By David Ruenzel — April 01, 1997 5 min read

REDESIGNING SCHOOL: Lessons for the 21st Century, by Joseph McDonald. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, $28.95.)

Over the last 10 years or so, a kind of “reform is hell” literature has emerged from the trenches of the public schools. In this genre, school reformers, or “school designers” as McDonald calls them, are presented as courageous but generally star-crossed crusaders. Most of their victories are pyrrhic: One day they capture the pedagogical high ground with their progressive ideas, and the next they’re in panicky retreat, looking for old lesson plans and text packets. The problem, according to McDonald, director of research for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, is that parents, students, and many teachers want schooling to remain as it’s always been. It’s not that they like the status quo; they’re simply accustomed to it. But many of the things people accept as common sense are simply wrong-headed, McDonald argues. He includes in that category “the conception of schools as dispenser of knowledge"; the “habitual association of the intellectual with the academic"; and the perception that “personal competition is a necessary training ground for work in a competitive economy.” But kids, McDonald writes, are bombarded with too much knowledge; the intellectual is not about mastering narrow subjects but about learning to use your mind well; and cooperation is now the order of the day. Although numerous obstacles conspire to make true reform improbable if not impossible, McDonald nevertheless gives educators lots of guidance on how they might beat the odds. For one thing, schools must be “rewired” so the lines of communication and power are horizontal rather than vertical; teachers, not just administrators, must be in a position to initiate change. For another, schools must persuade resistant communities to become partners in reform efforts; they cannot make it alone. Finally, reformers can be neither too deliberative nor too impetuous in initiating change. Too much talk about vision leads to stasis; too many hastily launched initiatives lead to a loss of overarching purpose. Everything McDonald says here about creating “redesigned” schools is sensible, but it’s all based, as he acknowledges, on getting the public to radically alter their most deeply held ideas about schooling. Rightly or wrongly, most people still want teachers to transmit certain knowledge, to teach the basics, and to evaluate students with grades and standardized tests. McDonald, it’s clear, is remarkably patient and understanding, but considering the entrenched attitudes reformers like him are up against, the future promises to bring plenty of tears and frustration.

BLACK TEACHERS ON TEACHING, by Michele Foster. (New York: The New Press, $25.)

The 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision has been justly hailed for launching a new era of school desegregation. But as Foster points out, it also had a devastating effect on black teachers. During the 11 years following the ruling, some 30,000 black teachers lost their jobs, as newly integrated and consolidated schools led to the widespread closing of black ones. In this book, Foster lets teachers from that time tell their stories, and their words are moving and sometimes sorrowful. “We were able to do more with the black students in all-black schools,” says Everett Dawson, a retired high school teacher from North Carolina. “I could come in this morning and have my children put their books under the desk and ask [them]: `Why are you here? Are you here just to make another day? Are you here to try to better yourself?’” Ruby Middleton Forsythe, who taught in South Carolina, says, “Now, instead of seeing black children winning prizes for their accomplishments, you see them all in special education classes.” What Forsythe and Dawson most lament is the loss of commitment black teachers had to their black students. Of course, this commitment still exists in some integrated schools, but the 20 old and young teachers presented in this oral history cite a number of forces that make it all too rare. They talk about how some black students con white teachers into expecting and demanding very little of them; they talk about how integrated schools often fail to give black kids the basics; they talk about how too many teachers today--both white and black--have a laissez-faire attitude toward their students and their profession. But more than talk about the failings of public education, the teachers in this book preach the gospel of education, which they believe has transformative powers. “If you are a learned man you are a dangerous man, but if you are an ignorant man you are no threat at all,” Harlem teacher Edouard Plummer says he tells his students. “Not only will you be a slave to white people but a slave to any type of vices that come along.” In an age when everyone talks about schooling in terms of preparing for a job, of getting and spending, such words ring powerful and true.

BREAK THESE CHAINS: The Battle for School Choice, by Daniel McGroarty. (Rocklin, California: Prima Publishing, $23.95.)

When Milwaukee’s experimental choice plan was implemented in 1990, the teachers’ union, the state superintendent, and the city newspaper all declared that it would be the end of public education and the beginning of a new era in which any two-bit hustler with a few bucks could set up school. It was a lurid reaction to a plan that gave vouchers worth $2,500 to 350 of Milwaukee’s poorest students (the number is now about 1,600); it was also an unfair knock on the private, nonsectarian schools--most of them well-established and reputable--at which the vouchers were redeemed. McGroarty, a former speech writer for President Bush, does a good job describing the near hysteria that greeted the plan, but he otherwise paints himself into a corner with this unrestrained polemic. If opponents see the voucher movement in apocalyptic terms, he sees it as pure salvation, as indicated by the titles of two sections of the book: “The Education Plantation” and “Emancipation.” But public schools do not represent slavery, and voucher plans are not the promised land. Public and private schools exist not as opponents in a mythic battle between good and evil but as alternatives that should be made available to all our citizens, rich and poor alike.