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The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools Hardcover – August 25, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Martin L. Gross has made a career out of books that attack "the establishment," whether it be the medical community (The Doctors) or the general powers that be (The Government Racket). In The Conspiracy of Ignorance, he takes aim at a lumbering, elephant-sized target: public education. Armed with statistics and research papers--the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) being his most prominent sources--Gross rails against the declining performance of U.S. students. While his criticisms--which encompass everything from teachers' unions to "useless" education degrees, PTAs, psychological services in schools, even honor roll bumper stickers--are not new, they make an imposing indictment when presented all together.

Gross poses a number of radical solutions, including the elimination of undergraduate schools of education (replaced by a one-year postgraduate course that prepares scholars to become teachers in their specialty). He believes the entire education system should--and can--be overhauled without spending any more than at present. One of his suggestions to make funds available for reform is to cut support personnel, but he doesn't address how schools would then clean themselves without custodians or how high school crime would be affected by the loss of security guards and police officers. While Gross's tendency to use his own high school experience as a model of excellence grows tiresome, his points are well taken. The Conspiracy of Ignorance will have you either nodding in agreement or aching to wring the author's neck. --Jodi Mailander Farrell

From Booklist

Longtime institutional critic Gross is always fluent, persuasive, and uncranky. He skewers conservative bugbears like taxes and liberal ones like the medical establishment without spouting either party's line. Now, in one of his best books, he takes aim at an institution, the public schools, that is usually a conservative's target. Unlike many conservatives, though, he advocates reform, not replacement. What really needs to be changed, he says, is the education establishment consisting of colleges of education, teachers' unions, school psychologists, and educational administrators. Proceeding from 19 indictments--items such as "teacher training is lax," "the doctor of education degree . . . is inferior . . . and requires little academic knowledge," and "the Establishment dislikes traditional [teaching] methods" --he presents evidence of their accuracy and of who bears responsibility for them. In the manner of 1960s schools critic Paul Goodman, who believed that carpers must also propose improvements, Gross suggests 19 changes that are ambitious (otherwise, why bother? Goodman would have said) and particular; for instance, "close all undergraduate schools of education." The predicaments (e.g., "dumbed-down" curriculum, the therapeutic classroom, unions protecting incompetence) that Gross points out will be familiar to those who keep up with the public schools debate, but his knack for citing the cogent and authoritative statistic, test ranking, or poll finding at the right time makes his distillation of the massive public-school critique the book those in a hurry should read first. Ray Olson

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (August 25, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060194588
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060194581
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,891,713 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

60 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Mark Pittman on December 27, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Gross provides a decent overview of the reasons why today's public schools are failing us and our nation. Reading this book may very well make you worry about our future competitiveness as a nation. How can any country survive and prosper with such poor education? Worse yet, there appears to be no prospect for major reform as long as education is politicized and focused on "teaching kids to think" as opposed to infusing them with knowledge and facts - the basics needed for critical thinking.
Gross's run-down of our educational ills is complete and has been written about in other books. These ills include poorly trained and poorly achieving teachers; an educational union (the NEA) interested solely in teacher pay and benefits but completely uninterested - actually biased strongly against - rewarding great teachers and developing great students; a strong bias for applying knowledge instead of learning knowledge (how can one apply something one does not have?); lackluster teacher colleges and education degrees that foist poorly trained teachers on our students and a built-in, institutional bias against well trained experts who have bachelors or masters in their fields like math and history.
But Gross has major flaws in his book. First and foremost is poor documentation of his assertions and facts. He includes chapter end-notes, but none of these are numbered or referenced to his actual passages. This results in a major cross-referencing difficulty and actually detracts from his scholarship. If one wants to look further and learn more, or figure out how to be an agent of change, this lack of numbered footnotes makes one's life very difficult.
His other major flaw is his laundry list of proposed changes.
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39 of 39 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 17, 1999
Format: Hardcover
As a former educator in the Pennsylvania "system," Mr. Gross has placed into concise, hard-hitting words everything I experienced in three-year sentence at a small high school. As the only math educator with an actual mathematics degree, my opinions were outcast in a department full of union members with simplified education degrees. Mr. Gross could have based his book on our school district alone, and has described exactly what we need ASAP.
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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 8, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Gross may be guilty of an occasional lapse, but the bottom-line truth of the matter is that he is right, right, right. As a professor at major state university, I can attest to the veracity of his claims. The average entering freshman is broadly ignorant: of language, literature, mathematics, science, history, geography and the arts. Grammar is an enigma; spelling a mystery; vocabulary, a shrunken facsimile of what a high school graduate should command. As to "critical thinking," one of the more sacred heffers in the educrat herd, all too many incoming students couldn't reason their way out of a paper bag if their lives hung in the balance. And by the time, they reach college, it's too late.
One point, which Gross omits, merits extended discussion. The same folks who gave gave us the disaster that is K-12 are now in the universities: promoting their ill-founded theories with evangelical fervor; dismissing basic skills as non-essentials; pushing hard for diminished expectations. Paradoxically, they use the fact that "Johnny can't read" to discourage us from demanding that he learn. Neither appeals to fact nor reason, will change their opinions. Only a diminution of their ability to dictate policy will suffice. Yes, indeed, Gross is right. In America's classrooms, the blind are leading those with the potential to see. Shut down the normal schools.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Ken VK on September 29, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Martin Gross again shows why he is one of America's foremost nonfiction authors. This is his best book since The Government Racket: Washington Waste from A to Z. Gross's forte is the combination of extensive research with tight-knit prose. What makes this his most impressive recent hardcover effort is that he clearly has great passion for this subject. Educated in the best New York City public schools in the 1930's and 1940's, Gross draws from his personal experience to demonstrate that the American public education system has gone from first-rate to abysmal in just a few short decades; that it has in some ways deteriorated almost beyond repair. As fond as Gross remains of his own past education, he reluctantly concludes that today -- after decades of systematic corruption leading to ever-declining standards -- vouchers and school choice are desperately needed to break the iron grip of the teachers unions, the teacher-training colleges, and their political allies. Whereas many skillful authors such as Chester Finn, Charles Sykes, Myron Lieberman and Tom Sowell have tackled this subject, Gross matches their research and then excels in his synthesis of the inherently complex subject matter. He pays close attention to organizing the material so as to maintain a logical structure, which helps him to maintain reader interest throughout. In sum, highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand what ails our public education system and how its problems should be addressed.
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