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Reflecting its No.1 ranking in public opinion polls last year as Americans' top electoral concern, education has begun to move from the back pages of national periodicals to the covers. Both Time and Newsweek devoted their Oct. 27, 1997, cover stories to the schools. The monthly magazines are following suit.

American Heritage's November edition carries an eight-page cover story by Gerald W. Bracey titled "What Happened to America's Public Schools? Not What You Might Think." In it, the veteran debunker of statistics-based school bashing takes a historical view of this most recent phase of school reform and finds it riddled with inconsistent messages about how the schools are performing.

Of particular concern to Mr. Bracey are the political machinations that preceded the issuance, early in the Reagan administration, of A Nation At Risk, a report he says "may well rank as one of the most selective uses of data in the history of education."

He rejects as political the 1980s ploy of linking school performance to the U.S. economy, but, in any event, he argues, a dispassionate look at the data of the last 25 years shows that "now is better than then." "The biggest threat to the American educational system," Mr. Bracey concludes, "may come not from within our schools but from the depth of our divisions over what exactly they should accomplish and how best to get them to accomplish it."

The Atlantic Monthly, whose October examination of the schools, written by Peter Schrag, echoed some of Mr. Bracey's themes (critics' "nostalgic amnesia" about schools among them), presents in its November issue a lively recounting by Nicholas Lemann of the California debate over whole language vs. phonics.

In "The Reading Wars," Mr. Lemann recaps not only the past 40 years of feverish debate over how best to teach children to read, but also the history of how that debate has become, in the nation's most populous state, a divisive political issue. He quotes the 1950s reading guru Rudolf Flesch, who traced the roots of "the word method" he found so alarming back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Writes Mr. Lemann: "He was right. A profound disagreement over whether freedom or discipline brings out the best in people underlies the debate over reading instruction."

The author concludes that, although state test results clearly nose-dived after California embraced whole language as official policy, the instructional approach "is being made to bear a very large load of blame--all the blame, essentially, for what is wrong with public education in California." Some of the blame, he suggests, should be placed on the truly political, such as Californians' passage in previous decades of property-tax-limiting measures and other funding curbs for schools.


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