For great teaching and against reform

September 22, 2002|By MIKE BOWLER | MIKE BOWLER,Sun Staff

Against School Reform (And in Praise of Great Teaching), by Peter S. Temes. Ivan R. Dee. 220 pages. $22.95.

The architects of Peter S. Temes' model school are Plato and his martyred teacher, Socrates. Education, in Temes' ideal world, is "experienced by teachers and students." The teacher is "midwife of the student's ideas" -- Plato's words -- and curriculum is built around one-on-one dialogue between teacher and student. Picture the two strolling, lost in thought as they exchange ideas.

There's more. Teachers are respected and well-paid. Decisions are made from the bottom up, not the reverse. Teachers experiment, knowing that most experiments fail, but knowing also that those that succeed provide valuable insight and knowledge.

And more. Education colleges "replace large lecture halls, abstract research and multiple-choice exams with high expectations and individual attention for education majors." Teachers, following the example of physicians, begin their careers after a long apprenticeship, a process that weeds out the duds.

It's a wonderful, commodious school world envisioned by Temes. But alas, Plato and Socrates never met the No Child Left Behind Act, never took their show to a 21st-century public school. No Child Left Behind requires yearly testing in grades three through eight. Schools and teachers are judged on the basis of test scores "disaggregated" by race and economic status so as not to leave minorities and the poor behind.

Liberals love this aspect of the new legislation, while conservatives praise its back-to-basics message (and the fact that it doesn't lower standards to accommodate minorities). Bipartisan support assures that massive efforts to fix schools from the top down will prevail for years. Given this reality, Against School Reform (And in Praise of Great Teaching) is a pebble tossed at a Great Wall of endless testing, regimentation and large-scale reform.

Not that it's a waste of Temes' -- or readers' -- time. The book is inspiring and beautifully written, as befits the president of the Great Books Foundation. Temes is reminiscent of the progressive thinkers of the late 1960s and early 1970s, authors like Herbert Kohl and Ivan Illich who railed against closed-mindedness and regimentation.

Temes does find contemporary examples of his model, even in the inner cities. There's the flexible scheduling of David Curd's Arizona-based Institute for Humanities and Sciences, where students spend hours each day in one-on-one discussion with teachers. There's that lighthouse of progressive thinking, the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, which develops "potentialities in human beings."

Temes holds up his own alma mater, the aptly named John Dewey High School in New York, as an example of a place where teachers and students are "part of a great experiment": longer school days, more elective courses, no competitive sports, less competitive grading, less emphasis on testing. But Temes writes sadly that Dewey could not survive the New York City school bureaucracy. It "failed to move beyond the culture of experiment."

For readers who want to survey the landscape of American school reform, Temes offers a concluding "suggested reading list" ranging from Horace Mann in 1838 to Diane Ravitch and Alfie Kohn in 2000. Many of these authors have had great ideas but little practical effect. Sadly, Temes is likely to be on that list.

Mike Bowler writes the Education Beat column and reports on education for The Sun. He has been a high school teacher, editorial writer, opposite-editorial page editor and reporter since 1965.

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