Saturday, May 27, 2006

Book Review, "Our School"

FYI, this is my first book review since A Wrinkle in Time in the third grade.

Joanne Jacobs' website (link right) was one of the first that I came upon when I started blogging. Her site is dedicated to the teaching profession from the point of view that the mainstream education system is failing and that choice is one of the primary vehicles for positive change. Her book, Our School, is the example of what she wants education to be.

The book is a nice read. Joanne was a former Op-Ed columnist for the San Jose Mercury news, and she manages to make the book sound like a good op-ed piece; intelligent, but not snotty and petulant. The majority of the book plays like a feel-good success story for not only a group of low performing kids, but also for a group of people that want education to mean something for kids, namely real success. However, there are parts of the book that become very anti-public education schools, something that made me want to put the book down at the beginning. It angered me for two reasons. First, Jacobs has given up on hard working public educators, basically making them out to be whiney and lazy. The second reason it angered me? Because some teachers are actually like that, which is embarrassing.

Our School is inspiring. The story of Downtown College Prep in San Jose made me feel like I'm doing the right thing trying to institute high standards. The reader goes along with Greg Lippman, co-founder and principal of Downtown Prep, as he creates a small learning community with limited funding and disadvantaged kids. Along the way, the story looks at the community reaction, the student impact, the struggles of the administration, and the classroom adventures with bright new teachers. In the end, I felt like my high standards were justified and that education can work when accountability is implemented.

Which brings me to my problem with the book. Almost immediately, Jacobs points to public high school teachers as people that simply pass the buck to other people, in particular, parents. The book implies, much like her blog, that teachers need to take more responsibility in a students learning and not focus so much on variables that occur outside of the classroom. Just recently Jacobs had a post that stated that teachers who consider themselves more responsible for a child's education are more likely to make a difference in a child's life. Any teacher worth a job should feel that they can make a difference in a student's life, but to ignore the role of the parent in the education process is totally unreasonable. It is so unreasonable that Jacobs acknowledges it later in her book. Not once, but many times! Principal Lippman says it best, "This won't work without parent buy-in". Exactly. That is something that the public schools deal with every day, parents that don't buy into the school. Downtown established that it was a no crap school from the beginning, and parents that wanted to see their child truly succeed were the ones that enrolled. Those that didn't want to learn were told to leave. That was stated by Lippman in the book! Public schools don't necessarily have that luxury. Many parents, most in my opinion, want their kid to graduate high school with "high standards", but will balk with the standards make the kids life difficult. Downtown didn't have to deal with that since they recruited kids with parents that wanted something better. What were to happen if the school didn't recruit supportive parents? The school would fail, just like the principal said. A true advantage for a private school (yes Darren, a private school. Technicalities aside, it can pick and choose students).

That criticism aside, this book is still a good read for teachers that are in this profession to teach the kids how to be functioning adults in society. I read it again after this tough week and it made me better prepared for the meetings I'm going to take this week regarding students grades. The book reminded me of why I love this job; because kids really do want to learn, want to understand, and want to be prepared. The high that you get when you watch a child overcome adversity and succeed is the best in the world. Nothing can beat it. Because of that, I'm going to remind a group of parents that my standards are high, are going to remain that way, and that their children will earn a grade in my class.

Sidenote, check out Education Wonks about the subject of some of the advantages of private schools. I couldn't agree more.
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