- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

Higher education has changed a great deal in the past half-century, but one fact about America's universities remains constant: Harvard is the best university in the United States. What has caused Harvard to remain on top for so long? Some, but not all of the answers are to be found in Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America's University (Oxford University Press, $35, 491 pages) by the husband-and-wife team of Morton Keller and Phyllis Keller.
Mr. Keller, a Brandeis University historian, and Mrs. Keller, a former Harvard dean, clearly spent a great deal of time on their project, in which they describe the history of Harvard from the accession of James Bryant Conant to the Harvard presidency in 1933 onwards. They read the private papers of Conant and his successor, Nathan Pusey, and interviewed many current and former members of the Harvard faculty.
Their research enabled the Kellers to discover some very informative trends. Harvard in 1933 was so snooty that James Bryant Conant was nearly rejected as Harvard president because his family, though it had been in America since 1623, had settled in Plymouth instead of Boston. The authors show how Conant (who was Harvard president between 1933-1954) and Pusey (president, 1954-71) led the effort that transformed Harvard into a meritocracy where the smartest people rose to the top. In the last half, they show how Harvard, like most other universities, became a place where race, class, and gender prevailed over all other issues.
Mr. and Mrs. Keller try to describe changes in all of Harvard, from mighty organizations such as the Harvard Law and the Harvard Business schools to less stellar places, such as the Harvard Dental School. But to encompass such a vast subject in a single book, the authors have had to do a great deal of compression. They allot no more than five pages to how each of Harvard's many departments have changed over the past 30 years. At one point, they summarize the achievements of five Harvard Nobel laureates in chemisitry in a paragraph.
Harvard's story in the past 70 years could be told in an encyclopedia, or perhaps thick volumes for the more important schools. But by restricting themselves to a single large volume Mr. and Mrs. Keller hve produced a book that, though interesting and well written, fails to tell readers what they need to know about the parts of Harvard that might interest them. "Making Harvard Modern" is an admirable failure.

In the wake of September 11, the slaughter at Columbine High School may now seem trivial. But as Elinor Burkett shows in Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School (HarperCollins, $25, 321 pages), the Columbine incident served to accelerate trends that have damaged our high schools.
For her sixth book, Mrs. Burkett spent the 1999-2000 school year at Prior Lake High School in the Minneapolis suburbs. She attended classes, spent a good deal of time with good students and bad ones, interviewed teachers and the principal, and painted a portrait of what the school is like. Her findings are quite disturbing.
Since the 1960s, high schools have become rule-laden bureaucracies where students are constantly told not, "Don't do this because it is wrong," but "don't do this because it's illegal." Columbine served to add rules to the 475,000 state, local, and federal regulations Prior Lake faculty had to enforce. For example, "zero-tolerance" rules mandateds stiff penalties for any student caught with drugs or anything that looked like a weapon. But at the same time, the school freely allows a former student who killed another student during a botched drug deal, to attend the high school prom because the juvenile courts set him free and expunged his record when he turned 19.
Mrs. Burkett also shows the pressure teachers face today. Most Prior Lake students, she shows, aren't particularly interested in learning; they're only there becuse of mandatory attendance laws. But when one of these slackers gets a bad grade, there are likely to be complaints from angry parents who think the tacher is out to get their child.
High schools, Mrs. Burkett writes, offer contradictory messages. "If we force schools to be everything to everybody," she asks, "how can we complain when they don't do anything very well?"
"Another Planet" is an informative book that ought to be read carefully by anyone who worries what sort of education America's teenageers are getting these days.

As the administration prepares to enact national standards, national tests, and (perhaps) a national curriculum, will America's teachers do what Washington or their state governor want? Michigan State education researchers David K. Cohen and Heather C. Hill observe in Learning Policy: When State Education Reform Works (Yale University Press, $30, 189 pages) that teachers obey some, but not all, of the curricular changes handed them.
Mr. Cohen and Miss Hill studied changes in Claifornia's math curriculum in the mid-1990s, including conducting a survey of elementary school math teachers. They found that teachers had heard of the changes, and had tried to implement some of them. But most teachers were very confused about what they had to do and most of them did not consult anyone (including colleagues at their school) about what they had to do to change their teaching style.
The author's most significant finding concerns how California math teachers learned new skills. Many (but not a majority) took week-long workshops. But most picked up what information they could at workshops offered during the two or three "professional development" days California and most other states require. The authors report that there's no evidence that teachers learn anything useful at these "in service" days.
Mr. Cohen and Miss Hill say that the California math curriculum changes were a successful reform because some teachers changed some of their teachiing styles. But the lesson "Learning Policy" offers is that teachers, more often than not, prefer to change as little as possible and that any state or national education reform that assumes teachers will make radical changes in their teaching style is likely to fail.

Martin Morse Wooster is an associate editor of The American Enterprise and the author of "Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds."

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