Tuesday, April 15, 2014

John Kuhn's Fear and Learning in America: A Review

John Kuhn is one part story teller, one part evangelist and one part passionate champion of public education. Through personal narrative, historical reference, sound research and righteous indignation he lays waste to the corporate education reform movement in his compelling new book. What I love about Kuhn's writing is that his well told stories and carefully cited sources give way at times to bursts of passionate advocacy that have the reader, at least this life-long educator, primed to storm the beaches of the Gates Foundation or the Halls of Teach for America if necessary, to do what is right by children, teachers, parents and public education.

I have had the opportunity to hear Kuhn speak and his writing voice leaps off the page at you, just as his speaking voice jumps out at you in an auditorium. Indeed Kuhn first came to prominence on the public stage for a speech he gave at a Save Our Schools rally in Texas a few years ago that went viral on You Tube. Fans of Kuhn the public speaker are sure to be fans of Kuhn the author. Fear and Learning is his second book. I reviewed his previous work, Test and Punish, on this blog last year.

Kuhn's bona fides as a critic of the education reform movement are impeccable. After two years working as a missionary in Peru, Kuhn returned to his native Texas and became a teacher of Spanish, eventually working as an assistant principal, principal and superintendent in rural Texas. His book is punctuated by telling stories of his time as a teacher and administrator and the students and parents he encountered along the way.

One of the appealing parts of the book is that Kuhn tells stories of his failures and turns a harsh eye on himself for not doing a better job. Kuhn's is not a story of the hero teacher that is a part of the education reform narrative, but rather of the life-long teacher, working hard day-to-day and doing the best job possible while trying to balance work, family and community. Kuhn says that he is confident that the life long educator, plugging along has a more lasting affect on students and the community than the fly by hero teacher who is burnt out and gone in a few years.

Kuhn accuses the education reformers of trying to sell the American public "magic soap." This magic soap is made up of "sketchy metrics and magical education solutions like value-added measures of teacher effectiveness." By selling the public magic soap, the corporate education reformers seek to distract attention from the issues they have no intention of addressing: poverty and inequality. Here is how Kuhn says it in one of those bursts of passion I mentioned above.

I believe fervently that Michelle Rhee and an army of like-minded bad-schools philosophizers will one day look around and see piles where their painstakingly built sandcastles of reform once stood, and they will know the tragic fame of Ozymandias. Billion-dollar data sorting systems will be mothballed because of their reckless top-down construction. Value-added algorithms will be tossed in a bin marked "History's Dumb Ideas." The mantra 'no-excuses" will retain the significance of "Where's the beef?" And teachers will still be teaching, succeeding, and failing all over the country, much as they would have done if Michelle Rhee had gone into the foreign service and Bill Gates had invested his considerable wealth and commendable humanitarian ambition in improving law enforcement practices or poultry production (p 62).

Kuhn says we must set our eyes higher if we truly want to close the achievement gap. First we must recognize that the achievement gap is merely a symptom of the "opportunity gap." The opportunity gap includes all the issues related to poverty, inequality and segregation that our society faces. It is the man behind the curtain that the education reformers want you to ignore. No amount of testing and measuring, school closures and teacher firings will close the opportunity gap and without closing that gap we will never impact the achievement gap effectively. The answer to better schooling, then, is not better teachers or digital learning or Common Core or school choice. It is a better, fairer, more just society.

I will let John Kuhn have the final word. "The enemy, then of academic achievement in poor America is not the failing teacher. It is the failing citizen" (p 134).

I recommend the book highly to all those who labor in the field of education and desire a clear-eyed, passionate spokesperson about what is happening to the teaching profession and to public education in 2014.