A common language of reform
Edited by Mark Smylie and Debra Miretzky
National Society for the Study of Education Yearbook 2004, part I
University of Chicago Press pound;27.50
Creating the Capacity for Change
By Ted Kolderie
Read or download free after November from www.educationevolving.orgSome print copies are available free from firstname.lastname@example.org
Clueless in Academe: How schooling obscures the life of the mind
By Gerald Graff
Yale University Press pound;22.50
"Today, teacher quality joins accountability, standards and choice as the focal points - indeed the flashpoints - of educational reform and policy development." That sounds all too familiar, but it is actually the opening sentence (slightly paraphrased) of an American text: the 2004 annual yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Each year, the society chooses a specific issue for extended and multi-authored comment (see the full list on www.edupress.com). One of this year's topics is Developing the Teacher Workforce, and the book is well worth the cover price for those involved in initial teacher training andor continuing professional development.
On the evidence of these essays, the UK is getting a lot right in this area. It is not hamstrung, of course, as the federal government is, by varying approaches between states; for all the instrumentalism of British teachers' standards, they are significantly wider than the common US model that identifies only "verbal ability and subject knowledge" as the hallmarks of the well-qualified teacher.
We are starting to widen our perception of CPD as well: several of the essays in this volume emphasise that this should not be a matter of "improving" individual teachers but of developing groups of teachers in a team or school context.
What we share, according to these studies, is a convenient assumption that the problems facing education boil down to weaknesses in teachers and teaching. This assumption is one of two that underlie Creating the Capacity for Change by Ted Kolderie of Education Evolving, a Minnesota-based project that broadly supports the charter schools approach. Its latest publication is a classic statement of the case, by no means confined to the US, for using vouchers and charter schools to "open up a new schools sector in public education".
The second assumption is that the critical failure of US schools is their apparent inability to produce the sort of skills and attitudes the US needs if it is to maintain its global economic precedence. This was the case made, in almost apocalyptic terms, in the 1983 Congress report, A Nation at Risk, but it isn't examined here in any detail. What is offered instead is a briskly readable and hugely optimistic account of the charter experiments under way in Minnesota and several other states. The arguments are that if you need something substantially different, it's better to go for something entirely new, and that "things that are necessary tend to happen". Kolderie wastes no time examining the converse supposition. It is a business, not a public utility model.
So it will probably be sensible to read The Blackboard and the Bottom Line by Stanford University's Larry Cuban, coming from Harvard University Press in February 2005, as a sort of counterbalance. Cuban is a veteran educationist who accepts neither the assumption that the purposes of education are primarily economic (his subtitle is Why schools can't be businesses) nor the argument that puts the blame for the US's social ills on the failure of its schools.
Clueless in Academe contains a rather different criticism of education, this time of universities in particular. Again, it is a criticism heard on this side of the Atlantic too, but rarely from inside higher education.
Gerald Graff is professor of English and education at the University of Illinois, and his target is the obscurantism that cloaks so much discourse in the liberal arts. The chapter headings: "Unlearning to write", "Paralysis by analysis", "The problem problem", give a flavour of his approach and style. It is apposite and entertaining, and it contains a heartfelt plea that "teaching" (as opposed to "research") should once more be seen as the heart of academe.
It is also, of course, refreshingly intelligible. Sixth form teachers will enjoy it. So will many of their students.