Reading & Literacy Opinion

The Wisdom of Old Books

By Marc Tucker — April 28, 2016 9 min read
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I am surrounded by boxes of books. Consolidating collections that have led, ‘til now, separate existences. Among them are my education books. There are many that I have not opened in years, but I cannot give them away. They are dear friends. Some bring to mind vividly the circumstances in which I read them. Some changed my life. Some brought insights that I only recognized years later. Taken together, they are in many ways the warp and woof of my intellectual life. So I have carted them around, a bit like Linus and his blanket.

I thought I might name some of them, as if you were a colleague in the room with me as I take them out of the boxes, turn them over in my hands, open them to a random page and start to read, forgetting my mission and indeed the whole world, remembering only to let you know from time to time why I treasure this or that volume. If none of this interests you, my apologies. I will not be the least bit offended if you skip this bit of reminiscence and pick up again with next week’s blog.

I begin with a book by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson called Pygmalion in the Classroom, published in 1968. In it, the authors tell of a research project in which teachers were told that a few of their new, in-coming students are poised for an intellectual blossoming. In fact, these students were simply randomly selected; some had high IQs, some had low IQs. What happened? The students for whom the teachers had higher expectations ended up achieving at higher levels, even those with lower IQs. This study made an indelible impression on me. I have since come to the view that the most pernicious failing of our education system is the low expectations we have for all of our students relative to other countries, and for our low-income, minority, limited-English-speaking and special education students in particular. If there is one research study to read, this may be it.

There is Jerome Bruner’s little volume called The Process of Education, summarizing a 1959 meeting in which the author elegantly captures the spirit of this country’s last great effort to engage the country’s leading mathematicians and scientists in a collaboration with first-rate school teachers to undertake a wholesale renewal of school curriculum. I remember reading it with great excitement. Looking at it now, I wonder at the way this country has managed to convince itself that classroom teachers, carrying a teaching load that is among the heaviest in the industrialized world, could possibly muster the time and intellectual resources needed to create a curriculum that could come close to matching both the intellectual rigor and the capacity for engagement demonstrated all those years ago by the the Elementary Science Study, PSSC Physics, the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, the School Mathematics Study Group and others like them. How could we have imagined that the United States could achieve world-class results simply be developing standards like the Common Core without putting at least as much effort into creating a vibrant, intellectually challenging and engaging curriculum of the sort Bruner describes?

There is Village School Downtown, a small, now much-beaten-up book by Peter Schrag. It came out in 1965, at about the same time as Jonathan Kozol’s much more popular Death at an Early Age. Both described the tumultuous events surrounding the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools and the busing system that was used. Kozol’s book was full of righteous anger at the Boston Irish who controlled the Boston Schools and Louise Day Hicks, the city council demagogue who built her career on opposition to busing. Kozol saw the situation as a conflict of moral absolutes, all the bad guys on one side, all the good guys on the other.

I have a vivid memory, though, of picking up Schrag’s book and getting a much more complex picture. Schrag portrayed a South Boston Irish community in which, for generations, middle class lace-curtain Irish teachers had taught the sons and daughters of their friends and neighbors in a tight-knit community that shared the same religious, cultural and social background and, in the process, produced students who became valued, contributing members of their community. And then, as Schrag tells it, the Great Migration of African Americans from the South began and many of those families came to Boston, bringing a very different history, values, customs, expectations and culture. He showed how, when the Irish teachers used the techniques that had worked so well for them for so many years with the Boston Irish students and had the same expectations for them, they did not work at all. Schrag showed how this frustration led to real anger among the teachers when the well-off suburbanites who were hosting parties for Jonathan Kozol in the suburbs wrote cutting letters to the editor of the Boston Globe about the unwillingness of the South Boston Irish to take in large numbers of African-Americans into their schools.

Schrag was one of the nation’s most perceptive reporters, and his effort to put himself into the shoes of the people being so widely pilloried made a deep impression on me. My sympathies were surely with the African-American kids who were facing enormous obstacles as they tried to get a decent education, but Schrag taught me to be suspicious of armchair liberals in communities like the one I lived in who were themselves doing nothing to address the problem except criticize the behavior of people who they did not care to understand. I have ever since taken the view that, if I want to help solve a problem, I had better start by trying to put myself in the shoes of the people whose behavior I am trying to change, so I can understand why they are behaving as the do.

