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Smart Schools, Smart Kids:
Why Do Some Schools Work?

by Edward B. Fiske 
Simon & Schuster 303 pages, $21.95

Savage Inequalities:
Children in America’s Schools

by Jonathan Kozol
Crown, 262 pages, $20

Will the flood of education books ever subside? Since 1983, when the National Commission on Excellence in Education declared us a “nation at risk,” there’s been a deluge. Wags have noted that we are menaced by a rising tide of education reports.

 Most fall into familiar categories. These include “the problem is more serious than you thought”; “things aren’t so bad; the problem’s been exaggerated”; “the problem is plenty serious but I’m the only one who has diagnosed it correctly”; “the diagnosis is easy but there’s no chance of a cure”; and “the solution is already underway, if only we were clever enough to seize it.” 

The volumes at hand are good specimens of a couple of these genres. Longtime New York Times education editor Edward B. Fiske is bullish about changes already visible here and there around the landscape. He sees not to show that American education is in a hopeless mess but, rather, to demonstrate that we possess the ideas and techniques that, we need, if only we would pull them all together. 

Veteran social critic Jonathan Kozol, by contrast, insists that we’ve been barking up the wrong tree altogether. What really ails American education, says he, is that we spend more to school rich kids than poor. Kozol doesn’t have much truck with the notion that outcomes matter more than inputs, nor has he any patience for the proposition that the delivery system is so inefficient that added resources cannot be counted on to boost educational results. 

Both books are deftly written, full of examples, and—for this field—relatively jargon-free. But there the likeness ends. Fiske hits the ball right up the center of the doctrinal fairway of contemporary education reform. The ideas he espouses and the strategies he admires are the stuff of myriad conferences, studies, pilot projects, and foundation grants. They are compatible with the recommendations of many of today’s eminent education gurus, people like Ernest Boyer, James Comer, and Theodore Sizer, who get a lot of ink in this volume and emerge as virtual heroes. 

To his credit, Fiske also pays some attention to concepts like accountability and choice, ways of shifting the emphasis from inputs to outputs, and mechanisms for transferring power from the traditional school establishment to its customers. He’s an honest journalist, not about to ignore important developments even if he isn’t wild about some of them. Where his engine really begins to race, however, is when he takes up such contemporary enthusiasms of the education profession as school restructuring, site-based management, technology, and parent participation. 

These are significant ideas and—as Fiske shows—they appear to work well in places where people go to the trouble to install and operate them correctly. But these are also painstaking, gradual, school-by-school strategies that originate within the education profession and are apt to succeed only where uncommonly gifted, motivated, and persistent professionals are responsible for implementing them. With some 110,000 schools in the United States, I find such approaches too slow and spotty to rely on as a general reform scheme. 

The central idea in Fiske’s book—and a good one it is, even if he repeats it too often—is that U.S. schools should jettison the “factory” approach that has characterized them since the nineteenth century, and transform themselves into “smart schools,” places where children are “taught to think for themselves and to generate new information.” This shift has its counterparts in business, health care, even the modern military. That it makes sense for education is illustrated by examples Fiske gives of places where it is already working. But those tend to be solitary schools, sometimes isolated classrooms. A few entire communities are making this transformation on a larger scale, and the statewide education reform strategy recently launched in Kentucky contains elements of this approach, but it’s a long way from having conquered the U.S. education establishment. Fiske’s book may give it an injection of fresh vigor. At least he’s promoting an idea that, when successful, helps kids to learn more. 

The same cannot be said be said of Jonathan Kozol, who has made a well-publicized and lucrative career as a professional outrage merchant, of which the present volume is but the latest example. Every few years, beginning in 1967 with Death at an Early Age, Kozol has brought forth another book exposing what he regards as some grave injustice of American society. Most have had something to do with education or literacy. But his last book before this (Rachel and Her Children, 1988) was about homelessness. And a decade earlier, he wrote a paean to Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution (Children of the Revolution, 1978), a volume not uncharacteristic of American leftists whose rapturous visits to Communist lands over the years led them to assure readers that they had glimpsed the future and that it was working remarkably well, thank you. (“My impulse, in the face of what I feel and see and hear within the schools and streets of Cuba,” Kozol gushed, “is to throw all caution to the winds and to speak solely of the decent aspirations and the eloquent ideals that have already been made real.”) 

