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Exposure, ad infinitum

Ayn Marie Samuelson and Beatrice Davis Fowler come out swinging with their book Exposing the Public Education System, bringing to bear a glut of anecdotal and statistical evidence upon the issue of why so much money is spent on the United State’s public education with such mediocre to poor results. The root problem, they urge, is that the school system has gotten away from us – the parents and community members – and has become a monolithic barrier to successful education of our young. Right they are!

Throughout the book, the authors argue that our public school system is beholden to the vices of bureaucracy, in all the worst sorts of ways: corruption, special interests, non-transparency and perpetuation of the status quo. You name it, they’ve flagged it and provided more than three examples for each.

But while this approach to ‘exposing’ our nation’s biggest bureaucracy provides extensive insight into how bad things can get in your local, Tuesday night school board meeting or your governor’s attempt to pass substantial reform efforts, they do their project a disservice by (yes, I’m going to say it) giving us too many examples. The text struggles to go beyond the exercise of indicting the system.

Let me explain: there is a subtle but important difference between exposition and argument, and it is this: the former describes the problem(s) at hand, while the latter tackles the problems, in the effort to offer alternative solutions. While the book’s title makes it clear that this is a text that is heavy on the business of “exposing,” I was hungry for solutions after two chapters, but I wasn’t given any until the tenth! Nearly 300 pages later the authors present some substantive policy ideas that address decentralizing schooling and engaging parents and community to take ownership of their local schools– proposals that I wish had come much sooner—before I slogged through the fragmentary themes of the previous eight chapters.

Nonetheless, beyond the stylistic pitfalls, “Exposing the Public Education System” will provide many parents and advocates an empirically-driven counter-narrative to the ingrained, blind loyalty to one’s local school and the system that it represents, which is what I think the authors were after in the first place. And for that, this book is worth a read.

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