THE LEARNING GAP: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education, by Harold Stevenson and James Stigler. (Summit Books, $22.) In the 1st grade, American and Asian children have comparable academic skills; by the 5th grade our children lag far behind--particularly in mathematics--by virtually every objective measure. What happens in those intervening years? According to sociologists Stevenson and Stigler, the failings of the American educational system stem not from television (Asian children watch even more), inadequate facilities (Asian schools tend to be Spartan), nor large classes (Asian classes consist of 28-50 students), but from pernicious myths that permeate American schools and culture. Most dangerous of these, the authors believe, is the American belief in innate abilities. Whereas Asian teachers, parents, and students believe that unrelenting effort is the key to accomplishment, Americans are quick to categorize students as anything from "gifted'' to "learning disabled.'' Errors, Asian teachers believe, are but a necessary aspect of the learning process; Americans, on the other hand, "conceive of errors as a possible precursor of ultimate failure,'' and, as such, cease challenging struggling students for fear of damaging their self-esteem. Ironically, evidence indicates that Asian children--despite much greater demands upon them--suffer less from stress than their American counterparts, who too often receive gratuitous praise rather than guidance and correction. While the authors fault American schools for their administrative glut, the emphasis they place on creativity over the rigorous development of skills, and the burdens they place on teachers (Asian teachers have almost twice the time to prepare), they are equally hard on lackadaisical parenting. Asian parents become increasingly involved in their children's education as they progress through school; American parents, while involved early on, soon come to expect the schools to take responsibility for the child's life. Finally, The Learning Gap is less an indictment of American schools than a powerful critique of a culture that values children's feelings while refusing to demand from them the hard work that makes for lasting success.
INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS, INDEPENDENT THINKERS, edited by Pearl Rock Kane. (Jossey-Bass, $34.95.) Independent schools have for decades been perceived as bastions of snobbery and privilege. But as this collection of 25 essays makes clear, these schools are becoming increasingly more diverse and provide cultural and academic models that other schools might well emulate. Because independent schools are autonomous, they are free of meddlesome bureaucracies; furthermore, the gap between administrator and teacher is narrowed--headmasters frequently teach--so that faculty benefit from an ethic "that values collegiality and consensus over hierarchy and authoritarianism.'' And, while independent schools are sometimes criticized for a traditional academic orientation that can become staid, such an orientation also makes them appropriately suspicious of voguish methodologies that change like spring fashions. In sum, the various contributors--ranging from teachers and headmasters to the novelist and Exeter alumnus John Irving--portray their schools as far from perfect but as fully human in their respect for learning and the individual student.
UNDERSTANDING TEACHING, by John Olson. (Open University Press, $29.95.) Understanding Teaching is a complex but convincing attack on educational researchers and theories that approach teaching as a science, a kind of "calculus of control'' that teachers must follow if they are to meet with success. Inevitably, such thinking attempts to place teachers in pedagogical straitjackets that would deny them the freedom to meet the ever-changing needs of students and classes. But educators who think teachers can simply be handed "new and improved'' schemes for teaching are deceiving themselves. Teachers justifiably resent being told what to do; furthermore, even the most "visionary doctrines'' commonly ignore the practical difficulties of implementing new ideas. Finally, Olson sees teaching not as a technique but as an all-toohuman enterprise that researchers can begin to understand only when they participate in the daily lives of the teachers they study. --David Ruenzel