April 01, 1995 2 min read

MAKING SCHOOLS WORK: Improving Performance and Controlling Costs, by Eric Hanushek. (The Brookings Institution, $14.95.) In corporate America, the “cost efficiency’’ movement is sometimes a euphemism for a radical downsizing that puts hundreds of people out of work. But as Hanushek and the 13 other educators and economists who contributed to this book--members of the Panel on the Economics of Educational Reform--take pains to demonstrate, cost efficiency in schools doesn’t mean cost-cutting as much as it means evaluating the “bang’’ the public has received from its education buck. And so far, the panel members argue, the public has gotten little. They claim that students’ performance has declined by virtually every measure over the last two decades even as spending has increased by 3.5 percent a year, after inflation. Essentially, two basic components have been lacking: an evaluation of the effectiveness of various reforms and incentives that would encourage school people to make the good ones work. As things work now, the authors write, reforms are typically implemented and then forgotten, moldering away through sheer disinterest even as money is spent on their perpetuation. Furthermore, schools actually have an interest in seeing reforms collapse, since such failure is often rewarded by additional money for new efforts. What, then, can be done? In the school world, as in the corporate world, the people on the front lines must have incentives to make reforms work. Here the panel recommends, among many other things, two-tiered employment contracts that make clear to new teachers that they will be rewarded, or penalized, according to how their students perform. All of this sounds well and good, but the entire argument of Making Schools Work is contingent upon finding agreed-upon measures of student performance. Do we use test scores, portfolio assessments, or some other indices? These matters are endlessly debated. Until there is general agreement as to what constitutes student success, talk of merit pay and leadership roles for teachers who bring it about will be of limited value.

THE TIGER’S CHILD, by Torey Hayden. (Scribner, $21.) This book is a sequel to the best-selling One Child, in which Hayden, then a teacher of children with learning disabilities, documented her work with Sheila, a bright but abandoned girl so disturbed that she set a toddler on fire and poked the eyes from goldfish. One Child pointed hopefully toward the girl’s restoration, but in her new book, Hayden catches up with a teenage Sheila and finds her yet tormented by a sometimes paralyzing fear and rage. Sheila simply cannot shake the horrific memories of her deserting mother and alcoholic father, and much of The Tiger’s Child details the author’s attempts to help Sheila “forgive and let go.’' While the writing here is occasionally Pollyannaish (there are dozens of phrases like, “The ghosts rose before my eyes’’), some insights can be gleaned from the book. First and foremost, behavior modification--the Skinnerian emphasis on punishments and rewards--does not work with children as damaged as Sheila. A groundwork of trust must be established before self-destructive behavior can be altered, and Hayden tentatively achieves this with steadfast, if often unrequited, affection.

--David Ruenzel

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Books