The Magazine

School Wars

The two sides of the education debate.

Sep 13, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 01 • By JUSTIN TORRES
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Common Sense School Reform

by Frederick M. Hess

Palgrave Macmillan, 272 pp., $26.95

Class and Schools

Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap

by Richard Rothstein

Economic Policy Institute, 210 pp., $17.95

SEASONS COME AND SEASONS GO, but the education mess endures. Of the nation's fourth- and eighth-grade public-school students, only a third are "proficient" in reading or math, as defined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (Math scores have been on a slight but unmistakable upswing since 1990, but reading scores have remained stubbornly flat.)

And the achievement gap between poor and minority students on the one hand, and their white, wealthier fellows on the other, remains appallingly wide and seemingly impervious to efforts to narrow it. The average African-American twelfth-grade student, for example, reads at an eighth-grade level.

With the education mess come the education wars, which also have a life of their own. On one side are the vast majority of educators, administrators, and education specialists. They all come out of the progressive tradition of John Dewey, and they explain the present system's shortcomings as largely the result of inadequate funding and a reflection of the larger society's inequities. On the other side are education reformers of a traditionalist bent, who would remake the system with school-choice schemes, or reforms designed to wring efficiencies out of the vast bureaucratic wasteland that is public education. The battle has been going for two decades, with traditionalists making halting gains but no real victory in sight.

Two recent books, Frederick Hess's Common Sense School Reform and Richard Rothstein's Class and Schools, are new skirmishes in this war. Both books attempt to get at the root of our education problems. Rather than dealing with particular issues (Is teacher tenure good? What do we think about high-stakes testing?), Hess and Rothstein both present top-to-bottom reform packages--and the fact that they are in many ways diametrically opposed shows just how entrenched the two sides of the education wars are.

COMMON SENSE SCHOOL REFORM is uncompromising. Hess, an education-policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, takes direct aim at gauzy notions and sentiments that divert us from enacting needed reforms. Many will find shocking his direct attack on the idea that teachers are doing all they can to improve student achievement. Bunk, he says. In fact, while many teachers are working as hard as they can, many aren't.

Many are themselves so poorly educated they aren't up to the task of raising student achievement. And those who are up to the task still need external incentives--performance measures, bonuses for improved performance, and penalties for falling short--that Americans take for granted in other professions. "Educators, for better or worse, are a lot like everybody else," Hess writes. "Some educators are passionately committed to their craft, highly skilled, and will be so regardless of rewards or guidance, but most--like most engineers and attorneys and journalists and doctors--will be more effective when held accountable for performance."

Common Sense School Reform is shot through with hard-nosed realism. Unlike some proponents of high standards and increased accountability, Hess admits that such measures can have the unfortunate effect of narrowing the curriculum and limiting the additional touches--a focus on science or the arts, say--that can help distinguish schools and provide the personalizing touches that parents crave. (There is already some evidence that the No Child Left Behind Act, with its relentless focus on reading and math and, eventually, science, is crowding out art, history, and foreign-language classes.)

For Hess, the answer to this curricular narrowing is school choice, designed to allow parents to choose a tailored curriculum that operates in a larger framework of high standards and accountability. Choice will also help to spur school improvement by rewarding innovators who can deliver educational success--if choice rewards popular schools with additional resources and punishes persistently low-achieving schools with closure or reconstitution. (The second half of Hess's formulation, closing down schools that lose students in a competitive marketplace, has not yet been tried in any of the voucher programs presently in operation.)