Book Alert

Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care
by John H. McWhorter (Gotham Books)

“We must have the attitude that every child in America, regardless of where they’re raised or how they’re born, can learn,” President George W. Bush once observed.

The president talks funny. So do we all. McWhorter has thought through the larger implications of this simple fact: Written speech is nothing like spoken speech. The written word, at its best, is ordered and logical; spoken language, if not prepared in advance, will wander into incoherent, ungrammatical waters.

But America, unlike other nations, is trying to replace written speech with spoken speech, glorifying the latter as less elitist and more in touch with the nation’s diversity. The consequences are dreadful, says McWhorter, not only for our language but also for our civil order. As a linguist, McWhorter knows that dictionaries and the rules of grammar neither can nor should imprison a language. But he explains to teachers why students need to be taught how to write properly. It is an unnatural, but rewarding, act.

Judging School Discipline: The Crisis of Moral Authority
by Richard Arum (Harvard Press).

Fifteen years ago, Gerald Grant’s influential The World We Created at Hamilton High illustrated how efforts to expand the rights of students had undermined educators’ ability to run their schools. Grant ended his account on an optimistic note, suggesting that new compromises had created a satisfactory equilibrium. In a compelling new account, however, Richard Arum, a New York University sociologist, argues otherwise. Drawing on his analysis of more than 1,200 court cases and decades of data, Arum finds that overreaching by the courts has crippled the moral authority of educators. The mere threat of lawsuits, Arum argues, keeps teachers and administrators from taking the steps necessary to ensure safe and orderly schools. He concludes with several sensible proposals for reducing disorder at the school level and for enhancing the authority of educators.

School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School
by Edward Humes (Harcourt)

What makes Whitney High School so special? Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes immersed himself in the life of this renowned magnet school in Cerritos, California, to find out. The school is not notable for having extra money or a first-class facility; it is housed in a no-frills building, and its per-pupil spending is the lowest in the district. Nor is it distinguished by the quality of its teaching staff, which Humes describes as “at best uneven.”

Visionary leadership clearly plays a role in fostering an expectation that all Whitney graduates will attend college-many of them at elite universities. Strangely, however, Humes places less emphasis on the fact that the school accepts only the district’s strongest students, who must maintain a C average or return to their neighborhood schools.

Humes’ account is engaging, but beware of journalists peddling policy advice based on the experiences of one highly atypical school and a tendentious reading of the research on test-based accountability.

No Child Left Behind? The Politics and Practices of School Accountability
edited by Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West (Brookings)

The extensive accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) have provoked much cheerleading and hand-wringing, but not much reasoned analysis. This edited collection, which pulls together a series of studies first presented at Harvard University, is a welcome contribution to the conversation about NCLB. The studies focus on the national politics of accountability; state, local, and international evidence regarding the effects of high-stakes accountability; and topics such as charter school performance and the consequences of disaggregating data by students’ race and ethnicity. The overall thesis is that political pressures are likely to soften the harsher edges of NCLB, but that even temperate accountability is likely to be beneficial.

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