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Book Review: The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocity in America's Middle Schools

Cheri Pierson Yecke

Publication Date: 2004-03-22

It's scary to think that this book's author is the commissioner of education in Minnesota, formerly holding the top post in Virginia.

Book Review: The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocity in America's Middle Schools. Praeger Publishers. 2004. Foreword by William J. Bennett. $49.95

It's hard to figure who will plunk down $49.95 for this book. The book is badly written and badly thought. William J. Bennett proves you don't need to read a book to write its foreword. To fill the space, Bennett quotes from one of his own books.

Nasty and inarticulate as she is, Yecke is right about one thing. She says that the middle school movement and the standards movement can't coexist. And they can't! I wonder when teachers grasping at straws will face this reality--and then defend middle schoolers.

Truly, a middle school teacher cannot believe in the concept that these students are special and need special environment, curriculum, and care, and simultaneously support standards that don/t apply to them, not to mention high stakes testing.

[A]continuing cry for social aims makes it appear doubtful whether the contemporary middle school movement and the standards movement can successfully co-exist. Interestingly, many of the most vocal supporters of a dumbed-down middle school curriculum, cooperative learning, and peer tutoring are also among the most vocal opponents of standards and accountability.

Yecke, former director of gifted education in Wisconsin and former Director of Teacher Quality and Public School Choice, U. S. Department of Education, devotes a large part of the book attacking middle school educators for caring about such principles as developmental needs, social justice, equity -- rather than gifted education.

Yecke is given to proclamations such as this:
Traditional American values are given little emphasis in many of today's middle schools, a trend that has accelerated over time. . . . American values such as rewarding individual effort, honoring individual achievement, and promoting healthy competition have given way to a capricious smorgasbord of liberal ideas that undermine these traditional values in many schools.

That gives you an idea of her tone, her beliefs, and her writing style. Her statements defy the credibility of anyone who knows anything about what goes on in classrooms. To pit the education of children in terms of traditional values versus capricious liberal ideas is a gross injustice to the work of thousands of teachers. Reading this is tough on the reader's bloodpressure.

Yecke examined the program of the 2001 National Middle School Association annual conference and found plenty to gripe about. I'm giving a keynote address and two workshops at the 2004 NMSA conference. I'll be sure to quote from her book. And count on it: I will denounce the standards and testing she worships.

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