Tales from the classroom updated for the testing era.

(Doug Corrance/getty Images)
Reviewed by Ben Wildavsky
Sunday, September 2, 2007

As Washington policymakers work to reauthorize the landmark No Child Left Behind Act, controversy abounds: Has the law fostered excessive test prep? Squeezed out science and social studies? Shortchanged gifted kids? Not surprisingly, authors have been putting flesh and bones on these edu-issues, taking a venerable genre -- the book-length tale from the classroom trenches -- and updating it in assorted forms for the age of accountability.

TESTED One American School Struggles to Make the GradeBy Linda Perlstein Henry Holt. 302 pp. $25

In Tested, the most ambitious of these new volumes, Linda Perlstein, a former Washington Post education reporter, got what she calls an "all-access pass" to Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, Md. Despite all the usual challenges -- many of the school's low-income black and Latino kids have huge academic deficits and face tough home lives -- the school's hard-driving principal has succeeded in improving results on the state exam, the Maryland School Assessment, so much so that Tyler Heights has been hailed as a turnaround success story.

Perlstein's narrative is much bleaker, however. Deploying the fine fly-on-the-wall reporting skills that made her previous book, Not Much Just Chillin', so uncannily evocative of the lives of middle school kids, she opens a window into a school that has become over-the-top test obsessed. Along the way, she weaves in extensive discussions of federal education policy, pushing readers to the conclusion that the standards and accountability movement in general -- and No Child Left Behind in particular -- have gone badly awry.

Perlstein paints a sobering portrait of Tyler Heights. Students slog through a rigidly scripted curriculum and spend an inordinate amount of time practicing the paragraph-length "BCRs" (for "brief constructed response") that are used to answer questions on the Maryland state test. Science and social studies are given short shrift: Cool experiments, field trips and just about all activities "seen as irrelevant" to the state exam are backloaded to the end of the school year.

To her credit, Perlstein acknowledges that systematically tracking student test results has some advantages: "Floundering children who once might have been allowed to flop undetected from grade to grade were pulled aside daily for special attention." But her overall assessment is so relentlessly dire that one wonders whether her case study is truly representative -- and, if it is, how she thinks an effective accountability system might be set up. Could it be that the problem is not the tests but the inappropriate, even absurd, ways in which schools are responding to them? It is sad to read of the impoverished education these impoverished children are receiving. But although Perlstein doesn't seek them out, there are plenty of contrasting examples (some of which are described in Karin Chenoweth's recently published It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools) that show children need not be taught this way to get great results.

LETTERS TO A YOUNG TEACHERBy Jonathan Kozol Crown. 288 pp. $19.95

If Perlstein's case study is extreme, thorough critiques like hers at least must be taken seriously by anybody trying to make sense of today's education debates. Not so with Letters to a Young Teacher, from Jonathan Kozol. Forty years after Kozol published Death at an Early Age, his arresting account of teaching at an inner-city school in Boston, the prolific author has become the patron saint of educational progressives. His latest book, filled with new material and many retrospective vignettes from his earlier works, takes the form of a series of missives to "Francesca," the pseudonym of a beginning first-grade teacher in an urban elementary school.

Kozol may be a white Harvard grad who is now past 70, but he takes pains to let readers know that he is still down with the people. For one thing, he has many personal friends in the hood. Also, he believes teachers should not be "servants of the global corporations or drill sergeants for the state." Naturally, he opposes school vouchers, along with charter schools and, of course, No Child Left Behind. What is Kozol for? Above all else, unleashing children's natural creativity and playfulness. He also wants inner-city teachers to become activists, bearing witness to social injustice without worrying overmuch about, say, teaching grammar.

Kozol is surely right to declare on the very first page that teaching is -- perhaps he should have said can be-- "a beautiful profession." But his bumper-sticker rant of a book ("childhood does not exist to serve the national economy," he fumes) combines kids-say-the-darnedest-things sentimentality with so many rabid and ad hominem attacks on his ideological foes that it quickly becomes tiresome. Kozol seems really to believe that efforts to ensure that students can read and do math, using uniform standards, measured by tests that can be compared from classroom to classroom and school to school, are evidence of corporate repression. Sure, those efforts aren't always well conceived or thoughtfully implemented. But, at least in principle, couldn't the ability to be academically self-sufficient instead be viewed as a path to personal liberation?

THE GREAT EXPECTATIONS SCHOOL A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard JungleBy Dan Brown Arcade. 267 pp. $25.95

Mercifully, the sanctimony quotient is considerably lower in Dan Brown's compelling diary of his year as a newbie teaching a troublesome class of inner-city fourth graders. With introspection and good humor, Brown tells the lively and often appalling story of how an NYU film school grad comes face to face with a group of students from a dirt-poor Bronx neighborhood who are intensely needy, shockingly ignorant and quick to assault one another.

Part of a crop of unconventional recruits brought into the public school system through the New York City Teaching Fellows program, Brown has his share of small breakthroughs with individual kids, but many, many disappointments. He recounts not only his ceaseless struggles to maintain order, but also the dirty little secrets of the education bureaucracy. He faces pressure not to make special ed referrals, for instance, even when kids desperately need extra help, and he is advised by a colleague to "teach them something they already know" to create Potemkin-village classroom observations.

Like Kozol and Perlstein, Brown is not a fan of standardized testing. But tellingly, after describing how the officious school bureaucrats who are his main villains question the effectiveness of his teaching, he makes a point of letting readers know that his kids did better than almost any other class on . . . the state test. Ultimately, the greatest strength of his book is its vivid depiction of just how hard first-year teaching is -- and its implicit lesson that urban schools urgently need to attract and retain more thoughtful and dedicated people such as Brown. It is disappointing, if understandable, that Brown gives up on his dysfunctional school -- "I fought the Bronx, and the Bronx won" -- but heartening to read that he is studying to be a high school English teacher.

A CLASS APART Prodigies, Pressure, and Passion Inside One of America's Best High SchoolsBy Alec Klein Simon & Schuster. 323 pp. $25

A completely different side of the New York City school system is on display in A Class Apart, Post reporter Alec Klein's anthropological account of a semester in the life of his alma mater, Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School. A celebrated public school where admission is by a competitive city-wide exam, Stuyvesant embodies America's promise of meritocracy as do few other institutions: Klein affectionately calls the school "a fierce anachronism" aimed at "fostering an aristocracy of talent." By shadowing a handful of students and administrators, he memorably catalogues the daily dramas of the small town that is high school, with details unique to academic hothouses like Stuy. There is intense pressure, to be sure, but also the exuberance of accomplishment. And loopy humor: Apparently kids at schools such as this really do tell physics jokes. Yet Klein is less successful at thoroughly exploring the big-picture questions he asks (Is it a good idea to segregate kids by academic ability? Have gifted students been unfairly ignored in the quest to raise basic skills?) than he is at capturing the distinctive and endearing atmosphere of a place "where the brainiacs prevail."

At Stuyvesant, at least, success on exams is still seen as a gateway to better things. Making that true for kids who attend the nation's non-elite schools will mean rejecting Kozol's false choice between creativity and drill-and-kill. Instead, accounts such as Perlstein's and Brown's might profitably be used as cautionary tales: Test-based accountability is here to stay, but reformers badly need to figure out how to get it right. ?

Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow in research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and former education editor of U.S. News & World Report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company