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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 4


All That Matters

All That Matters: What Is It We Value in School and Beyond? Linda Rief and Maureen Barbieri, editors. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1995.
In this collection of memoirs, essays, and poetry, teachers describe innovative evaluation approaches they have taken and how these reflect what matters to them in their own lives. When they are not with their students, these teachers often are thinking of them, reflecting on how they teach these children and what they should do next. The idea is that new methods of instruction and evaluation will evolve in accordance with who teachers are and what they are willing to bring to their teaching.
Rief and Barbieri believe that evaluation is an ongoing process that is part of the life of the classroom. They examine aspects of portfolio assessment, professional development, and parental involvement. In the process, they provide an excellent picture of the many benefits of authentic assessment and the evaluation of students.
Published by Heinemann, 361 Hanover St., Portsmouth, NH 03801-3912. Price: $22.50.
—Reviewed by Donna Clovis, Princeton Regional Schools, Princeton, New Jersey.

Horace's Hope

Horace's Hope: What Works for the American High School by Theodore Sizer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Horace's Hope is the third in a series of books in which the author uses Horace, a fictional high school English teacher, to look at U.S. secondary schools from the perspective of teachers who, like Horace, are too often constrained and compromised by traditional institutional structures and practices.
Sizer's contrasting portraits of schools offer powerful evidence of what needs to be changed and how much is possible when educators get serious about high school reform. At "Tillson High School," little has changed since Horace first visited in 1981. At other schools connected with the Coalition of Essential Schools, such as Thayer High School in New Hampshire, reforms have dramatically increased student engagement.
Two chapters, "The Words of Reform" and "What Matters," may be particularly helpful to educators who need to persuade others that we must not measure achievement only with standardized tests. Sizer offers a baker's dozen findings from work in Coalition schools. He explains how the mantras of accountability, choice, and world-class standars, can be rethought in ways that matter for students. Exhibitions, for example, are a more meaningful way to measure the kind of personal, in-depth learning we should expect for all students.
Sizer also urges us to question the assumption that all Americans agree on the purpose of education. And he explains why education policy must deal with what Lawrence Gremin called "configurations of education"—schools taking a variety of forms. Educators cannot pretend that poserful cultural influences and other outside forces do not exist. "Public education is an idea, not a structure," Sizer argues, and providing equal access for everyone to these "new configurations of educating institutions" (of which school is only one) will likely challenge the conventional ways of doing things.
As always, Sizer's writing is clear, engaging, and though-provoking. Readers should not overlook valuable information in the appendix. In addition to a description of the Coalition of Essential Schools project, an interesting essay by Morgan M. MacMullen summarizes studies involving Coalition schools. When Coalition principles are fully implemented, the effects are "consistent, beneficial, and significant."
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 222 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116. Price: $21.95.
—Reviewed by Anne Wescott Dodd, Bates College, Lewiston, Maine.

