SCHOOLS THAT WORK: America's Most Innovative Public Education Programs, by George Wood. (Dutton, $22.) The four public schools that Wood cites as outstanding are all marked by a free-spirited openness out of which children create the conditions of their own learning. Most valued, then, is student autonomy and creativity, which teachers encourage by becoming coaches rather than heavy-handed authorities. While Wood's picture of school--both urban and rural, poor and affluent--is generally convincing, it is somewhat marred by a pervasive sentimentality. We read of such things as "the excitement in their eyes,'' so that learning becomes equated with a kind of permanent joyfulness. (Must the two always go together?) The author is also so unreserved in his praise that he glosses over the possible demerits of, for example, a school that teaches everything from the Native American experience to the Asian-American experience while apparently excluding "traditional'' American history. Still, the schools have had real successes--English classes in a Georgia school, for instance, continue to publish the renowned Foxfire books--with programs that other schools might well emulate.
LOOSE CANONS: Notes on the Culture Wars, by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Oxford, $19.95.) No one teaching in our schools today can avoid the questions raised by the new emphasis on multiculturalism: What should we teach and why should we teach it? The answer, according to the prominent scholar Gates, is Afro-American literature as well as the "classics,'' whatever that elusive term may mean. And we should teach such literature not simply because it represents voices that have too often not been heard (as is commonly done), but because slave narratives and black poetry and prose address from a different perspective both the American and human conditions. In Loose Canons, Gates has accomplished something unusual: namely, to write about a divisive subject with wit, intelligence, and plenty of good will. -- David Ruenzel