Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 8


Becoming Good American Schools

Becoming Good American Schools: The Struggle for Civic Virtue in Education Reform by Jeannie Oakes, Karen Hunter Quartz, Steve Ryan, and Martin Lipton. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
Becoming Good American Schools addresses the civic soul of education reform. Prescriptions, hierarchy, mandates, top-down sanctions, and compliance characterize what the authors call the "reform mill." This machinery, they say, may raise test scores, but does not lead to better schools. The authors draw their conclusions from longitudinal comparative case-study research of 16 middle schools in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Texas, and Vermont. They discovered heroic efforts by teachers and administrators to create schools that are "educative, socially just, caring, and participatory," despite the pressure of heavy-handed, authoritarian, state-imposed reforms.
"Betterment requires that policymakers and educators quit asking how the gears and pulleys of reform can be greased, and start asking how each school's reform effort reflects what John Adams called the 'positive passion for the public good,'" say the authors. One school attacked racial issues head-on and detracked the instructional program. Another school tried to build closer connections among educators, children, parents, and neighbors through providing for student health and social needs. Yet another school offered models of democratic decision making and citizenship so that students could work through difficult problems collectively.
Such civic models—characterized by child-centered, cooperative, and interdisciplinary learning and by deep engagement in thematic-based curriculum—often run counter to a standards-based, reform-mill model. Such models originate at the high echelons of government and have little relationship to the habits, beliefs, and traditions of people at the local level. The authors found that cultural shifts in reform are more likely to occur through a process that allows the community to make democratic decisions about the common good than through a centralized one-size-fits-all mentality of standards and testing. The authors observe that the reform mill solicits the public buy-in, but that the top-down process squelches consideration of what constitutes a good school and fails to incorporate community beliefs into the working definition of public education.
Becoming Good American Schools presents an impassioned argument for respecting individual school communities, which, the authors claim, will be undermined by the current standards movement. If reform efforts do not address local concerns, the standards movement that is based on technical abstractions and rationale will not succeed. This book inspires those of us who care about the survival of public education as a major democratic institution.
Published by Jossey-Bass, 350 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104. Price: $ 28.95.
—Reviewed by Arnold F. Fege, Public Advocacy for Kids, Annandale, Virginia.

The Elements of Learning

The Elements of Learning by James M. Banner Jr. and Harold C. Cannon. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.
Many books advise teachers on how to foster learning in schools. Banner and Cannon address their book to the other (and often ignored) half of the learning equation: students. Targeting high school juniors and seniors and college freshmen and sophomores, the authors build a case for becoming "a student in the fullest sense of the term" (p. 179).
A student exhibits eleven characteristics, according to Banner and Cannon: industry, enthusiasm, pleasure, curiosity, aspiration, imagination, self-discipline, civility, cooperation, honesty, and initiative. A student understands that the consequences of seizing or missing opportunities to learn are lifelong and that knowledge seeking enhances one's life. The authors present a cogent, and conventional, argument for the value of learning and the power of a liberal arts education. For example, doing assignments is about learning, not grades; the effort a student puts into learning, not the knowledge gained, translates into a high quality of life.
This book counters the forces of disengaged peer cultures and a seemingly anti-intellectual popular media. High school teachers, parents, college professors, and school counselors may find this book to be a helpful advocate when explaining the value of education to young adults. If only we could get students to read the book.
Published by Yale University Press, P.O. Box 209040, New Haven, CT 06520-9040. Price: $18.50.
—Reviewed by Terence A. Beck, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Washington

