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Why Schools Fail        —Bruce Goldberg

Goldberg weighs in with a Libertarian Alfie Kohn view. He blasts reading and math practices, rips E. D. Hirsch. Goldberg emphasizes making schools more interesting for students. Implying that education is a choice between entertaining drivel and boring drivel, the author sides with entertaining drivel. Goldberg cites Gilda Radner’s autobiography as an example of what schools should emphasize. Radner’s autobiography may be a great celebrity bio, but if reading celebrity biographies is important, why spend so much money on schools? Judging from the shelves at public libraries, citizens spend plenty of free time reading celebrity bios. Limiting life to the habitually interesting, initially interesting or popularly interesting, reduces the purposefulness and fulfillment that comes from wholeheartedly attacking important challenges.


I am waiting for a book that emphasizes making important things fascinating rather than pretending the fascinating is important. A teacher is acting in more than a fiduciary role for a student’s current enjoyment. They are acting in a fiduciary role for their present character and their future character.


Social Programs That Work

The major education related essay in here argues for implementing Success for All, an elementary reading program. Several authors in Phi Delta Kappan argue that Success for All does not work as well as it should. It is not the best choice. It has poor curriculum materials, lacking a good plan for students in middle and high school, failing to build on early gains. It is billed as a complete literacy program, but it is a partial program. It works best when combined with other literacy programs. Overwrought and inflexible, it decreases student reading interest, though probably not for long.


Supporting research may have poor controls and may ignore other factors responsible for improvements. Even if the program itself is responsible for improvements, the gains are not large enough. Bigger changes are needed.


Success for All does have some good points, though, which include: Increased structure, more time spent reading, homogeneous grouping, increased tutoring, and regular assessment.


Some studies suggest the most important factor for  academic achievement is teacher quality. Other important factors include an emphasis on reading, good materials, and “curriculum alignment.”


Beyond the Classroom by L. Steinberg

Much of Beyond the Classroom makes nurture assumptions, failing to account for heredity and other factors. School reform should focus on the classroom. It is where the most gain for the effort comes. Trying to reform schools by fixing most of society is quixotic. In fact, focusing on the classroom would do more to improve society than the other way around. Includes unspecific, impractical, and unhelpful recommendations.


The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them by E.D. Hirsch, Junior

317p (H) 1996

Passionate polemicizing is Hirsch’s specialty. Unfortunately, his argument is weak. Hirsch denounces false dichotomies while promoting them. Some of this smacks of scientism—let the scientists decide what schools should be like. He uses reasoning against reasoning. Hirsch’s cultural education builds good Jeopardy contestants and bad character while

progressive education builds bad Jeopardy contestants and bad character.



Hirsch maintains that lots of cultural knowledge is crucial for future development and job success. I am skeptical. The economy is not based on Win Ben Stein’s Money. The vocational opportunities in the world of trivia are less than booming. If job success depends on trivial cultural knowledge—knowing that President William Taft was obese, for example—that knowledge is a zero-sum or negative sum game, knowing trivia only improves your position compared to someone else. Schools should not be in the business of pursuing success in zero-sum games. They should be in the business of increasing overall value.



Research on Educational Innovations by Arthur K. Ellis and Jeffrey T. Fouts

(H) 1997

The authors offer a general overview of whole language learning, brain research, learning styles, effective schools movement, outcomes based education, mastery learning, cooperative learning, thinking skills programs, and interdisciplinary curriculum. Concise and helpful for learning a little about educational theories and jargon, even if the research stinks.


Safe Schools, Safe Students: A Guide to Violence Prevention Strategies by Drug Strategies

1998 (H) 56p  

Rates 84 violence prevention programs. Ten were rated A. Covers school policies and environmental factors within schools. Not surprisingly, programs emphasizing scare tactics and self-esteem fail.  Recommended.


Making the Grade: A Guide to School Drug Prevention Programs by Drug Strategies

Evaluates 50 drug prevention curricula. Normative education is important. This contains some nurture assumptions. Worth browsing.


How to Succeed in School without Really Learning: The Credentials Race In American Education by David F. Labaree

As someone once said (Don’t ask me who. My memory stinks.), education interest groups have one of two positions: Indifference or holy war. This book will probably produce similar reactions. Worth browsing.

323p (H) 1997


The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons from a Small School in Harlem by Deborah Meier

190p (H) 1995

Smaller schools and a call for more neoprogressive education dominate the arguments offered by Deborah Meier. Power of Their Ideas is almost entirely anecdotal. The successes are probably a tribute to the energy and creativity of the author rather than breakthrough methods. Mere mortals will have trouble replicating her successes. Some research out there, however, suggests smaller schools are more beneficial.


The author argues for more practical schooling—especially practical math, but then boasts, “I once figured out that there are more jobs in New York City for people with advanced musical or artistic skills than for those with advanced calculus." Art and music may have greater utilities of various types than calculus, but one of them is not career utility. The underemployment rate for artists and musicians is probably well over 90 percent, while the underemployment rate for those in careers that require advanced calculus is probably less than 20 percent.


The author also thinks advanced musical and artistic classes lead to greater habits of citizenship than calculus. The Hollywood culture indicates otherwise. Unless the author takes citizenship to mean token, publicity stunts or marketing nihilism or relentlessly distracting individuals. The edifying claims of artistes are grossly exaggerated. Designing a pump for a water treatment plants wouldn't be considered an act of citizenship, but designing one more piece of postmodern detritus sure would. Even individuals such as Aaron Spelling think they are entertainment “altruists.” Spelling believes his television shows reduce the national suicide rate. Life, of course, would be unbearable without Beverly Hills 90210.


Standards for Our Schools by Judy Codding and Marc Tucker

This work argues that we should replace shopping mall schools with Bob’s Algebra, Protractor, and Compass Incorporated (Okay, straw person). After seeing the arguments out there, students need statistics and probability much more than algebra. High, wrong standards are little improvement over low, wrong standards, not to mention the importance of proper enforcement. And what is the primary reason for having higher standards? According to the authors, to improve percentile comparisons. Bzzzz. Try again.


The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education by Harold W. Stevenson and James W. Stigler

Tries to dispel myths about education at the two Asian powers. This is heresy, but Chinese and Japanese schools stink even worse, especially Chinese schools in the moral education department.


Greater Expectations by William Damon

Damon argues for higher standards because challenges are needed for the development of humans. Children should enjoy striving and not be protected from ideas. This work needs stronger recommendations and less education jargon. Damon’s standards are neither high enough nor good enough. Not recommended.


Annual Editions Education by Fred Schultz, editor

(H) latest edition

A digest of popular media articles on education. Worth skimming.


Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the United States by Gerald W. Bracey 215p  (H) 1997

When the author says responses, he is not joking. This work is a giant argument stopper in a condescending Simon says format.

If you’re looking for rhetoric to bludgeon with, this is the book. It is not effective at demythologizing. The moral reasoning is horrid: Simon says two plus two is five. Simon says some issues can’t be reasoned about because they’re value issues. All together now: Not recommended.

215pp.  (H)  1997


Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto

A globular cluster of forgone conclusions with page numbers thrown in to add variety. Schools, community, passivity, unintended lessons, and the badness of school bells are covered here. Not recommended.

1992 (H) 104p


Book review articles by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 24, 2009


My Main Page with Links to My Other Book Reviews