By David Ruenzel — August 01, 1993 4 min read
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MIRACLE IN EAST HARLEM: The Fight for Choice in Public Education, by Sy Fliegel with James MacGuire. (Times Books, $23.) In 1973, truancy, violence, and illiteracy were endemic to East Harlem’s District Four schools, rated New York’s worst. By 1987, however, the district’s schools had so improved—the number of its students reading at grade level rose from 16 percent to 63 percent—that they outperformed many schools in wealthier districts. Dubbed a “miracle” by the media, the amazing turnabout, former District 4 Deputy Superintendent Sy Fliegel asserts, was in large part the byproduct of policies promoting public school choice. Because gifted teachers could start and staff their own schools, each new school—kept small to heighten a sense of community—developed its own curriculum and identity. Deborah Meier’s famous Central Park East Elementary School, for example, was predicated on “open classrooms,” while the equally successful Bridge School emphasized rigorous character building. And because parents could select the school of their choice, there was, in most cases, a match between a child’s needs and the school’s philosophy. In essence, choice helped enable teachers and parents to circumvent the vast New York school bureaucracy, the force behind oppressive standardization. Yet in fighting the bureaucracy, choice alone was not enough; district teachers and administrators also had to exercise what Fliegel terms “creative noncompliance.” Some schools, for instance, conveniently “forgot” to post job openings so that they could hire their own teachers through unofficial recruiting. And Fliegel’s office once held off a hostile deputy superintendent by inundating her with so much information that it became impossible for her to keep up. Finally, though, Miracle in Harlem serves more as a warning than a manual on school reform. The bureaucracy is ever ready to protect its interests and impose its will, as evidenced by a 1990 Central Board audit, conceived, Fliegel believes, to find District 4’s schools profligate in their spending. If our schools are to flourish, Fliegel argues, we must look not for some “Great Man” to save us but rather toward genuine restructuring that will keep schools truly autonomous.

SCHOOLS FOR THOUGHT: A Science of Learning in the Classroom, by John Bruer. (MIT Press, $29.95.) In 1989, cognitive scientists posed an intriguing thought experiment with ramifications for educational theory and practice: Could a chess champion, who must be a potent tactician and strategic thinker, use his problem-solving capabilities to protect his country from invasion by a large and belligerent neighbor? Bruer claims that in the 1950s and ‘60s, the answer would most likely have been yes, as early cognitive research suggested that general skills and reasoning abilities transferred from one area to the next. In the mid-'70s, though, researchers came to believe that expertise was acquired only with extensive experience and knowledge in a given field; expertise was therefore “domain specific” and would not transfer from chess to, say, foreign diplomacy. But in the 1980s, researchers, noticing that certain novices solved problems with unusual facility, came to a conclusion that synthesized earlier theories: General thinking skills could transfer from one domain to the next but only if individuals also mastered specific subject matter. In other words, the chess champion, possessing potentially relevant skills, may become a national security expert with tutoring in foreign affairs. What this means for the classroom teacher is that focusing on “process”—for example, teaching students study skills and general learning strategies—is very likely to reap few benefits. For instance, research indicates that students trained in solving puzzle problems merely become experts in the domain of puzzle problems—not generally more intelligent. On the other hand, immersing students in mere facts is of little use either. Schools for Thought, then, is especially valuable in that it attacks the artificial distinction between process and content, thinking and knowledge, that has so long haunted education. Citing the latest cognitive research, Bruer summarizes: “Strategies can help us process knowledge, but first we have to have the knowledge to process.”

EVERYBODY HAS A GUARDIAN ANGEL: And Other Lasting Lessons I Learned in Catholic Schools, by Mitch Finley. (Crossroad, $16.95.) Journalist Mitch Finley acknowledges that the Roman Catholic high school he attended “was no great shakes academically,” yet he would now send his own children nowhere else. And the reasons, while obviously religious, also have to do with the Catholic schools’ sense of community and shared values that so many find lacking in our public school system. This pervasive sense of “we’re all in it together,” Finley suggests, is sustained both by simple practical measures, such as wearing uniforms (it teaches that “what’s on the outside is incidental”), as well as by a grounding in the moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. “I learned,” the author writes, “that the ideal is to face pain and sorrow, life’s dark times, with courage and with a minimum of whining, in order to go on living for those things that are worth living for.” These virtues, one may argue, are universal rather than specifically religious and should not be omitted from our public schools out of a fear that they add up to religious indoctrination.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Books


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