Book Review: Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds by Martin Morse Wooster

San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1994 • 187 pages • $19.95

The education reform debate in the United States has gotten stale. Schools need money, say the teachers’ unions and the denizens of the education establishment. Schools need flexibility, say trendy reformers. Schools need parental choice, say many conservative and libertarian activists. There appears to be little understanding on the part of one faction as to what is motivating the others. Arguments often seem pro forma, with no attempt at a true exchange of views and information.

To combat the school-reform blahs, I would like to prescribe Martin Morse Wooster’s Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds, published by the Pacific Research Institute. Wooster’s book carries the subtitle What’s Happened to Our High Schools?, but in reality his analysis extends down to the primary grades, and deals with issues of concern to parents, educators, policy-makers, activists, and other interested citizens. Wooster, a former editor at Harper’s, The Wilson Quarterly, and Reason who writes regularly on education issues for The Washington Times, brings a wealth of experience in journalism and public policy research to the subject of education reform.

One reason why we constantly spin our wheels in reform debates is a lack of attention to history—not the academic subject but the actual record of educational change and controversy in America during the past 150 years. Many of the issues we face today, ranging from national curriculum standards and testing to public aid for private schools, have their antecedents in American history. Perhaps the most welcome parts of Wooster’s book attempt to fill in these historical gaps. “Political correctness,” for example, is only a new word—it’s not a new concept. Assaults on the traditional course of study, motivated by ideology and social sensitivity, date back to the nineteenth century. Progressive education is one movement with a long history—Wooster reports that it was “the dominant educational philosophy in high schools” by the 1930s. “All across America,” he explains, “reformers told school boards that ‘the total life activity’ of the child mattered more than what was taught, and that grading was purely mechanistic and did not reflect what the student really learned.”

A key concern of many reformers across the political spectrum today is inculcating values in the educational process. They argue that schools must not only impart information but also build character. But we’ve tried to accomplish this goal before. The Character Education Institute was created in 1911, and later changed its name to the National Institution for Moral Education. This organization advocated school programs to instill values in schoolchildren, and during the 1920s, public school systems across the country introduced character education plans of various sorts. But studies of these early programs concluded that” the character education movement was at best ineffective and occasionally caused students to become more immoral by cheating on good conduct records.”

If the goal is for schools to teach lessons about values, Wooster argues, then they should not get involved in designing an elaborate “moral code” to impart to their students. The school’s key responsibility is simply to “make their schools decent and humane places where students can be effective and productive.” Another solution, he adds, is to include classic works of literature in the curriculum, from which students can learn moral lessons: “Certainly more students have been improved by great literature than by catch phrases.”

The most contentious issue Wooster addresses is school choice. Again, he provides the historical background of the idea—remarking that “the voucher is one of the few innovations in education whose founding can be definitely traced” (to Milton Friedman’s original proposal in 1955). Surveying the range of policies encompassed by the term choice, Wooster observes that many experiments conducted so far have had limited scope and mixed results. Whether it is charter schools in California, public school choice in Minnesota and Massachusetts, or vouchers in Wisconsin, the clear predictions of both advocates and opponents have clashed with actual results. Students in these programs transfer from one school to another for varying reasons, some bearing little relationship to academic quality. Public school choice, particularly, is a reform that offers only modest potential because of the limited number of choices available. “Public school choice may be helpful in changing the schools,” he writes, “but it cannot be a success in a homogeneous, monolithic school system.”

Advocates of private education and radical changes in the way public funds are dispersed will find Wooster’s conclusion striking: “School choice will not convince parents that education is worthwhile, tell students to do their homework, teach right and wrong, dissolve all red tape, or even ensure that students are as educated as their parents or grandparents. The available evidence suggests that the benefits school choice will provide American schools are more gradual and less dramatic than either friends or foes of the reform contend will take place.”

Wooster’s analysis of the problems facing American education today, especially when placed in the context of 150 years of”school reform,” is both provocative and intriguing. I, for one, would have liked to see some analysis of the political dilemma facing school reformers today—particularly the challenge of overcoming the institutional advantages of government monopolists—but perhaps that subject merits its own book. In any event, a reader looking for answers to seemingly intractable problems would do well to begin by reading Wooster’s history of school reform. Understanding the past is a precondition for glimpsing the future. []

John Hood is vice president of the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank in Raleigh, N.C.