January 01, 1997 10 min read
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THE SCHOOLS WE NEED & WHY WE DON’T HAVE THEM, by E.D. Hirsch Jr. (Doubleday, $24.95.)

Progressive educators like to suggest that American education would flourish if only their ideas were truly put into practice instead of dabbled in half-heartedly. But to E.D. Hirsch, who in 1987 made “cultural literacy” a catch phrase with his book of the same name, this “spin” is exactly backward: He thinks that the progressives long ago won the day and that their victory has condemned millions of children to ignorance—especially poor children who do not have the benefit of enrichment activities like summer camp and museum trips.

It’s not that Hirsch has anything against progressive staples such as hands-on instruction, cooperative learning, and “authentic” assessment. These methods, he says, are part of any good teacher’s arsenal. The problem, rather, is that they are too often pursued by progressives at the expense of subject matter, which for Hirsch is education’s Holy Grail.

“The most radical reform that schools could possibly undertake,” Hirsch writes, "[is] a focus on well-defined and challenging subject matter in the traditional disciplines.” It has long been Hirsch’s contention that transmitting factual knowledge must be at the center of schooling, for the simple reason that knowledge begets knowledge. Progressives can talk all they want about “critical thinking” or “teaching for understanding” or “multiple intelligences,” but students must know something about science before they can use the scientific method, and they must know something about history before they can engage in historical analysis.

All of this sounds obvious enough, and Hirsch, in a long section called “Reality’s Revenge,” goes to great lengths to show that research in cognitive psychology has demonstrated the primacy of background knowledge. So why have schools turned their backs on the teaching of subject matter? Hirsch, in part, blames an antiquated romanticism that would have us believe that children, like buds in a garden, will blossom if only left undisturbed.

He finds fault with what he sees as a move away from direct, whole-class instruction in favor of more collaborative approaches. In such classes, he says, the teacher works with a few students at a time while the rest generally while away time in their seats. Still, for all of Hirsch’s pithy insights and massive documentation, it’s hard not to wonder just how much time he has actually spent in classrooms. He says that progressivism is now ubiquitous, but anyone who regularly visits schools sees a lot of direct, fact-based instruction—often right from the textbook—that is neither effective nor inspiring. Nevertheless, The Schools We Need is a book of great importance. If Hirsch is right about the critical nature of subject matter in the traditional disciplines, then we must question our current emphasis on innovation in education. It might make more sense to talk about improving schooling than reinventing it.

GIVING KIDS THE BUSINESS: The Commercialization of America’s Schools, by Alex Molnar. (Westview, $22.) RISKY BUSINESS: Private Management of Public Schools, by Craig Richards, Rima Shore, and Max Sawicky. (Economic Policy Institute, $19.95.)

Over the last decade, a number of public school critics have suggested that we should invite efficient business interests to take a turn at the helm of some of our schools and districts. But this, as far as Alex Molnar is concerned, is a bit like throwing Christians to the lions.

He tells us that corporate America sees children only “as a cash crop” whose hearts, souls, and income potential are there for the picking. As a result, we get the for-profit Channel One interrupting algebra with TV commercials, Exxon producing a pseudoscience documentary explaining to students that the Valdez oil spill wasn’t really all that bad, and Campbell soup offering schools a filmstrip on the young Abraham Lincoln if only they’ll submit 5,125 can labels. Molnar’s irascible description of corporate greed takes us back to the 1960s, when it seemed that big bad business could only be stemmed by the efforts of the public sector.

While Molnar heaps on the rhetoric—he portrays teachers and students as helpless dupes of the corporate machine—he definitely scores a few points. In particular, he describes how some businesses have worked to cut public education’s tax base and then, when the schools are in dire straits, donated a few computers to prove how magnanimous they really are. Molnar, though, is so eager to attack anything smacking of commercialism and privatization that he ends up, despite his edgy sarcasm, defending the status quo as far as education is concerned. He’s against charter schools, all voucher proposals, and anything that questions the authority of teachers’ unions. The one thing he’s for is cutting class size, which is a bit like a doctor telling an obese patient to cut out the sweets—it’s a good start, but only a start.

Much drier in tone and yet more effective in showing the holes in privatization schemes is Risky Business, which details the misadventures of the Minneapolis-based Education Alternatives Inc. EAI landed large contracts to manage schools in Baltimore and Hartford, Connecticut, after promising to boost student achievement. Though test scores rose slightly, the real gains, the authors say, were profits for EAI management—profits gained not from its work in the schools but from stock speculation.

In fact, the authors dispassionately conclude that “the schools run by EAI did not outperform comparison schools, despite significant investments in program enhancements.” Risky Business serves as a warning to those who think that for-profit companies have all the answers for our schools. Pro-business people like to say that we need to bring free enterprise to education. But shopping for a school, the authors astutely point out, is not like shopping for a car. If a car fails, you buy a new one. But if a school fails, the lives of children and parents are severely disrupted. And a corporation like EAI, the authors argue, has a lot less to lose than the families in such a school: It can pluck profits from managing a failing school and cart them back home.

