The plight of U.S. education: Read all about it -- and weep

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Examining two dozen books on education -- charter schools, teacher unions, vouchers, curriculum -- I fell prey to a disturbing thought: If the people educating the nation's children all write like this, then it is time to tremble for the future of the Republic. An equally disturbing thought followed quickly: Apparently, like everyone else who holds forth on the subject, I was drawing from these books confirmation of views I held going in. Here, up front, they are:

* America doesn't spend enough on education. Well-off parents in the Baltimore area spend $15,000 a year and more on private schools with class sizes under 20, current textbooks, ample computer and science equipment, elaborate music and drama programs. Per-pupil expenditures for public schools can run a third or quarter of that.

* Public schools are mismanaged, top-heavy with administrators and laden with teachers of dubious competence. (Get a teacher to talk privately, and you can expect an anthology of horror stories.)

* Voucher programs and charter school plans can be mechanisms to help middle-class families get something approaching the education available to well-off children. Most poorer families are still going to be left behind.

* Family circumstances, including cultural values and parental involvement, can count for more than any other element in a child's education.

Easy to opine, difficult to demonstrate. Let's look at the literature.

For the reader seeking simplistic explanations, $24.95 is cheap for The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education by Peter Brimelow (HarperCollins, 336 pages), which is even more tendentious than the title suggests. Brimelow heaves and sweats over the proposition that teacher unions, a sinister manifestation of socialism and "government schools," are at the root of nearly every evil in public schools and American society. He is horrified to discover that unions act to protect the interests of their members(!), that teacher unions shelter incompetents and miscreants of every stripe.

How law, medicine and the church protect incompetents without the benefit of unions is a subject he does not enter into.

The reader interested in a more intelligent and balanced account of how we got where we are today would do well to look into Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools by Jonathan Zimmerman (Harvard University Press, 320 pages, $29.95).

Public schools have always been a battleground for social issues, and Zimmerman provides an illuminating historical perspective. The pressure for ethnic diversity in the curriculum, he points out, began among citizens of Irish and German descent decades ago, and the inclusion of blacks, women and other underrepresented groups in history texts has been a simple process of addition. The curriculum is acceptable so long as the story it tells is that America has always been a place of liberty and opportunity; heroes can be fitted into the narrative without clamor. When texts veer into inequality and outright oppression, the clamor rises. This is the short explanation of why school history texts are so vapid.

But Zimmerman's most interesting argument is that while ethnic diversity has been accommodated in the curriculum, religious diversity has not, largely because secular and religious cultural views have permitted no compromise. To exclude divisive religious material from the curriculum offends believers -- it takes God out. To include explicit religious teaching makes the state the agent of one or more sects. To confect some flabby, generic, nondenominational instruction offends everyone.

Reporters following Nelson Rockefeller through New York state in his gubernatorial campaigns got so tired of quoting his references to "the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God" that they created the acronym BOMFOG. There is little or no appeal for BOMFOG in the schools.

The challenge of teaching about different religious and cultural values in the schools, values that polarize, remains to be addressed satisfactorily. There are very few signs of willingness to seek accommodation.

Surely part of the difficulty lies in society's preference for indoctrination over education. As Zimmerman says, the "institutional culture" of schools is an environment in which "an overarching emphasis on 'control' and 'classroom management' quashes inquiry and investigation."

That is the situation addressed by The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and Tougher Standards by Alfie Kohn (Houghton Mifflin, 344 pages, $24). Kohn is deeply skeptical about the "back to basics" emphasis on rote learning and traditional techniques of classroom motivation (grades, standardized tests, academic competitions and more). His book is an updated version of the progressive gospel of stimulating the child's curiosity and encouraging the child to think independently. Of course, many parents are not keen on independent thought from their children, and the kind of individual attention that this form of teaching requires is expensive to underwrite.

One promising approach can be found in the charter school movement, in which public school systems divert funds to autonomous or semi-autonomous schools. Anyone trying to sort through the swelling literature cranked out by this movement might want to pick up Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education by Chester E. Finn Jr., Bruno V. Manno and Gregg Vanourek (Princeton University Press, 304 pages, $45 hardcover, $18.95 paperback).

This is a sober and balanced assessment of what charter schools have set out to do and how they have done. The authors do not shy away from difficult issues: inadequate funding, spotty accountability, inability to deal effectively with disabled children, potential for discrimination on the basis of religion. On balance, they find, charter schools are stimulating innovation in educational techniques, influencing school systems and increasing parental involvement.

There, with the parents, is the pivot, as displayed in the interesting All Else Equal: Are Public and Private Schools Different? by Luis Benveniste, Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein (RoutledgeFalmer, 206 pages, $19.95). The authors made a study of 16 public and private elementary and middle schools in California. Here is what they discovered about parental involvement: "In low-income schools, public and private, teachers and administrators complained of the lack of parental involvement. Both public and private schoolteachers in these low-income communities felt challenged to involve parents even in a minimal way in their children's education (e.g., by supervising homework or attending school meetings). And in no sense did we observe either public or private schools in low-income communities acting as though they were 'accountable' to parents. But an opposite phenomenon characterized both public and private schools in very affluent communities; here, staff in both types of schools complained of too much parental involvement, including interference in the daily curriculum and inappropriate challenges to school goals."

There it is. In education, we get what we pay for. Sometimes it's what we ask for, sometimes what we deserve.

John McIntyre, The Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk, has taught copy editing at Loyola College since 1995. He attended public schools in Fleming County, Ky., and holds degrees in English from Michigan State University and Syracuse University. He and his wife, Kathleen Capcara, taught their children, Alice and John Paul, at home until age 8, when they entered a cooperative school in which parents were teachers. John Paul, who later graduated from the Park School, is a student at St. John's Annapolis. Alice, who graduated from Roland Park Country School, is studying classics at Swarthmore.

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