School Reform: The Critical Issues
reviewed by Pia Lindquist Wong - 2003
Title: School Reform: The Critical Issues
Author(s): Williamson M. Evers, Lance T. Izumi, & Pamela A. Riley (eds.)
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford
ISBN: 0817928723, Pages: 400, Year: 2001
Search for book at Amazon.com
School reform: The critical issues edited by Williamson M. Evers, Lance T. Izumi and Pamela A. Riley and published by the Hoover Institution in 2001 claims to help readers “understand the basic nature of our education problems and the remedies that address them….” (p. xiii). In addition, the editors include articles that “…state the problems realistically and then propose reasonable and effective alternatives” (xiii). The target audience for the book is a wide one: policy makers, school board members, legislators, teachers, members of the media, and parents.
The book is organized into six major sections and covers the following broad topics and sub-topics (listed in parentheses): teaching approaches (progressive education, curriculum and methods, computers/distance learning, direct instruction/explicit teaching, ability grouping, whole school reform), the student (student beliefs/character education, social promotion), parents and teachers (parents, teachers), educationally disadvantaged, standards and accountability, and structuring education (spending, vouchers, contracting out, charter schools, class and school size, federal aid to education and the poor, home schooling, private schooling). There do not appear to be any original pieces in this volume; rather the editors have pulled together articles and opinion pieces from such conservative print and online journals as The Weekly Standard, Policy Review, The American Enterprise and EducationNews.org as well as editorials from national newspapers. (As a result, I tentatively refer to “contributors” throughout the review.)
Though the articles and opinion pieces in School reform: The critical issues address a range of issues, there are some common underlying themes. More than any other topic, the principles of educational progressivism receive the most attention in this volume. Such authors as Richard Lee Colvin (education writer for the Los Angeles Times) and E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (founder of the Core Knowledge program) criticize progressive educators for lowering academic standards, adopting an “anything goes” stance through an emphasis on natural and discovery approaches to learning and, in a politically astute but questionable multicultural twist, disproportionately failing students of color, particularly African American children.
Various “contributors,” with Diane Ravitch and Lynne Cheney taking the lead, identify teacher education, particularly that offered by schools and colleges of education, as a major cause of the problems that we now see in public schools. In their view, schools and colleges of education err by training future teachers to use a whole language rather than phonics approach to reading, to eschew direct instruction in favor of cooperative learning and to pursue ethereal goals like building a sense of community in classrooms and promoting multiculturalism. According to the authors, teachers also shoulder a large responsibility for the failures of our public education system. Various authors cite teachers’ inadequate knowledge base (as measured by SAT and ACT scores), their misguided focus on critical thinking and student-centered classroom curricula, and their attitude of complacency shaped by a uniform, step-based salary structure and strong union protections as contributing to students’ lack of achievement and learning.
Some of the authors also argue that parents contribute to the decline of academic achievement through their inability to instill the proper values of hard work, persistence, and excellence in their children and their insistence on unnecessary considerations for their children that may have any number of fabricated educational needs related to learning disabilities and special education. Other articles in the volume identify “educrats,” teachers’ unions, the public school monopoly, and those who prioritize education for citizenship over education for workforce preparation as significant causes of the decline of public schooling.
For a reader interested in understanding the ideological, intellectual, and philosophical orientation of the current Bush administration with regard to educational issues, this book would be a useful primer. It provides strongly stated and consistently conservative opinions about a range of educational priorities for the Bush administration, including the use of standardized testing to rank and sort schools, the adoption of standardized and scripted curriculum, the expansion of charter schools, the implementation of voucher programs, the elimination of teacher education programs, and the weakening of teacher unions. Few of the articles are more than four or five pages, and only two of the 52 articles have any pesky references or footnotes to contend with. Finally, none of the articles forces the reader to engage with numbers, data, or evidence. So, with these attributes in mind, School Reform: The Critical Issues can be complimented for being a relatively easy read, one that is not too intellectually taxing.
For those outside the Bush administration, however, School reform: The critical issues will seem like an ideologically strident and lop-sided collection of articles that takes a scatter-shot approach to addressing educational issues and employs low standards for research and inquiry. With the exception of two articles, the pieces in this volume are notable for their lack of evidence, their use of dramatic and probably extreme anecdotes, the inclusion of quotations without sources, and their maximum usage of hyperbole. There is no sense that the authors have spent any significant time in classrooms and schools (particularly urban ones) or with teachers, administrators, and parents in an effort to understand deeply the complexities of education and the challenges of reforming it.
In addition, no effort is made to set a current or historical context for public schooling in the U.S. Social and economic forces that might shape the outcomes of schooling receive scant attention. There is no uniform or focused discussion of why reforms are needed, as if there were already strong consensus within the target audience (wide though it is) about the major challenges facing public education. The omission of any discussion of the demographic profile of public school students and their teachers and how these factors shape the educational process as well as thinking and policy-making in education is not surprising but still represents a shortcoming in the volume. Finally, many of the authors in this volume are important advisors to the Bush administration. Their academically shoddy work in this volume makes a mockery of the administration’s emphasis on curriculum and teaching methods derived from ‘scientifically-based research.’
It is ironic that I was asked to write a review of School reform: The critical issues. I am almost everything that the authors find wrong with education today. I am an associate professor in the Department of Bilingual/Multicultural Education, College of Education at California State University, Sacramento; I help to prepare bilingual teachers; my research and activism center on the work of Paulo Freire, someone more “progressive” than either John Dewey or Alfie Kohn, each of whom is vilified in this book; and, I conduct qualitative research, sometimes even on issues of classroom community.
Given these factors it is safe to assume that despite my best intentions this is not an impartial review. Thus, those interested in better understanding school reform may want to read School Reform: The Critical Issues for themselves. Before doing so, however, I would suggest first reading the following that are notable for their high academic and research standards, their careful analysis of salient school reform issues, and their thoughtful and measured ideas for school improvement: Jean Anyon’s Ghetto schooling (1997), Tyack and Cuban’s Tinkering towards Utopia (1997), Lipmann’s Race, class and power in school restructuring, Kerchner, Koppich, and Weeres’ Taking charge of quality: how teachers and unions can revitalize schools (1998), Berliner & Biddle’s The manufactured crisis (1996), Fullan’s (1993, 1999, 2001) series on educational change, Goodlad’s (1998) book on teacher education, Oakes and Lipton’s Teaching to change the world, Weiner’s Urban teaching The essentials (1999), and articles from such publications as Rethinking Schools, Educational Leadership, and Phi Delta Kappan.
Anyon, J. (1997). Ghetto schooling. New York: Teachers College Press.
Berliner, D. & Biddle, B. (1996). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s public schools. New York: Perseus Publishing
Fullan, M. (1993). Change forces: Probing the depths of educational reform. Philadelphia, PA: Falmer.
Fullan, M. (1999). Change forces: The sequel. Philadelphia, PA: Falmer.
Fullan, M. (2001). The new meaning of educational change. New York: Teachers College Press.
Goodlad, J.I. (1998). Educational renewal: Better teachers, better schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kershner, C.T., Koppich, J.E., & Weeres, J.G. (1998). Taking charge of quality: how teachers and unions can revitalize schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Lipmann, P. (1998). Race, class, and power in school restructuring. Albany, NJ; SUNY Press.
Oakes, J. & Lipton, M. (2002). Teaching to change the world. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Tyack, D. & Cuban, L. (1997). Tinkering towards Utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Weiner, L. (1999). Urban teaching: The essentials. New York: Teachers College Press.