In this genial and challenging overview of endless debates over school reform, Rick Hess shows that even bitter opponents in debates about how to improve schools agree on much more than they realize - and that much of it must change radically. Cutting through the tangled thickets of right- and left-wing dogma, he clears the ground for transformation of the American school system.
Whatever they think of school vouchers or charter schools, teacher merit pay or bilingual education, most educators and advocates take many other things for granted. The one-teacher–one-classroom model. The professional full-time teacher. Students grouped in age-defined grades. The nine-month calendar. Top-down local district control. All were innovative and exciting - in the 19th century. As Hess shows, the system hasn't changed since most Americans lived on farms and in villages, since school taught you to read, write, and do arithmetic, and since only an elite went to high school, let alone college.
Arguing that a fundamentally 19th-century system can't be right for a 21st-century world, Hess suggests that uniformity gets in the way of quality, and urges us to create a much wider variety of schools, to meet a greater range of needs for different kinds of talents, needed by a vastly more complex and demanding society.
©2010 the President and Fellows of Harvard College (P)2012 Redwood Audiobooks
The Valid Criticism: I am not sure there is anyone in American who isn't tired of the divide (or perhaps chasm) on K-12 education reform. This book's overarching observation is that we are just instituting new fads over and over, without a larger vision for what education should look like in the 21st century. This is certainly a valid point, and indeed it is a novel point that deserves a thorough hearing.
The problem is that this book is an extremely poor mechanism for publicizing the author's central thesis.
The Problem: This book is an epic whine-a-thon.
The Early Chapters: In the first few chapters the author spends nearly 4 hours complaining about how no one listens to him, and how he has been slighted by reformers. These reformers (neo-progressives) simply refuse to accept changes to the fundamental character of the school system, he complains. They attack anyone who doesn't agree with them (including the author). Why oh why won't they listen to the author's amazing ideas for changing the system? Because they are stubborn. The idea that there may be principled reasons why these "neo-progressives" would defend the present system doesn't even seem to cross the author's mind. The author gives absolutely zero attention to the possible benefits of the current system (aside from paying brief homage to the system's goal of universal education, though not without a border-line originalist snipe about how the founders never imagined a system of universal education).
Cherry Picking History: Throughout the book the author styles himself an amatuer historian, largely because he ones taught history to high school students. It is important to note, however, that he is NOT an educational historian in the traditionally recognized sense, and that fact becomes VERY clear as you listen. His historical examples are belabored and bewildering. Take for example his defense of religion in the classroom, which is based on the fact that religion controlled education for much of history including a sizable chunk of US history. So, why are we so hostile to religion in school, when it has been done before? As he does so often in the book, the author declines to discuss any of the historical or policy reasons behind the shift away from religious schooling. In some cases, the historical examples border on the laughably ridiculous, such as his suggestion that we look to the education systems of ancient Greece and Rome to inform our views on vocational education and teacher pay. Greek teachers didn't expect fair/equal pay, so why should our teachers?
The Later Chapters: In the later chapters, the author offers some recommendations and conclusions regarding good education reforms. Early in the book the author disclaims any interest in advocating traditional partisan reform ideas such as vouchers, charter schools, and merit pay. The author then proceeds, despite his desire not to advocate these policy ideas, to explain why they are actually sensible policies that would be far better than the "neo-progressive" status quo. If you are feeling more than a little bewildered at this point, things wont get better for you. The whine-a-thon then picks up again, as the author continues his relentless criticism of the "neo-progressives" and their stubborn refusal to permit any structural reforms. Even as he makes perfectly valid criticisms of the system (such as how the style of teaching hasn't changed despite advances in technology), he muddles his perfectly valid observations by decrying the "neo-progressive" conspiracy to maintain the status quo.
Overall: This book is really little more than an man airing his complaints about "neo-progressives." There is precious little discussion of actual reform in this book, and what little discussion there happens to be is hopelessly befouled by a political agenda. By the second chapter I was imagining the author, not as a participant in a larger education reform discussion, but as the lunatic screaming bitterly on the street corner about how the evil "neo-progressives" won't give him a seat at the table. Perhaps if the author would like a seat at the table, he shouldn't inject such riotous vitriol onto an otherwise valid suggestion for a large scale reform effort. Perhaps, the author should consider that the "neo-progressives" will let down their stubborn barriers to his participation when he is willing to drop the mantel of principled victim.
In Short: If you are looking for a good book on education reform, I recommend you look elsewhere.
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