Written by an accomplished fiction writer, Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids is a fascinating documentary of American K-12 education, based on the author’s short-lived experience as a substitute teacher. He only taught for 28 days, so it would be easy to dismiss the experience as a gimmick, but his simple, factual narrative of each day shows, powerfully, the delights and horrors of school — and he very wisely refrains from offering a commentary, except for a very few instances. The 700+ pages draw a somewhat depressing picture. What is the wisdom of withholding recess time from misbehaving elementary school children? Why move along non-readers to middle schools? And why spend day after day filling out boring worksheets that focus on recalling scientific vocabulary rather than having the students reflect on processes? But there are also many portraits of good teachers, as proven by the habits and methods the substitute can glimpse, and Mr. Baker is a gifted teacher himself.
The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School is the memoir of the author’s tough year as a high-school teacher in a failing New York high school — and what a year! The irony is that the author left a cushy job as fundraiser for a non-profit organization that identified promising students and helped them obtain and fund their education to find himself teaching in the kind of schools from which his organization tries to rescue students. With a drug dealer, the illiterate 17-year old freshman, the pregnant girl, the rabble-rouser, the psychopath, the manipulative grandma, the plain disinterred students, it’s hard to see how any learning can take place. Add an adminstration that is unwilling to take strong stands (and a union who refuses to back the teachers who want to work a few more hours to provide a more structured environment) and success is elusive. A sobering firsts-person account.
Lit up: One Reporter, Three Schools, Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives tells the story of three Sophomore English teachers, all trying to get their charges to read and to think. Their methods are widely different, but they are all committed and passionate, and we rejoice with the author about their successes. Not that the author rejoices much: he seems to have much to criticize about the books the teachers choose (he seems to think that there are “good” books and “bad” books, when many teachers just try to get their charges to read), their methods (they do seem to engage teenagers , for the most part!), their failed experiments (isn’t it great that they are trying new things?), and even the essays that the students write (the whole point of the class is to get them to improve on those weak first-semester essays, right?). I would have liked a less curmudgeon host.
What can you accomplish with $100 million? Very little, it seems, from the story told in The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, the story of how Mark Zuckeberg’s colossal gift to the Newark, NJ public schools was squandered and perhaps damaged rather than improve the outcomes for the students in the district.
The author dispassionately describes how an ambitious politician (Cory Booker) brilliantly fundraised for the schools, but neither he nor the donors (Mark Zuckeberg serving as exhibit A) understood the political obstacles to rerom, including but far from limited to the teachers’ and other unions involved, defined achievement criteria, or had any rational implementation strategy or oversight for the gift. The story is an indictment for this particular effort, of course, but also contains many learnings for future efforts, as well as sober reminders that school reforms may be limited by the larger context. In a kindergarten class she describes, 15 of 26 children are followed by child-welfare workers. Sure, we can teach them to read, but can we teach their parents to take care of them outside of school?
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is a book-long rant against the current higher education system in America, which makes very good points, and in particular that elite schools give outrageous preference to rich kids, both through alumni preference and the preference for certain feeder schools, mostly private, which by definition enroll the wealthy.
Other aspects are less rational. In particular, the author is obsessed by the fact that students choose economics as a major rather than liberal arts, and that universities cater to their preference. While we can deplore that young adults may feel pressured to study topics they don’t enjoy (but who says they would enjoy literature or other liberal arts pursuits?), I find it heartwarming that they are putting some thought into selecting a major and a career that are marketable. If we are to coach our children into becoming English majors (the author’s recommendation), it seems to me that many will be very frustrated when it comes time to find a job.
In fact, it seems that many of the opinions stem directly from the author’s experience as a late-bloomer English major, and some of the anecdotes are bizarre, for instance the author’s admission that, with his numerous degrees, he could not talk to his plumber. Really? How about starting by treating the plumber as a peer, as a human being. Perhaps that would help. All the educational reforms in the world won’t change the fact that humans can and should treat each other as equals.
Finally, his prescription for students, that they don’t talk much to their parents when in college and don’t ask them for help of any kind seems overdone, if not downright silly. How about the fact that most students’ tuition fees are paid by their generous parents. Isn’t that a big kind of “help”?
Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) is a (recent) history of theories and practice of good teaching, focused on primary and secondary education. It’s not a very encouraging tale, as very little effort seems to have been placed on training new teachers, sharing the techniques of effective teachers, or even using robust evaluation techniques to test the effectiveness of different approaches. And some of the reform that have been implemented seem to have drilled teachers into a few non-essential changes rather than address the fundamental methods for engaging the students into the learning, or focused only on behavior issues and ignoring the longer-term effect of imposing overly docile deportment.
The book showcases a number of superb educators and their effort (not always successful!) to share their methods with others. There are close to 4 million teachers in the US: wouldn’t it be nice if they could all adopt the you-you’ll-we technique or any of the others described in the book — or at least have been exposed to them at some point during their training years?
I picked up One Nation Under Taught: Solving America’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Crisis because its title hints at tackling the poor performance of American students in STEM fields. I was disappointed. The book is, mostly, a paean to the author’s project, the so-called “Project Lead the Way”, a science curriculum for K-12 students, with a dash of bashing of teacher unions that protect low-performing teachers. Sadly, the good ideas in the book, such as emphasizing STEM disciplines from an early age, or aligning grades better across science and liberal art courses, are lost in the shuffle.