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Unconventional Wisdom

Unconventional Wisdom
These new books from scholars defy the accepted thinking in their fields.
By Angela P. Dodson

W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (Politics and Culture in Modern America) by Edward J. Blum, $39.95, University of Pennsylvania Press (June 2007), ISBN-10: 0812240103, ISBN-13: 978-0812240108, 273 pp.

As the leading African-American scholar of his day, W.E.B. Du Bois is remembered for many things. Being a man of God is not generally one of them.

It is not that he rejected the notion of a greater power or God, specifically, argues Blum, an award-winning historian who teaches at San Diego State University, but rather that he was deliberately ambiguous or private about his beliefs and was suspicious of dogma and compulsory religiosity.

Du Bois sealed his reputation, Blum recalls, with one incident that others often recounted. While teaching at the historically Black Wilberforce University in Ohio, he entered a prayer meeting, and the leader suddenly announced, “Professor Du Bois will lead us in prayer.” To which he replied, “No, he won’t.” Decades later, he said it was not in his training to do so as a layman in the Congregationalist denomination in which he grew up.

Even the FBI, which tracked him for decades looking for communist leanings, found no proof that he was or was not Godless, Blum says.

In this religious biography nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, Blum examines the life and literature of Du Bois to demonstrate that spirituality was in fact a guiding principle of his work and the fountain of many of his ideas. The result would be an excellent supplemental text in literature, history or religion, or enjoyable for personal reading.

“It’s Being Done,” Academic Success in Unexpected Schools
by Karin Chenoweth, $26.95, Harvard Education Press, (April 2007), ISBN-13: 978-1-891792-39-7, 250 pp. [Library edition, $54.95, ISBN-13: 978-1-891792-40-3]

The assignment for a former Washington Post education columnist was to find public schools that succeed where others have not.

While others have all but given up on the most-challenging students, mostly poor, urban and minority, some schools have always beaten the odds.

Hired by the Achievement Alliance, a consortium of educational and civil rights groups, Chenoweth chose schools, based on test data and other criteria, and visited them over a two-year period to document how and why they worked. With schools hard-pressed to meet the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act to close achievement gaps, this information is crucial.

Chenoweth, a former executive editor of this publication, describes the schools and supplies data and charts on math and reading scores. Among them are schools in Worcester, Mass.; Mount Vernon, N.Y.; Atlanta and Philadelphia.

A few of the things they have in common, Chenoweth concludes, are high expectations, effective use of data, teaching expertise, professionalism and accountability.

In short, Chenoweth says, the successful schools “expect their students to learn, and they work hard to master the skills and knowledge necessary to teach those students.”

The schools’ strengths and strategies make an excellent guide for duplicating the results, making this a useful textbook for teacher education or a reference tool for administrators.

Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools, by Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner, $24.95, Harvard Education Press, (March 2007), ISBN-13: 978-1-891792-35-9, 250 pp. [Library edition: $54.95, ISBN-13: 978-1891792-36-6]

Tests that should measure whether students are learning and, specifically, determine whether schools meet the standards of the No Child Left Behind Act, are at best useless and at worst a corrupting influence, the authors argue.

Nichols is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Berliner is a professor at Arizona State University at Tempe. By “high-stakes” testing, they mean those with “serious consequences” attached. For students, that can be repeating a grade or forfeiting a diploma. For teachers and administrators, jobs, compensation and reputations are often on the line.

The authors, who analyzed news reports and scholarly journals, found that it was common to limit curriculums to what the tests cover, a familiar complaint. Worse, they conclude that brazen cheating by teachers and administrators is far from uncommon. Pushing weak students out to tilt the testing sample is also rampant, the authors found.

They also offer alternatives for assessing schools and improving outcomes. Educators and policy makers should find this book eye opening, as Congress considers reauthorizing the NCLB act, and parents should pay attention.

— Angela P. Dodson is the former executive editor of Black Issues Book Review and a former community college instructor.

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