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October 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 2


The War Against Parents

The War Against Parents by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
The War Against Parents may strike readers as something they have heard before, but this rendering is somewhat different. Cornel West and Sylvia Ann Hewlett combine scholarship with advocacy that reminds me of a 1960s' non-violent protest. With an exuberant battle cry, they propose an all-out counteroffensive through high stakes political action and the launching of a new political movement . . . that puts mothers and fathers front and center on the national stage.
The authors accuse corporate, government, and cultural entities of leaving "parents twisting in the wind" while pursuing their private agendas. As a result, the center of our children's agony is an enormous erosion of the parenting role. Too many children have been left home alone, to raise themselves on a thin and cruel diet of junk food, gangster rap, and trash talk shows.
Hewlett and West chronicle the nation's shift from a family-friendly culture to one that undermines the parent's role in raising children. They describe the way is was, the way it is, and the way it is supposed to be. The first stage presents the authors' upbringing in the 1950s and early 1960s, the golden age of the American family where tax policy, the G.I. Bill, education policy, and housing policy worked together as a powerful force for families. Although they admit that gender and racial discrimination existed, they assert the importance of the pro-family public policies under which "our families were nourished by a society that was supportive of the art and science of parenting."
The second stage is the highlight of the book: a thoughtful analysis of the politics, the business policies, and the cultural trends that led to the current state of the nation's hostile, antifamily environment. They conclude that "at the end of the day, both liberals and conservatives clobber children and are caught in their own internal contradictions."
Conservatives, say the authors, love free-market policies that contribute to falling family wages, business downsizing, lack of affordable day care, employment insecurity, lengthening work weeks, and a poverty rate among children and families that is the highest in the industrialized world. Liberals are more in love with allowing adults to make individual choices about careers and jobs, even when those choices conflict with the care of children and the stability of the family.
The third stage unveils their battle plan, the "Children's Bill of Rights," which includes such items as paid parental leave, tax relief, support for fathers, family health coverage, responsible media, and adoption assistance.
This book is significant because the breakdown of the traditional role of some African American families, to which Daniel Patrick Moynihan alerted us in his controversial 1967 report, has now befallen all families. The book's message will resonate with many parents. The authors, however, leave the reader with a dilemma. Declaring war is easier than winning it; promoting a common concern about family breakup is easier than reaching consensus on specific strategies.
In many respects, parents themselves have fostered current policy because they have been divided by solution, response, and ideology. How many times have parents squared off against other parents over sex education; commercialism in schools; prayer in schools; private school vouchers; education funding; government-provided child care; and parental consent, rights, and leave? The authors have given us a useful manifesto, but the other side still has most of the ammunition. Noble as it might be to create a "parent union," the enemy we attack could be parents themselves.
Published by Houghton Mifflin, 222 Berkeley St., Boston, MA 02116. Price: $24.
—Reviewed by Arnold F. Fege, Public Advocacy for Kids, Washington, D.C.

The School Within Us

The School Within Us: The Creation of an Innovative Public School by James Nehring. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1998.
In the early 1990s, the small-schools movement, launched by reform-minded teachers, spread nationwide. In 1990, James Nehring and a team of his teacher-colleagues started a Dewey-like lab school in a suburban district in upstate New York. The School Within Us, a piece of action research, documents this worthwhile effort every step of the way. Though tedious at times in its attention to detail, the book could be useful for teachers trying to launch a start-up school, charter school, lab school, small school, or school-within-a-school.
Like many start-up efforts at that time, the Lab School was not planned as a part of a whole-school change effort, although Nehring describes it as "school restructuring." Rather, it was an experiment to see whether a small, innovative group of teachers, given space, time, and money, could do better than the system with all its bureaucratic constraints. Nehring shows that they probably can by explaining how they developed the vision; built the team; raised the money; recruited students and staff; and dealt with teacher, union, and board resistance.
Even though the Lab School was created as a school of choice, it faced bumps in the road when trying to please parents while maintaining the vision of the educators. Start-up small schools often see parents strictly as customers, and educators have a difficult time negotiating the curriculum with these "nonexperts." They want parents to trust them or choose a different school. Nehring explains how his team tried to get and keep parents "bought in."
Can or should this experiment be seen as a model? Can it be replicated? Probably not. Nehring himself insists that good schools "are not based on models" to be models that can be "plugged in."
Published by the State University of New York Press, State University Plaza, Albany, NY 12246. Price: $34.50, hardcover; $10.95, paperback.
—Reviewed by Michael Klonsky, Center for Innovative Schools, Chicago, Illinois.

Imaging Education

Imaging Education. Edited by Gene L. Maeroff. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1998.
Recently I heard a high school math teacher musing on why taxpayers in his district voted down the school's proposed budget. "Their perception is their reality," the teacher said. He described many taxpayers' beliefs that administrators and teachers are overpaid, kids don't work hard enough, and board members spend too much money on such things as bus transportation and field trips.
In many ways, the 14 essays Maeroff includes in Imaging Education make the same point about perceptions and reality. Over and over, these writers note how media perceptions of the schools translate into widespread reality when they are broadcast on the evening news and published in the daily paper. But newscasters and reporters often scale down complex issues to sound bites, leaving listeners and readers with just enough information to conclude that schools are hotbeds of violence, drug use, and slipshod learning. Maeroff indicts media professionals for selecting the parts of school stories that stir up anger and other negative feelings and for leaving out what he calls the "social context" that could help explain the complexities involved in many school problems.
In one essay, David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, authors of The Manufactured Crisis, conclude that overall, the press deserves rebuke for the way it covers school issues. Berliner and Biddle find that stories about schools tend to be biased and negative, simplistic and incomplete, and more critical than complimentary. In addition, the authors say, stories seldom make good use of educational statistics and data to inform the public, and they rarely delve into deeply rooted social problems, such as poverty, which translate into school problems.
Maeroff proposes that educators work with journalists to help shape stories that are more informative and more accurate. School leaders should, he says, make certain that the press gets the whole story, understands the numbers that go with the story, and reports the story with adequate contextual information.
Maeroff and the contributors to this text believe that school leaders have the power to change perceptions to be closer to the truth. It might be a "reasonable proposal," as Maeroff says, but it is hard to imagine a harried, anxious press corps giving up shortcuts and sound bites when the 11 o'clock deadline is approaching.
Published by Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027. Price: $50, hardcover; $23.95, paperback.
—Reviewed by Susan Black, Hammondsport, New York.

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

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