The Pocket Mentor

The Pocket Mentor: A Handbook for Teachers. Chris A. Niebrand, Elizabeth L. Horn, and Ronina F. Holmes. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1999.
Most educators agree that teaching is a lonely profession with heavy demands: good management skills; in-depth content knowledge; a repertoire of teaching strategies; the ability to communicate effectively with students, parents, administrators, and community members; and the ability to match content and teaching strategies with the learning styles and abilities of students. Today's education climate also demands high test scores to document the effectiveness of a teacher's practice. In this isolated environment, where can a teacher turn for guidance to cope with the multitude of issues and ongoing responsibilities that make each day a new experience? I suggest that The Pocket Mentor: A Handbook for Teachers be "in the pocket" of every teacher because this slim volume contains the guidance that both new and experienced teachers need.
The book answers questions as simple as "How should I dress for the job?" to those as complex as "How do I develop and implement an effective curriculum?" The authors deal with the difficult issues of legal obligations, liabilities, safety, and working effectively with administrators, ancillary school personnel, and families—issues that teachers might find difficult to discuss with colleagues or to obtain instant advice about when a crisis arises.
The book's conversational style offers well-organized, concise advice and suggestions. The authors' central theme is that teachers grow from mentoring others as well as from being mentored. When teachers help one another, the profession is strengthened and students' educational experiences are enriched.
Published by Allyn & Bacon, 160 Gould St., Needham Heights, MA 02494. Price: $26.50.
—Reviewed by Joyce McLeod, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.

Standardized Minds

Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It by Peter Sacks. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1999.
Peter Sacks wants high-stakes testing eliminated; in this book, he presents a persuasive and well-researched case for why the continued misuse of standardized testing is seriously harming education in the United States.
Sacks acknowledges the convenience of using standardized tests to measure large numbers of students and believes that such tests can be valuable diagnostic tools in evaluating some types of student learning. However, standardized tests fail when put in a high-stakes context. Sacks argues that other forms of assessment do a better job of evaluating student performance.
Sacks has done his homework. He has read the technical reports evaluating the reliability and the validity of tests. He, therefore, skeptically views manifestos such as A Nation at Risk and Goals 2000, arguing that these studies widely condemn the failings of U.S. schools but provide weak evidence of the validity of using high-stakes tests to raise academic standards.
To demonstrate how high-stakes tests undermine quality education for most of our students, the author selects compelling case studies from around the nation. Receiving low scores the six times she took the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) shattered the self-esteem and college aspirations of a high-achieving Latina student. A master teacher in North Carolina told the state board of education, "Our best teachers receive the message, 'I am not deemed capable of making professional judgments about my students.' Consequently, they either seek other jobs or devote some of their potentially creative time to rote test preparation."
  • High-stakes standardized tests evaluate limited areas of ability and achievement, rewarding speed and surface learning at the expense of more reflective reasoning.
  • They have a disproportionately negative impact on students from low-income backgrounds.
  • The tests depress teacher creativity and encourage "teaching to the test."
  • The tests are poor predictors of student success later in life.
The book would be improved if the author included more public school examples of alternative assessments that work. Instead, he describes colleges that have successfully forsaken or minimized the use of SATs to evaluate admissions. Nonetheless, Sacks's central point is hard to refute: Striving for high standards in U.S. education should not mean creating standardized minds.
Published by Perseus Books, 10 E. 53rd St., New York, NY 10022. Price: $26.00.
—Reviewed by Alan Stoskopf, Facing History and Ourselves, Brookline, Massachusetts

The Failed Promise of the American High School, 1890–1995

The Failed Promise of the American High School, 1890–1995 by David L. Angus and Jeffrey E. Mirel. New York: Teachers College Press, 1999.
By examining national debates about curriculum and analyzing course-taking trends of public high school students, the authors present a history of the U.S. high school and offer a new interpretation of the role of high schools in providing equal educational opportunity. Angus and Mirel argue that despite educators' claims that they were building "democracy's high school," those institutions were deeply undemocratic, affording opportunities for the success of only a small percentage of students: "Moreover, because educators increasingly sorted students along class, racial, and gender lines, the differentiated curriculum served to exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepest divisions in American society" (p. 198).
The authors thoroughly explain how differentiated curriculum has dominated high schools. Only in the late 1970s did challenges to differentiation have a democratizing impact. Although the authors' data for the past two decades indicate unprecedented changes in student course taking, Angus and Mirel believe that we have a long way to go to achieve equal educational opportunities for all high school students in the United States.
Published by Teachers College Press, 1234 Amsterdam Ave., New York, NY 10027. Price: $26.95.
—Reviewed by Christian Penny, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania.

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 100031.jpg
Keeping Teaching Fresh
Go To Publication