Many visions of the American dream

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Diversity and Distrust: civic education in a multicultural democracy. By Stephen Macedo. Harvard University Press pound;16.50.

Who Controls Teachers' Work: power and accountability in America's schools. By Richard M Ingersoll. Harvard University Press pound;26.50.

Practice Makes Perfect: a critical study of learning to teach. By Deborah Pritzman. University of New York Press $21.95.

Critical Voices in School Reform:students living through change. Edited by Beth C Rubin and Elena M Silva. RoutledgeFalmer pound;24.99.

Discourse, Power and Resistance: challenging the rhetoric of contemporary education. Edited by Jerome Satterthwaite, Elizabeth Atkinson and Ken Gale. Trentham Books pound;18.99.

In England and Wales, "citizenship" was an afterthought: a bolt-on addition to a simplistic national curriculum. In the United States, though, it was fundamental. Schools' central purpose was to turn the children of immigrants into good American citizens. E pluribus unum, as the national motto puts it. Out of many, we shall make one.

How to reconcile this with the American passion for individual, local and cultural liberty was always a contested issue - and never more so than now.

In Diversity and Distrust, Stephen Macedo argues persuasively that multiculturalism, religious fundamentalism and a blind belief in market forces have come together to weaken the US's faith in the civic purposes of its schools. Increasingly, education is seen as an economic or positional good. "Diversity and choice" (shades of New Labour) is the spirit of the age; the dream of the common school is dying.

This may be inevitable, Macedo says, but it is also dangerous. Increasing social and religious diversity will make civic education more, not less, important; so will the growing inequalities it brings. Besides, "it is simply not obvious that the difficulties of sustaining responsible self-government have yet been solved". Like democracy, citizenship won't take care of itself.

But how can you reinvigorate the common school when parental choice (and neighbourhood zoning) have largely destroyed it? For Macedo, "controlled choice", exercised through publicly funded but carefully regulated vouchers, may be one solution. It's what he calls a "toughly liberal" answer.

Who, meanwhile, controls the teachers? In the US, as in the United Kingdom, this is an old, old question. Are schools too centralised, too bureaucratic and too controlled; or are they too local, uncoordinated and unaccountable? The pendulum of reform oscillates between the two positions.

But both views, according to Richard M Ingersoll, are seriously flawed.

Both start from the premise that the purpose of schools is to deliver academic instruction and high test scores. Wrong, says Ingersoll. Schools also have, crucially, a socialising purpose - and the conventional arguments about control ignore it.

So top-down accountability and compliance reforms are likely to be ineffective and counterproductive. Teachers are a source of human, social and even financial capital in schools; if we fail to recognise this, we make matters worse. The solution? Empower teachers, as well as parents and administrators. Power with responsibility: the educators' privilege, but how to set about preparing teachers to use it? How do you train them? That has been a matter of argument for 50 years in the US. Deborah Pritzman's Practice Makes Perfect is a new edition of a classic contribution to the debate.

She has little time for the pseudo-certainties of competencies and standards. Her argument is that the essence of learning to teach, like the essence of learning itself, is uncertainty; that teaching practice should be less a rehearsal for the real thing than a space where "aspects of the teacher's work, world, paradoxes and dilemmas become a resource". The framework is an impressionistic study of teaching practice in a typical US high school: it is too circumscribed, she says, by the system's expectations and convention. The young teachers she describes are, to put it kindly, struggling, "caught between the mandates of institutional life and their own convictions and dreams". Interesting. Has teacher education failed them - or should they simply not be teachers?

Critical Voices in School Reform is about the views of the people at the very centre of the debate - the students. Half of the case studies feature reform attempts that are seen as failures and half describe successes - a publicly funded "small school" in Brooklyn, for instance; a miniature "working government" in an inner-city New Jersey school. The unsurprising lesson is that students are like their teachers - change you do together works much better than change that is done to you.

That is very much the tenor of Discourse, Power and Resistance, a collection of UK conference papers on the theme "challenging the rhetoric of contemporary education". Not strictly American, true - but among these spirited papers about the rocks and hard places of contemporary education is one by David Hursh that neatly encapsulates the US debate. It deals with the introduction of "high stakes testing" in New York - highly centralised, educationally dubious yet universally acclaimed. To understand the acclaim, he says, you have to look behind the words to the discourses that underpin them. It's angry and convincing - a powerful case, perhaps, for better social education.

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