Are progressive schools only for the affluent?
Part 1 of my exclusive interview with Alfie Kohn. Oh and it's BOOK LAUNCH day!
This is @edpsychprof's newsletter for those interested in transforming schools to become places where children (and adults) can thrive.
I was fortunate to be able to head out on sabbatical right before COVID struck. I wanted to observe innovative schools that were really changing the paradigm for K12 education. I was both delighted and appalled at some of the things I saw, and these visits were part of the impetus for why I wrote my new book—which launches today!!! (more on that in a moment). The thing is that even innovative schools don’t always get things right—we need innovation and equity. These were my thoughts as I sat down in a local Boston suburb to eat pizza with one of my heroes, education critic and author, Alfie Kohn.
In this edition of my newsletter, I will share some of our discussion on progressive schools and whether they are equitable for all students. I’ll also share some of my school observations related to this topic. Today’s newsletter will launch a series of posts based on my school observations to hopefully kickstart serious dialogue about what is involved in true school transformation.
So I began our conversation wondering if progressive schools were inequitable for kids from low-income, inner city environments, as my travels so far had shown some inequities in that area, and seemingly successful charter schools focusing on urban youth have tended to take a more authoritarian, heavy-handed approach to school discipline.
Kohn disagreed with me. Here are some excerpts from our conversation
Kohn: In a piece I wrote on progressive education, I quoted a guy named David Gribble, a British guy who created an alternative school, and he said something like, "This more respectful, autonomy-supportive, progressive model is great for affluent privileged kids, but for low income kids from tough circumstances, it's essential.
I think that's exactly right. It's more important to give more choices to kids who have been over controlled. Kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. And it's appalling that poor kids are basically treated like pets with a combination of bribes or threats to get mindless obedience. The nightmarish apotheosis of this being the “no excuses” charter schools in large cities where I wouldn't send my dog. I would argue that good practice doesn't support the idea that troubled kids need an authoritarian approach. I mean the transition will be rocky given that they've been subjected to this kind of control in the past and are used to it. What they need is to be part of a caring community where the need is to be consulted rather than ordered around.
Me: Maybe that's it. Maybe it's when we get to the rocky part, that's where the teachers in the schools just revert because they don't want to go through the rocky part.
Kohn: Yes, that's probably true. And they may not know what else to do, or they operate with the false dichotomy—You either make them suffer or you do nothing and let it go. Those are the only options. We can't let it go. So we need punishment, but of course we make ourselves feel better by not calling it punishment. We call it accountability or something like that. But then it just starts the cycle even more.
Me: (mentions Ross Greene’s collaborative problem solving model)
Kohn: Yeah, exactly. But it's so time intensive and complicated. I just don't think we want to invest in our kids that much. I wrote a whole book about this, this issue of the nonacademic stuff at schools called Beyond Discipline, which was published by the ASCD a while ago, and it's specifically for classroom teachers about why and how to move away from traditional classroom management. And it parallels in some way Ross's work. Ross and I grew up together in Miami by the way.
Me: I'm curious, what made you so passionate about this topic?
Kohn: I'm not sure I have a good answer to that. There wasn't a particular personal experience that I'm trying to work through. It's just a combination of when I see good practice and research pulling in this direction, and most people going in that direction, it sort of pisses me off. I want to oppose traditional practices because they eclipse the good stuff. The delight in learning, the curiosity, the chance for kids to connect. So when I see stuff like punishments and rewards or grades, tests, or a traditional model of instruction based on memorizing facts and practicing skills, it gets in the way of the things that I want to affirm.
One of the things that prompted this conversation was my witnessing a progressive public school up north that treated its low income, disabled, and students of color very differently than they did their neurotypical, affluent students. My naïve self was shocked because I had taken for granted that innovative schools were innovative for all kids, but now I saw how some students were further marginalized in even some very outstanding schools.
In this one school, a Black elementary student got kicked out of class for not being able to sit still and focus. He’s playing with a staple in a bulletin board, all alone in the quiet hallway. He looks like he’s about to cry. I ask him if he likes school. No, he answers. I ask him if people are nice here. He shakes his head vigorously, No! I hang out in the hall for a while. No adults come and check on him. He presses the staple into the board, over and over, as I walk away.
I wondered if his parents knew how their son was being treated. He was at a renowned charter school with a large waiting list. Did they think their son was getting the same type of education as other students? Did they know he missed most of the instruction in his math class?
There is so much hidden curriculum being taught in school, rules about who wins, who loses, what counts, that may not be aligned with what families value or good practice recommends. I wrote The Millennials’ Guide to K-12 Education for ALL parents, to empower them to make well-informed decisions pertaining to their children’s education: to shine a light on how schools operate, how they ought to operate, and how kids learn, so we can not only make schools better for our kids, but all for all students.
I started this newsletter last December. I am glad to see so many of you reading this, and I’d love to add more folks to our community. I would be so very grateful if you would share this newsletter with a friend who has school-age kids or who is interested in k12 education. Thank you for reading and being a part of this crucial conversation.
Get this newsletter delivered fresh (and free) to your inbox by subscribing below:
Let's stay connected. Together we can help make schools places where kids can thrive
Hi Gill, this was a very inspiring interview and would love to read more. Since it's labelled part 1, are there other available parts of the interview here? Cheers!