January 4, 2004
What's Wrong With America's Schools
Books about education tend to fall into predictable patterns. Their authors define what the problem ''really'' is, and use some combination of statistics and stories about individual schools or districts to prove their theses: their version of the trouble is right, other people's assumptions are wrong, so other proposed fixes miss the point. Finally, they offer their solutions, which are usually much less persuasive than their analyses. Three books this year fit the pattern: superb analyses, followed by comparatively little in the way of useful solutions. Even so, the stories they tell combine in a portrait worth examining.
In ''Final Test: The Battle for Adequacy in America's Schools,'' Peter Schrag looks at two burning issues: tests and money. He does not engage in the debate over the virtues or dangers of high-stakes testing, instead taking them as a given. Schrag, the author most recently of ''Paradise Lost,'' about voter initiatives and California, is interested in how higher standards and testing influence the battle over school funding. His implicit assumption is that money matters (which the most rigorous research supports).
The push for higher standards and accountability, generally embodied in high-stakes exams, has given an unexpected boost to lawsuits seeking more money for schools. As Schrag explains, ''the adequacy principle asks the states to determine the actual cost of providing decent educational resources for each child and to use that as the gauge for school spending.'' His descriptions of cases in the courts of Kentucky, New York, Ohio and elsewhere detail the wide array of issues -- unequal distribution of funding, political corruption, unqualified teachers, resistant legislatures, crumbling schools -- involved in the search for a definition of an adequate education.
For Schrag, the adequacy drive matters because it does not simply try to get disadvantaged communities more money; thinking about adequacy means figuring out what it would take to give all students a good education, giving them a fair chance of meeting new standards, and then coming up with enough money to actually do it. Schrag sees the court cases he looks at as merely the first step.
Todd Oppenheimer has some very specific ideas about how money should not be spent to improve schools, and he gets them across persuasively in ''The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved.'' According to Oppenheimer, a journalist based in San Francisco, in education, ''technology is like a vine -- it's gorgeous at first blossom but quickly overgrown, gradually altering and choking its surroundings.'' While ''The Flickering Mind'' shows both effective and ineffective uses of computers, Oppenheimer's point is that the amount of money and other resources that technology requires far outweighs the good it generally does. This is an especially important argument at a time of straitjacket federal and state budgets.
If computers really only accentuate the culture of whatever school they're in for good or ill, as Oppenheimer seems to show, then what will buying more solve? Not much, apparently. His stories of computers and schools in Maryland and West Virginia, among other places, make his case effectively. His descriptions of excellent schools using computers in a limited way, if at all, get at the heart of what good classrooms look like: teachers who know how to teach and are excited to be doing it, and students who believe they can and should learn from those teachers. He doesn't tell us how to make more schools fit this description (though his ''small set of hopes for schools,'' like better teacher pay to lift the quality of teaching over all, are admirable).
For Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom, the real problem is the tremendous and persistent achievement gap between white and Asian students on the one hand and black and Hispanic students on the other. In their view, differential schooling and different cultural values are the issue, not genetics: too many schools do not believe their students can learn, and too many families think it doesn't matter very much. And it matters tremendously. The Thernstroms, also the authors of ''America in Black and White,'' believe what they call the racial gap is not just a huge educational problem, it ''is also the main source of ongoing racial inequality.''
The bulk of ''No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning'' is spent arguing that the conventional explanations, like lack of funding and poorly trained teachers, are wrong. Early on, a number of charter schools are described glowingly, especially several KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) academies, and the book ends on a high note: ''The lure of charter schools and even vouchers may prove irresistible if No Child Left Behind fails to close the racial gap in academic achievement, as we predict it will.'' But the picture they paint is selective; plenty of charter schools are mediocre, and some are awful. Furthermore, the research on vouchers does not provide any reason to think they will make a significant difference. (This may not matter to the Thernstroms, since they dismiss solid research on small classes and on the positive effects of higher funding; like many who write on education, instead of letting the best research drive their argument, they cite the research that supports it.) In the end, they make a far more convincing case for looking closely at culture than they do for choice or charter schools as a real solution.
What can we get from these books? A great deal, I suspect. Spending more money on schools a la Schrag, spending it more intelligently a la Oppenheimer and keeping the children most in need squarely in our sights a la the Thernstroms is the beginning of wisdom about fixing our schools. Finding real answers, and the will to implement them, is next.
Timothy A. Hacsi's most recent book is ''Children as Pawns: The Politics of Educational Reform.''