Cheating our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education and What We Can Do About It
Joe Williams's new book is written with all the vividness, verve, and emotion of a Jonathan Kozol tome, but with a message that will make serious school reformers cheer. Hard-hitting, packed with inflammatory anecdotes and devastating details, Cheating our Kids puts a human face on today's education policy battles. Williams's day job is reporting, now for the New York Daily News and previously for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and he harnesses his well-honed journalistic skills and considerable energy to report stories that make your heart ache and your blood boil. Like any good storyteller, Williams presents plenty of villains - union hacks, low-level bureaucrats, curriculum company executives - and roots for the little guys, the parents and kids. Sometimes, as with Milwaukee's voucher program, the little guy even wins. His message is populist, and his final chapter, "Parent Power," presents 12 rules for parent-activists. My favorites? "Don't trust PTAs to do anything other than raising cold, hard cash," and, "If an administrator tells you something can't be done, assume they are wrong and plow forward." This book is written for neophytes in the school reform wars, so hardened policy wonks won't find many new ideas. In fact - and I don't say this just because he signs my paychecks - it's hard not to hear in Williams's pages the echo of Chester E. Finn, Jr.'s 1991 manifesto, We Must Take Charge. Finn, then: "American education isn't going to fix itself." Williams, now: "If parents aren't willing to take drastic measures for their kids, the status quo will surely prevail." Be warned, though, that those looking for a discussion of what happens inside the classroom will also be disappointed. Like many reformers who are focused on incentives, accountability, and parental choice, Williams appears agnostic when it comes to the big instructional debates (traditional or progressive, content-rich or skills-only, etc.). Perhaps that explains his generally gentle treatment of the Bloomberg-Klein regime in New York City (see here), which has made a lot of progress on structural reform, but has been a disaster on curriculum. Nevertheless, Williams makes an important contribution through his storytelling and his urgent, impatient tone. The world will be a better place if thousands of parents buy this book and heed its message.