May 01, 2000 6 min read

BECOMING GOOD AMERICAN SCHOOLS:The Struggle for Civic Virtue in Education Reform, by Jeannie Oakes, Karen Hunter Quartz, Steve Ryan, and Martin Lipton. (Jossey-Bass, $28.95.) From 1991 to 1996, detracking advocate Oakes of the University of California at Los Angeles and three like-minded colleagues studied 16 middle schools in five states. They wanted to gauge how well these schools had implemented the progressive reforms of the Carnegie Foundation’s 1989 report Turning Points, which, among other things, urged middle schools to abandon tracking, implement cooperative-learning techniques, and promote close adult-student relationships. Although many educators in the schools had done their best to make the reforms work, they were thwarted, the researchers found, by the sheer weight and inertia of the status quo. “At every turn,” the authors write on the first pages of this massive book about their findings, “their commitment to the common good confronted the culture’s equally strong (or stronger) commitment to the individual’s right to determine what is in his or her best interest and to the preeminence of marketplace values.”

This sentence is crucial, for it reveals the polarizing you’re-with-us-or-against-us mind-set of both the authors and the educational left in general. On one side are the good guys, those who support classroom reforms—detracking, cooperative learning, etc.—as a way of creating a more caring, socially just society; on the other hand are the bad, mean-spirited elitists who undermine progressive, equity-driven reform. The villains come in many guises, though they are most often recidivistic veteran teachers and affluent, self-serving parents. What characterizes both sets of naysayers is their support for tracking; they are going to fight to the bitter end for honors classes and other forms of ability grouping.

As Oakes and company demonstrate here, tracking and reform are particularly contentious when it comes to the teaching of math. Most math teachers stridently resist heterogeneous groupings because, as one teacher told the researchers, “the top kids get screwed"; these students are forced to bide their time while hampered teachers explain concepts over and over to their less adept peers. Parents of bright children tend to feel the same. They oppose anything that’s going to slow their kids down. The authors describe how a group of parents at one Vermont middle school fought to rid the curriculum of a popular, innovative math program because they believed it was not preparing their children for the rigors of college.

The authors condemn these parents, many of them mathematicians and scientists, for trying to kill what they believe is an outstanding math curriculum. Yet the parents seem to have legitimate reasons for questioning the program. Besides, shouldn’t the concerns of those who have already mastered math and science count for something? But the credentials of the parents don’t sway the researchers. As far as they’re concerned, this is a group of pushy elitist parents who have bought into honors classes, traditional pedagogy, and competition only because they are selfishly safeguarding their own children’s educations.

Few would deny that pushy parents can be a real problem or that tracking can help some students at the expense of the rest. But the authors’ relentless insistence that public schools must be about civic virtue as opposed to individual advancement ensures that their position will be marginalized. To a significant extent, public schooling must be about helping individual children learn and eventually succeed in what the authors sneeringly refer to as “the marketplace.” Otherwise, only the poorest, most captive families will remain in the system.

The noxious implication here is that the only parents concerned about their children’s futures are white and affluent. But this, of course, is far from the case. In my own besieged school district of Oakland, California, minority parents are outraged that their children are not acquiring the basic skills they need. These parents are all for civic virtue, but what matters far more—and understandably so—is that their children receive the kind of education that will ensure them a secure and prosperous place in the world.

CHARTER SCHOOLS IN ACTION:Renewing Public Education, by Chester Finn, Bruno Manno, and Gregg Vanourek. (Princeton, $27.95.) Having visited more than 100 very different kinds of charter schools in recent years, the authors, hardly unbiased observers, conclude that such schools are the wave of the future. It’s not that they believe all charter schools will succeed—one of the virtues of charters, they argue, is that the poor ones will simply fail and disappear. Rather, the three argue that charter schools represent the demise of our one-size-fits-all approach to public education. Their argument goes like this: Since nobody on either side of the political spectrum believes that a single public school curriculum or pedagogy will serve the needs of all students, we might as well let a thousand flowers bloom. As they envision it, public schools will be redefined to mean those that are open to the public rather than those funded by the public.

One concern that has dogged the charter school movement from the start is the question of accountability. Under a system of largely deregulated, independent schools, how can we ensure that each is adequately and equitably providing a sound education? The authors place enormous faith in a kind of “transparent” Darwinian system of accountability, in which only the fittest schools survive. Schools, their thinking goes, will be compelled to publish scads of information and data-detailing their philosophies, test scores, finances, and more-so that parents can make informed decisions about where to send their kids. Those that fail to attract students will simply die off.

Such a system rests on the idea that parents will make good decisions. Yet while some parents have the education and wherewithal to choose wisely, others do not. What happens to the children whose parents make bad choices-or don’t choose at all? This is a critical question that the authors of this compelling but all-too-optimistic book fail to adequately address.

THE FEEL-GOOD CURRICULUM:The Dumbing Down of America’s Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem, by Maureen Stout. (Perseus, $24.) As her title suggests, Stout is brimming with indignation at the way schools have sacrificed rigor in the interest of making students feel OK about themselves. From the students’ perspective, she argues, school has become “a place to learn about ourselves.”

But one has to wonder where this California ed school professor has been for the past decade. After all, it’s been nearly 15 years since the members of the much-satirized California Task Force on Self-Esteem slipped out of the spotlight and back to their encounter groups and Zen retreats. These days, few people talk about protecting students’ vulnerable esteem. In state after state, the watchwords are “standards,” “accountability,” and “retention.”

In all fairness, Stout does make the case that the so-called self-esteem movement has adopted new, less-obvious guises. She believes, for example, that Howard Gardner’s wildly popular theory of multiple intelligences is a great way for teachers to praise Johnny for his, say, kinetic skills, even if he can’t read or write. And she’s not keen on Daniel Goleman’s theory of emotional intelligence, either. Being able to handle stress or accept yourself isn’t necessarily going to help you pass algebra.

Still, while there may be something to Stout’s argument, her insistence that it is all love and mush out there just doesn’t ring true.

—David Ruenzel