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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

Reviews

Instructional Strategies

The Death of Common Sense

The Death of Common Sense by Philip K. Howard. New York: Random House, 1995.
Philip Howard is a rara avis to be sure. Here's a Manhattan attorney indicting law for being like “millions of trip wires” that prevent good people from doing good work. In fact, Howard claims that more wise decisions would be handed down—in places such as a school principal's office and a hospital conference room—if government, with its plethora of rules and regulations, would get out of the way.
Howard taps into the frustrations many school executives feel every day at being bogged down with endless forms to fill out, due process procedures to record, and hearings to hold. It's a paradox, Howard says, that the legal system we turn to with high hopes lets us down in the end. For one thing, Howard points out, no law can cover every situation or every contingency, so there's always some doubt about a final decision. For another, handling human activities—such as deciding what to do with a disruptive high school student or where to place a special education student—often can't be regulated without judgment and old-fashioned common sense. The “legal colossus,” as Howard calls it, is perhaps the most mind-sapping factor in our society.
What's especially troubling, Howard notes, is how laws are creating a “nation of enemies,” where individuals and groups demand rights without regard for the prejudice they perpetuate and the costs they create. Giving certain groups legal rights ends up in “social wreckage,” he maintains. Those in the loop, so to speak, end up with economic advantages, which, in effect, diminish the rights and advantages of those excluded by law. (To illustrate his point, Howard cites cases where parents of special education students are awarded rights to choose expensive private schools for their children; the tuition payments made by the home school mean there's less money to spend on educating other children. It's no wonder, Howard says, that everyone—including the so-called winners in these legal battles—ends up feeling angry and bruised by the legal system.
Published by Random House, 201 E. 50th St., New York, NY 10022. Price: $18.
—Reviewed by Susan Black, educational consultant, Hammondsport, New York.

Just Teach Me, Mrs. K.

Just Teach Me, Mrs. K. by Mary Mercer Krogness. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1995.
If ever the public wanted proof that a good teacher is a gift to society and the cornerstone of the curriculum, here is that proof. This is not a how-to book, although it offers the pedagogical repertory of a remarkable English teacher from whom we can glean a harvest of ideas.
Just Teach Me, Mrs. K. contains many case studies and classroom practices about resistant adolescent learners. Mrs. K. (the author) works hard to show them how writing and reading open a door to increased “steam and esteem.” She writes commendatory and sympathetic responses to these youngsters. As a result of her obvious love and effort, some remarkable writing comes from young people who never thought of themselves (before Mrs. K.) as writers or readers: “My yard is full of beauty—but the beast in me still hasn't come to mind,” writes one. Another student's reading ability jumped six and a half grades in one year.
To understand what goes into a book, a career such as this one, one must read the author's “Acknowledgments.” The teaching that emanates from Mary Mercer Krogness springs from a most notable collection of tutors, experiences, seminars, and workshops that pay off in students' successes. Krogness gives it all back to her students in the variety of writing, speaking, acting, reading, and assessing activities revealed in this book. A former student said her classes were “more of the DO than listening to the teacher talk.”
Just Teach Me, Mrs. K. is not theory, nor is it a mere collection of students' works. It is, rather, an account of the challenging hands-on combat in the school trenches—with measurable student success.
Published by Heinemann, 361 Hanover St., Portsmouth, NH 03801-3912. Price: $21.50.
—Reviewed by Jonathan Swift, School of Global Education, Stevenson High School, Livonia, Michigan.

The Restructuring Handbook

The Restructuring Handbook by Kathryn S. Whitaker and Monte C. Moses. Needham Heights, Mass., 1994.
The authors of this book make assumptions about the current state of education and what must be done to improve it: restructure schools. If one shares their views, this book is an invaluable resource because it is comprehensive, practical, well-organized, and clearly written.
After presenting the case for restructuring, the authors define the mission of the school; describe how to “professionalize” teachers; and discuss how to collaborate with parents, the community, businesses, universities, and social services. Other sections discuss leadership behaviors that will enhance restructuring, school culture and how it affects change, and strategies likely to affect key players.
A danger for those who attempt to restructure is losing sight of the true purpose for doing so. “Any change that occurs in schools,” the authors consistently stress, “must be focused on improving student growth and performance.” The section on using performance assessment to measure individual student growth is particularly strong because it demonstrates how to align curriculum, instruction, and assessment with the mission.
The authors demonstrate how easily leaders lose sight of their true purpose. When they asked a number of principals, “How do we know if we are making a difference?” the answers they heard seemed superficial. As a solution, the authors recommend performance assessment coupled with baseline data such as inventories, interviews, anecdotal records, and portfolios. Inclusion of samples of tools used to gather baseline data would have been helpful.
Some would argue that evaluating individual student performance in a restructured school is different from an overall evaluation of a school's restructuring efforts. I would like to hear the authors' thoughts on this; a safe prediction is that the public will soon demand it.
This book will be of great value to all practitioners who want to know about restructuring. It will also be beneficial for school board members, policymakers, community members, and as a resource in educational administration courses.
Published by Allyn & Bacon, 160 Gould St., Needham Heights, MA 02194. Price: $40.50.
—Reviewed by Leslie Abrutyn, Penn-Delco School District, Aston, Pennsylvania.

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

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