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

The Argument

Amid a plethora of books, some consensus arises --and it is not cheerful


February 23, 2003|By John E. McIntyre | John E. McIntyre,Sun Staff

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."

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