- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

How are our public schools doing? Are schools improving or are they getting worse? Two recent education books provide starkly different answers to these questions. In The American Dream and the Public Schools (Oxford University Press , $35, 201 pages), Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick, who see themselves as centrists, argue that the schools are fundamentally sound. J. Martin Rochester, a conservative, counters in Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids, and the Attack on Excellence (Encounter, $26.95, 242 pages) that schools are bad and getting worse. Both books have their flaws, though Mr. Rochester’s is perhaps closer to the truth.

Mrs. Hochschild, a Harvard government professor, and Mr. Scovronick, a Princeton public affairs professor, examine the schools through the prism of “the American dream,” which they define as equal opportunity enabling students to achieve individual excellence. To make their case, they have consumed a mountain of educational research (their bibliography takes up 51tightly spaced pages.)

Sometimes Mrs. Hochschild and Mr. Scovronick are predictable. They believe the funding gap between rich and poor schools should be trimmed, and are only mildly critical of teachers’ unions. But they also believe that “the public school system cannot be expected to, and should not, contribute to the fragmentation of the society it is trying to unite.” This leads them not only to oppose the teaching of creationism and explicitly religious curricula, but also be surprisingly fierce foes of bilingual education and of the more virulent strains of Afrocentrism.

“The American Dream and the Public Schools” is illustrative of how the education establishment has changed. On issues of school finance (spending, salaries, school choice) little has changed. But on cultural questions, the ground has shifted away from the left-wing goal of cultural balkanization. This is a hopeful development.

If Mrs. Hochschild and Mr. Scovronick write from the viewpoint of educational researchers, Mr. Rochester, a political scientist at the University of Missouri (St. Louis), writes from the viewpoint of the parental activist. Mr. Rochester explains that he began his interest in education by worrying that the local schools in Clayton, Mo., were doing a poor job educating his children. He began to contribute op-eds to the local newspapers, and then expanded on these to provide a critique of the education establishment.

Mr. Rochester’s book is far too autobiographical, and tells his readers more than they want to know about the schools in St. Louis’ better suburbs. He takes this tactic because “the problem of American education is one that at its core differs surprisingly little from one community to the next.” But it’s far from clear that this proposition is true. Parents in Anacostia and Bethesda in the Washington area may both complain about the schools but their complaints are for fundamentally different reasons.

“Class Warfare” is at its best when Mr. Rochester examines the problems of gifted and talented students. It’s clear that schools offering a one-size-fits-all curriculum end up disappointing the best students and the worst ones, and Mr. Rochester offers ample examples to show that most students have little incentive to achieve excellence, and are often punished for being too intelligent. Mr. Rochester is also good at dissecting educational jargon; he has no patience for champions of “progressive” education, and is good at anatomizing the flawed arguments of such activists as Alfie Kohn and Howard Gardner.

But Mr. Rochester is not an original thinker; most of the time, he is a voice in the chorus of conservative complaints about education, and not a soloist. He denounces education research (with some justification), but then offers little more than newspaper op-ed articles to support his claims. “The American Dream and the Public Schools” and “Class Warfare” are both somewhat flawed looks at our public schools. Still, the two books, written from different angles, complement each other. Reading both of them will give you a fuller picture of the strengths and weaknesses of our schools than reading just one will.

• • •

Homeschooling is becoming increasingly popular these days. But most homeschooling books have been written by white people. As Paula Penn-Nabrit shows in Morning by Morning: How We Home-Schooled Our African-American Sons to the Ivy League (Villard, $24.95, 278 pages), homeschooling is a tool that can prove quite useful for African American students.

Mrs. Penn-Nabrit, a management consultant living in Columbus, Ohio, explains that she and her husband decided to homeschool their three sons after they were kicked out of a snooty prep school for complicated financial reasons. Mrs. Penn-Nabrit is a traditionalist with a strong Christian faith, and produced a curriculum that, while somewhat improvised, nonetheless got their children accepted by America’s leading universities.

Several of Mrs. Penn-Nabrit’s ideas are quite innovative. Rather than purchasing an off-the-shelf-curriculum, she went to the local university bookstore and looked at what books freshmen were assigned. She then purchased the same books for her children, and made sure that they mastered them. To teach her sons math and science, Mrs. Penn-Nabrit hired African graduate students. These students were not only good teachers, but also helped show her sons examples of black men striving to be excellent scholars.

Mrs. Penn-Nabrit is a good writer who is candid about the failures and successes of her home school. (Her children were accepted by Ivy League schools, but not all of them were graduated.) Anyone interested in homeschooling will find that “Morning by Morning” is a very informative book.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds.”

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