Does Arne Duncan think that harder is better?
Council Chronicle 3
Susan Ohanian and Stephen Krashen
Posted on NCTE Connected Community: OK to share
In "A conversation with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan," (Council Chronicle, September, 2011), an NCTE interviewer asked Secretary Duncan for advice for students struggling with difficult texts, eg "texts from another time with different structures, references, and allusions that they may be unfamiliar with."
Secretary Duncan's answer? Students have to struggle, and they are going to love it: "It's the joy of learning, being able to struggle with what's not easy in order to because fluent and to become confident and the really understand: that's joyous – kids love to have that confidence."
To show that he practices what he preaches, Secretary Duncan told NCTE interviewers that he and his wife "just did Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer with our two children …". The secretary's children are in first and third grade. (Maybe we should be grateful that Arne Duncan didn’t serve on the Common Core Literacy Standards committee. There, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer doesn’t appear until Grades 6-8, and Huckleberry Finn doesn’t appear at all. But if Arne moves to Dripping Springs School District (Texas), his kids will have a head start on Grade 11 Advanced Placement English, where Huck is in the canon.)
Arne Duncan seems to think that "harder" means "better." Alfie Kohn wrote this in 1999, in an article entitled "Confusing harder with better":
"John Dewey reminded us that the value of what students do 'resides in its connection with a stimulation of greater thoughtfulness, not in the greater strain it imposes.' If you were making a list of what counts in education--that is, the criteria to use in judging whether students would benefit from what they were doing--the task's difficulty level would be only one factor among many, and almost certainly not the most important. To judge schools by how demanding they are is rather like judging an opera on the basis of how many notes it contains that are hard for singers to hit. In other words, it leaves out most of what matters." (http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/chwb.htm)
Oddly, Duncan shifts gears in abruptly in the interview, suddenly bringing up the importance of interest: "You can always find what a kid's passion is, and then you come at that in a bunch of different ways. I think that's what great teachers do: they find that kernel of a kid's interest and find a way to connect with that."
It is not obvious how common core standards that demand texts of a certain complexity and "quality" for each grade level, enforced by national tests, even allow teachers to find children's interests, let alone find "a way to connect with it."
The NCTE interviewers didn't ask how the secretary and his wife were able to use Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer to connect with their children's interests, but instead moved on to another question.