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[Susan notes: Herb Kohl offers Duncan a challenge--"Let's talk." What are the odds that Duncan will accept?]

Published in The Progressive

Open Letter to Arne Duncan

Iâm worried about the direction youâre taking education policy.

In a recent interview with >i>NEA Today, you said you read my book "36 Children" in high school and wrote an essay about it in college. "The book had a big impact on me," you said, adding that it gave you "tremendous hope" to address the "challenges that teachers in tough communities face."

But I'm afraid your emphasis on testing is only going to increase those challenges, especially in tough communities.

When I wrote "36 Children" in 1965, it was commonly believed that black students, with a few exceptions, simply could not function at a high academic level.

In my book, I wanted to provide a counterexample â one I had created in my classroom â to this cynical and racist view.

I wanted to let the studentsâ creativity and intelligence spring forth. And I wanted to provide interesting and complex curriculum that integrated the arts and sciences and utilized the students' own culture and experiences to inspire learning.

I discovered then, early in my teaching career, that offering ideas, experiences and activities that engage students is the best way to teach them. My career over the past 45 years has confirmed this.

Now the mantra is high expectations and high standards. But with all that zeal to produce measurable learning outcomes, we have lost sight of how best to motivate students to learn.

Recently, I asked a number of elementary school students what they were learning about and the reactions were consistently, "We are learning how to do good on the tests." They did not say they were learning to read.

It is hard for me to understand how educators can claim that they are creating high standards when learning is reduced to the mechanical task of getting a correct answer on a manufactured test.

Reading is not a series of isolated skills acquired in a sanitized environment by rote-learning with "teacher-proof" materials. It develops through interaction with a knowledgeable, active teacher â through dialogue and critical analysis. It also develops through imaginative writing and research.

It is no wonder that the struggle to coerce all students into mastering high-stakes testing is hardest at the upper grades. The impoverishment of learning taking place in the early grades naturally leads to boredom and alienation from school-based learning. The very capacities that No Child Left Behind is trying to achieve are undermined by the way in which the law is implemented.

Cutting programs in the arts reinforces this impoverishment of learning. The free play of the imagination, which is so crucial for problem-solving and even for entrepreneurship, is discouraged in a basics curriculum lacking in substantial artistic and human content.

Add to this the elimination of physical education in order to clear more time to torture students with mechanical drilling and shallow questioning and it is no wonder that many American students are lethargic.

It is possible to maintain high standards for all children, to help students learn how to speak thoughtfully, think through problems and create imaginative representations of the world â as it is and as it could be â without forcing them through a regime of high-stakes testing.

And yet your Education Department is insisting on more and more tests. This runs completely counter to the message of "36 Children," which you said had such an influence on you.

I could send you another copy if youâd like. And I would welcome any opportunity to discuss these and other educational issues with you.


Herbert Kohl has been a teacher and writer for the past 45 years. Some of his books include "36 Children," "I Won't Learn from You," and "The Discipline of Hope." He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

Herbert Kohl

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