This is book that you should rush out and buy/read. The author, Samuel E. Abrams is currently the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Teachers College, Columbia. When I first saw the title and the source, I did not think it would be a book I would be enthusiastic about.
However, I discovered immediately that the author taught for a number of years at NYC’s Beacon High School, which I know and respect. So I decided maybe my biases were unfair. Indeed I was wrong to be wary. Chapter One should be a must for all those who want (or should want) to understand the period we are in and the issues confronting us. If you can’t imagine reading the whole book—start there. Then decide.
Actually every chapter that follows is important including one on charters with a focus on KIPP—which Abrams is more sympathetic to than I am. But like the rest of the book he presents the issues with lots of documentation and data, and he presents KIPP fairly. He covers considerable territory with some historical background on every topic he deals with for those who love it. His final chapters on schooling in other distant lands focuses on the Nordic nations with a lot, of course, on Finland.
I could quibble with this or that, I won’t until after you’ve had a chance to read it.
The books gave me insights that make me realize the task we face here in the United Statesis in some ways harder. Most of the other countries he describes—and in fact most of the nations in the world—are more homogeneous than the United States. In addition, as Abrams reminds us over and over, none of the nations that get compared with us have anywhere close to the inequality in wealth of the USA, nor the degree of poverty. This shocks me over and over again. It is easier to imagine that what you want for your child should be available to all children when you imagine that all children could be yours. The “others” are too foreign—in all senses—for too many Americans. It is easier to create a sense of grievance—an us versus them mindset in the USA. It is easier to believe that some kinds of families don’t deserve to get the best because they will only misuse it, squander it, or it wouldn’t even be good for them—they need something different (and cheaper).
The countries he describes, he argues, have a very strong sense of the communal good and thus have never had as many alternatives to public education for the rich. And, of course, these are all very much smaller countries and don’t face the additional complications that come with being a nation of sub-nations (states). They are built on assumptions of trust and mutual respect which is far less common in our country. Even the voucher system that Sweden adopted (which startled me) is quite another thing in a nation of so much equality and homogeneity. Of course, this actually suggests we need schools to create trust more than they do. We need schools that help build such trust and sense of shared and common good even more than these nations do but of course are too distrustful to do so on the scale needed. Chicken and egg dilemma.
This accounts, perhaps, for why Abrams never discusses the role of schools in the development of democratic norms and habits. He seems to take democracy for granted when discussing the Nordic school tradition, and perhaps also because democracy is so rarely used as a rationale for or against the current reforms.
Among other reasons to read this book is that it is a good read. He writes well, and while you may choose to skip around here and there, now and then, the power of his story will, I think, reach you—and help you the next time you get into an argument on behalf of the reforms you believe in.