School Reform: The Critical Issues
Pub Date: November 19, 2001
Product Format: Paper
Availability: In stock.
This joint undertaking of the Hoover Institution and the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy presents a collection of the most insightful, hard-hitting, and provocative recent articles on education reform. With unflinching candor, the expert contributors address the basic nature of our education problems, provide a clear understanding of why schools and students are underperforming, and propose reasonable and effective alternatives. The articles cover the full spectrum of education reform, including
Review By: Kathleen Verner, Temple University - July 2, 2003What is educational reform? Why isn't it working? According to the editors of this anthology, these are not trivial questions. Currently billions of tax dollars-public funds-are earmarked for public education in states, districts, and schools throughout the United States. According to the editors, in order to understand the lack of success of school reform it is necessary to understand the basic nature of educational organizations and processes in the United States and the remedies that address them. This is the premise upon which the current anthology is based. A joint undertaking of the Hoover Institution and the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, School Reform: The Critical Issues is one of many books dealing with the condition of education in the United States and the process of school reform. However, unlike many others in this area, this volume is a compilation of provocative articles focusing on education reform in recent years but prior to the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2001 that legislated significant modifications to business as usual at the state, district, and school levels. Because there is no obvious sequence to the sections or to the articles appearing within each section, each of the articles included in this anthology stands alone. This structure allows the reader the flexibility to scan the book searching for those topics of greatest interest. Each article selected by the editors for inclusion in School Reform: The Critical Issues considers a particular obstacle to the success of school reform and then proposes what the authors of the individual selections consider are reasonable and potentially effective alternatives. The 53 separate articles that comprise this anthology were written by a variety of authors. The articles initially appeared in separate sources and reflect the differing perspectives of the authors and the priorities of the editors. The original writings of the educators, researchers, teachers, and parents who have contributed to School Reform: The Critical Issues can be found in newspapers, popular magazines, academic journals, other national publications and sources of published material. Indeed, the text for the most part reads as if intended for a more general readership than academically erudite scholars. The articles are organized in an uncomplicated way into six major sections which are further divided into selections directly relevant to the major section identified by the editors (e.g., class and school size are subsumed within the category of Structuring Education). Other major sections that may interest the reader include Teaching Approaches, The Student, Parents and Teachers, Educationally Disadvantaged, and Standards and Accountability. Perhaps reflecting the 2001 publication date, the section entitled Standards and Accountability, issues that currently looms large in federal legislation (No Child Left Behind [NCLB], the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2002 [ESEA]) regarding student academic performance and state, district, and school accountability, receives minimal discussion. Hence, it fails to consider the effect of that legislation of students, schools, districts, and states. Nevertheless, the editors intend for this book to provide the reader, policymaker, educational administrator, or parent with an understanding of the obstacles to effective school reform that may be partly responsible for the unsatisfactory levels of student academic achievement. Additionally, the editors intend for the text to inform the reader about the continuing debate in the area of educational reform. Discussion While reading School Reform: The Critical Issues, I was confronted by more questions than answers. Three areas of concern evolved: the difference between learning and education, the purpose of public education, and equity within the educational organization and process. Initially, I searched for a definition of learning and education. While the text identifies obstacles to successful education reform and offers alternative solutions to the contradictory state of public education in the United States, at no time do the authors address the difference between learning and education. In fact, one author selected by the editors describes education as an industry with student achievement as the main product and encourages the application of business-oriented activity and focus, such as improved management and increased profits, as the solution to the achievement gap. The second area of concern, the purpose of education, surfaced in response to a number of articles that seemed to totally ignore the personal value and process of learning. Some of these articles presented obviously contradictory views of education. My third major concern evolved in response to a variety of articles involving the equity of education. Each of these responses suggests the following questions: "Is there a difference between learning and education? What is the goal of education? Is it realistic to apply objective measures to learning? Can learning be mandated from above? Can learning be equalized across different socioeconomic and intellectual boundaries? Can learning be standardized across different cultural, socioeconomic, and intellectual parameters?" Since there is no sequence to the series of sections, this discussion will begin with those sections that seem most antithetical to successful learning. The section dealing with the Educationally Disadvantaged contains an apt description of special education activities and programs including the Ritalin debacle and the popular program entitled "bilingual education." This section, particularly in light of the federal and state emphases on special education certification, funding, and special education activities and services is very enlightening. The description of disability in "Defining Disability Down: Why Johnny Can't Read, Write, or Sit Still" by Ruth Shalit is an informative expose of the inception, application, and current status of the what often seems to be the wholesale application of the special education label of "learning disability." According to the author, the learning disability classification is frequently employed in a variety of opportunistic ways by any number of individuals. Shalit's insightful discussion raises the question, "What is the difference between aptitude or the lack thereof and a learning disability?" Indeed, the author cites instances in which the classification of learning disability has been used to extend the test-taking time of law students which prompts questions about the personal characteristics and intellectual aptitude of those persons practicing law. Unfortunately, according to Shalit, individuals with grave physical handicaps constitute but a small portion of individuals who claim special privilege under the federal disability laws (i.e., Americans with Disabilities Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act) while the "abuse" of the label prevails. In her expose of the issue of Ritalin use/abuse, Mary Eberstadt, describes what Ritalin really is, how it is used with children, and why it is so commonly used with students and adults classified with either Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Additional questions suggested by Eberstadt's article are: "Why are millions of middle- and upper-class children being legally drugged with a substance that is, according to the author, similar to cocaine?" and "How do labeling and Ritalin effect learning?" Yet another topic the editors chose to include in the same section is that of the burgeoning concept of bilingual education within the education system. The description of bilingual education contributed by Glenn Garvin is a blazing indictment of the program. To substantiate his position, Garvin cites the failure of bilingual education practices as well as the inherent contradictions in the application of bilingual programs. Garvin's article raises further questions: "How does bilingual education and the structure and application of that program impact student learning?" and "Do the merits of such a program cancel out the disservice it does to students and their families?" The section dealing with Structuring Education explores a variety of issues related to school performance including spending, the voucher system and private schools, contracting out services, class and school size, and home schooling. Paul Ciotti, in an article that first appeared in Policy Analysis, a Cato Institute publication, extensively reviews the failure of the Kansas City Desegregation Experiment. During this experiment unlimited funds were available to schools in the Kansas City School District in a effort to increase student desegregation and academic performance. The discussion of vouchers, contracting educational services out, and private schools reminds the reader that from an economic point of view public education is cost ineffective. Maybe the more crucial issue even than the extreme cost ineffectiveness of many public education districts and schools, particularly ineffective in the distribution and use of Title I funds, is the failure to adequately serve large groups of students regardless of available funds or expenditures. The Structuring Education section also deals with the benefits and liabilities of home-schooling. Britton Manasco describes the benefits and criticisms of home-schooling. Among the benefits, the author emphasizes the absence of student involvement in a schizoid and failing, both academically and socially, school system. The criticisms include the limitations of academics, socialization, and recreation experiences. As the parent of partially home-schooled children, I have witnessed first hand the benefits of learning under the conditions fostered by the flexibility of home-schooling. Furthermore, my decision to home-school received the same criticisms put forward by the author. To such criticisms, I respond now as I did then. It is the parents' responsibility to provide the opportunities for their children to learn and practice developmentally appropriate social skills that are not necessarily the same skills available to them in school. Another major section that also considers the role of parents and that I found most appealing and very close to my own experience and understanding is that of Parents and Teachers. This particular section concerns both parents and teachers and their roles in the educational process. The selection discussing parents, The Parent Trap, written by Tom Loveless, addresses the assumption made by proposed educational reformers that parents will do whatever it takes to raise children's level of academic achievement. According to Loveless, this is the case with many parents but not necessarily those parents whose priorities are neither learning nor academic achievement. According to the author, parents often welcome school as the caretaker of students but commonly recoil and withdraw their support for the school when school policy does not fit their plans for themselves or their children. Another point made by Loveless that must be considered is that improving education is not totally pain-free to either students or parents and certainly not to teachers or to school administrators. Schools, parents, and students will of necessity bear the cost of student achievement, effective classrooms and effective schools. The question prompted by Loveless comments is "How has education changed in this decade to reflect the differing priorities of society, parents, and students?" Other articles in the section on parents and teachers address the issue of teacher preparation. "Who Teaches the Teachers" questions the relationship between teacher preparation programs and student achievement. Lynne V. Cheney sums up the data with the argument that teacher preparation programs are "...sabotaging the best efforts of reformers to get schools to use methods that work" (p. 156). It is baffling that many classroom teachers are asked to implement reform efforts in their own classrooms for which they were neither prepared for nor acquainted with while enrolled in a teacher preparation program. The section dealing with student characteristics that may be considered obstacles to school reform flows from the section dealing with parents. Steinberg emphasizes that at least two conditions outside the classroom impact on student attitude and behavior in the classroom. These conditions, cited in Steinberg's "Failure Outside the Classroom", are the lack of peer and parental support for learning and achievement exemplified by peer activity that competes with learning and parental disengagement. Steinberg lists a three highly specific steps that he feels must be taken prior to rushing "...to reinvent the curriculum, retrain our teachers, refurbish our schools' laboratories or expand access to higher education (119)." A variety of additional articles address the impact of unions on education-not just teacher benefits but also curriculum and student learning. Each of the articles discussing the extent of union power in schools portrays unions as obstacles to effective reform efforts and to growth in student achievement. Schools' and districts' hands are virtually tied when it comes to union contracts that identify and regulate a myriad of items in addition to teacher salaries including the time of day and the days in the year that represented teachers are expected, and allowed to work, regardless of the needs of students or schools. The impact of such constraints on student achievement and the success of school reform is further discussed. School Reform: The Critical Issues provides the reader with a good, brief glance at the variety of obstacles inherent in the different components of the United States public education system. Among the obstacles cited by the various authors are conflicting philosophical beliefs concerning education, teacher preparation programs, teachers unions, the educational bureaucracy, policy makers, the curriculum and, of course, students and parents. The fact is that each of these obstacles-even more when they operate in conjunction-can make or break education reform and seriously hinder student learning. The text provides a good introduction that the reader interested in obstacles to school reform can pursue. However, individuals already acquainted with the obstacles discussed in this edited text may be better informed by searching out literature on specific obstacles, which offers in-depth explanations and deeper understanding. About the Reviewer Kathleen Verner, PhD Laboratory for Student Success, Temple University Center for Research in Human Development and Education Temple University Kathleen Verner is a Research Assistant with the Laboratory for Student Success, Center for Research in Human Development and Education. Her research focuses on human learning, educational reform, and teacher preparation. Kathleen Verner has also been involved in teaching Psychology, Child and Adolescent Development, and Effective Classroom Teaching at the college and university levels as an Adjunct Professor.