[Paleopsych] Book World: Class Struggles

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Class Struggles
Book World, 5.9.4

    Stories from the front lines of American schools reveal the world
    beneath policy debates.

    By Eric Hoover

    In 1983, a national panel of education experts released the report
    that launched a thousand headaches. The document, "A Nation at Risk:
    The Imperative for Educational Reform," warned that public schools
    were foundering. The nation's jaw dropped, and politicians promised

    Two decades later, they're still promising. But the bickering over
    reforms is ceaseless. Take the No Child Left Behind Act, the
    controversial federal law requiring schools to show annual progress on
    state tests taken by students in grades 3 through 8. Supporters say
    the get-tough program promotes high standards and accountability;
    critics say the plan is too rigid and out of step with reality. Who's
    right? And how do such big questions relate to struggles in school
    systems near you?

    Satisfying answers rarely come from politicians and wonks, who dwell
    in a fog of slogans and statistics. But welcome are those authors who
    find the pulse of human drama in the education trenches. The
    experiences of students, parents, teachers and administrators in
    American schools make compelling stories, full of heroes, villains and
    A School House Divided

    A girl named Pineapple poses the question that haunts Jonathan Kozol's
    The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in
    America (Crown, $25). "What's it like," the black sixth grader asks
    the white author, "over there where you live?" Like other students in
    this sweeping report, Pineapple attends a public school where
    minorities make up nearly 100 percent of the enrollment. Her curiosity
    about whites, who attend schools in an unknowable "over there," speaks
    to the racial divide that Brown v. Board of Education attempted to
    bridge a half-century ago. Kozol, a best-selling education writer,
    argues convincingly that de facto segregation endures in urban school
    systems from Seattle to the South Bronx. His firsthand reporting
    reveals districts in which schools are separate and unequal. He relays
    insights from poor students who learn in buildings where ceilings
    leak, rats scurry, and toilets don't flush. In these ramshackle
    places, which often lack enough books, desks and qualified teachers,
    the drumbeat of school-accountability measures sounds hollow.

    In an effective series of anecdotes, Kozol asserts that
    standards-based reforms turn poor schools -- with the fewest resources
    to teach the skills those tests measure -- into mindless educational
    factories. He warns that high-stakes tests threaten to turn low-income
    students into "examination soldiers" who do not so much acquire
    knowledge as regurgitate facts. He provides statistics that suggest
    the much-touted reforms have failed to close the so-called achievement
    gap between white and minority students. And he cites data showing the
    gaps between per-pupil spending in predominantly white urban school
    districts and districts that serve mostly minority students. In a
    chapter called "Deadly Lies," the author predicts that until students
    from different economic backgrounds attend schools of equal quality
    and resources, No Child Left Behind will not shrink but expand "the
    vast divide between two separate worlds of future cognitive activity,
    political sagacity, social health and economic status, and the
    capability of children of minorities to thrive." A call for activism,
    The Shame of the Nation firmly grounds school-reform issues in the
    thorny context of race and concludes that the nation has failed to
    deliver the promise of Brown.
    Power to the Parents

    Bribes, lies and scandals are part of education's ugly underbelly, Joe
    Williams reveals in Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin
    Education (St. Martin's, $24.95, forthcoming in October). Williams, a
    veteran education reporter, makes full use of his journalistic skills
    in this blistering analysis of public-school politics. (Friends of
    teachers unions, take cover.) Vivid anecdotes about administrators
    skimming from school budgets and teachers-of-the-year getting fired
    because of their expensive seniority support his case that the goals
    of education bureaucrats often conflict with the interests of

    "As a society," Williams writes, "we are dismissing the needs of
    individual students to protect a romantic notion of public education
    whose very core is consumed with meeting the needs of adults first and
    foremost." Occasionally, these valid structural critiques of "the
    system" lapse into broad-brush criticisms of the "education cartel."
    But his frustrations, grounded in accounts of bureaucracy run amok,
    echo those of many parents.

