POISONED APPLE by Betty Wallace


How Our Schools' Reliance on the 'Bell-Curve' Creates Frustration, Mediocrity, and Failure
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 A faulty diagnosis of what ails our schools, and an account of one woman's inconclusive attempt to cure them. Unlike many other proponents of educational reform, Wallace, former superintendent of the Vance County school district in North Carolina, and Graves, a reporter for the Oregonian, identify the bell curve as the major culprit in our educational woes. This statistical tool, they say, fails to accurately describe phenomena controlled by human will, such as achievement in school. The authors feel that schools' reliance on on this faulty measure results in lower standards, since we strive towards the middle, rather than the top, of the curve: textbooks are homogenized and lifeless because they are geared to the average reading ability of each grade; and since the curve presupposes the inability of certain students to achieve the average, these children are tracked early on into basic-level courses. But Wallace and Graves have merely set up a straw man. Standards are low, but the bell curve only describes that, it doesn't cause it. Textbooks are dull, but unnecessasrily so--even writing geared to the curve's center can be lively. And students who are tracked into basic classes are generally not challenged because teachers' reduced expectations cause them to give up on these kids altogether. Most of the book is devoted to Wallace's experience in Vance County, a poor and underachieving school district where Wallace was allowed to try her reforms. She disposed of grade levels and grading and allowed students to progress at their own pace. (Innovative schools such as the Paint Branch Elementary School in Maryland have had success with this more fluid system.) Unfortunately, Wallace only stayed a couple of years because of political infighting (described at length). She claims small successes--measured, ironically, against the reviled curve--but it is impossible to determine success or failure of an educational reform program in such a short time. Simplistic and self-congratulatory.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-312-11876-7
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1995