Excellence in Peril


Joined October 2018

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This is a wonderful book. The author is a parent of school-age children as well as a political science professor at the University of Missouri. The book is based his own experience battling for academic excellence in the face of opposition from authorities in suburban school districts outside St. Louis. Interwoven with Rochester’s narrative of his personal experience is a readily understandable analysis of the main problems with America’s schools.

This is reliable work, grounded in thorough familiarity with research findings. As a academic researcher on educational policy, I can certify that this is an outstanding introduction to what is known about solid curriculum and effective teaching practices. The author doesn’t let footnotes clutter up or interrupt his story, but he has notes at the back of the book that provide interested readers with research references, sources of quotations, and suggestions for further reading.

As a parent activist and fellow participant with Rochester (although I don’t know him personally) in the wars of the past decade over reading, math, science, and testing, I can testify that this book conveys vividly what it is like to be part of those struggles. I have given this book to friends who are not involved in school controversies, telling them that the author’s experience is quite similar to my own.

Rochester is a talented raconteur in telling how time and again he would bring solid research (for example, on reading) to the attention of school officials. This research in the case of reading would be done by professors of psychology or linguistics at the most prestigious research universities in the country, often sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. It would be backed by a consensus of their colleagues at other top universities. But the school officials would dismiss this serious research in favor of anecdotes gathered in a much less rigorous way by professors in schools of education.

He has a similar story in which a local policymaker dismisses the chairs of the math departments of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Cal Tech, the University of Chicago, and the University of Rochester as part of the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Indeed, one of the amazing features of kindergarten-through-high-school education is what E.D. Hirsch calls its “thought world” and the tendency of practitioners to circle the wagons in defense of that thought-world. Rochester provides example after example of that close-minded thought-world’s capacity to dismiss or ignore. Rochester is entirely correct to use the phrases “pack pedagogy” and “closed community” to refer to American K-12 education.

Rochester reports on the attacks on grades, homework, and standardized testing. He tells how the important idea that “all children can learn” has been perverted into the idea that “all children are gifted,” with the consequence that programs for the gifted are abolished or watered-down. He explains how Howard Gardner’s seductive notion of “multiple intelligences” has led to multiple excuses for not learning. He tells how self-esteem psychobabble and the therapeutic classroom have diminished personal responsibility and reduced the concentration of teachers on sharpening students’ intellects and helping them acquire knowledge. He points out that “co-operative learning” pitches learning to the least common denominator or ask homework assignment, and asks children to teach children, and gives slower or less hard-working students a grade based on the work of faster, harder-working students.

The most powerful theme in the book is Rochester’s belief that we should be aiming at “improving each individual child’s performance,” rather than focusing solely on groups of students (whether defined by race, language, income, or in some other way). He thinks that focusing on boosting groups instead of boosting individual achievement has given impetus and plausibility to the counterproductive fads of recent decades.

Two of the strongest chapters in the book are the ones on the curriculum and on teaching practices. Rochester talks about the “there are no correct answers” movement and its offspring, such as invented spelling and fuzzy math. Related to these is “whole language,” a flawed approach to teaching reading. “Whole language” calls on students to memorize whole words and to guess at words based on contextual clues rather than students learning how to decode written words using phonics.

Underpinning these classroom practices is the idea that students need to discover things on their own rather than have teachers impart knowledge to them through explicit instruction. Discovery-learning and student-constructed knowledge are conventional wisdom in schools of education, where almost all teachers are trained. These anti-rigorous notions are reinforced by multicultural doctrines which disparage logic and evidence as arbitrary requirements of European conquerors rather than seeing logical thinking as a universal imperative demanded by reality.

Rochester concludes the book by saying that there is a potential middle ground: traditional education (solid content, drill and practice, teacher-led classrooms) modified by some of the defensible ideas of progressive education (emphasis on motivation, critical thinking, some projects, some field trips). But he is realistic in saying that this basics-plus compromise may be difficult to achieve in practice. He then points out that homeschooling, charters, and vouchers allow both progressives and traditionalists to get what they want for their own children.

Despite my strong endorsement of Class Warfare, I do have some disagreements about emphasis and some quibbles. As to emphasis, I wish that Rochester had used his skills as a political scientist to discuss the political impediments to school reform at greater length. But that would have made Class Warfare a different book, and the book he has written is certainly good, as is. Fortunately, if we need political analysis, we already have Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe.

Here are the quibbles:

—Rochester says that standardized tests are called “standardized” because they assume “a clear standard all students must meet.” But, in truth, these tests are called “standardized” because they are administered and graded under “standardized” conditions.

—Rochester says that Mao Tse-tung’s 1957 phrase “let one hundred flowers bloom, let one hundred schools of thought contend” refers to the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. But in actuality, Mao’s phrase launched the Hundred Flowers Campaign of the late 1950s, which began as intellectual liberalization but ended in coercive repression.

—Rochester is a political liberal; this reviewer is a libertarian-conservative. I am perhaps more sensitive than Rochester to exactness in the use of the terms “libertarian” and “laissez-faire.” In one case, Rochester correctly says that libertarians are fearful of governmental impositions. Libertarians may like the idea of rigorous testing but are fearful of governments putting in place the wrong standards. Here Rochester is using the word “libertarian” correctly.

But several other times, he uses “libertarian” and “laissez-faire” to refer to progressive education or attitudes that might support it. Yet this is misleading. Many of the most thorough-going libertarians of the last century (H. L. Mencken, Isabel Patterson, Frank Chodorov, and Murray Rothbard) explicitly attacked progressive education. On the other hand, John Dewey, America’s leading proponent of progressive education, was a socialist. It is best not to confuse or equate the two realms of politics and pedagogy. They are separate and have no necessary connection.

—Rochester says that Columbine High School, where two students murdered fellow students in 1999, is administered by the Littleton Public School District. He points out that the Littleton district had, according to the Wall Street Journal, been run by educational “faddists.” But Columbine High is, in fact, part of the Jefferson County Public Schools system, a different district.

—Rochester cites a dean of a school of engineering who quotes Isaac Newton as saying there is “no royal road” to learning geometry. But the phrase is much older than Newton, who lived from 1642-1727. According to Proctus Diadochus, the Pharaoh Ptolemy once asked Euclid (who lived from about 325 BC until 265 BC) whether there was any shorter way to a knowledge of geometry than by study of the Elements, whereupon Euclid answered that there was no royal road to geometry.

Despite these few minor lapses, overall Rochester has written an excellent book.

Because of Class Warfare’s incisive analysis of school issues, I will put my copy of the book on the shelf next to Diane Ravitch’s Left Back and E.D. Hirsch Jr.‘s The Schools We Need. I will put Class Warfare on a shelf near the Thomas B. Foundation’s booklet (written by Chaira R. Nappi) on the Princeton charter school story because like that booklet, Class Warfare gives readers the sense and feel of the school reform struggle. Rochester’s book is a new classic in the literature of school reform.

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