At any given moment, there’s a limited amount of room in the general consciousness for books about education, and over the past few months a lot of that space has been occupied by Linda Perlstein’s new book, Tested. Which, as I explain in my review in this month’s Washington Monthly, is too bad. Tested is a fine example of education journalism, and worth reading just for that. But it tries to be much more, a broad indictment of NCLB, and in that is far less successful.
Part of this can be attributed to the conventions of narrative non-fiction writing. The best examples start with a compelling story, and then put that human drama in a much larger context, weaving in history and policy to find the greater meaning in it all. It’s fantastic when it works–think Jon Krakauer, Michael Lewis–but it’s really hard to do well. Crucially, your human story actually has to support the meta-narrative. In the case of Tested, it doesn’t. Perlstein spent a year in a high-poverty elementary school in Annapolis, Maryland, that has experienced a remarkable turnaround in test scores, basically going from most of the kids failing to most passing in just a few years. That’s come at a cost in terms of curriculum narrowing and test prep. This raises all kinds of difficult questions related to the efficacy of schools and the lives of poor children. But Perlstein doesn’t have a lot interest in addressing those conundrums, because that would get in the way of book’s conceit as an anti-NCLB expose.
Readers interested in a different take on the same issues should check out Karin Chenoweth’s It’s Being Done. Like Perlstein, Chenoweth is a former Washington Post education reporter, and she also spent time a great deal of time inside high-poverty, high-scoring schools. But she reaches a very different set of conclusions. Her book isn’t cheerleading and has a strong dose of realism about what it takes to help students who come to school with an array of barriers to learning. But it turns out that schools can do a lot to help them nonetheless–more than some people would like to admit.
UPDATE: D-Ed Reckoning weighs in here.