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Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do
Lawrence Steinberg, with B. Bradford Brown and Sanford M. Dornbusch
Simon and Schuster, $12 (paper)

Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children to Thrive in a Changing Economy
Richard M. Murnane and Frank Levy
Free Press, $24

by Allen Graubard

Lawrence Steinberg's Beyond the Classroom and Richard Murnane and Frank Levy's Teaching the New Basic Skills are characteristic of the recent `what-to-do-about-the-crisis-in-the-schools' genre of books about American education. Both have commercial publishers, received some general media attention, and are written by academics whose approaches to education derive from their professional fields (Steinberg is a psychologist, Murnane and Levy economists). As is customary in this genre, the two books depict a profound crisis in the national public school system, present a confident picture of what is wrong, and offer a neat plan for what "we," "the American people" need to do to make things right. Though they differ in their specific analyses and recommendations, these books also share a key assumption: that schools are to be examined exclusively in functional terms, as institutions intended to turn out useful products for the successful maintenance of the current social and economic system. Where the authors are concerned that the schools aren't "succeeding," their concern is restricted to whether students are acquiring skills and knowledge that will enable them to contribute usefully to the economy. For the students themselves, educational success is measured by their ability to compete for more desirable jobs.

Beyond the Classroom draws on a three-year survey study of 20,000 high-school students at nine schools in Wisconsin and northern California. Steinberg marshalls data from this study in support of his proposal to turn the educational system around by providing more effective incentives for student performance. His survey results are unsurprising: he finds that most high school students do not feel "engaged" in their school work, don't find that school awakens an authentic quest for learning, and are unmotivated by their schools' and parents' incentives; he notes, too, that Asian students as a group are more committed to their school work and score better on exams. Having taught in a wide range of high schools over the past ten years, I could have told him this much without recourse to an expensive survey.

Steinberg's proposal is founded as well on a series of entirely familiar, utterly undefended, and profoundly misleading assertions: horrendous school performance, steadily declining student achievement (even leaving out poor communities, which Steinberg excluded from his survey), and a massive deep reform of schools during the recent decades of decline. For example, Steinberg asserts--without qualification and virtually without evidence--that public schools are now failing miserably. "Across the country," he writes, "whether surrounded by student affluence or urban poverty, students' commitment to school is at an all-time low." An all-time low? In the early decades of the century, less than 15 percent of the relevant population was in high school, and the great majority of students had dropped out. Were young people then really more committed to school than the current lot?

Steinberg goes on to say that "two decades ago, a teacher in an average high school in this country could expect to have three or four `difficult' students in a class of thirty. Today, teachers in these same schools are expected to teach to classrooms in which nearly half of the students have "checked out,'' Again, he provides no supporting data or even anecdotal evidence. This picture of disastrously declining public schools has been presented, with variations, for at least 15 years, since the Reagan-appointed Commission for Educational Excellence's 1983 report A Nation at Risk. It has, by now, been pretty thoroughly discredited (see for example the recent collection of data in David Berliner and Bruce Biddle's The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools). Even researchers critical of "revisionist" assertions about public school success agree that claims of serious decline are seriously mistaken. Steinberg shows no awareness of this debate. Furthermore, he assumes that because education policy makers, commentators, and politicians at the state and national levels have been using the term "school reform movement" and announcing major governmental initiatives on transforming education, there must have been widespread, serious changes in high schools and their methods over the past fifteen years. But again, there's no evidence.

In Steinberg's view, schools are failing, reform efforts haven't helped, and students are generally unmotivated. Moreover, he thinks it is too much to ask that schools become the kind of learning communities that authentically engage students' energies, interests, and commitment. So his only proposal to improve students' skills and assure American economic productivity is to motivate students to do their school chores by making credible threats of unpleasant consequences. The argument goes something like this: Adults know what students need to be competitive and competent workers, schools have curricula to provide such skills, and teachers are at least basically competent to deliver those curricula. If parents and businesses would only do their part and put enough pressure on students to do what their teachers tell them to do, American education would be a great success. No wonder the late Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised this book in his syndicated column. He approved warmly of an analysis that found nothing wrong with schools, curricula, or teachers and placed responsibility instead on parents and students' own attitudes. The rest of us, however, will need to look elsewhere for guidance.

