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BEYOND THE CLASSROOM: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need To Do , by Laurence Steinberg with B. Bradford Brown and Sanford Dornbusch. (Simon and Schuster, $22.)

The publication of this acclaimed book marks a 180-degree shift in the education debate since the appearance of A Nation at Risk in 1983. That seminal report, warning of an educational meltdown, helped launch the school-reform movement. But in Beyond the Classroom, we learn that our efforts to reform schools are pretty much beside the point, for it's not better schools we need but better kids. Specifically, we need all students to be more like Asian-American students--studious and respectful. White, black, and Hispanic students, Steinberg argues, tend to be shallow, hedonistic, and oblivious to what schools have to offer.

Raised haphazardly by parents who are alternately neglectful and indulgent, too many bright kids fall prey to what Steinberg calls "the socialization of indifference"--they don't care much about anything. Filling the vacuum is the peer group, enticing the weak with drugs and the joys of "hanging out." Making matters worse is the distraction of drab and time-consuming part-time jobs. Steinberg suggests that if this indifference to education continues, we will fall behind the Japanese and Europeans, who, we can only guess, must be baffled why such an untutored America has not yet collapsed.

Essentially, Beyond the Classroom resurrects the old "teenagers are going to hell in a handbasket" argument. Here, though, Steinberg marshals evidence of declining test scores and the like to convince us that this time it's actually true. If we choose to dispute his conclusions or interpret the data differently--as many have--then we are "a nation in denial," Steinberg insists. But this notion that the kids are the problem is a half-truth that Steinberg wants to make an absolute. Yes, American kids are insufficiently interested in academics. Yes, they are subject to drift. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that the crushing monotony of most schooling helps create the very peer pressure that Steinberg and company blame for corrupting youth.

Despite a decade of reform initiatives, the majority of our high schools are still factories, designed not to engage minds but to warehouse students and textbooks. The fact that American students don't readily succumb to bland institutionalism is not so much a symptom of latent delinquency as a sign of youthful vitality. To suggest that we tap that vitality, as Steinberg does, with a longer school year, national examinations, and limits on jobs and extracurricular activities seems almost beside the point. Of course, our schools need to be academically rigorous. But they must also tap adolescents' iconoclastic spirit, which is, in its justified suspicion of authority, as American as apple pie.

WILL MY NAME BE SHOUTED OUT? Reaching Inner City Students Through the Power of Writing , by Stephen O'Connor. (Simon and Schuster, $23.50.)

When young fiction writer O'Connor arrived at Walt Whitman Middle School in New York City in 1988 to teach creative writing, he believed that the written word had the power to change students' lives. But O'Connor quickly discovered that language had no such magical power. Many of his students, coming from disastrous backgrounds of poverty and abuse, were too busy surviving to think about spinning metaphors. And far too many were enamored of clichés and the sentimental. He soon realized, however, that what seemed sentimental to him was profoundly meaningful to them: They wanted to write about their sense of longing and loss, and clichés were the only verbal tools they possessed.

So O'Connor shifted gears. Instead of urging his students to compose clever but irrelevant poetry, he had them write monologues that he thought would connect with their own life experiences. The first project concerned a racially motivated murder. He asked students to explore issues of race and violence by writing from the perspectives of various people involved in the crime. The monologues were effective, as were those he had his students write about the shooting of two boys in a Brooklyn high school. But when a colleague warns that he is taking his students deeper into despair, O'Connor, who is white and middle-class, begins to worry that he is unwittingly encouraging his students to see themselves as victims of urban deprivation.

O'Connor's strength, and the strength of this book, lies in his willingness to question his own motives and techniques while never giving way to despair. The teacher, he suggests, is not a white knight but an all-too-human figure struggling to rise above self-doubt.

GIFTED CHILDREN: Myths and Realities , by Ellen Winner. (Basic Books, $28.)

Prodigies, or gifted children, psychologist Winner insists, do not fare well in our schools. In principle, if not practice, we want our schools to be enclaves of egalitarianism. This, combined with Americans' suspicion of intellect, renders the gifted ultimate outsiders. Whether their talent is in mathematics, music, or some other domain, gifted children are often harassed, called "geeks" and "nerds." As a result, most don't become eminent adults. They need mentors and the kind of direction most gifted kids can't find in their schools. Winner proposes that schools do more for the gifted, such as offering them advanced instruction and other specialized programs. Still, she is savvy enough to realize that this won't be easy in a school culture that likes lumping kids together rather than singling them out.

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