THE SCHOOLS WE HAVE, THE SCHOOLS WE WANT: An American Teacher on the Front Line
by James Nehring (Jossey-Bass, $22.95.)
Located in a middle-class suburb, Nehring's fictional Amesley Junior-Senior High School is “Everyschool.” Purposeless students are alternately rowdy and docile; the older teachers, always grousing in the faculty lounge, are jaded by a decade of failed reforms; the new principal is an idealist on the fast road to disillusionment; and the bureaucracy is so labyrinthine that the faculty is stymied even in its efforts to order a better grade of toilet paper. Against this bleak background, English teacher Nehring and a group of fellow educators apply for a grant that involves designing a new kind of school. While they initially see the grant as an easy way to make money—”a great scam,” one teacher calls it—they're soon taken up with the project and eventually propose that their unwieldy school be divided up into autonomous smaller schools consisting of 80 students and six teachers. Such small schools, they presume, will eliminate the anonymity and divisive specialization of larger ones; teachers working in teams and doubling as administrators and counselors will get to know the students as complete individuals, developing a sense of community in the process. But the proposal meets with fatal opposition even as its merits are recognized: Administrators fear a loss of authority while teachers fear that added responsibility would undermine their union contract. The picture that emerges is of a school system marked by intransigence, as various constituencies—administrators, teachers, and parents—are locked into an unwinnable power struggle that assures only the continuance of the status quo. What, then, is to be done? Nehring concludes by advocating a voucher system that would enable gifted teachers to form their own schools and break away from an oppressive school system much as Lithuania broke away from the former Soviet Union. Regardless of how one feels about Nehring's proposals, the reader will enjoy this engaging portrait of educators who like reform as long as it has no real chance of succeeding.
AN ARISTOCRACY OF EVERYONE: The Politics of Education and the Future of America
by Benjamin Barber (Ballantine Books, $20.)
“In a democracy,” the author argues, “there is only one essential task for the educator: teaching liberty.” But here liberty is no simple construct. For Barber, a thinker in the tradition of John Dewey, “teaching liberty” means more than imparting to students knowledge that enables them to rise in social class and an awareness of one's individual rights; it means, rather, that students should be educated to become enlightened citizens who freely participate in public life. Such a student-citizen not only learns the importance of community service, but he or she also develops an independence of mind that continually questions authority without giving way to destructive hyper-skepticism. As Barber writes, “Education is a training in the middle way between the dogmatic belief in absolutes and the cynical negation of all belief.” Difficult but rewarding, Barber's book is both a rich intellectual history and a polemic against the narrow view of education as skills acquisition and of liberty as the mere right to be left alone. An Aristocracy of Everyone expands our notion of American education, insisting that it become the vehicle through which the democratic ideals of liberty, excellence, and equality are taught.
HEAD START: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Educational Experiment
by Edward Zigler and Susan Muenchow (Basic Books, $27.50.)
Zigler, a principal architect of Head Start, writes, “I do not think the War on Poverty failed, but was prematurely halted.” Yet the unusual endurance of Head Start seems due to features other anti-poverty programs did not have. For one thing, early medical intervention ensured that poor children attended the program in good health; for another, the unique emphasis on parental involvement meant that children were more likely to receive essential family support. But perhaps most important is the fact that Head Start, thanks to adept public relations and broad public support, was always able to maintain a certain independence from meddlesome bureaucrats. Indeed, Zigler and Muenchow's book reads less like a treatise on early education than a primer on how to navigate through a bedazzling number of government regulations and organizations.
Vol. 04, Issue 02, Page 37