Monday, August 30, 2010

Suggested Reading

Below is a list of some books that have been brought to my attention for suggested reading. If you have read any and want to discuss them, here is your thread.


MikeB said...

I've read and would recommend both books. Many of my ideas regarding education, and my opposition to the testing craze, are either supported or were first developed by the essays in Alfie Kohn's "What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated?" His arguments against standardized testing are cogent, well developed, and supported by an awful lot of data. His positions on grade inflation, merit pay, school violence, etc., are equally as insightful. I may not completely agree with all of his conclusions, but Kohn lays down a pretty solid argument with each topic he engages. This is no lightweight weighing in without having done his homework (speaking of which, Kohn's "The Homework Myth" is another excellent read). To quote Jonathan Kozol (the author of the other book recommended here),

"Kohn cuts against the grain and takes on adversaries without fear, and yet with a mature and rational sophistication. He draws upon a rich tradition, citing the work of Dewey, Bruner, Piaget, and Holt, among others, but he now takes his proper place within their ranks."

I'd love to hear what people who are fully on the side of standardized testing think of his essays on the subject. I think I'd find a counter-argument to his points very interesting.

MikeB said...

Now, on to "The Shame of the Nation." Kozol's book, by its very nature, is a controversial book that makes an awful lot of people (people from the very classes it does not address) uneasy. That our inner city schools are a train wreck and that the children being "warehoused" (my term more than his) in these schools are receiving nothing close to a comparable education to their suburban counterparts is neither a surprise nor a secret. But bring it up among those suburban counterparts and watch how quickly the heels dig in and the trenches are dug. Separate but equal suddenly becomes a relevant notion again, even if that exact phrase isn't spoken, as the "haves" defend themselves against the infiltration of the "have nots."

It may have been a lucky coincidence, but the Washington Post ran two stories in the same edition ten or fifteen years ago that served as stark examples of what Kozol is getting at in this book. The first story was on a suburban Virginia school that was faced with losing one of its more "eclectic" extracurricular activities. I don't recall the specific event, but it was something like the diving team. There were quotes from students explaining how the activity needed to be saved because it was such an important part of their high school cultural experience.

In the same edition was a story on a Washington DC school where the majority of the toilets were out of order. There were other maintenance "concerns" within the school, but it was the toilets that stood out the most. Much in the same way the Virginia school story had quotes from students, so, too, did the Washington DC school story. Except in this case the students were simply asking for bathrooms that worked. Stark difference. And typical.

A few decades removed from the Supreme Court's rejection of the "separate but equal" doctrine, a slow but steady and discernible re-segregation of the nation's schools has been occurring. And the disparity between the funding and the resources and the opportunities afforded the students on each side of the divide is not simply the stuff of political or class warfare rhetoric, but measurable, observable and definable. Kozol doesn't provide just one or two isolated examples of the divide that may or may not be taken out of context. He provides information compiled from hundreds of visits to dozens of schools and school districts spanning states and regions, and that take place over several years. He follows particular students through their school lives, starting in elementary school and moving through middle and high school. He provides a table showing the difference in per pupil spending between numerous geographically similar but racially different school districts. In essence, Kozol provides a pretty damn convincing argument.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the effects that the new standards and accountability movement has had on inner-city schools, where children with far fewer resources and opportunities are being forced into the same "do or die" testing situations as their better funded and better equipped suburban counterparts. Drop out rates increase. Teachers are fired based on test results they cannot possibly fix. Schools are completely shut down. The list goes on, and so could I. But most people have already probably stopped reading.

"The Shame of the Nation" chronicles in painful detail a racial division within our public school system that is getting deeper and wider every year and that few people wish to address directly. The result is generation after generation of minority inner-city students who are truly not being afforded the same opportunities as their suburban--and therefore mostly white--counterparts.