October 01, 1993 4 min read

BATTLEGROUND: One Mother’s Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of Our Classrooms, by Stephen Bates. (Poseidon Press, $24.) In August 1983, 6th grader Rebecca Frost showed her mother an assigned story in which Martians plant thoughts into the minds of astronauts. Vikki Frost, a fundamentalist Christian, was deeply alarmed by the telepathy--it was, she believed, ungodly-- and immediately notified a friend, Jennie Wilson, that “Humanism’’ had arrived in Hawkins County, Tenn. But Frost, who proceeded to discover dozens of “unChristian’’ stories in her daughter’s Holt reader, didn’t stop there. She and a group of empathetic parents insisted that their children not be compelled to read the offending text, asking the school to provide the students with an alternative reader. For a time, the school complied with their request but then suddenly changed its tune: The students had to read the required text or face suspension. What followed were a series of dramatic confrontations and highly publicized court cases that Bates covers with flair and penetrating intelligence. In the first few chapters, we can’t help but side with the school officials; Frost and Wilson, the two most vocal antagonists, seem paranoid, fanatical--Wilson even attacks a version of “Goldilocks’’ as an example of secular humanism. But as the book unfolds, our sympathies begin to change. For one thing, the school board and school officials approach their foes with dismissive arrogance, sneering at their supposed lack of sophistication, taking the parents’ wishes to control their children’s education as a personal affront. Furthermore, Bates shows us that the plaintiff’s case was not without merit. The Holt reader in question, for example, contained positive depictions of Buddhism and other religions but not a single reference to Christianity; while folk tales abounded, there wasn’t one story from the Bible. How can texts such as the Holt reader truly promote diversity, one might ask, if they so thoroughly exclude certain viewpoints? Even one of Frost’s opponents, Tony Podesta of People for the American Way, said Frost “was a parent who cared about her kids and thought that relativism was really a problem. Probably she was right.’' Although the parents eventually lost the case, Bates fervently argues that the school should have accommodated them. Instead, most of the fundamentalist parents eventually sent their children to private schools, costing the Hawkins County school system some of the diversity it claimed to support.

THE CASE FOR CHANGE: Rethinking the Preparation of Educators, by Seymour Sarason. (Jossey-Bass, $29.95.) Distinguished author Seymour Sarason’s new book is in part an attack on what one might call the “innovation industry’’ in education. Some people, particularly corporate executives, Sarason asserts, claim that “things are so bad that any suggested change that is not truly radical should be given short shrift.’' But radical changes, Sarason smartly argues, are almost always doomed to failure, as they’re aimed at correcting problems that are deeply ingrained in the schools. Rather than focus on overly ambitious reform, Sarason suggests that we concentrate on prevention, that is we should prepare teachers to avoid succumbing to familiar problems, such as teacher isolation. This new preparation would focus less on classroom teaching techniques; instead, teachers would acquire a thorough understanding of school culture, spending not only more time in classrooms but also a significant amount of time with superintendents and other types of school officials. As teachers learn more about critical issues of school governance, Sarason’s argument goes, the better equipped they’ll be to think about meaningful school change and to become partners rather than powerless subordinates of the educational establishment.

TEAM BUILDING FOR SCHOOL CHANGE: Equipping Teachers for New Roles, by Gene Maeroff. (Teachers College Press, $16.95.) The problem with teacher workshops, regardless of how good they may be, is that whatever the attending educators learn is often quickly neglected once they return to their schools. The major problem is isolation; a single teacher or two cannot hope to implement significant change. An alternative approach, outlined here by Maeroff, involves Leadership Academies--recently formed by the University of New Mexico and Michigan State University--at which perhaps a half-dozen teachers and the principal from a given school get together to study new approaches to school reform. Participants, working together as a team, are more likely to return to their school with a shared vision of what needs to be done. And while they’re still bound to meet with resistance, the hope is that their collective efforts will bring them eventual suc- cess. Exactly what participants learn at such academies is a bit unclear, but the approach is undoubtedly one worth trying.--David Ruenzel

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