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Nonfiction in Brief

June 26, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

WINNING THE BRAIN RACE A Bold Plan to Make Our Schools Competitive by David T. Kearns and Denis P. Doyle (Institute for Contemporary Studies: $16.95)

"The crisis in education" has dominated the national agenda for an unprecedented length of time--since a 1981 government report said America was "A Nation at Risk." And while the number of authors indulging in a schoolchild's fantasy--grading the teacher--started to dwindle in 1985, education has become a favorite issue once again in the current presidential campaign. The attention is not undeserved, for 700,000 functionally illiterate students still graduate from U.S. public schools each year; cumulatively, 25% of our nation's young people drop out before finishing high school.

The central idea here--that students and their schools must measure up to business standards such as competitiveness, accountability and performance--is a surprisingly original addition to a lingering debate. David Kearns, chairman and chief executive officer of the Xerox Corp., and Denis Doyle, a senior research fellow at the Hudson Institute, persuasively argue that the traditional grade structure is anachronistic, modeled after the early- to mid-20th-Century corporation: An industrial assembly line with the teacher as the worker, the student as the product and the principal as foreman. Students cannot be automatically zipped along the line, the authors point out--promotion must follow performance. Teachers, in turn, must be allowed to design their own curricula, which would make it easier for salaries to be based on performance as well as on longevity.

Not all of the authors' points are rigorously argued, however. They write, for example, that the best way to offer greater choice to "education consumers" is to make magnet schools the rule rather than the exception. Kearns and Doyle are quick to point out the many benefits of schools that draw students because of their special programs--they can boost student morale and encourage competition--but they avoid mentioning some of the problems--they can encourage "tracking" of students at an early age, discourage general education and favor wealthy school districts. Overall, though, this is a compelling addition to a constructive debate.

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