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Author of Education Secretary's Favorite Book Takes Exception

"36 Children" writer Herb Kohl says Arne Duncan has work to do to live up to book's message

by Cynthia McCabe

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan sat down with our interviewer Alain Jehlen for an article in the May NEA Today, he pointed to a book called 36 Children as his favorite. But in an open letter responding to Duncan, the book's author, Herbert Kohl, says that what's happening in classrooms nationwide today under the No Child Left Behind (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) is in direct conflict with the message of his book.

"With all that zeal to produce measurable learning outcomes we have lost sight of the essential motivations to learn that moved my students," Kohl writes. "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.'"

In his 1965 exploration of Black students in a Harlem public school, Kohl advocates a challenging and engaging curriculum for all students, one that includes arts, sciences, and the children's own culture and experiences. It resonated with a young Duncan, who told NEA Today that when he read it as a high school student and later expounded on it in a college essay, it echoed "the tremendous hope that I feel [and] the challenges that teachers in tough communities face. That book had a big impact on me."

Yet children today encounter rote-learning environments and drastically reduced or eliminated arts and physical education programs. They suffer from widespread academic boredom, writes Kohl. "It is no wonder that many American students are lethargic when it comes to ideas and actions." He even goes so far as to assert, "I'm sure that NCLB has, in many cases, a direct hand in the development of childhood obesity."

Reauthorization of NCLB could begin as early as this fall. When it does, Duncan and the Obama Administration have the opportunity to push for reform "that develops the intelligence, creativity, and social and personal sensitivity of students," writes Kohl. "I still hold to the hope you mentioned you took away from 36 Children, but I sometimes despair about how we are wasting the current opportunity to create truly effective schools, where students welcome the wonderful learning that we as adults should feel privileged to provide them."


Learn more about NEA's position on NCLB/ESEA

Check out our eight principles for NCLB/ESEA reauthorization