In The Name Of Excellence: The Struggle to Reform the Nation’s Schools, Why It’s Failing, and What Should Be Done
by Thomas Toch (Oxford University Press, $24.95.)
Author Toch’s perspective on school reform can be summed up by the old adage, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” State legislators, imagining they can regulate higher standards, mandate meaningless standardized tests; the powerful National Education Association deflects demands for greater accountability with a concerted public relations campaign; teachers graduate from education schools to teach subjects in which they are certified but extraordinarily poorly versed. Why, in spite of so many pleas for reform, do our schools remain so intractable? The author blames, in part, the corruption of a once promising progressiveness that too often indulged rather than educated children. He also faults the American obsession with “bigness,” which has given us so-called “comprehensive” high schools that succeed only in developing sports teams. Finally, Toch presents a picture of a monolithic education establishment blinded by self-interest. Hope lies with grass-roots movements and with gadflies such as American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker, who believes that teachers must accept greater accountability if they are to be regarded as professionals. While one can hardly argue against Toch’s proposals for reform—smaller schools, increased teacher autonomy, less bureaucracy—it is hard to see how these reforms can make headway against a system marked by intransigence.
School Restructuring, Chicago Style
by G. Alfred Hess Jr (Corwin Press, $18.95)
By the mid1980s, the Chicago Public Schools seemed to exemplify everything that could go wrong with public education. With reading scores and dropout rates among the nation’s worst and teachers striking almost annually, the system was managed by complacent bureaucrats who calmly engaged in business as usual. Seemingly indifferent to their battered schools, they used emergency funds to create new administrative positions while cutting teachers; they also diverted state aid away from disadvantaged students into the central bureaucracy. This desperate state of affairs led in 1988 to the formation of Local School Councils, one of the nation’s most radical educational ventures. Schools, removed from the bureaucratic web, fell under direct community control, as the councils, dominated by parents, had the power to hire and fire principals. Hess, who scrupulously documents these developments, is a cautious advocate of the councils. While the councils’ first years have been marked by controversy and power plays, the experiment is a kind of educational perestroika, in which some chaos must be tolerated as problems work themselves out. Most compelling, though, is the portrait of a city bold enough to dismantle the educational machine that had so long held it hostage.
Popular Education And Its Discontents
by Lawrence Cremin (Harper Collins, $8.95 paperback)
In this, his last book, the late author analyzes three “abiding characteristics of American education.” The first two, “popularization” and “multitudinousness,” concern the ways in which our public schools try to make education widely available to diverse interests and groups. At its best, this tendency results in a democratic inclusiveness; at its worst, in a rampant anti-intellectualism. But it is the third characteristic, “politicization,” that bears the brunt of Cremin’s attack. By seeing our schools as places where we can solve larger political problems (drug abuse and racism, for example), we unrealistically project onto the education system “millennial hopes and expectations,” dooming public schools to an overreaching ineffectuality.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Books