Teaching the New Basic Skills is considerably more useful, as Murnane and Levy focus their suggestions for reform on the organization of schools as learning institutions. In their view, the task for schools is to provide an appropriately trained work force; smart companies and their proven processes of change provide models for good schools and how to get them. Murnane and Levy endorse the widely accepted idea that the economy now demands "new basic skills": a combination of "hard skills" (basic mathematics, problem-solving and reading "at levels much higher than many graduates now attain") and "soft skills" (ability to work in groups and make effective oral and written presentations, supplemented by basic computer literacy). Given these assumptions, the authors do not have to make exaggerated claims about an awful decline in school performance to ground their critical judgment of current school performance. That schools in the past didn't effectively teach the "new basics" is easily admitted. The authors' point is that failing to provide youth with such skills didn't matter much when the economy was less demanding.

To make the case that education could imitate effective reforms in model companies, the authors tell edifying and rather idealized stories of school-reform projects that did engage students in practical real-life learning situations, leading to effective mastery of the "new basics." Nearly all of their examples are in the realm of "school-to-work" projects: programs that provide the kind of integration between academic and vocational learning that, in a different format, was at the core of John Dewey's progressive education vision.

Now it would probably be a good thing if more high school teachers and programs exemplified the concern for real-world skills and contextualized learning situations that connect to the lives and concerns of students. But altering the complex web of structures and incentives that keep high schools from changing, except in "model" situations, will require more than warnings about how many students will not be able to compete for the more desirable jobs in the new "information" economy. For one thing, it is pretty clear that the upper academic half does reach acceptable competence in the new basics. So it is mainly poor, often minority youth who need this new "vocational" track; middle-class suburban youth, preparing for college through the traditional collection of courses (with the elite doing "advanced placement"), will not be much affected. Moreover, evidence of the growing demand for skills is not so clear. As economist Bennett Harrison suggests in a recent Technology Review, new technologies are not necessarily skill-demanding.1

Similarly, it would be good if the "forgotten half" could achieve the "new basics" at an effective level that would give these "disadvantaged" students a fairer shot at competing for the better-paid jobs. But the authors don't look realistically at the implications of their functionalist approach to evaluating school success. In functionalist terms, a school system can be successful even if a large number of young people do not reach ideal skill goals: what is necessary is that schools produce sufficiently many competent workers. Indeed, it may be functionally desirable not to produce more highly-skilled students than the labor market can accommodate. It may be politically unacceptable to state these points openly, but they are unavoidable implications of the authors' functionalist framework.

These brief observations point to the key deficiency common to both Teaching the New Basic Skills and Beyond the Classroom: they suppose that the point of schooling is primarily to ensure the trained workforce required for a well-functioning economy. While this argument may have considerable power when defending school budgets in state legislatures, it represses the values central to the old progressive-humanistic strand of educational critique and school-reform vision. That conception focused on the meaning of the learning experience to individuals as moral, thinking, feeling, maturing agents. And in the 1960s, when educational reform was widely debated in terms of values, it inspired a critique of schools as authoritarian, intellectually constricting, and lacking in respect for the individuality and intellectual curiosity of young people. Such books as A. S. Neill's best-selling Summerhill, with its libertarian idealization of the most extreme "free school" setting, encouraged teachers, parents, and students to imagine school settings radically different from the status quo and to implement reforms aimed at creating democratic school communities that would respect and support the autonomy and complexity of young people.

Such ideas are still percolating around, even if these days they are more common inside schools than in books about how to reform them. As the pragmatist John Dewey would insist, just such an idealistic vision is needed to ensure that schools become effective at educating all kids--educating them, that is, for more than just a role in the new global work force. Books like Teaching the New Basic Skills and Beyond the Classroom, so sadly self-limited by their assumed framework, systematically ignore the potential within teachers, parents, and students to reach for these visions.

1 Harrison, "Don't Blame Technology This Time," Technology Review (July 1997), pp. 62.

Originally published in the February/ March 1998 issue of Boston Review

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