Books: Readings

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In Learning by Heart: AIDS and Schoolchildren in America's Communities, David L. Kirp chronicles responses to children with aids in seven communities and studies the "conflicting impulses for self-preservation and communion" that have marked public reaction to the disease.

Mr. Kirp, a professor of public policy and lecturer in law at the University of California at Berkeley, here explores the role of school administrators in addressing the needs of infected children:

The influence of the community is real. But equally real is the power of leadership held by the steward of the school.

While he may not have total control (and most superintendents are men), at the outset the school chief manages the story and decides who will learn what. He is the one whom reporters seek first, the one who stares into the TV camera. He plans the public forums, picks the experts, sets the format of discussion. If he is artful, he can persuade school-board members and the leading lights among the teachers and townspeople to support his strategy.

The administrators have also shaped the moral tone of the discussion. It is not just their office but their deepest values that are on the line.

For some, bureaucratics are their deepest values, "I followed the rules" their talisman. Others, scared silly, have allowed their personal bogeymen to speak for them. ...

Other administrators have successfully driven off the fear mongerers. In the Hartford, Conn., suburb of Granby, [a] 9-year-old with aids, Chris Barnoski, remained in class until he was too sick to attend. The Granby superintendent's pleas for reasonableness carried more weight with parents than did the message of a defrocked psychologist named Paul Cameron, who insisted that "gays deserve their aids" and came to town on a $1,000-a-day retainer to preach about the dangers of contagion. ...

The best of the school chiefs have become true aristocrats of character in taking on the challenge of aids. ... They have recognized that aids demands both their leadership and the active involvement of parents, who become a true community in the course of deciding what will happen to one among them. ...

The decisions about how to respond to a schoolchild with aids that emerge from these forums, and the deliberative way such decisions have been reached, mark a special occasion. Confronting a crisis, these public schools became the "wisest parent," a role envisioned for them long ago by John Dewey, America's foremost educator. The members of these communities have made a rare gift to one of their number--and, in doing so, have given themselves the gift of their own compassion.

Rutgers University Press, 109 Church St., New Brunswick, N.J. 08901; 304 pp., $22.95 cloth.

Joe Clark, the controversial former principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J., recounts his efforts to change that school and gives an outline for reforming the U.S. education system in Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark's Strategy for Saving Our Schools.

In the following excerpts, Mr. Clark describes his methods for hastening the departure from Eastside of teachers he viewed as incompetent:

I inaugurated a war of attrition against this coasting gang. I was in their faces, often. Much too often for their liking. I checked each of their attendance sheets, each of their lesson plans, personally. It was not at all difficult to find things amiss, especially in the lesson plans, which were full of grammatical errors and sloppiness of concept.

Though I was not above twisting the screws on them, they made my mission easy simply by being the duffers they were. I demanded rewrites upon rewrites. I was forever observing their classes, and forever summoning them for conferences, at which the topic would be something like their probable inability to teach cod how to swim.

I cut deeper, upbraiding them before their students, and in the teeming corridors, exposing their incompetence for all to see. Hard tactics, yes, but what choice had I? ...

"This is harassment!" one cried.

"Sue me."

"You are being totally unprofessional," I was informed by another.

"My profession is the administration of this school, which means I must do all I can to promote the right education of the students. Getting rid of a leech like you would promote education markedly."

Eventually, their resistance wore down. One by one, the troublesome few applied for, and received, transfers.

It's a shame, really, that knavish, incompetent teachers cannot be fired outright, but are permitted--under union protection--to pollute the youth at another school. I personally would much rather fire someone, or write him or her up for the superintendent to fire, than use all that energy to get the person transferred. It is time we Americans began to rethink this notion of tenure--for principals as well as for teachers.

Regnery Gateway, 1130 17th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; 207 pp., $17.95 cloth.

Vol. 09, Issue 04

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