Rising Above It All in the Bronx

As Bad As They Say? Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx
By Janet Grossback Mayer
(Fordham University Press, 150 pages, $16.95)

For those who have given up on urban school reform, this book, at first blush, is a genuine antidote. Janet Mayer is so enthusiastic, so dedicated to the needs of her students, so convinced of their potential, and so committed to the American ideal of public education for all, regardless of their ethnicity, socio-economic background or intellectual capacity.

Not that she glosses over the fundamental disparities which inform pre-collegiate education. She is painfully aware of the unevenness of the playing field, citing in very much the same way that Jonathan Kozol did in his book Savage Inequalities the disparity in the opportunity for students attending Scarsdale High School versus Carter High School in the Bronx. (Carter, by the way, is a pseudonym for the dilapidated high school to which she is transferred early in her career).

Indeed there is, at the core of this book, something of a contradiction. Her students, especially those who are highlighted in individual chapters, have succeeded not because of the system, but in spite of it. (As a professional musician, I was particularly drawn to the aspiring young pianist). All of their travails and successes are artfully described: There is no question of their ability to transcend the incredible mediocrity of their environment.

In the latter part of the book, the litany of discontent Janet Mayer cites makes one wonder how anybody can survive in the system. The only person to escape Mayer’s hammer is Howard Gardner, whose multiple intelligences theory, while fashionable in some circles, has never struck me as central to school reform. Everybody and everything is on the author’s hit list. The physical condition of the decaying structure at Carter High School is singled out in excruciating detail – dirty (and smelly) bathrooms, windows which are inoperable, grounds which are littered with drug paraphernalia, characteristics which she implies are not peculiar to Carter.       She mentions class size. A normal teacher’s load is in excess of 200 students a day. In the arts, the teacher-student ratio is even more unfavorable because the arts are classified as an extra, not part of the basic curriculum.

Janet Mayer has a particular disdain for mayoral control. She regards the No Child Left Behind Act as the greatest singular impediment to student learning. She takes particular pleasure in excoriating Rod Paige for the manipulation of test score results when he was Superintendent of Houston. She is decidedly skeptical about Teach for America. She has little use for Arne Duncan and the education policies of the Department of Education. She is not impressed by charter school results.

The list goes on and on, but I believe I have mentioned a sufficient number of her complaints to remind the reader of the glaring dichotomy between student potential–as she defines the term–and the constraints of a system designed for an era when multiculturalism was an unknown term, when homes were more ‘intact’ (when there was a clear division of labor between the wage-earning husband and the stay-at-home wife), and when America’s primacy in the world was relatively unchallenged.

I give the author high marks for extraordinary dedication. There is a truly heroic quality implicit in her work as a teacher. But I am troubled by the scant attention she gives to concrete remedies. She reminds us, for instance, that the number of genuine and durable school turnarounds is depressingly finite. She cites chapter and verse about the millions of dollars of philanthropic money which have been poured into breaking up large comprehensive high schools and creating smaller institutions, with little or no improvement in the level of student academic achievement. I cannot help wondering whether her cynicism about current reform efforts serves merely to highlight the nature of her achievement in rising above it all. It might have been more to the point if she had documented specific examples of school improvement, so needed in this world of infinite complexity and exponential change.

-A. Graham Down

You can find more book reviews by Graham Down here.

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