Critics and commentators lap this sort of thing right up, of course. Kozol’s tear-jerking subject matter and unctuous, aggrieved, moralizing prose style are exquisitely suited to the politics and prejudices of those who write about social issues (and often about books). Hence he is regularly lionized as a champion of the oppressed and the dispossessed, a writer who “sears the conscience,” is passionate and humane, honest and terrifying, and so on. This reception, renewed every three or four years, has bestowed upon Kozol ample media appearances, occasional nominations for writing prizes, and a fine income from book sales and fat speaking fees. 

Were he engaged in a harmless pursuit, there would be little need to say more. The pattern, after all, is quite familiar. He is a writer of a certain sort who picks topics of a certain sort and then says wholly predictable things about them. Tell me his next subject and, while I cannot be sure what examples he will proffer as evidence, I’ll wager that I can outline his major arguments and conclusions before he puts pen to paper. So could anyone who spends an evening with this volume and its predecessors. 

Kozol is far from innocuous, however. At best, the effect of the present work on the national education debate will be to blur the focus of reform efforts, deflect energy, and add static. At worst, he may set back serious improvement by several years. 

Until the 1983 “nation at risk” report, the main concern of U.S. education critics, Kozol among them, was to foster greater “equity” along several dimensions: racial integration, fuller participation of the handicapped, extra help for disadvantaged youngsters, universal access to preschool and college, and more equal spending throughout whole states and the nation. The customary gauges of progress involved inputs, resources, and services: expenditures per pupil, class size, participation in this or that program, and suchlike. Scant attention was paid to outcomes, least of all to whether American children were learning as much and as well as they should. 

All this began to change under the pressure of the “excellence movement.” Results came to matter more than intentions, services, and spending levels. It was the dearth of solid results, after all, that had led the Commission on Excellence to declare that a “rising tide of mediocrity” was flooding our national parlor. Because of that alarm, and the changed mind-set that followed, deepening the skills and boosting the knowledge of young Americans have gradually emerged as our foremost education reform priorities. 

This portends big changes in the education delivery system, of course, above all in its standards and expectations, but it does not necessarily mean large infusions—or redistribution—of resources. For we have also come to understand the implications of an important body of research that began with James Coleman in 1966 and has been extended and amplified by such scholars as Eric Hanushek and Herbert J. Walberg: evidence that there is no solid link between the resources that go into a school and the learning that trickles out the other end. 

That’s not to say that education is free, that schools can function without essential goods and services, or that the reforms we may need to undertake will all be cost free. Nor is anyone defending third world conditions in U.S. schools. Rather, what we learn from the research is that channeling more money into U.S. public education without exacting major alterations in how it goes about its business cannot be expected to yield loftier levels of learning among our students. The great challenges of education reform, therefore, are to spell out the results we want to achieve; to determine what must be done—in school and beyond—if we’re to have a reasonable chance of achieving them; then to gird ourselves for the battles that will rage as the changes we need to make collide with an entrenched and stodgy system. Along the way we will, of course, also have to provide the wherewithal. But that’s not the main problem we face, nor will solving it erase the harder ones. 

Just as this line of thinking seemed finally to be embedding itself in the consciousness of elected officials, business leaders, editorial writers, even a goodly fraction of the education profession, along comes Kozol screeching that we’ve got it all wrong. We haven’t defined the problem correctly and therefore, of course, we’ve been pursuing the wrong solution. 

