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Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice [Paperback]

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Item Specifications...

Pages   260
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.82" Width: 5.98" Height: 0.87"
Weight:   0.93 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Dec 25, 2004
Publisher   Encounter Books
ISBN  1594030588  
EAN  9781594030581  

Availability  0 units.

Item Description...
Sol Stern's Breaking Free explores the growing demand for school choice among poor families in the inner city. Stern describes the dramatic successes and occasional failures of this "new civil rights movement" in three key cities: Milwaukee, Cleveland, and New York. Filled with timely insights and human drama, Breaking Free vividly describes how cash-starved Catholic schools in the South Bronx are performing small educational miracles every day with children the public schools have given up on. In Milwaukee and Cleveland, Stern finds that the voucher program has rescued large numbers of poor minority children from violent, chaotic and failing public schools and allowed them to attend parochial and private schools where high expectations often result in high achievement. Drawing on personal observation and intimate conversations with parents, students and educators, Breaking Free is the first book to transform school choice from an abstract policy issue into a question of basic personal freedom, and indeed, for minority children at the bottom of the social ladder, into a question of survival. Equal access to the American dream through quality education is, Sol Stern convinces us, the unfinished business before us.

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More About Sol Stern

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Sol Stern has written for the New York Times Magazine, the New Republic and City Journal. His articles on schools helped persuade former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani to support vouchers for poor children. Mr. Stern is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and lives with his family in New York City.

Sol Stern currently resides in the state of New York. Sol Stern was born in 1935.

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Product Categories
1Books > Subjects > Nonfiction > Education > General   [33866  similar products]
2Books > Subjects > Nonfiction > Education > Policy   [951  similar products]
3Books > Subjects > Nonfiction > Politics > U.S.   [851  similar products]
4Books > Subjects > Professional & Technical > Education > General   [24064  similar products]

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Reviews - What do our customers think?
A quietly passionate, non-ideological argument for school choice  Jan 30, 2008
This book starts quietly, with a personal look at the New York City schools, as experienced by the author as a child and as experienced by his own children several decades later. This section of the book is very powerful, precisely because it is non-ideological. Stern is not writing as a political theorist, but simply as a parent, trying to get a decent education for his children. This tone is powerful, in part, because Stern actually is a political theorist, for his day job so to speak; he is a journalist who was deeply involved in the New Left.

Keeping that tone and that focus, Stern takes us, with his kids, through a tour of New York City's best and most elite public schools. The schools that his kids got into are the best of the best. And, while his kids managed to get a reasonable education at them, Stern shows us, in a very understated way, just how bad the system is, even in the best of the schools. The problem, fundamentally, is simple. The schools are not run for the good of the children. Instead, the schools are run for the good of the adults who have jobs in the school system. Exhibit A of this is how even a super elite school can not fire a grossly incompetent teacher, and can not hire an extremely qualified teacher who does not have the right credentials. In both cases, if you actually cared about the kids, the decision would be simple: fire the incompetent, and hire the gifted but unconventional teacher.

But, in New York City, as in most of our large urban school districts, that common sense result is nearly impossible. Why? Because the union contract basically forbids firing tenured teachers, and takes a very rigid, uncreative approach to credentialiing. Why? It is simple. The unions wants its members to live without risk, to have guaranteed jobs and guaranteed security. From the union's point of view, that is perfectly logical and reasonable. After all, it is the union's duty to protect its members. But, the problem is that the union has an extraordinary level of political power, and no one within the educational system has the power to stand up to them, so decisions are made for the whole system, which are driven by nothing but the self-interest of the union.

Stern then moves on to examine a number of successful alternatives to the public schools. He looks at the Catholic schools, as well as a mixed bag of voucher schools and charter schools. As he shows, these schools vary greatly, but many of them produce much better results than the public ones, simply because they are run for the good of the children, not as a jobs program for the union.

Stern does a very good job of discussing the opponents to school choice. I am pretty familiar with this area, so I am very familiar with the writings of Jonathan Kozol, who is perhaps the most passionate opponent of school choice writing in America today. Kozol has written a series of books, which very dramatically and emotionally attack American schools for being racist and under-funded, while, at the same time, defending the status quo on every point, except his passion for racial integration and increasing funding.

As well known as Kozol is, I did not know that he was a hard-line radical Leftist. Stern gives a very useful summary of Kozol's career. Apparently, Kozol, at one point, went to Cuba and produced a book which lavishly praised Castro and his educational system. Also, in Kozol's books directed at teachers, he suggests that they look up to Cuba and China as models of the sort of society which radical teachers should create in this country. Kozol, in short, is as close to an old-line Communist as one is likely to find these days, a fact not stressed by all of the glowing New York Times reviews of Kozol's latest pro-union book.
The last Civil Rights battle?  Oct 31, 2003
Listened to the interview with the author
on First Voice. A real interesting
book and interview.

The interview is online

There's a transcript for those using dial up.

--J. R.

Many lessons work, some fail  Sep 11, 2003
Breaking Free tries hard to be the one-size-fits-all destroyer of the public school temple. And it comes very close. But its ancestry as a bunch of shorter journalism, and its seemingly complete faith in principals, keep it from being perfect.