The End of Education

The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School by Neil Postman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
The debates in education circles today are, more often than not, about programs and processes rather than ends. Neil Postman believes that school has become a trivial puruit and, like many philosophers, he tries to unify the profession around a set of traditional values. He writes popularly and with a flair, demonstrating a familiarity with a broad range of literature, philosophy, and politics addressing big, complex ideas.
Postman is much more concerned with the whys or purposes of education than he is with the hows or techniques. He concedes that we can make the trains run on time but asks: If they don't go where we want them to, why bother? Thus the book's ambiguous title refers to education's goal rather than to an implied pessimism about the future of schooling.
Postman's big idea about education is not a new one: Schools, to be successful, must have a purpose or a focus. For Postman, purpose is found in a school's "narrative" or the story it tells its students. Narratives can be religious, political, or scientific. Postman favors the latter, although he also uses the word narrative synonymously with god with a small g. For schools to make sense, parents and teachers must have a god to serve or, even better, several gods: "Without a narrative," he warns, "life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention." The existence of such a narrative explains the alleged successes of parochial schools when compared to public schools. Among the new narratives or gods he claims are not serving schools very well are economic utility (education as a means to a job), consumerism, technology, and separatism. He also makes a claim for democracy and a liberal approach to diversity.
Postman saves his harshest polemics for multiculturalism, versions of which he fears will lead to divisiveness. He says multiculturalism may even threaten public education, which, he warns, depends "absolutely on the existence of shared narratives and the exclusion of narratives that lead to alienation and divisiveness." Postman worries that African Americans and other oppressed minorities will use the fact of ethnic diversity to inspire a "curriculum of revenge."
Postman's critics will argue that conflicting narratives can inspire different students, and that an African-centered curriculum, for example, can provide just the kind of narrative that he is writing abouth without being any more alienating than a parochial school. But for Postman, any narrative that dwells on the horror stories of slavery, the mastery of Native Americans, or the exploitation of coolie labor must be contained within the framework of the melting pot of cultural pluralism.
Is Postman, who wrote Teaching as a Subversive Activity, merely offering up another top-down attempt to mainstream education around a theme? Has this subversive grown conservative in his old age? Not so, says the author, denying he ever was a radical. Schools, he claims, "have no license to reconstruct society, and at most should encourage critical thinking. But even the critical thinking theme of his earlier book takes a back seat here to unification.
Postman, unfortunately, is limiting and tentative: He wants a sense of purpose in schools, but within the existing framework. Yet the existing framework offers little hope for transforming schools. And there is little hope that unification around an "American culture" is possible with the breakdown of a mainstream in this Information Age.
All this, combined with growing attacks on public education and kids dying from violence and sexual disease leaves Postman with a feeling of hopelessness. Despite this despair, those interested in exploring the big issues of education will want to read this book.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 201 East 50th St., New York, NY 10022. Price: $22.
—Reviewed by Mike Klonsky, University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Shelter of Each Other

The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families by Mary Pipher. New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1996.
Author and psychologist Mary Pipher prefaces this work on the status of families today with an Irish proverb: "It is in the shelter of each other that people live." In this lucid, touching book, she tells how this shelter is crumbling in a culture at war with the family.
Problems that families must confront are aggravated by the media and corporate values, the tools of technology, and the isolation wrought by demographic changes. But some families are cultivating qualities that will strengthen their walls. They are developing children's character by teaching them to make wise and kind choices, giving children the will to act on family values, and steeling all members to remain steadfast in the face of change and crisis.
Phiper relates strategies and stories of real families (including blood-related and friendship-formulated units) whose members have become more connected. Such families often emphasize family rituals, celebrations, traditions, reunions, and stories that will continue to be retold.
The strategies and insights that Pipher shares should help many players—teachers, counselors, school board members, district staff, family literacy centers, and parent' groups—in their attempts to shore up the '90s family unit so that it offers shelter to its members.
Published by Grosset/Putnam, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016. Price: $24.95.
—Reviewed by Rose Reissman, New York City Public Schools, Fordham University, and Manhattanville College.

Lives of Promise

Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians by Karen D. Arnold. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1995.
High School valedictorians are the best and brightest—right? Maybe not—at least according to Karen Arnold. In a 14-year study of 82 valedictorians, she found that most achieved success but not leadership or career eminence. Why? Whose problem is this?
This is a book that is easy to misinterpret. It is not that these students have failed to fulfill their promise, but, according to Arnold, that they have not been given "the needed tacit knowlege to travel exceptional career pathways." Her research supports the value of the student-faculty connection that encourages teachers, both secondary and college-level, to take a personal interest in these students, their career potential, and their talent development. What these short-circuited golden girls and boys need is a "network of career exploration opportunities, sponsors and mentors (as) a critical accompaniment to coursework."
Arnold's research conclusions will fascinate and disturb educators. In many ways, they shatter the stereotype of valedictorians' bringing immediate national or international glory to their alma mater. (Her conclusions also encompass the influence of race, gender, and social class.) The key to helping these graduates to eminence, she concludes, is to nurture The Dream—the dream in which they see themselves, not as bursting with self-esteem or as comfortable cogs in the system or as complacent moneymakers, but as pioneers in important new discoveries.
Published by Jossey-Bass Inc., 350 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104. Price: $32.95.
—Reviewed by Jonathan Swift, School of Global Education at Stevenson High School, Livonia Public Schools, Livonia, Michigan.

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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