    Even so, Cheating Our Kids hits an inspirational note with its
    instructive explanation of how parents, business leaders and activists
    from both ends of the political spectrum helped bring school choice to
    Milwaukee in the 1990s, allowing low-income families to send their
    children to private schools at the public's expense. The tale proves
    that dedicated citizens who demand a better education for their
    children can move the mountains known as politicians.
    Unconventional Wisdom

    Everybody knows that reducing class sizes in public schools improves
    the quality of education. But where did they get that idea? Not from
    Jay P. Greene's Education Myths: What Special Interest Groups Want You
    to Believe about Our Schools -- And Why It Isn't So (Rowman &
    Littlefield, $24.95). Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan
    Institute, a conservative think tank, challenges 18 popular
    assumptions in this accessible, data-driven polemic.

    The attacks come fast and furious against popular beliefs about class
    sizes, graduation rates and underperforming schools. Greene argues
    that public schools receive adequate funding, countering Kozol's
    "anecdotal reasoning" that there are spending gaps between urban and
    suburban schools. He also argues persuasively that voucher programs do
    not harm public schools, as some critics of school-choice contend. His
    arguments stick close to the numbers compiled from numerous education
    studies, and, generally, Greene makes strong cases that would keep
    even education-policy gurus on their toes.

    Still, all the numbers in the world won't end the debate over what's
    true. Just ask your favorite teacher what he or she thinks about the
    elaborate statistical analyses behind the following statement from
    Education Myths : "It is simply not the case that teachers are less
    richly rewarded for their work than those in similar professions."
    Daydream Believer

    In Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education
    (Riverhead, $24.95), Chris Whittle, the maverick businessman who
    became an education insider, describes his vision for American schools
    in painstaking detail. Whittle is the former owner of Esquire magazine
    and the founder of Edison Schools, a company that manages 157 public
    schools in 19 states and educates 70,000 students. Naturally, the
    author promotes splicing the private-sector's DNA (think free-market
    competition) into the traditional education system.

    Whittle's blueprint calls for radical new curricula, massive
    educational research-and-development efforts, and better training and
    pay for teachers and principals. He imagines students studying
    independently, freed from the constraints of regimented class
    schedules. "We are still operating in a type of Charles Dickens
    mindset," Whittle writes, "believing that these young, half-civilized
    things called children must be literally whipped into shape, if not by
    a stick then by a never-ending schedule."

    The detailed business strategies in Crash Course may cause drowsiness
    in some casual readers, and the 37-page leap into the year 2030 may
    puzzle others. But the scale of Whittle's imagination and his
    disarming optimism make this a refreshing companion to gloomier
    education tomes.
    Pragmatism 101

    My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student
    (Cornell Univ., $24) is the true tale of an anthropology professor who
    became a fly on the dorm-room wall. Rebekah Nathan (a pseudonym for
    Cathy Small of Northern Arizona University, recently unmasked by the
    New York Sun) enrolled as an undergraduate student at the university
    where she teaches, moved in with her subjects and took classes for two
    semesters. Her goal was to understand the mysteries of modern
    students, including why they snooze in classes and skip assigned

    A few distracting scholarly digressions aside, Nathan engagingly
    observes that many students care little about intellectual matters and
    see their university as a career greenhouse. No revelations there. But
    that campus life is no "Animal House" may come as a surprise. Juggling
    classes, assignments and jobs demands survival skills, the professor
    discovers. The key to sanity: "controlling college by shaping
    schedules, taming professors, and limiting workload."

    My Freshman Year provides some keen insights into the causes of
    students' fierce pragmatism. For one thing, debt often drives their
    career aspirations and, in turn, their choice of majors and
    extracurricular pursuits. Colleges, Nathan argues, must adapt to those
    21st-century realities: "Educational policy . . . cannot afford to
    rely on inaccurate or idealized versions of what students are." But
    understanding students is not the same as sympathizing with them.
    Nathan's vow to lighten students' loads by assigning them less reading
    sounds like blasphemy to this bookworm. My Freshman Year provides a
    long list of what ails college students, but a short list of remedies.

    Eric Hoover is a senior editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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