An informative analysis of elementary education that highlights pervasive problems.



Education journalist Wexler (co-author: The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades, 2017, etc.) mounts a compelling critique of American elementary schools, which, she argues, focus exclusively—and futilely—on boosting reading and math test scores, ignoring social studies, history, and science.

As a reaction to the drilling and rote memorization that characterized 19th-century public schools, child-centered progressive education systems began to emphasize “hand-on activities” that would respond to students’ interests and minimize teachers’ roles in “the transmission of knowledge.” By the mid-20th century, the “bitter, long-running conflict known as the Reading Wars” pitted those who supported teaching phonics against “whole language” theorists who believe that children will “naturally pick up the ability to read and write if allowed to choose books and topics that interest them.” Neither approach accounts for content. Wexler distinguishes between decoding, which she asserts can best be taught by “systematic phonics,” and comprehension, which she finds is now taught by systematic strategies—finding the main idea, summarizing—rather than by building a student’s knowledge base. The author finds this lack of teacher-directed knowledge egregious: There is little evidence that practicing skills improves test scores. In contrast, “nine countries that consistently outrank the United States on international assessments all provide their students with a comprehensive, content-rich curricula.” Comprehension is related not to skills but to a student’s familiarity with a subject, Wexler argues, and yet some educators believe that teaching history to young children is “developmentally inappropriate.” Besides citing various studies, the author offers vivid anecdotal evidence from classroom observation of a content-rich curriculum. Like E.D. Hirsch, whose 1987 book Cultural Literacy unleashed “a political firestorm,” Wexler admits the considerable challenge of creating curricula that foster critical thinking abilities, build logically from grade to grade, reflect “a diversity of viewpoints” with texts that “appeal to different constituencies,” and can be assessed by “general knowledge tests.”

An informative analysis of elementary education that highlights pervasive problems.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1355-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Avery

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

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Ill-suited for a book-length work, Kirn’s premise found more effective expression as a feature in The Atlantic.



Slapdash memoir from Time and GQ contributing editor Kirn (The Unbinding, 2007, etc.).

From the moment he aced the SAT at his rural Minnesota high school (he doesn’t reveal his score), the author’s fate, like those of his fellow overachievers, was sealed. “I have…comrades in estrangement,” he writes, “way out here on the bell curve’s leading edge, where our talent for multiple-choice tests has landed us without even the vaguest survival instructions.” Kirn aims to burst the pretensions of the American ideal of meritocracy—astutely analyzed in Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test (1999)—but the narrative is too narrowly focused on the author’s personal ascent through the ranks, from elementary school through Princeton and Oxford. Many of his experiences—the desire to leave Middle America and reinvent himself as a respected intellectual; his rage against affluent roommates who expected him to cough up a percentage of the expense of buying high-end furniture; his humiliation after being savaged by jealous, less-talented students in a writing workshop; his cocaine-and-sex binge with the daughter of a wealthy art dealer—make for evocative, entertaining reading, but it’s unclear how they advance his argument against the meritocracy. Kirn’s strengths are honesty and humor. He admits that he, like many who attend Princeton and other Ivy League schools, was a social climber driven by the desire be a part of the East Coast Elites, not by a hunger for knowledge. He says he faked his way through college, and that enlightenment came after a mental breakdown. Kirn also uses his considerable powers as a novelist to paint vivid scenes of comic debauchery. Some of the drunken, drug-addled escapades are reminiscent of The Ginger Man, but J.P. Donleavy wisely avoided the temptation to cast his antihero’s drunken recklessness as a metaphor.

Ill-suited for a book-length work, Kirn’s premise found more effective expression as a feature in The Atlantic.

Pub Date: May 19, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-385-52128-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2009

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A first-rate case study of the endless struggle for black equality. Baker (The Justice from Beacon Hill, 1991, etc.) portrays the experience of New Orleans as a microcosm of the war over desegregating public schools that should have ended in the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education but quite painfully did not. She delineates the city's complex racial dynamics from the antebellum period through the 1960s, showing how the window of promise that Reconstruction opened for blacks was slammed shut in 1896, when the Supreme Court held in Plessy v. Ferguson that Louisiana could pursue the creation of ``separate but equal'' public facilities. The heart of the story is the decades-long war in the courts and the streets that finally led to the end of legal segregation in the city's public schools, only to be followed by the de facto segregation created by ``white flight'' to private schools and the suburbs. Like most good popular history, this book is character-driven; it demonstrates that events are the product, not simply of impersonal forces, but of individuals facing specific challenges. These include J. Skelly Wright, the white federal judge who issued order after order to implement the Brown decision in his native New Orleans and consequently endured years of vicious attacks; black lawyer A.P. Tureau, who strove tirelessly for the equal justice promised by the Constitution; and Leander Perez, the racist mastermind of white Louisiana's resistance. Despite the ultimate legal victory of those who sought to enforce Brown, the ``Second Battle'' of New Orleans is a tragedy. The city's whites, like those throughout the South in the 1950s and '60s, clung tenaciously and often violently to their system of racial superiority, and the city's economic and social elites only exercised the leadership necessary to bring the battle to an end when it proved bad for business. A vigorous, thorough, but ultimately saddening work. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: May 22, 1996

ISBN: 0-06-016808-0

Page Count: 576

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1996

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