Handbook maps out strategies for changing US schools

Last Chance for Our Children: How You Can Help Save Our Schools, by Bill Honig. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 216 pp. $12.95. Bill Honig's excellent new book may mark the beginning of a ``second wave'' of literature about education reform -- one that examines the ``how-to's'' of reform.

The ``first wave'' came between 1982 and 1984, and it included such stalwart works as Theodore Sizer's ``Horace's Compromise'' and John Goodlad's ``A Place Called School.'' In all, this wave comprised several dozen books and reports -- a body of work so solid and dazzling as to practically constitute a genre of its own. They made an irrefutable case that public schools were indeed ailing.

As writer Walter Karp pointed out last June in a Harper's review of this literature, schools suffer from gross political and administrative featherbedding. These two blights result in overcrowded classes in which students are not taught the most basic ingredient of an education -- to think for themselves.

Karp found consensus that, across the board, ``instruction in America's classrooms is almost entirely dogmatic. Answers are `right' and answers are `wrong,' but mostly answers are short.'' Writing -- which requires individual thought -- is discouraged because essays take too long to grade. Goodlad's book showed that less than 1 percent of instructional time was spent in discussions that ``required some kind of open response involving reasoning. . . .'' Partly as a result, Sizer found many hi gh school students ``docile, compliant, and without initiative.''

Honig ascribes to the thesis of this reform literature; ``Last Chance for Our Children'' isn't titled lightly. But instead of further explication of school problems, he explores how and where to go from here.

The author is well qualified to do this. While not a schooled education researcher as are the ``first wave'' authors (Honig has been a teacher and a district superintendent), he is the chief of public instruction in California -- and one of the nation's most effective reformers in a movement longer on talk than action.

The first half of the book gives ideas on what schools should and should not be. The second half discusses practical measures for improvement. In this sense, it's a workbook for lay reformers, whether they be parents, teachers, or administrators.

The first order of business, Honig says, is to pull schools out of the bog created by failed experiments and by pop psychology posing as educational theory. Today, many students don't receive homework. Japanese students, he says, are four years ahead of American students in terms of subject matter covered. Honig would like to move closer to that degree of study, to do it within a traditional core of learning, but /also to stress/ independent, interdisciplinary, and creative thinking skills.

Vocational education is becoming obsolete, Honig says, because machines and tools now change yearly. Between 45 and 50 percent of all jobs by 1995, he says (and he substantiates these figures in an appendix), will require ``higher level learning.'' Schools, take note.

Will minority parents want the ingredients of a traditional education for their children? Honig says yes. ``The closer you get to the parents of minority children (and the farther away from comfortably salaried bureaucrats and educational theoreticians . . .), the less likely you are to hear complaints that school is too tough,'' he writes.

An important argument is also made for schools as a place to discuss common cultural values.

The second half of the book casts a wide net. Honig identifies the key players in reform: parents, teachers, and ``other allies,'' namely, the universities, the federal government, and the media. He tries to light a fire under each group. Reform without teachers who can teach critical thinking, for example, ``would be like invading Normandy Beach without landing craft.'' It can't be done.

But far and away, parents are Honig's main target. Lasting reforms must come from ``the bottom up.'' At the local level, for example, a principal makes or breaks a school. And parents can hold a principal accountable. This is their right. Honig offers background on four critical ``leverage points'' parents can investigate in local schools -- textbooks, tests, homework, and discipline.

``Asking school officials technical questions may make the average parent feel like a pest. It shouldn't,'' Honig writes, adding, ``If officials don't have answers readily available, that should tell you something.''

But when low-quality schooling is discovered, Honig urges, ``don't just complain. One person who complains is too easily classified as a crackpot. Form a group. When 10 or 15 parents show up at a school board meeting and focus on the absence of a homework policy, on the lack of writing assignments, or on a need for principal accountability, they have instant credibility.''

Honig shows how school districts in California have tripled parental involvement. He even offers information how to hold a school rally for thousands of people.

Further, a child's school performance is very much related to the home atmosphere, Honig says. He describes a program in California where parents signed a pledge to spend a half-hour a day of TV-free ``quality time'' with their children. A hundred-thousand parents signed.

Honig uses a popular writing style to advantage. He breaks away -- gives pep talks, advocates ideas -- without getting tangled in the guy wires of a more scholarly approach.

For a book that offers school reform from A to Z, ``Last Chance'' is a surprisingly quick read. If any criticism is to be leveled, it might be that the book is too quick a read -- school reform in a gulp. Issues big and small get tossed into Honig's reform Cuisinart a little too blithely, and come out blended a little too perfectly.

Ah, the drawbacks of popular appeal!

Quibbles aside, ``Last Chance'' is an important primer for those who want to do more than talk about reform.

Robert Marquand writes on education for the Monitor.

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