Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3


Final Exam

Final Exam: A Study of the Perpetual Scrutiny of American Education by Gerald W. Bracey. Bloomington, IN.: AIT Technos, 1995.
The presidential candidates give you one choice: Either build a bridge to the past (with Bob Dole) or build a bridge to the future (with Bill Clinton). But Gerald Bracey insists that school leaders need to journey both ways. Bracey, a widely published educational researcher, guides school reformers on a trek through past decades, makes the way to the present, and crosses over to the 21st century.
Bracey's motive in leading a journey into the past is clear: School officials (as well as politicians and others) need to experience what Bracey calls "a mountain of data" that contradicts the prevailing notion that schools are a failing social institution. In fact, Bracey contends, most citizens base their claims that schools are crumbling on information that has no substantive research base and no sound historical platform.
Bracey points out forks in the road where, he says, schools choose either a direction where they sort students into tracks that determine their life's path or where they build on the belief that "all children can learn." At these junctures, Bracey blows away systems and programs such as Mastery Learning and Outcomes-Based Education (OBE) and others that follow the all-children-can-learn view as wispy efforts that have no weight. In fact, Bracey forcefully condemns such programs as a "moral almost religious posture" held by educators and psychologists "who ought to know better."
With unrelenting statistics, Bracey comes down hard on schools that, he says, are setting up the nation for the "next great round of educational failure." The unyielding facts, according to Bracey, are that all students cannot learn and that, for the most part, not everyone wants all students to learn. For instance, Bracey draws from Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith's theories of the "functional underclass" to refute the claim that every student needs a first-class education for the country to compete in a so-called global economy. The truth is, Bracey says, that in our country's economic system, for some people to prosper, others must do menial labor.
School leaders, in their zeal for reform, have "set the stage for inevitable failure" because they are "prevented from seeing the present conditions as they really are." The fact is, Bracey argues, that schools are almost always better than the way they're pictured in newspapers and on television, not to mention scholarly reports. For one thing, since World War II when the modern era of reform began schools have been portrayed as "chronic failures," even though competent analysis shows that schools actually have been quite successful in educating students and dealing with social problems.
Bracey bolsters his claim that schools need a good history lesson to plan for the present and future with hundreds of examples. He takes on the widespread assumption that in the past, a high school diploma stood for more than just putting in "seat time" or getting a "social promotion," criticisms often leveled at the way high schools graduate students today. But, Bracey says, the trend toward minimum competency tests (an attempt to force more standards and meaning into high school graduation) is based on an "illusory" idea of the past. Perhaps, he cautions, we need to re-tint the pictures we hold of schools as they used to be, perhaps from rose to a darker color.
Bracey's hope is that by sorting through his rich data, educators will develop "a sense of what has and has not been thought about schools throughout our history."
It's worth taking the trek with Bracey, even though you might find yourself in enemy territory at times to the point of skirting mine fields and dodging bullets. But, as Elliot Eisner, a professor at Stanford University, likes to say, education is "about learning how to savor the quality of the journey." Just be mindful that joining up for this trip won't lead you to a picnic in the park.
Published by AIT Technos, Box A, 1111 W. 17th Street, Bloomington, IN 47404. Price: $24.98.
—Reviewed by Susan Black, Mid-Atlantic Consulting, Hammondsport, New York.

Restructuring in the Classroom

Restructuring in the Classroom: Teaching, Learning, and School Organizations by Richard Elmore, Penelope Peterson, and Sarah McCarthey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1996.
This book poses a simple question: Will changing the structure and organization of schools significantly alter how teachers teach and students learn? The authors look closely at three elementary schools. The closer they look, however, the less clear is the relationship between structure and performance (of both teacher and student). Such factors as time, leadership, and turnover contribute to the complexity that often governs those schools or districts we would hope to change through a few committee meetings.
The authors' sometimes vague conclusions merit our attention, for they help us to better see the difficult architecture of change. Structure offers no predictable outcomes; schools are not equations to be figured out and checked off. This book helps us understand the dynamic nature of schools and will be of interest to administrators or teachers considering reforms, or those who are mired in them and in need of insight as to how they got there.
Perhaps the most interesting observation in Restructuring in the Classroom is that internal structures of teachers must change if they are to teach better. Traditional school structures, some of the authors' findings suggest, impede such internal shifts and thereby restrict teachers' professional growth. The authors, in the book's foreword, best summarize the process we would all hope to see take place in schools that seek to improve themselves: This collaboration had an enormous intellectual influence on all of us. In effect, we had to create out of our very different intellectual backgrounds a common language for talking to each other, and for talking to our readers.
Indeed, we all need a way to collaborate within our increasingly diverse, complex society to create the schools we want. To do this, we need a common vocabulary of ideas and beliefs about kids, education, and society. This book contributes to that common language and, by inviting us to think about three schools, advances our understanding of the bigger picture we are all trying to paint.
Published by Jossey-Bass Inc., 350 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104. Price: $28.95.
—Reviewed by Jim Burke, Burlingame High School, Burlingame, California.

