THE GIRLS IN THE BACK OF THE CLASS, by LouAnne Johnson. (St. Martin's Press, $21.95.) Is it a "treatment'' for Hollywood or a nonfiction book about teaching? It's hard to say, though the evidence leans toward the former. After all, how many education books are promoted as a "sequel to the major motion picture'' or acknowledge an actress like Michelle Pfeiffer, who starred in the film version of Johnson's first book, My Posse Don't Do Homework? But what truly makes this seem like a Hollywood schtick is the stereotypical preposterousness of the characters, which sometimes are, Johnson tellingly informs us, "composites of two or more people.'' Her students, who attend a special program for endangered students at a high school near Palo Alto, Calif., are the archetypical tough kids who just need someone to really care about them--someone like Johnson, of course. She loves them so much--too damn much she tells her therapist--that even the most hardened break down in tears before her and vow to change their lives. In one scene, for example, Rico, a hoodlum with a soft heart--in Johnson's world, all students have, at bottom, soft hearts--drives Johnson to the San Mateo Bridge whence he flings his gun into the bay below. "Suenos con los Angelistos,'' he tells Johnson. Of course, such tender scenes are not for everyone, and so Johnson, a real-life ex-Marine (with a soft heart, of course), gives us plenty of Rocky Balboa-like confrontations, too. She challenges a threatening student to "come over here and kick my ass''; she puts a sexually suggestive student in his place by saying to him, "I'm old enough to be your mama, honey bun. But when you're 21, you call me, and I will wear you out.'' As ludicrous as most of the melodrama is, it must be acknowledged that Johnson does make some good points about the effects of poverty and despair on her students. She astutely notes, for example, that her students are so accustomed to failure that they sabotage their own chances for success, such as when a couple of students scorn an opportunity to work for a computer company. Finally, though, Johnson's narcissistic focus upon her own heroic exertions blind the reader to any possible insights. We can't help wondering: Would we want a teacher so focused on herself to be teaching our own children? "Sometimes,'' Johnson muses about her classroom work, "I'm a better actress than teacher.'' Based on what we read here, she just may be right.
WAR OF THE WORLDS: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality, by Mark Slouka. (Basic Books, $20.) Not too long ago, on parents' night at my own children's school, a number of people voiced a concern: Why weren't there more and better computers, and what was the school going to do about it? It was almost as if they, like parents everywhere, had come to believe that anything relayed across a computer screen is good and conducive to their child's success, while anything on a printed page is an antiquated hindrance. But as Slouka argues in this penetrating work, many people use technology less as a way to better connect with reality than to escape from it altogether. While software companies and on-line services tout their products as ushering in a new world order of peace and love--"we're all connected now,'' the commercials suggest--Slouka demonstrates that the Net and assorted software provide users with an anonymity from which the very worst in human nature can emerge. In one program--to offer just one particular odious example--teenage boys, ensconced in virtual reality, torture and mutilate females. And while it's obviously true that technology can provide learning opportunities--one program Slouka mentions lets users reenact Sherman's march through the South--these opportunities don't necessarily lead to moral or intellectual edification. Children, left alone with the laptops Newt Gingrich once proposed families purchase with vouchers, are more likely to blow up spaceships than study the Civil War. None of this is to suggest, of course, that technology has no place in the classroom. But to think that technology is somehow the answer to our educational--and human--dilemmas is as dangerous as it is false.
DEBATING THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN EDUCATION: Do We Need National Standards and Assessments?, edited by Diane Ravitch. (The Brookings Institution, $16.95.) For the first 144 pages of this book, the pieces in this collection, by a number of distinguished experts, have about them a stultifying irrelevance. It's not that issues--the pluses and minuses of authentic assessment and the role the federal government should play in setting academic standards--are unimportant; it's rather, as a feisty Albert Shanker finally points out on page 145, that such discussions are essentially meaningless in the absence of what he time and again refers to as "stakes.'' No matter how school standards are established, or how rigorous local, state, or national exams may be, they'll mean little, Shanker rightly argues, if they're ignored by the vast majority of colleges and employers. Teachers know this all too well: They've seen their students roll their eyes when told they had better study harder if they want to get into college; the kids know it's a lie. So let's get at the real question, which is not so much whether national standards and assessments are in themselves a good idea, but whether American parents, schools, and society are willing to make them count for more than show.