TEACHING THE NEW BASIC SKILLS: Principles for Educating Children To Thrive in a Changing Economy, by Richard Murnane and Frank Levy. (Free Press, $24.)

Like a couple of slightly punch-drunk politicians, Murnane and Levy keep telling us that prosperity is just around the corner. As far as they’re concerned, the only thing keeping the United States from being the land of milk and honey is not a shortage of good jobs--there is, in fact, an abundance of them--but a shortage of kids with the basic skills those good jobs require. This argument is hardly new: Critics have always called on the schools to emphasize the basics so students will be prepared for the workplace. But the authors give the argument a new twist by defining as basic not just the 3R’s but also such “soft” skills as the ability to work in groups and make effective presentations. The most innovative, productive companies--the authors single out Northwestern Mutual Life and Honda--demand that workers have these soft skills. Students who don’t acquire them in school, they argue, will likely end up in low-paying, dead-end jobs. In other words, what’s right for Honda is right for Consolidated High. Just as Honda encourages its workers to brainstorm solutions to technological problems, so must schools encourage collaborative problem-solving among teachers and students; and just as Northwestern’s underwriters must be able to defend their reasoning to agents, so must students be able to present and defend their work before a critical audience. But this analogy--namely that good schools must become a lot like business enterprises--is far more problematic than the authors let on. Business is all about profit; schools, on the other hand, have no choice but to be custodians of kids’ hearts and souls. As a result, the relationship between teachers and students should be far more personal than the one between employers and employees. Talk as we may about school being a place of work, students invariably bring to school personal and social concerns that teachers must be sensitive to and address. There is also the question of incentives for hard work which, as the authors rightfully point out, are woefully inadequate for high school students. Reliable employees get raises and promotions; solid students may not even be able to cash in their high school diplomas for a job interview. Finally, many economists would challenge the authors’ assertions that plenty of good jobs are available for high school graduates with a command of basic skills. Low-skill jobs continue to proliferate, even in our expanding economy, and it is society’s obligation to look out for these workers at the bottom and not simply insist that they get a better education.

WAGING PEACE IN OUR SCHOOLS, by Linda Lantieri and Janet Patti. (Beacon Press, $25.)

In recent years, a number of conflict-resolution, or “peacemaking,” programs have entered the curricula of schools across the country. Of these, the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program is perhaps the largest. This trend sounds like a good thing--who wouldn’t want children to use, say, peer mediation to solve disputes? But the agenda of RCCP, which was created in 1985 in association with the activist organization Educators for Social Responsibility, is so broad-based, so relentlessly do-gooding, that it’s enough to make you want to take in a John Wayne flick. Authors Lantieri and Patti, both RCCP directors, rightfully assert in this book that conflict avoidance begins with a self-awareness of your feelings: If you’re able to recognize that you’re on the verge of a temperamental explosion, then you can control it. This simple insight, however, leads the authors to recommend an orgy of get-in-touch-with-your-feelings activities: Kindergartners put “happy” or “angry” stickers into their “feeling boxes"; pairs of kids learn about diversity with a game called “Getting To Know Your Potato.” (As each potato is different, so is each human being.) There is also lots of talk here about teachers needing to let go of their nasty control fixations and encourage cooperation over competition. The authors suggest, for example, that teachers have each of their students contribute a sentence to a collective story-writing effort. This is as patronizing as it is excessive: It’s almost as if the authors believe that poor kids (most of the programs have been implemented in inner-city schools) need moral uplifting more than the academic skills middle-class kids get at suburban schools. Furthermore, it’s not at all clear that competition and teacher authority are bad things. Studies have consistently demonstrated that poor kids attending Catholic schools act up less and learn more than those attending other schools, yet they must compete for grades in a strict, often rigid, school environment. Waging Peace is marred by the authors’ insistence that there is nothing more important than understanding and expressing our feelings. Education, at least some of the time, involves learning to put our feelings aside.

BOYS THEMSELVES: A Return To Single-Sex Education, by Michael Ruhlman. (Henry Holt, $25.)

Ostensibly, Boys Themselves wants to explore the question of whether single-sex education is as good for boys as it has been deemed for girls. But the book, which focuses on the University School in Cleveland, is far more interesting for its portrayal of the academy’s headmaster, Rick Hawley. Described by a friend as “a magnificent retrograde,” Hawley hates the 20th century, professes his passionate Christianity to anyone who will listen, and claims to have recovered from a spiritual breakdown in his youth by reading Plato and Aristotle in bed. In short, Hawley is a character--part kook, part visionary--who entertains and frustrates his faculty in equal measures. Frustration reigns, for example, when Hawley’s lobbying to establish a religion and ethics chair at the school is perceived by teachers and students alike as a blatant attempt to proselytize. Eventually, Hawley backs off, content to talk about the Sermon on the Mount in the philosophy class he teaches. Though not all of us would want Hawley to head our children’s schools, Ruhlman’s fascinating depiction of the headmaster in this all-boys’ school takes us back to an earlier era when school leaders were colorful personalities instead of tepid bureaucrats. They may not have been models of perfect fairness, but they kept, at the very least, education from being a bland affair.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as Books


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