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Published in Print: September 1, 2003, as Reviews


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How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn
by Diana Ravitch
(Knopf, 255 pages, $24)

As Ravitch tells it, the decision to write this scolding but valuable book came about by accident. Appointed to a national standards committee by President Clinton in 1998, the respected New York University education historian and professor later learned that the readings she and fellow panelists had recommended for a proposed test on the standards had been deemed inappropriate by a review panel of the test contractor, Riverside Publishing.

One passage, about patchwork quilting on the American frontier, was rejected for showing women engaged in a stereotypical female pursuit. Another, a true story about the achievements of a blind mountain climber, was nixed because it suggested blind people are disadvantaged. And a third, about a black girl struggling with math, was deemed racially biased even though it was written by an African American woman.

Looking deeper, Ravitch learned that the experience with Riverside was hardly unique. She found that virtually every textbook and test publisher, from Scott Foresman to McGraw-Hill, employs highly restrictive "bias and sensitivity" guidelines. In essence, she writes, the publishers censor themselves to eliminate materials that might run afoul of the special interest groups that tear apart textbooks when they come up for adoption in key states.

These groups, representing every cause and political persuasion, strive to remove anything they find objectionable. Right-leaning groups, for example, try to exclude material that is sexually suggestive or critical of the United States, Christianity, or capitalism. Left-wing groups raise questions about almost anything written before 1970, fearing it might be contaminated with racial or gender bias. The right wants depictions of loving families with strong fathers and nurturing mothers; the left wants women fixing cars and men cleaning refrigerators. After they have had their say, little of real substance and interest is left, Ravitch argues. As a result, students end up with dull texts, typically written by teams of authors striving to be inoffensive. As one Educational Testing Service official tells Ravitch, "It's better to be bland than controversial."

She laments that the work of many esteemed American authors, from Mark Twain to Annie Dillard, either has been eliminated from texts and curricular materials or expurgated. By abandoning classic and contemporary literature in favor of what are essentially reference materials, she writes, schools cease to foster an aesthetic appreciation among their charges. Instead, reading and writing become values-free, basic-skills exercises on which students can be tested.

Ravitch suggests three ways to combat this censorship. First, she argues, the public needs to be made aware of the practice, which has, to date, been highly secretive. Second, she wants to eliminate the textbook adoption process, which gives extremists in large states like Texas and California a disproportionate say about what gets published. If teachers and schools, rather than monolithic state bureaucracies, could select their own materials, innovative publishers would be able to gain a foothold, she writes, and texts would become more lively and interesting. Finally, Ravitch asserts that most teachers simply need to know more literature and history than they currently do. A superficial understanding fosters an almost slavish dependence on lifeless texts, she writes, while truly knowledgeable educators demand books that challenge them and their students alike.

Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students

by Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, and Asa Hilliard III
(Beacon, 183 pages, $25)

The three essays in this book, by noted African American scholars, challenge conventional wisdom about how schools educate—or fail to educate—black students. Perry, a professor of education at Wheelock College, takes on the popular notion that black kids eschew academics because they view success in school as acting white. Drawing on an abundance of historical sources and the life stories of esteemed African Americans like Frederick Douglass and Septima Clark, she instead argues that education in black communities has long been seen as an assertion of freedom and selfhood, preparation to "lead your people." Unfortunately, she argues, most schools today tend to be competitive and highly individualistic—exactly the values that are not compatible with the African American educational legacy.

In his essay, Stanford University psychologist Steele discusses the damaging effects of what he and others have termed the "stereotype threat." He argues that many black students feel threatened, and thus perform poorly, when they believe their intellectual capacities are being judged. In a series of widely reported experiments, Steele asked black college students to take challenging academic tests. Told that a test did not measure intelligence, they did well. When told the opposite, their performances tended to plummet. The students, aware of racist stereotypes about their intellectual abilities, basically tried too hard in the second circumstance, checking and rechecking responses.

These two essays and the third summarizing their arguments, by Georgia State University education professor Hilliard, offer hope even as they lambaste the status quo. Their overarching message is that black students want to achieve at high levels and can when they are able to form genuine bonds of trust and respect with those who teach them.

How Small Schools Can Transform American Education

by Thomas Toch
(Beacon, 141 pages, $15)

In this timely book, education journalist Toch takes readers inside four small high schools in different parts of the country. While distinct in their missions—one is a high-tech charter school in San Diego, another a rural cooperative in Minnesota—they all share attributes mostly absent from their larger counterparts. What is perhaps most important is that, with less than 100 students per grade, each school allows the adults and students to know each other well. This close-knit community, Toch argues, promotes a kind of active, project-based learning—students do everything from boat-building to filmmaking—that is almost impossible to foster at large schools, where most teachers lack the opportunity to work with individual students.

Small schools, by their nature, tend to have limited but clearly defined missions. For this reason, Toch notes, they will only thrive if parents are free to choose their children's schools. And to create distinct educational environments, the schools must be free to select teachers whose outlook and approach mesh with their missions. Seniority provisions in most teacher contracts currently prevent this kind of autonomy, although Toch notes that the New York City union waived its rule to allow a number of small schools to hire their own teachers.

Still, it's not at all clear that substantial numbers of schools will attain this degree of freedom. Big school districts do not accommodate small schools well, nor do unions like changes that undermine their power, realities that Toch surely knows but downplays here. It's worth noting that his work on this volume was paid for in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a strong proponent of the small-schools movement.

—David Ruenzel

Vol. 15, Issue 1, Page 48

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