Kohn: The Poor Get Worksheets

/ 3 March 2014 / eunice

Sarah Lahm, Minnesota 2020, March 3, 2014 – Can we reframe education conversations, in Minnesota and beyond, by talking about students’ achievements, rather than student achievement?

That is one vital question I took away from a recent visit, by Alfie Kohn—an author and lecturer on human behavior, education, and parenting—to  Macalester College.

Kohn always packs a punch, and this visit was no exception. When speaking about the six most “fatal flaws” of education policies such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, Kohn zeroed in on what he thinks are the policies’ “dark undertones.”

These policies’ persistence for example, in creating schools where everything hinges on “student achievement,” as measured by standardized test scores, guarantees that a certain number of students will fail, and that “there will always be losers.” Kohn reinforced the increasingly obvious point that the students who tend to fail under this system come from the vocational track, or low-income families. Often, they are also students of color, as well as Special Education students, and students whose first language is not English. They are students who, for whatever reason, are least acclimated to the dominant culture’s value system and methods of constructing and measuring knowledge.

In Kohn’s view, this system then guarantees that white, affluent, English speakers are always ahead of the game, and it is their version of success that sets the standard for everyone else. Kohn even went so far as to say that the current standardized education system we offer students amounts to “educational ethnic cleansing in America.”


Pushing all students to get higher scores on standardized tests, Kohn said, “measure[s] what matters the least” in education, such as rote memorization and test-taking skills.

Instead, Kohn asked those in the packed room to think about paying attention to “students’ achievements.” For Kohn, real achievement and deep thinking come from interdisciplinary, project-based learning, and is far more likely to produce meaningful, life-long growth for students. It is important, Kohn said, to call attention to the “unethical” ranking of schools according to test scores in order to create an authentic culture of learning.

In a world where it is often true, as Kohn aptly put it, that “the rich get richer, and the poor get worksheets,” it would behoove those who create, implement, or uphold education policy to consider this gem from Kohn: “Of all the chasms that separate one world from another, none is greater than the gap between the people who make policy and the people who suffer the consequences.”