Years later, I picked up a volume by Charles M. Payne titled So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools. Oh my, I said, this one really tells it like it is. Of all the books I have read on urban education, this one is head and shoulders above the others. Eloquent, powerful, beautifully written, it is relentlessly insightful and honest. Like Schrag, Payne sees the appalling waste, the stunted opportunities and the distance between rhetoric and reality in the mundane shuffle of life in our urban schools. My own organization has been working in schools and districts like the ones he describes since the late 1980s and the world he details precisely the world we have seen in these institutions. Payne understands that many of his readers will see his book as an indictment of the professional educators he portrays. But Payne understands, as Schrag did, and Kozol did not, that he is portraying ordinary people caught in the trap of a dysfunctional institution. It is painful to scan through this book again. When he wrote it, seven or eight years ago, he had a good deal of hope for the Chicago Public Schools, which figure large in the book. I wonder what he would say now. Perhaps the title of the book is the answer.

Two books that sit side by side on my shelves anchor my understanding of how and why the American education system took its current form. The first is Education and the Cult of Efficiency by Raymond Callahan. The other is The One Best System by David Tyack. Together, they show how the Progressive Era wrapped itself around the admiration of most Americans for the achievements of the mass-production model of industrial development that was powering the United States to world economic dominance. That was a model in which most workers were expected to do as they were told by engineers who used scientific methods to figure out the one best way to get the work done. For anyone who despairs of changing our education system because change seems so impossible, it should be inspiring, for over the course of a mere 25 or 30 years, enormous changes were made in the governance, management, staffing, organization and financing of American education. And, at least as I see it, the changes the country made then are, one and all, the sources of the biggest problems we face now. It is very instructive to go back through these pages to recall how and why it all happened and to remind ourselves that today’s solution is tomorrow’s challenge if we fail to adapt to a constantly changing environment. We are now preparing our students for a world that no longer exists, a world described very well in these two books.

Here’s another pair for you: Peter Drucker’s The Age of Discontinuity and Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise. In the first, Drucker, in 1969, foresees that the nations and companies that build their competitive advantage around the ability to do “knowledge work” will be those that succeed. Almost 50 years later, the United States has not quite got the message. We are still educating our children for a world in which the majority leave school with only basic literacy. Almost half a century ago, Drucker saw that it would no longer be enough and he explains why in his very accessible and very persuasive prose. His book has anchored my view of the challenge our schools would be up against since I first read it.

McGregor’s book came out in 1960, anticipating Drucker’s. In it, he says that as long as the managers in the mass production economy described by Callahan expect workers to try to do as little work as possible and to do it poorly, they will get what they expect, but when they start expecting workers to act more like professionals and treat them as professionals, then the workers will put everything they have into it and do the best work of which they are capable. These latter workers are the very ones that Drucker went on to describe as the kind of future workforce the United States would need. Though neither of them knew it, both were describing the way we would have to change how we recruit, train, manage and support our teachers half a century later. I commend both books to your attention all these years later.

I cannot resist another pair: The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn From Japanese and Chinese Education by Harold Stevenson and James Stigler (1992) and Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics by Liping Ma (1999). These two books set a standard for international comparative studies of education that has rarely been met since. Stevenson and Stigler introduced a whole generation of American educators to Japanese lesson study and, in the process, opened the eyes of many to the possibility that we have a lot to learn from education systems overseas. I stand here flipping through the pages of Liping Ma’s book thinking, “No one reading these pages can doubt for one minute that the typical rural elementary school teacher in China likely has a much deeper command of the mathematics of arithmetic than the typical suburban elementary school teacher in the United States.” She does this not with declarative statements saying so, but in one careful description of actual practice after another. Both books, very different in style, are brilliant demonstrations of the power of the comparative method.

All of the books I have mentioned strike me as fresh and relevant today as they were when I bought them some decades ago, and I commend all to your attention. But there is one book on my shelves I would characterize as not just important and relevant but also as wise. And that is Lee Shulman’s The Wisdom of Practice: Essays on Teaching, Learning, and Learning to Teach. I find myself returning to it again and again. Try it. I predict you will find yourself doing the same thing.


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