Best Book Chapter of the Year

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 15, 2007; 11:46 AM

I was ready to like Peter Sacks' new book, "Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education." He is a terrific reporter with a keen sense of weak spots in conventional wisdom about schools. And since the word "class" in the title of this column has always had a double meaning, I was eager to read the work of someone who shared my view that socioeconomic differences are at the root of our failure to help many of our brightest kids get the educations they deserve.

It turns out Sacks has written an exceptional book, with one particular chapter that blew me away. But my first quick read made me grumpy, for reasons that have more to do with my own personal flaws and biases than his good work.

I started with the Washington thing, what all we journalists working in our nation's capital do when checking out a new book -- look for our names in the index. Sadly, I wasn't there. Well, maybe the acknowledgments? No again. The fact that Sacks and I have never met, as far as I can remember, may have something to do with that. Still, it wasn't a good beginning for me.

Next I checked the index for references to Advanced Placement, the college-level courses and tests given in high school that are my favorite column topic -- and the basis for the Newsweek list of America's best high schools scheduled to come out this month. Sacks's book had many mentions of AP, most of them seemingly neutral except for this one: "cookie-cutter quality of, 58".

Uh-oh. I read the relevant paragraph on page 58. It didn't make me feel any better: "Even AP classes, which had in recent years become the standard for college preparatory 'rigor' in many American high schools, had developed a certain cookie-cutter quality, as teaching and learning were increasingly geared toward passing the College Board's AP exams. This, in effect, created a default curriculum that eliminated the possibility of exploring biology, history or physics in great depth. The standardized AP curriculum also eliminated opportunities for applying academic knowledge in interesting, meaningful and creative ways."

The paragraph, I thought, was exactly wrong. AP has been in the past 20 years the greatest force in American public education for increasing, not eliminating, the possibility of exploring biology, history or physics in greater depth than high school students have ever experienced. That is especially true for the low-income students who concern Sacks and me. AP courses in most schools have proved to be the most interesting, meaningful and creative offerings in the catalog.

But I was not surprised that Sacks advanced the cookie-cutter view, since he is a sincere and accomplished critic of standardized testing. What he was saying was the standard anti-AP line for people of that persuasion. Most of them haven't spent much time in AP courses, have not looked carefully at the exams and don't realize that AP and International Baccalaureate, the other major college-level program, are very different from the SAT and the state tests that are their main targets. I guessed that Sacks just needed a chance to see good AP teachers in action, and see what life is like for eager students in ordinary schools that don't have AP courses. It would also help, I thought, for him to get a taste of the often unwritten rules that bar many students, particularly those whose parents didn't go to college, from taking AP even when their schools offer the courses.

"Tearing Down the Gates" is the story of Sacks' journey from school to school in search of a better understanding of how the class divide affects teaching and learning. I had a hunch he was going to discover holes in that "cookie-cutter" canard about AP. When, on page 67, he gets kicked out of Berkeley High School for trying to interview teachers about a program that kept minority kids out of AP and other challenging courses, I knew he was heading in the right direction. I also liked his humor: "It was of course humbling and a bit embarrassing to get kicked off a high school campus at the rebellious age of fifty-one."

Here is the somewhat embarrassing way I absorb the books that interest me most. I do a quick skim, send the author a congratulatory note with enough detail to make him or her think I have actually read the book carefully, then leave it on the floor of a small, tiled room in my house where men my age spend a lot of time. There I enjoy long stretches of uninterrupted reading.

Here is a tip for those of you who decide to use that approach with "Tearing Down the Gates." When you do that first speed read, slow down when you get to page 195 and read chapter 10, "A Dangerous Man," very carefully. That chapter is about Dayle Mazzarella, a coach, AP government and history teacher and staff developer in Oceanside, Calif., who saw the outrages of the class divide in his AP program and tore down all those fences.

I would nominate "A Dangerous Man" for Chapter of the Year, if there were such an award. Sacks not only describes in great detail how Mazzarella gave low-income and minority kids the personal encouragement and extra time they needed to succeed in AP, but provides eye-opening charts on the effects of such anti-establishment activities and lets us into the lives of some of the students.

There was, for instance, Sophia, a senior at Oceanside High School who had already taken 10 AP classes when Sacks interviewed her. AP classes had given her an entirely different view of her capabilities and chances for a future, all because of the efforts of educators such as Mazzarella. "The school is like our inspiration," she said. "The teachers are the ones that push us to college."

By the end of the book, Sacks has the emphasis just right. He notes our failure to realize that schools have both the power and the responsibility to open up new worlds to low-income children. He says that rather than focusing on test results and standards, "the real prize would be getting more disadvantaged children interested in higher education and aware that more education could lead to better lives."

More low-income students are being coaxed into AP and International Baccalaureate courses in high school, even as they struggle to get their test scores up. Sacks points out, correctly, that the scores are not as important as having a chance to develop the academic muscles that will in time take care of the scores, and more importantly raise their understanding to the level where their choices in life will multiple greatly.

Sacks may still disagree with me on the importance of AP in making that happen, but he has written a compelling account of how those college-level courses and tests, standardized though they may be, are bringing welcome change in at least one school. I can't wait to see what he writes after he has had a chance to visit the many other schools where that is happening.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company