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A Story of Practical School Reform 1960-1990, by Richard A. Gibboney. (State University of New York Press, $16.95.) In a field often characterized by collegial backslapping, it is refreshing to come across an author who is not out to win friends. In The Stone Trumpet, Gibboney attacks, albeit with deceptive charm, one ballyhooed education reform after another. Treated with particular derision are what he calls “technical” reforms—step-by-step “save the world” formulas that most often take the form of obtuse how-to manuals and “didactic presentations to passive teachers.” These reforms, frequently developed by cocksure academics and backed by appeasing politicians, tend to have one thing in common: They assume that the teacher, like the complaisant student, merely needs to be told what to do. Pennsylvania teachers, for example, were told to follow Madeline Hunter’s steps of presentation, guided practice, and correctives. But these kinds of recipe reforms, issued as directives, are, Gibboney writes, doomed to fail. Most are blatantly autocratic and simplistic, treating teachers as glorified purveyors of sheer fatuousness. Those of some potential worth, such as the University of Wisconsin’s Individually Guided Education, become hopelessly trivialized as they spiral downward from one hierarchical tier to the other. The biggest reform scam of all, according to Gibboney, is Chapter 1. With its death-like remedial drill-and-skill programs, Chapter 1 is seemingly designed, he argues, to create “an even larger audience for commercial television, alluring video, and Nintendo.” Some of these wayward reforms are easy targets, but Gibboney takes on the big guns, too, such as Theodore Sizer’s much-praised Coalition of Essential Schools. Asserting that not one of the Coalition’s many schools has achieved total school reform, he says Sizer’s sound conceptions—such as teacher as coach and student as worker—have little chance of succeeding as long as Sizer believes that his principles “can be given more or less directly as ideas to others.” While this is unfair—Sizer makes no such claim—Gibboney’s point is well-taken: Reform won’t work as long as it encourages, however inadvertently, passive dependency on so-called experts. The only thing educators need to discover, he concludes, “is the practical power of human intelligence when it is free to probe within a democratic process.”


Lessons from Three Communities, by Tony Wagner. (Beacon Press, $25.) The title of this insightful book is a bit misleading, as the book is generally less about how schools change as how they resist change. The first school Wagner explores, Hull High School in Massachusetts, is a case in point. The new superintendent, eager to revive a dispirited school, attempts to implement a number of apparently progressive ideas: Teachers will practice cooperative learning, for example, and develop an across-the-curriculum environmental studies program. The problem, though, is that the superintendent’s actions are wholly unilateral; the teachers, without input and unable to discern an overarching philosophical purpose behind the proposed changes, struggle to little avail. The ensuing cooperative-learning groups are sleepy circles of bored chitchat, and the environmental program becomes a mundane exercise in planning field trips. The underlying problem Wagner is getting at here, and in his descriptions of the other schools, is the lack of relevance that plagues most educational endeavors—even those that might make good sense. As we watch confused teachers and indifferent students muddle through one thing after the next, it becomes clear, with some notable exceptions, that no one knows why they’re doing anything. The teachers become disgruntled actors, dumbly executing the director’s orders. As a solution, Wagner insists that administrators, teachers, and students collaborate to set meaningful goals. This, of course, is easier said than done. But in a vacuum of purpose, teachers and students will resort to old habits, pretending to cover a curriculum that has seemingly been dropped out of the clear blue sky.


One Woman’s Story About Fighting Censorship, by Claudia Johnson. (Fulcrum, $19.95.) When the school board in Lake City, Fla., decided in 1986 to ban “The Miller’s Tale” by Chaucer (along with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata), the author argued that the story couldn’t be obscene because “Chaucer was funny and pornography usually wasn’t.” But the school board lacked a sense of humor, apparently unable to understand the difference between an imprecation uttered by a fool of a fictional character and an obscenity spray-painted on a highway overpass. The literal-minded school board and its supporters, almost none of whom had read the works in question, were simply unable or unwilling to fathom irony, wit, or dramatic situation—all the things that a literary education hopes to impart. As the debate heated up, the high school principal, hoping to avoid an expensive court battle, suggested simply eliminating humanities from the curriculum. Stifled Laughter would be an amusing if predictable battle between the philistines and the liberal-minded except for the fact that the school board wins the ensuing court case. While we laugh at the buffoonery of the narrow-minded, we recognize that the power of a school board to ban books—in this case, one that is state-approved—is no laughing matter.

Vol. 06, Issue 04, Page 41

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