Gender Tales

Gender Tales: Tensions in the Schools. Judith S. Kleinfeld and Suzanne Yerian, editors. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Helping educators to develop the ability to critically evaluate their own teaching practices is a fundamental step in creating equitable classroom environments. This book provides an excellent springboard for fostering lively classroom discussions or quiet self-analysis on how issues of gender equity blatantly or subtly influence classroom interactions.
The readings the editors selected provide snapshots of how gender equity and inequity affect inservice teachers, preservice teachers, and students at all age levels and in various subject areas. In the 26 engrossing case studies, each presented in a separate chapter, readers will find questions and activities to help them either revisit their own experiences or explore learning opportunities that will deepen their understanding of equity issues.
Gender Tales is an ideal textbook for gender equity workshops, preservice education courses, and courses in women's studies.
Published by St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010. Price: $20.
—Reviewed by Barbara McEwan, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon.

The End of Science

The End of Science by John Horgan. New York: Addison Wesley, 1996.
Imagine a mouse in a maze, the key to which is encrypted by a pattern involving prime numbers. Like the mouse, our limited cognitive capacity cannot resolve the maze. John Horgan offers this metaphor to support one of his two conflicting themes in The End of Science. The other message is that through science, the fundamental description of the maze has been, or soon will be, complete. Further work will lie either in the mere application of this knowledge or in "ironic" science, which recognizes "multiple meanings, none of them definitive." Ironic science offers opinions "which are at best interesting, which provoke further comments. But it does not converge on truth."
These two conflicting points of view are both argued from conversations with approximately 50 scientists between 1989 and 1995. The author states that he "decided to abandon my pretense of journalistic objectivity and write a book that was overtly judgmental, argumentative, and personal." In fact, few of those interviewed take the idea of the "end of science" seriously. And so, consistent with this decision, the author follows each of these conversations with an often outrageous critique of his subject's ideas.
Delightful anecdotes reveal the humanity, and often arrogance, of many of those who are interviewed. Karl Popper's secretary doesn't provide directions, as all of the cab drivers know where Sir Karl lives. Noam Chomsky is put on edge with the suggestion that his views on linguistics have become the establishment views. Thomas Kuhn says that "a lot of the success of the book (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) and some of the criticisms are due to its vagueness."
I will be reading some of these accounts to students in my science classes. They may reveal the frailty of our science, a product of the human intellect that remains infused with ambiguity, uncertainty, and mysteriousness. The author is best known for his profiles of scientists in the pages of Scientific American, and it is through this experience that the book succeeds. The subject, in the end, is not science at all but the scientists who are irreverently portrayed.
Published by Addison Wesley, 170 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010. Price: $24.
—Reviewed by John Eggebrecht, Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Aurora.

A House Divided

A House Divided: Six Belief Systems Struggling for America's Soul by Mark Gerzon. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1996.
Educators coping with today's fragmented and contentious society will find clarity and hope in Mark Gerzon's illuminating analysis. Reminding us that Patrick Henry declared himself an American rather than a Virginian, Gerzon observes that most of us no longer feel strong ties to geographical states. Instead, we are devoted to ideological "states" more than to the nation as a whole, which he dubs the Divided States of America.
Much of the book is devoted to convincing portrayals of six of these states: conservative Christians, corporation capitalists, disempowered minorities, the media, New Age environmentalists, and government, each with core beliefs, defining events, sacred texts, prominent spokespersons, and so on. Most readers will be attracted to one or more of these "states" and repelled by others, but not necessarily the same ones. This is because, says Gerzon, we are "a house divided," which, according to Abraham Lincoln, cannot stand.
Fortunately, Gerzon cites numerous examples of people he calls "new patriots" who are working to moderate the excesses of the various states and build bridges among them. He tells, for example, of Robert DeMoss, a former disk jockey and rock-and-roll musician who, as media expert for Focus on the Family, campaigns against violence and obscenity in music and videos for children. In his concluding chapter, Gerzon lists 50 ways anyone can "practice the new patriotism." His prescriptions are simple but powerful: "Know your adversaries." "Think for yourself." "In a fight, stake out the high ground." Good advice for educators and for their critics.
Published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, The Putnam Publishing Group, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016. Price: $24.95 ($33.95, Canada).
—Reviewed by Ron Brandt, Assistant Executive Director, ASCD.

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

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 196245.jpg
Go To Publication