Byline: Martin Morse Wooster, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
How are our public schools doing? Are schools improving or are they getting worse? Two recent education books provide starkly different answers to these questions. In The American Dream and the Public Schools (Oxford University Press , $35, 201 pages), Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick, who see themselves as centrists, argue that the schools are fundamentally sound. J. Martin Rochester, a conservative, counters in Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids, and the Attack on Excellence (Encounter, $26.95, 242 pages) that schools are bad and getting worse. Both books have their flaws, though Mr. Rochester's is perhaps closer to the truth.
Mrs. Hochschild, a Harvard government professor, and Mr. Scovronick, a Princeton public affairs professor, examine the schools through the prism of "the American dream," which they define as equal opportunity enabling students to achieve individual excellence. To make their case, they have consumed a mountain of educational research (their bibliography takes up 51tightly spaced pages.)
Sometimes Mrs. Hochschild and Mr. Scovronick are predictable. They believe the funding gap between rich and poor schools should be trimmed, and are only mildly critical of teachers' unions. But they also believe that "the public school system cannot be expected to, and should not, contribute to the fragmentation of the society it is trying to unite." This leads them not only to oppose the teaching of creationism and explicitly religious curricula, but also be surprisingly fierce foes of bilingual education and of the more virulent strains of Afrocentrism.
"The American Dream and the Public Schools" is illustrative of how the education establishment has changed. On issues of school finance (spending, salaries, school choice) little has changed. But on cultural questions, the ground has shifted away from the left-wing goal of cultural balkanization. This is a hopeful development.
If Mrs. Hochschild and Mr. Scovronick write from the viewpoint of educational researchers, Mr. Rochester, a political scientist at the University of Missouri (St. Louis), writes from the viewpoint of the parental activist. Mr. Rochester explains that he began his interest in education by worrying that the local schools in Clayton, Mo., were doing a poor job educating his children. He began to contribute op-eds to the local newspapers, and then expanded on these to provide a critique of the education establishment.
Mr. Rochester's book is far too autobiographical, and tells his readers more than they want to know about the schools in St. Louis' better suburbs. He takes this tactic because "the problem of American education is one that at its core differs surprisingly little from one community to the next." But it's far from clear that this proposition is true. Parents in Anacostia and Bethesda in the Washington area may both complain about the schools but their complaints are for fundamentally different reasons. …