The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve
by Peg Tyre
(Henry Holt, 256 pages, $26)
When I retired from the Council for Basic Education in 1994, I told the Board of Directors that we had achieved “rhetorical compliance.” There seemed to be national agreement that our schools, particularly our urban schools, needed improvement (explicitly in terms of higher academic expectations for all students) if America were to remain competitive in the world at large. Since then, millions of dollars have been spent on school reform, accompanied by a goodly number of books devoted to the same topic. The Good School is one more example of this litany of concern.
What makes this book different, however, is that it is jargon-free, and as the subtitle suggests, aimed specifically at parents. It is not that there is much here which is new, but it is certainly refreshing to have a book reflecting the lay person’s needs. Indeed, at the end of every chapter there is a list of things to do. Many of them are commonsensical, but they are invariably useful and to the point.
The chapter titles are suggestive: “The pre-school scramble” reminds us that pre-school education has been grotesquely neglected at the hands of educational theorists. While the overarching question continues to be the extent to which play can be an instrument of learning, it is welcome to see proper attention being paid to this arena. New advances in neuroscience, as Peg Tyre suggests, have enabled scientists to see more clearly what is happening inside a child’s brain.
I like particularly the chapter on testing. Despite the enormous appeal of standardized tests to a data-driven society, the author clearly understands their limitations, to wit, ”Making a decision about whether to send your child to a particular school on the basis of test scores is rather like deciding which car to buy based on the color of the paint.” As a former member of the College Board staff, I may be guilty of educational heresy. But Peg Tyre is quite right in pointing out that most standardized tests are designed to minimize grading costs rather than be a thoughtful assessment of what the student knows at any given time.
Peg Tyre is also right about class size. Smaller is not necessarily better (unless one is talking about a quasi-tutorial situation) despite the conventional wisdom to the contrary. In addition, regarding the crucially important issue of reading instruction, she reviews the debilitating effects of the Reading Wars (phonics vs. whole-word). She concludes, however, that only recently has science-based reading instruction, such as the “Literacy How” approach, proved beneficial for all children, except for the severely dyslexic. She is particularly insistent on the activist role the concerned parent should play to validate the child’s progress towards predetermined goals.
As far as mathematics is concerned, Peg Tyre points out that the traditional view that mathematical aptitude is a specialized talent is the greatest single impediment to raising levels of mathematical achievement. Asian students, she insists, are taught that mathematical ability is within everybody’s reach. “The harder you work, the better you will be.”
Inevitably, a chapter is devoted to the issue of teaching. Of course she is correct to underscore the crucial importance of “every child having a good teacher every year.” And she is also right when she compares the native ability of teachers in other countries (viz. Korea, Singapore, Finland, etc.) where teachers are typically drawn from the top 25% of their class. However, given the lack of prestige that attaches to elementary school teaching in America, there is often little hope that parents can do much to guarantee superior class-room instruction, in spite of examples like the KIPP schools, which she specifically cites.
In summary, The Good Student is an excellent compilation of what we currently know about best practices. However, I would be remiss if I did not point out the obvious: that is, few families, particularly in cities, are sufficiently coherent to make a systematic dent in a system controlled by “educationists.” The influence of school boards is diminishing at the hands of increased state and federal government mandates. While this book is largely focused on elementary and middle schools, it is the high school that is in the greatest need of institutional renaissance. It is difficult, therefore, to determine the potential influence of Peg Tyre’s book, notwithstanding its conviction, its logic and its timeliness.
-A. Graham Down