Although interesting at times, I was disappointed in this book. Peterson's prose is too often disjointed and lacks flow, thereby losing this reader's full attention. His chapters on the reformers leave historical gaps and I was left wondering, "what is the significance of this information?" or "too bad, this is interesting...I'll have to go elsewhere to learn more about this topic." Frankly, I expected better writing from a Harvard professor or at least better editing by the publisher. Although pitched mostly as a history of education reform over the past two centuries, too many times, the author invokes what appears to be his evolving conservative philosophy (Brookings to Hoover). Peterson can hardly contain his disdain towards teachers' unions in the chapter about Albert Shanker. (Query for the folks at Hoover: if teachers' unions are the main source of our mediocre American educational system as you seem to believe, then why aren't the non-unionized states outperforming the unionized states in education?)
Peterson also seems to be critical of the resources that both the federal government and states have allocated over the past decades to special education. (Although it's hard to tell exactly where he stands on this issue; either because of his confusing writing or simply his fear of lodging direct criticism against a system that he admits his autistic grandson has benefited from.) As a parent new to the world of public education (having sent our children to a private school for 4 years and Catholic school for 1 year), I came to read this book as a neophyte without an agenda. I simply wanted to learn more about the history of public education and how this author thought that it could be "saved" again. Little did I know that Peterson is apparently just another right-winger who believes that free markets are the answer to everything in life, including education. Especially depressing is how Peterson concludes that online education is our last best hope to salvage the public education system. What makes it depressing is that Peterson reaches his conclusion seemingly out of hopelessness and his inability to come up with a better solution. He is clear in his view that even the best technology cannot replace good teachers, but instead of focusing on improving the standards, recruitment, salaries, and professional respect accorded to teachers, he throws his lot with the Florida Virtual School and other online educators.
My question is, why give up? My suggestion to Peterson, the folks at Hoover, and other Amazon readers, is to please read the book Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg (just released about a month ago and available on Amazon) for insight into an educational approach that is the opposite of ours. The Finns educational system has yielded top rankings in international tests in math, reading, and science during the past decade or so. And, they have achieved this at a cost per pupil that is allegedly less than the U.S. average, while setting high standards for teachers (who belong to a strong teachers' union, no less!) without berating or punishing them. Finland has students who are high-achieving, happier, and less stressed than their American counterparts (especially of interest for those who are concerned by the issues raised by the film, Race to Nowhere). I can only hope that once readers consider the Finnish approach, most or at least some, will have the courage to admit that perhaps "free market" educational practices have not produced an effective educational system for all.
It is time to consider a different approach to our educational system that is more humanistic, cost-effective, grounded in research, and raises the bar for teacher credentials (instead of lowering them, which is what the for-profit online educators are doing). In return, our society needs to pay our teachers well while according them professional autonomy and respect. By all indicators, this approach would be better for our students, whom the scholars tend to forget in this debate.
As Americans know, any such change in the U.S. will require a Herculean effort to defeat the private market players that have become embedded in our system over the past decade or so. The best place to start in changing the agenda is with the states. Citizens should band together, educate our state legislators, and challenge them to refuse federal funding (which doesn't amount to much anyway - 10% on average - despite the cries of wolf we hear from the conservatives) and go our own way. Reject the money and then set ourselves free of the standardized testing and other dictates of NCLB and RTTT. Let's thoughtfully keep those aspects of our system that work, while adapting the best practices of the Finnish Way that would make sense for us, too: offer free tuition to our top high school students to attend our state universities; require master's degrees and coursework in both an underlying specialty and pedagogy; pay higher salaries to both attract and retain our talent; permit our teachers to belong to unions if they want to and work with them as partners instead of enemies; accord teachers the freedom they need in order to do what they do best - to teach our children without the suffocating regime of non-stop standardized testing.
Regarding this last point of eliminating standardized testing, I advocate the elimination of most, but not all standardized testing. Certainly it is worth keeping the NAEP, along with the international tests such as PISA and TIMSS, as a means to measure where we are and how we can improve. It's the non-stop testing of NCLB and RTTT that citizens are fed up with. Our private schools do not impose non-stop standardized tests. I can speak from experience that, on occasion, private schools test the children. But, as far as I could tell, these tests were mostly aptitude tests and not knowledge-based. The results were used as a tool to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each student, or the class as a whole, so that weak areas could be addressed. The children weren't stressed out because of these occasional tests (e.g., during the 4 years my children attended a highly respected private school known for its academic rigor, my oldest was tested only once and my youngest wasn't tested at all). Now that my children are in public school, they are unbelievably stressed out because of the standardized testing that the school starts to prepare for in September, no less! For the life of me, I cannot fathom why we choose to do the opposite from private schools when it comes to our public schools! What a huge waste of time.
Hooverites, here's an idea: test out the theory that if a state lost all federal funding for education and implemented the changes that I've outlined above, in the end, would it come out neutral from a budgetary standpoint? Pasi Sahlberg asserts that the Finns spend less per pupil than the U.S.; I'd like to know more about this issue. I think that many of our top high school graduates would take the deal of a free higher education and graduate school in exchange for a better salary, professional autonomy, time and space for collaboration with colleagues, and the respect of society. Having fulfilling careers may ensure that most of them would remain in the profession far longer than they do now. (Would you stay in a profession if you were berated, ridiculed, and treated with disdain by many parts of society?) In the end, we all want better and more effective teachers. It's time to try a different approach - the Finnish approach. Sorry, Mr. Peterson, online learning is not what's going to save our schools.