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Education Reporter

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Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice, Sol Stern, 2003, 235 pps., $25.95

In Breaking Free, author Sol Stern's tales about the New York City public school system remind us that it has been called the "Twilight Zone," after the 1950s television drama featuring bizarre, inexplicable themes. Chapter 3 blows the whistle on Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, one of New York's three highly sought after science and math high schools. While its admissions process is "one of the last bastions of pure meritocracy in American education," Stern writes, Stuyvesant nonetheless has a "dirty little secret."

The secret is in the seniority provision of the teachers' union contract, which ensures that as many as half of the teaching vacancies each year at Stuyvesant may be filled on the basis of seniority alone by teachers seeking transfers from other city schools. "The fact that many of those selected lack the academic qualifications to teach to the level of Stuyvesant's students is irrelevant to the union and the system," Stern writes.

A product of the urban schools of the 1940s and 50s when a good public education was not an oxymoron, Stern noticed the differences when he enrolled his sons at what are considered some of New York City's best public schools. At P.S. 87, for example, dubbed "the Dream School of the Upper West Side," he found incompetent teachers who were "protected by a state education law that guaranteed them a permanent job in the same building for life."

Stern also grew disenchanted with the "progressive" curriculum. "It was only after my older son's first three years at P.S. 87 that I began to suspect how readily the doctrine of 'child-centered' education could lead to an abdication of pedagogical responsibility," he writes, "especially in math." The boy's highly regarded math teacher "devoted months of class time to an across-the-curriculum project on Japan, which included the building of a Japanese garden." When asked by his parents on any given day what he had done at school, the child answered, "we measured the garden."

By contrast, Stern tells of Catholic schools that successfully educate underprivileged children on shoestring budgets. He describes how children in Milwaukee and Cleveland have been "rescued" from violent and crumbling inner-city public schools by voucher programs. Breaking Free provides a unique perspective on parental awakening.

Call Encounter Books, 415/538-1460 www.encounterbooks.com.

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