Thursday, November 13, 2008

Smart Kids, Bad Schools

One of the things I’m trying to do here on Gifted Exchange is review more education books. With that in mind, I’ve been reading Brian Crosby’s new book, Smart Kids, Bad Schools. Crosby, a veteran English teacher, launched himself onto the education reform scene with his book The $100,000 Teacher, and now he’s back with 38 essays on ways American education can be improved.

Some are very good. For instance, Crosby founded the American Education Association, which seeks to be more like the American Medical Association than a union. The idea is to make teaching a true professional career with very high standards, get rid of tenure, demand results and then pay teachers accordingly. Indeed, Crosby would prefer to see larger class sizes for a simple reason: there aren’t enough excellent teachers to go around. Better have 40 kids with a stellar $120,000/year teacher than 2 20-kid classes with $60,000 mediocre teachers. He likes the idea of more field trips, of getting rid of middle school, of hiring MBA principals rather than simply promoting teachers looking to get out of the classroom. He notes that special education funding is grossly disproportionate to the funding other children receive, and that gifted education is massively undervalued. “Why doesn’t the issue of equity apply to bright kids?” he asks. He also points out that “People might be surprised to learn how often teachers of advanced classes give their students more work at a faster rate than their nonadvanced counterparts and call it a day. As if the amount of work and how fast you do it determines how smart you are.” When he was first assigned to teach advanced students, he notes that he was not given any special training on enriching or deepening the curriculum.

He understands that this is problem so... I wish I liked this book more, but I just didn't. Many of the 38 essays contain long anecdotes about particular injustices Crosby has suffered over the years, which may or may not be relevant to larger educational woes (memo to Crosby: everyone hates meetings – people in corporate America too! Plenty of people have bad bosses, not just teachers working under incompetent bureaucrats). The essays often suffer from a lack of focus; the one on improving gifted education manages to hook in GPA inflation, how much money the AP organization is making, awards for perfect attendance, goody bags at children’s parties and so forth.

Also, Crosby cites plenty of statistics, but has no end notes or foot notes explaining where he got them. That’s a problem because some of them are highly suspect. He claims that “one study on giftedness discovered that 15 to 20 percent of gifted kids drop out of school, mainly due to boredom.” We examined that statistic at length a few weeks ago. Also, there’s this paragraph: “Smart kids are the country’s most valuable resource. And how does the U.S. government reward such talent? By continuing to underfund and cut gifted programs, rewarding these bright young people with two cents out of every dollar spent on education.” The thought is right, but the only U.S. (federal) government funding for gifted education is the Jacob K. Javits program. It usually gets about $10 million in funding, out of the roughly $50 billion federal education budget (actually, the budget is bigger now, but that’s the number I’m guessing he’s using). This comes out to two cents of every $100, not every dollar. These silly errors undermine the book's authority.

Furthermore, for all his good ideas, he’s got some really bad ones too, like that because most homeschoolers are white, “race may play a large unspoken role in [these] parents opting out of public schools.” He also claims that “except for religious reasons and spiffy uniforms, there is no sound argument for educating children in private schools. Which environment mirrors the real world, public or private school? Do parents choose where their children will work and who they will work with?” This just totally misses the point. Public schools bear no resemblance to the real world either. In what company do employees only work with folks who have a birthday within 12 months of each other? He says that “no private school has ever won the U.S. Academic Decathlon since its inception in 1980” as evidence that private schools are no better than public schools. I have never heard of the U.S. Academic Decathlon, and I’ve been writing about education for awhile. This proves nothing.

So, the verdict? Check it out of the library or skim the table of contents in the bookstore - I'm not sure I'd buy it for your personal library.

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