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Tool-Time for Fixing Schools


By George Wood

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230 pp., $24.95

While thousands of reformers hack at the branches, few are striking at the root of America's education crisis, according to George Wood.

Principal Wood believes the typical school day is so badly fractured that most students cannot possibly learn the skills and attitudes they should during their 5,000 hours in high school.

In "A Time to Learn," the latest in an avalanche of books about what's wrong with America's schools, Wood describes his five-year effort to reform the Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio. Against the din of political rhetoric about the country's education crisis, this nuts-and-bolts book is distinguished by a practical sense of optimism.

The key, according to Wood, is to scrape away all one's preconceptions about what can't be changed and get a clear sense of what students really need. The enemy of meaningful reform, says Wood, is not low standards, school violence, or teacher unions, but unquestioned devotion to the fragmented school day designed 90 years ago.

With convincing comic effect, Wood follows three high school students through a typical withering day. In that kaleidoscope of brief, unrelated classes, punctuated by announcements, roll calls, and deafening bells, even the best students and teachers struggle to get anything meaningful done.

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With wry irony, he notes that as a college professor of education, he knew nothing about running a school. But in 1992 when an opportunity arose to bypass the Byzantine certification process and jump to the head of a high school, he took it.

Convinced those 5,000 hours could be spent more effectively, Wood set out to redesign "democracy's finishing school," to build "learning communities rather than settle for educational institutions."

In chapters mercifully free of political cant or educational jargon, the affable principal addresses his audience like a good teacher, repeating essential points and offering effective anecdotes. His primary recommendations are:

* Keep the school to about 400 students, even if that means breaking existing mammoth schools into separate entities within the same complex.

* Reduce the number of classes per day from eight to four, giving teachers twice the time with half as many students.

* Integrate the curriculum so that students' classes revolve around coherent issues.

* Link students together with a core group of teachers throughout their high school experience.

* Provide a long, unstructured lunch period.

* Shift evaluation from test scores and credits earned to the creation of real products that demonstrate mastery of skills.

* Compel students to participate in running their school.

Each of these recommendations stems from Wood's determination to build a school day that encourages meaningful relationships between teachers and students, while demanding students take more responsibility for their own education.

Wood admits to a degree of naivet, but claims that can be a virtue for visionaries, hindered on every side by suspicion, cynicism, and reform fatigue. "I believe that high school change should involve a certain amount of impetuousness," he says.

Complete with sample planning guides, curriculum outlines, and a helpfully annotated list of reform organizations, the final effect is not profound or alarming, but practical and encouraging.

* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

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