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Education Reporter

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The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in Americas Middle Schools, Cheri Pierson Yecke, Praeger Publishers, 2003, 246 pp.

Dr. Yecke, a distinguished educator who has taught, raised children, worked in the U.S. Education Department, and now serves as Minnesota's education commissioner, has written an exhaustively documented book on American middle schools and the wrongheaded theories responsible for their declining educational quality.

Middle schools did not arise until the late 1950s, and even today they do not exist in the private-school sphere, where middle-school students are taught on the same campus as elementary and/or high-school students. Beginning in the 1970s various trendy theories captured educators imagination concerning the proper way to educate middle-school students: that the brain ceases to grow in the middle-school years and therefore the students should not be taught complex concepts (a notion discredited by the 1990s); that ability grouping and resources for gifted students are elitist, racist and unethical; that the purpose of public schools is to produce a more egalitarian society; and that "cooperative learning" — having brighter students help teach slower students — is the best method for leveling the playing field.

Motivated by her own frustration during the middle-school years of her two daughters, Dr. Yecke correctly zeroes in on the abolition of ability grouping as the single biggest problem with middle schools. Ability grouping simply works better and is overwhelmingly preferred by students and parents, but because many educators find it philosophically unacceptable they have succeeded in largely eliminating it.

The War Against Excellence is not intended for a general audience, as it draws extensively from the documentary record of educators conferences over several decades. However, it rewards the reader with many revealing glimpses of the mindset of "progressive" educators, such as the following perfectly serious quote by middle-school activist Paul George: "Schools are about the redistribution of future wealth. That's what they're about. They're not about talent development. They're not about taking each child as far as he or she can go."

Despite the bleak landscape, the author sees reasons for optimism. School districts in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Cincinnati have turned their backs on the middle-school concept, returning to smaller K-8 neighborhood schools. Under parental pressure, Nashville middle schools are restoring gifted programs. Surveys indicate that state legislators are much more open to ability grouping and gifted programs than education commissioners and can be lobbied to effect change through legislation. The subject-matter competence eventually required by the No Child Left Behind Act should upgrade teacher quality in middle schools. Alternative teacher certification should open up the profession to the winds of change. Visit www.praeger.com.

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