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Customer Review

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You'll Learn Things You Didn't Know About Schooling, May 12, 2008
This review is from: Fertilizers, Pills, And Magnetic Strips: The Fate Of Public Education In America (PB) (Paperback)
The analyses and projections Glass presents are spot on in my view. That the US will become older and browner is evident from US Census data. But Occam's razor could well be applied to "fertilizers, pills, and magnetic strips." These are metonyms for technologies that have indeed had wide-ranging consequences, but they are very distal determinants of the present status or likely future of US pre-collegiate education.

The sub-title is also problematic. The book deals with the politics and economics of education in the US. Accepting the five projections in Chapter 10 in no way defines the 'fate' of public education in the US. That will be what 'we' make it. Glass' analyses of current belief systems regarding education are scathing. But belief systems can be changed (per George Lakoff's work). And overriding beliefs is Boulding's wisdom: "We make our tools and then they shape us." Combine this with the wisdom of Josiah Royce, emblazoned over the stage at Royce Hall, UCLA, (when I was a student. They remodeled the building and I don't know what's there now): "Education is learning to use the tools humanity (Royce said 'the race' but 'humanity' would be the term used today) has found indispensable" and you have a pretty good two-sentence guide.

Ironically, in the end Glass goes soft-headed, " The only reform [sic] that stands any chance of making our public schools better is the investment on teachers--to aide them in their quest to understand, to learn. Go become more compassionate, caring, and competent persons." (p. 249) That's a fool's errand--well-intentioned, but foolish in the sense that it hasn't had the intended consequences in the past and offers little for the future. If Ray Kurzweil's projections in "Singularity" are even half-right, it's going to be a different future for instruction.

My story of how US schooling got to where it is currently is simpler than Glass' story. As Glass states, prior to the mid-50s the aspiration was to enroll all kids in high school. Prior to that time, schools handled instructional failures by tossing kids out or counseling them out. With "full access," weaknesses started to show.

Historically, all media information regarding schooling was local, focusing on athletics and 'human interest' anecdotes. Even today, only a handful of newspapers cover schooling nationally. That gain is an important consequence of NCLB, but even there the accounts largely swallow whole governmental news releases.

The move that began in 1965 to make schooling a matter of national interest was important. The subsequent history could be titled "Bureaucrats, academics, and publishers." The small number of individuals who constituted the Beltway Consensus bought, and still buy, Jim Coleman's contention (based on shoddy "research") that "families matter more than schooling," "education spending is unrelated to educational achievement," and "school integration across socioeconomic lines (and hence across racial lines) will increase Negro achievement, and they throw serious doubt upon the effectiveness of policies designed to increase non-personal resources in the school." (The self-serving interests Glass exposes are evident.)

By the mid-1980s it was all-too-clear that "school integration" was not getting the job done. "High standards "was the answer, culminating in the "Goals 2000" legislation. Of course 2000 came with none of the goals met. No one recognized that the "standards" were rhetoric masked as "content." The consensus was that "accountability" via standardized achievement tests is the answer. Hence NCLB. (Same self-serving interests.)

What has the academy been doing? Not much. Glass tells that story. What he doesn't explain is why those who understand the flaws in NAEP and all standardized achievement tests have sat with their thumbs in their mouths.

Publishers are culpable in that they provide the tools that define schooling instruction. The publisher line is that they "only respond to market demands." This means they're unaccountable and unregulated. Their 'offerings' are junk, but bureaucrats and academics give them a free ride.

So what to do? Again it's a simple story. Borrow from the corporate world the notion of "business intelligence" and "key performance indicators." Also borrow from the IT sector and several large corporations the notion of structured "certification of capability." This "gets a handle" on schooling and permits real cost-benefit analysis of instructional accomplishments. Further, recognize that schools today provide important societal services (e.g. health screening and nutrition provision) in addition to instruction. Ironically, instruction is the weakest benefit of schooling and the other benefits go unrecognized.

A few final reactions: "Appendix A: Notes on Theory, Research, and Policy" alone is worth the price of the book. If it were read by every student as a freshman, every legislator, and anyone remotely concerned with schooling, the future of education would be a good deal brighter.

The practice of documenting with footnotes on the relevant page as well as references and indexes at the end of the book is welcome and should be standard practice. The use of footnotes is judicious and the occasional accompanying elaboration makes the communication more interactive.

The exposition is a model of 'good writing.' Strunk and White, where ever they are, are no doubt exchanging high-fives. someone followed their advice. I didn't always buy what Glass was saying, but there was never any doubt about the substance of the communication. The communication warrants consideration by anyone in any way concerned with US schooling.
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