Book Alert

Change: Closing the
Test Score Gap.
Edited by Paul Peterson (Rowman
& Littlefield).

In the controversial 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision,
finding for the constitutionality of race-conscious college
admissions policies, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day
O’Connor declared that increasing the number of minority
students with high grades and test scores meant, “We expect
that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no
longer be necessary.” Her pronouncement threw a hot potato
into the lap of America’s K–12 schools.

In Generational
, editor Paul Peterson (who also
edits this journal) and a stellar lineup of scholars examine the
causes of the racial achievement gap and ponder what it will take
to close it. In his provocative introduction, Peterson critiques
the cultural changes of the past 15 years, setting the tone for
this volume. Shrugging aside pieties about desegregation,
preschool, and the notion that schools serving black children are
struggling against insuperable odds, authors such as Roland Fryer,
Steven Levitt, David Armor, Ronald Haskins, and Derek Neal describe
the limited value of favored remedies and provide concrete
alternatives to the status quo. This careful volume provides a
roadmap for policymakers and educators who are serious about
responding to O’Connor’s charge.


Divided by God: America’s
Church-State Problem—And What We Should Do About It.
Noah Feldman (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

Back from an overseas stint helping draft a
new Iraqi constitution, Noah Feldman, a prolific NYU law professor,
offers new advice on interpreting our own
Constitution. He worries that Americans, including those on the Supreme
Court, are increasingly divided on the proper relationship between
religion and government. To minimize tensions, he would have us allow
more room for religious symbols in public debate while banning public
funds for religious institutions and activities, including vouchers for
religious schools.

Feldman’s compromise points in the
opposite direction from recent Supreme Court precedent, and he
argues for it mainly on historical grounds. He shows that many of
the framers believed all tax-funded support for religious
institutions violated citizens’ liberty of conscience.
Meanwhile, the ugly 19th-century debates over the funding of
Catholic schools, in his view, reveal the drawbacks of letting the
government determine which religious institutions should receive
public support.

True enough, but Feldman fails to cast as
critical an eye on the alternative, which is to force all those who
can’t afford a private education into public schools, where
ongoing conflicts over the teaching of evolution, school prayer,
and other religion-infused issues have done little to foster
religious harmony.


School Commercialism: From Democratic
Ideal to Market Commodity.
Alex Molnar

Ardent market skeptic Alex Molnar lambastes
firms like Pizza Hut and Papa John’s for providing rewards to
students who meet their reading goals or earn passing grades. On
the one hand, this is a semihysterical volume with chapter titles
like “Eat, Drink, and Be Diabetic: Using Schools to Promote
Illness”. On the other hand, Molnar’s effort
provides plenty of data, and that part of the book
is more useful than the conspiracy-mongering. Many readers from across
the ideological spectrum will sympathize with Molnar’s concern
that “commercialism has transformed American childhood and the
institutions that serve children.” More troubling is his
suggestion that for-profit tutors, virtual schooling, and
education-management organizations are destructive forces that are no
different from efforts to expand school-based marketing.
Ultimately, Molnar doesn’t propose any solutions that are
not condemnations of “corporations” and
“privatization”—nor is it clear that he really
believes that troubled schools can be “democratizing civic
institutions” if only we can roll back contemporary


Schooling America: How the Public Schools
Meet the Nation’s Changing Needs.
Patricia Albjerg Graham (Oxford).

Education historian Patricia Albjerg Graham
has penned a sweeping, readable history of American schooling

in the 20th century. She argues that schooling has shifted over
the decades from an emphasis on “assimilation” in the
early 1900s; to a focus on access in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s;
to an embrace of achievement in the most recent era. Schooling America also
traces the evolution of a chaotic, autonomous system of higher
education to one marked increasingly by a commitment to
accountability and the ideal of the research university.

This is a volume marked by personal touches. In a
chapter beginning in 1900, the author gives us a description of her
father’s first day of school. But Graham also pays much attention
to individual reformers and decisionmakers. The book is more notable
for its scholarship than for the author’s cautious conclusions,
such as her observation that report cards for elementary, secondary,
and higher education may not be worthwhile. Her only clear programmatic
recommendation is that the nation needs to invest more in education
research. Graham’s book may not do much to illuminate the future,
but it provides a cogent look at how we got to the present.


Tough Love for Schools: Essays on
Competition, Accountability, and Excellence.
Edited by Frederick M. Hess (AEI Press).

Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute
Education Next), has compiled a rewarding set of 20 essays (several of
them coauthored) addressing four urgent education
issues—leadership and public education; competition and
accountability; the politics of school reform; teachers and
principals—and a miscellaneous category that he terms
“the road ahead.” His extensive introduction includes
an uncommonly candid (and germane) personal history that traces the
evolution of his thinking on these challenges. Although such
collections are invariably uneven, and some entries sit awkwardly
alongside others written at different times for different
audiences, Hess is a stimulating thinker whose intellectual hegira
and policy evolution are worth watching. He’s also a lucid
and prolific writer. Particularly worthy here are his insights on
“what’s public about public education,” his
review of both the promise and the limits of school choice, and his
formulation of a tough-love strategy for reforming institutions
that are constitutionally averse to change.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College