March 01, 2003 6 min read
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America’s Top Learning Expert Shows How Kids—
And Parents—Can Become More Productive

by Mel Levine
(Simon & Schuster, 270 pages, $26)

Like many teachers, I have written a fair share of grade reports over the years stating that this or that student was a bright kid with lots of potential who simply needed to work harder. This, of course, was just a nice way of saying that I thought the student was lazy, that he or she was perfectly capable but a slacker at heart.

Now, having read Levine’s insightful new book, I wonder if I’ve done all those students an injustice. For in the author’s world, there are no lazy children, only individuals for whom, through no fault of their own, “work doesn’t work.” These youngsters, ironically enough, often are very capable. They may be verbally fluent or strong readers or talented artists. But they all struggle with what Levine, a pediatrician and professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School, calls “output failure.”

In a previous book, the best-selling A Mind at a Time, Levine detailed how certain neurocognitive strengths and weaknesses, in areas such as spatial capacity and long-term memory, tend to define and limit kids, especially in the schoolsetting. Levine continues that discussion here, emphasizing how neurocognitive deficits can undermine even a youngster’s best efforts to beproductive.

Such deficiencies are particularly likely to show up in the area of writing, Levine points out, since it’s the academic task that makes the most neurocognitive demands. A short circuit in any one of the demandareas—memory, organizational capacity, language function, handwriting competency—can render writing excruciatingly difficult. Levine cites numerous examples of otherwise bright students who, as the curricular requirements for writing intensified, struggled to string together coherent sentences.

One of Levine’s former patients, a creative 5th grade boy, could scarcely write a legible word; his graphomotor dysfunction (he had difficulty controlling a pencil) made letter formation extremely difficult. Another patient, a charismatic 6th grader, had trouble sustaining her mental energy and acuity; hence she could write well only in short, expressive bursts. A 10-year-old boy with an amazing mechanical aptitude could not spell even the most commonly used words; gaps in his capacity for memory retrieval made it difficult for him to recall spelling and grammar rules.

Such students are frequently accused by adults of being careless, messy, or lazy, when in reality, Levine asserts, they are victims of developmental dysfunction. These individuals, he argues, need help—not criticism. What Levine proposes is a “demystification” process, through which students first come to understand their specific problems and then learn to circumvent weaknesses and build on strengths. A gifted artist struggling with academics, for example, could be encouraged to design sets for a school play or draw cartoons for the student newspaper. A promising young writer hindered by poor handwriting skills might be taught to type. A daydreamer could be shown strategies for staying alert. The demystification process itself tends to be more important than any proposed remedy, Levine writes, because the student comes to see that his or her troubles are not rooted in stupidity or indolence.

Parents reading The Myth of Laziness will feel an instinctive kinship with Levine’s ideas; they know just how complex their children’s minds are. Teachers, of course, know this, too, but it’s not always easy for us to see how a struggling child might benefit from a particular intervention. Large classes, standardized curricula, a packed teaching day—all of these make it difficult to provide students with the kind of individual attention the Levine approach requires. Still, teachers will find this book both refreshing and rewarding; Levine’s ideas, culled from his research and broad clinical experience, are as commonsensical and practical as they are wise.

Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis

by Jerald E. Podair
(Yale University Press, 288 pages, $35)

In this fascinating volume, Podair, an assistant professor of history at Lawrence University, brilliantly chronicles the events and far-reaching impact of the infamous, racially charged 1968 teacher strike that shut down the New York City public schools. Igniting the conflict was a decision by the predominantly black school board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn to dismiss 19 white teachers, most of them Jewish. The board members, acting in what they believed were the best interests of the community, wanted to replace those teachers with African Americans of their own choosing. The United Federation of Teachers, led by a young and uncompromising Albert Shanker, vehemently objected, leading to the protracted walkout.

In the end, the courts resolved the matter in Shanker’s favor—the white teachers were reinstated—but asPodair demonstrates, it proved a Pyrrhic victory. If many blacks had distrusted white teachers before the strike, they now came to see them as adversaries, tangible symbols of racial and economic oppression. Such attitudes, Podair argues, would persist for decades and eventually would help foster African American support for school vouchers and Afrocentric charter schools.

But blacks lost a lot, too. The anti-Semitic rhetoric that the strike engendered among black educators undermined much of the empathy New York Jews had felt for African Americans. And by associating “middle-class values with ‘whiteness,’” Podair writes, “black educators in turn were unable to define a viable middle-class voice of their own.”

Podair’s vivid account of this debilitating breakdown of trust reads more like tragedy than history. It offers great insight into the racial separatism that school systems nationwide struggle with to this day.

Are Public and Private Schools Different?

by Luis Benveniste, Martin Carnoy, and Richard Rothstein
(RoutledgeFalmer, 224 pages, $19.95)

In this timely—if somewhat thinly researched—volume, a New York Times columnist, a Stanford University professor, and a World Bank education specialist argue that the much-touted differences between private and public schools are, in fact, considerably smaller than commonly believed. As a result, they conclude, vouchers and other marketplace initiatives designed to improve public schooling by offering private school options are likely to have little effect.

The authors base their conclusions largely on a study of 16 private and public elementary and middle schools in California. The study found that the schools were organized in the same manner and employed similar pedagogical methods. In fact, the only major difference that emerged—and this is the authors’ key finding—was not between private and public institutions but between those serving poor and affluent youngsters. The wealthier schools reported intense parental involvement, so intense that teachers sometimes felt under siege. The lower-income schools, on the other hand, had trouble getting parents even to attend school functions.

While the authors acknowledge the limits of their case-study research, their findings suggest, sadly enough, that the most intractable barrier to educational equity in the United States has less to do with schools themselves than that old bugaboo—social class.

—David Ruenzel


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