, our Open magnet school dismisses high stakes testing. The school is at Level 5 AYP, but because it is a upper, middle class predominately white school, NCLB santions don’t apply. If my school reached level 5 our Principal and half our staff would be fired or the school would be turned into a charter school. This is wrong.

    I think it is fair to ask what are the negative impacts of NCLB on our our high poverty schools and if NCLB is so great why don’t we expand NCLB sanctions to cover our low poverty schools, the schools our politicians most likely send their own children to.

  • Dr. Bob says:

    The fact that you cite a 20 year old resource makes your argument lack any credibility what so ever.

  • […] Petrili of EducationNext weighs in on a debate about whether low-income students need to receive a different type of education than […]

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