Book by James M Kauffman
Review by Stephanie Ritrievi
David Eccles School of Business
University of Utah

Edward Scissorhands, American Beauty, Man on the Moon.  You may recognize these movies as Tragicomedies, films that blend tragic and comic elements.  Likewise, this book is written with the intent of bringing the reader to recognize and laugh at the absurdities in public education before crying and fixing.  

This book is a discussion of current inadequacies in public education, and particularly special education.  The content of this publication focuses on structural flaws ranging from federal law such as No Child Left Behind to local administrative decisions that do not improve and in some cases harm public education.

Why are poor decisions made?  In part, poor decisions result when those in control choose to believe what they want to believe, rather than basing decision on empirical evidence, termed “truthiness”.  One account from the author is the story of a principal who hired University professors to conduct workshops and training to implement a cooperative learning program in his school.  When asked by another local University professor to conduct an evaluation of the program, (at no cost) the principal declined stating he did not want to know if the program was not working.

While this text addresses poor thinking in the realm of public education, it is a reminder to all as consumers of information and voters who choose our local school board members we must be cognizant of ploys which can harmfully influence thinking.  Kauffman outlines the following eight ploys.

“Insert enough truth to catch people’s attention.
Assume people won’t thoroughly examine the underlying idea.
Use outliers (atypical cases) as examples of the typical.
Assert the average represents all.
Make personal testimony more convincing than reliable research.
Find a way to deride more reasonable propositions.
Overcomplicate simple things or oversimplify complex things.
Combine any of these or add other half-baked ideas into a potpourri and peddle as a panacea.” (p.44)

The later half of the book is most relevant to the classroom teacher and those audiences who evaluate the success of a school.  The author contends schools must focus on academics, helping children gain academic competence and teachers must see themselves as instruction experts.  As instruction experts, the classroom teacher is more intimately involved in the method of delivery and composition of the classroom.  

Kauffman’s position is that teachers are most effective when students are grouped homogeneously according to skills and abilities and teachers are directly involved in the education of their students.  Teachers teach the facts and skills they want their students to learn, rather than lead students through a discovery process hoping students gain the knowledge and information identified as learning objectives.   The author provides basic principles of the premise of direct education and refers the reader to an additional text as a “how-to” manual.

This book is relevant for academic advisors of students in teacher preparation programs, however, selecting chapters most relevant to the decisions and environments of classroom teachers will make for most interesting and thought provoking reading for the teacher in training.  The advisor whose day to day work is not closely tied to K-12 public education may find the most value of this text to be the call to skepticism of those educational programs and decisions that seem unrealistic. While this book is written in the context of K-12 education scrutiny, the process of questioning, evaluating through measurement and careful analysis will also lead to cost effective and educationally sound decisions within higher education.

The tragicomedy of public education: Laughing, crying, thinking, fixing. (2010) Book by James M Kauffman. Review by Stephanie Ritrievi. Verona, WI: Full Court Press  216 pp. ISBN # 1-57861-682-4
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