LIVING WITH UNCERTAINTY: The Messy Reality of Classroom Practice, by Curt Dudley-Marling. (Heinemann, $22.50.) Dudley-Marling may be a tenured professor of education at York University in Toronto and a recognized expert on literacy instruction, but he finds himself wracked with rookie self-doubt when he decides to return to schoolteaching after a 10-year absence. Nothing he tries goes according to plan. For starters, his 3rd graders at a diverse Toronto public school sometimes act like they are right out of Lord of the Flies. Dudley-Marling is an idealist who wants to promote social change, and he just doesn't know what to do when his kids brawl, refuse to complete their work, and yawn at the multicultural folktales he's so carefully selected for their edification. All his supposed expertise seems for naught. It's not that Dudley-Marling is a bad teacher; we can see from his copious field notes that he most certainly is not. He just can't stop beating himself up for not being able to meet his unrealistic expectations. His real problem, he eventually comes to see, is not incompetence but naiveté: The yardstick by which he measures himself is what he calls "popular constructions of the ideal teacher who is always in control, who never loses his temper, and who never doubts his teaching ability." Why someone who has been around the block as often as Dudley-Marling would fall prey to such idealizations is hard to say, though he sometimes appears to be a victim of his own lofty progressivism. As touching as his always-have-faith-in-the-child philosophy may be, it leads him to project upon his students an exaggerated innocence that can only lead to disillusionment. He begins the year wanting to build a harmonious classroom community, only to discover that children, like adults, sometimes prefer to be left alone. He tries to be nondirective in his teaching, wanting the students to take control of their own learning, but soon realizes that less-than-enthusiastic students need to be pushed. And he becomes so overwhelmed with discipline problems that he eventually sets up an incentive system to reward good behavior. Although Dudley-Marling never becomes a born-again traditionalist with kids sitting in rows and filling out worksheets, he does modify his progressivism to meet teaching's realities. To idealize children or a particular way of teaching them is to invite failure—a message the chastened professor will most likely bring back to his university students studying to become teachers.
INVENTING BETTER SCHOOLS: An Action Plan for Educational Reform, by Phillip Schlechty. (Jossey Bass, $25.) For about 100 pages, Schlechty, the esteemed president and CEO of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Kentucky, sounds a lot like other school reformers. He sees the teacher not as an authority but as a guide whose primary job is to "invent intellectually engaging work for students and then lead them to do it." Teachers, in his view, cannot cause or compel learning. Their main job is to create the conditions in which learning can occur. But in the second half of the book, Schlechty parts company with other reformers, for in the final analysis he is less interested in how to change classrooms and schools than in how to transform entire school districts—an idea many reformers gave up on years ago as hopelessly cumbersome. Schlechty, then, is a macro kind of guy; he is convinced that meaningful systemic change must occur at the district level rather than gradually, one school at a time. Hence, he's cautious about—though not necessarily opposed to—reforms like charter schools and site-based management, which he sees as being far too narrow in scope. Schlechty acutely points out that decisions made at the school site can be just as politically motivated and ineffective as those made in the central office; a few parents, some far from selfless, typically wield a disproportionate amount of clout. Although Schlechty is persuasive in his argument that the district is the best vehicle for education change, anyone who has witnessed the petty feuding and political shenanigans of the typical school board may remain skeptical. Schlechty does address the problem of political infighting: In his vision, slates of like-minded candidates from across the district would run for the school board. Citizens would vote for an entire slate instead of individual candidates. Ideally, the board would function like an effective corporate board, with the superintendent acting as chief executive officer. Whether this type of dramatic, big-scale restructuring can actually be pushed forward is hard to say, but given the limitations of the one-school-at-a-time approach, it seems worth a careful look.
DUMBING DOWN: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture, edited by Katharine Washburn and John Thornton. (Norton, $25; paper $13.95.) Americans, most of the 22 essayists here profess, are dumb and getting dumber. Unbound in our appetite for titillation, we are incapable of responding to literature, art, and political discourse with anything but a yawn. Not surprisingly, the writers largely blame a school system in decline, one that emphasizes self-esteem, getting along, and sexual self-control, producing graduates who feel good about themselves but know nothing. For all their exaggerations, the critics do score a few points. They rightly attack the excesses of so-called process writing, which encourages students to focus less on craftsmanship than on filling up notebooks with "self expression." They lament the more maudlin aspects of multiculturalism that aim not to educate but to create a "curriculum of caring." And one literary giant, Cynthia Ozick, grieves the loss of the common-school ideology, which asked all children—including children of immigrants like herself—to read authors like Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Milton. But seen in the big picture, this critique of schools is as wrongheaded as it is old hat. In 1870, a future president of the National Education Association declared that "hundreds of our American schools are little less than undisciplined juvenile mobs." In 1924, an article in the New Republic decried factory-style schools that "cultivate bad mental habits." Obtuse as Americans may be, few of us are stupid enough to believe—as the essayists here seem to—that our schools were once places of scholarly pursuits.