What needs fixing, Kozol says, with all the fervor of a fundamentalist residing in a time warp, is inequality of resources. His book consists mostly of vivid contrasts between schools in prosperous suburbs and their urban counterparts not many miles away. On the one hand, he takes readers into the dismal conditions of East St. Louis, of Chicago’s South Side and North Lawndale neighborhoods, of the North Bronx, Camden, and San Antonio. There he finds—precisely as we knew he would—devastated communities, crumbling schools, and frustrated teachers facing severe shortages of essential classroom supplies and instructional materials. For comparison, Kozol journeys lo places like Winnetka, Rye, Princeton, and Alamo Heights, where again he finds exactly what everyone expected: well-resourced teachers in well-equipped schools, and tranquil classrooms in posh neighborhoods. 

Given this material, it’s no great challenge for a writer of Kozol’s skill to evoke a sense of wounded outrage at the injustices being dealt to children by these inequalities. (A similar sensibility could be touched by comparing the houses they live in, the playgrounds they play on, the food they eat, or the health care they receive.) And there’s no denying that conditions in a number of schools are wretched, or that it’s vaguely un-American for youngsters in some communities to have access to so many more resources than their agemates down the road. 

So equalize, Kozol insists. Direct lots more money to schools and communities that lack it. If it’s not possible to boost the total, then play Robin Hood. Take resources from wealthy communities and send them to poor neighborhoods. 

I have no problem with spending more on education. We’ve been doing it for decades. We’re spending 34 percent more (per pupil) in real dollars this year than we were in 1980, and I think that’s swell. Nor do I have any objection to equalizing the sums we spend. In fact, that’s been gradually happening for decades, too, as states became the largest source of education revenues and localities moved into second place, and as school finance equalization lawsuits and property tax limitation referenda have succeeded in one jurisdiction after another. The upshot has been a slow but steady trend toward greater uniformity of school spending, at least within state borders. (Federal education aid programs, tied as several of them are to the incidence of poverty, have a modest equalizing effect among states, but these comprise a very small part of total school spending. Hence interstate differences remain wide.) 

I do not doubt that we will continue in these directions. There’s just one big problem: more—and more equal—school spending, in and of itself, won’t produce better education. (Lesser problems surround the redistributive strategy, too. What about handicapped youngsters, whose “special” education costs more than average? What about states where leveling school expenditures actually reduces the amounts spent in big cities that are presently above the statewide per pupil average?) Money doesn’t buy quality—not if we judge quality by how much and how well our children learn. We’ve had at least three decades of experience, costing us hundreds of billions in additional school dollars but yielding educational results so weak and flaccid that the Excellence Commission was moved to remark that had an unfriendly foreign nation done this to us we would have deemed it an act of war. 

Kozol fingers me in his book as one who says that money doesn’t matter. (He also delights, in print and speeches, in trying to demonize me because my kids attended private school.) That’s not quite right. The problem with the money strategy in education is that it doesn’t boost pupil skills and knowledge. This is only important, of course, if you believe the central failing of American education is that our youngsters aren’t learning enough. If that is the main problem, as I think by now is obvious, money is no solution. (That’s not the same, of course, as saying that none of the solutions will cost money.) What we must do instead is set standards, insist on accountability for results, furnish everyone with reliable information on the performance of their children and schools, permit multiple educational providers to compete for clients—another important form of accountability—and generally transfer power over important education decisions from producers to consumers. There are eight or ten other changes we should also make in the delivery system, including those sketched in Fiske’s useful book. And some of these will cost a dollar or two, perhaps billions. 

Many are radical changes, but Americans have been saying to pollsters that they’re ready for sweeping alterations in education—and willing to pay for them, so long as the extra investment can be expected to yield greater dividends. Fiske helps us understand what some of those changes will look like, and thus gives the reform enterprise a boost. Kozol, alas, by demanding more of the same while wrapping himself in the (increasingly threadbare) raiments of moral outrage, points us in the wrong direction altogether. That it’s the only direction on his compass is no surprise. In 1992, however, it’s also no excuse.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. is Professor of Education & Public Policy, Vanderbilt University, director of the Educational Excellence Network, and author, most recently, of We Must Take Charge: Our Schools & Our Future (Free Press).