Mr. Stern seems to believe that dynamic principals can single-handedly reshape a school. That is true to a point. But there are two problems he fails to address. One is that these dynamic leaders are hard to find, and even harder to identify. I worked for many years in public schools and knew many principals. Among the worst was a charming and pretty lady who knew the jargon, conveyed authority and confidence, and was "for the children." She was a PR prize, known in the community and valued as an "expert." She was also a very bad principal. Cronies were in positions of authority, cronies who were always "downtown" or "at a conference" but never around. She wanted everything to run wonderfully, and did not want to know anything about the details. So details were kept away. I am reasonably certain that standardized tests were "corrected" by the teachers, giving comparatively good scores to very weak students. Even in a world of choice, it would be hard to pinpoint her school as anything other than a success. Good scores, great leadership, happy staff. It all looked good. And it was all a charade.

Principals have plenty of other ways of jiggering the books. And giving them additional unregulated power will only allow those with a deceptive streak to provide jobs for friends and lovers, keep critics away, and create personal fiefdoms where their word goes. So, though a dynamic, dedicated principal, willing to work slavishly long hours for low pay, may be the answer, just how many of those guys are there?

But his devastating critique of the New York City public schools, with their entrenched unions that ultimately make the only rules that matter, and his comparisons with (admittedly selected) private schools doing far more with much less should be required reading for those who believe the Chicken Littles in the education world who run screaming whenever any change is proposed.

Public education is a near-total failure. It is outrageously expensive. Teachers control the language of debate, the politicians pretending to debate, and the future voters, so their terms and their ability to exclude critics make them apparently invulnerable. But enough people are avoiding public schools, even the best ones, that change will have to come. I just hope we don't wait until the entire system is in ruins.

Cuts through the nonsense and gets to the point...  May 27, 2003
It's beyond dispute that America's public schools, particularly in our cities, are failing to provide either an adequate education or an adequate socializing experience for children. The consequences are also well known: low self-esteem, poverty, crime... the gamut of ills attendant to relegating whole communities to the status of "underclass", unable to contribute to a 21st century economy.

The reasons for school failure and how to significantly improve our public schools are frequently debated. Proposals include "raise teacher pay", "get more teachers certified by our schools of education", "build better schoolhouses", and the incredible demand, "send us better kids". With a parent's perspective and a keen eye, Stern sweeps aside all the self-serving nonsense and gets right to the point: if the public wants public schools to perform, then schools must be managed to achieve that performance. Management means a controlling authority (most importantly, a principal) with the power to select teachers and other staff who will collaborate to achieve measurable goals. In today's public schools, the principal's inability to hire, fire, or to define work content and compensation, is a fatal blow to any attempts to dramatically improve school performance.

Stern goes on to document how, with $2 billion in annual dues and unprecedented political power that ranges from the local to the national level, the teachers' unions have dominated the political process. On the national and state level, wielding hundreds of millions of dollars worth of political clout, the teachers' unions have generally dominated the legislative process. On the local level, school districts are forced into signing labor contracts running to hundreds of pages, loaded with provisions that effectively eliminate teacher accountability and the principal's control.

Talented teachers and principals are disgusted and often demoralized when they see their profession become a dumping ground for incompetence, protected by a union that only cares about teacher prerogatives, including the "right" not to be judged, and who actively obstruct any drive for standards of performance. Principals with enough integrity to put students' interests first must struggle with a morass of rules and procedures that would be considered farcical in the private sector. The teacher's classroom is a fief impenetrable to any objective evidence of success or failure.

Stern focuses on the massive New York City public school system, where an antiquated administration is helpless to defend the interests of the individual school. In the case of Stuyvessant High School, where the City's finest students are assembled, Stern documents how an aggressively pro-student principal is "grievanced" into retirement by a diligent union representative wielding nothing more (or less) lethal than the teacher contract.

Stern's primary concern is the fate of students from poor homes, where parents are unable to supplement their children's education, and who attend schools where "to teach" is a process, not a result. These students fall behind early and never catch up. The significance of this academic failure is disputed by faddish school-of-ed-talk about "the inner child" and "learning to learn" and "critical faculties". Nevertheless, in the real world where reading, writing and math really matter, these children are stamped once and for all with the mark of the underclass. Meanwhile, down the street, with half the money, the City's Catholic schools are doing a significantly better job with the same students.

"Breaking Free" is a plea for school choice, to date the only school reform movement that has opened a chink in the Berlin Wall of public education. Charter schools and vouchers have proven the enormous pent-up demand for alternatives to the public school monopoly and the potential to do much better with our education dollars. Both programs, ferociously opposed by the unions, are struggling to meet their potential, hobbled by grossly inadequate state and local legislation. Behind these great public battles lies an even greater battle: to create public schools that work.

The best book on schools. Period.  May 8, 2003
This is a remarkable book. Part of it is the author's own story--how he grew up in NYC in the 1940s and, as the bright son of immigrant parents, attended the best public schools, which taught real skills and civic consciousness; and how his own children now attend the best public schools in the city (Stuyvesant, etc.) and face curricular chaos and the tyrannical incompetence of teachers who consider themselves union members more than instructors. In the second part of the book, the author goes looking for alternatives and stumbles on a Catholic school in his neighborhood where the students are all black. And unlike the underprivileged black kids imprisoned in the horrible NYC ghetto schools, these kids are learning in an orderly, humane environment. Stern completes his odyssey by going to areas like Cleveland and Milwaukee where choice has been institutionalized and he finds there more small educational miracles. He concludes that school choice is a moral imperative, the new civil rights movement of our era. This is an eye opening book. I did some research and discovered that some of the articles that Stern wrote while working on this book came to the attention of Mayor Rudi Guiliani and were instrumental in his decision to come out in favor of school choice for New York, a plan that the teachers unions killed. (Naturally).

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