Disclaimer: I received a copy via a giveaway on Librarything.
This book about the Atlanta school test cheating scandal is really two books in one body and as such is not as good a book as it could be.
Shani Robinson was a teacher at Dunbar Elementary in Atlanta. After she left the school, she was charged as one of the teachers who allegedly changed answers on standardized tests. Robinson plead not guilty, but sadly, lost in court. She is appealing. I hope she wins.
Part of the book, the first book struggling to get out as it were, is Robinson’s memoir of the trial. Not so much her experience schooling but of the trial and, to a degree, the events leading up to. Because this concedes with her major events in her personal life, the reader is treated to descriptions of these events. And while that might be interesting in a general life type of way, in a book about schools, or at least one where the title suggests schooling as a center topic, every time it comes up it feels like digression or it becomes so tempting to scream, “you shouldn’t be focusing on that”. So, it feels like a quasi-memoir with not enough depth to it. This is particularly true in the Teach for America section. Robinson is even handed when discussing the program, but one is also aware that Robinson herself, one could say, is also an embodiment of what is wrong with the program – she leaves teaching, true she goes into counseling, but she does leave teaching.
The second book struggling to get though is about the circumstances that cause the downfall of public schools. At first, it seems like the reason for why cheating might occur, but then shifts to become a tracing of forces determined to close down public schools and replace them with charter schools, as well to replace poorer and minority (largely African American) residents with richer, predominately white ones.
The problem with this thesis or focus isn’t that its wrong. It’s that in order to see the thesis, to believe in the thesis, it helps if you have read the work of say Diane Ravitch, Marta Nussbaum, and Richard Rothstein. Diane Ravitch for the whole bit about testing and charter schools, Nussbaum for the purpose of education, and Rothstein for redlining and other city development issues. And you can replace those with at least a dozen other books that cover the same material. It’s that the authors don’t footnote their source – they do – but the connections and developed are so crammed and cramped that some things must be accepted by faith, which is fine but you need the background to do that.
So, the book isn’t a full memoir but it isn’t a full societal analysis either. In fact, considering Robinson’s only three years teaching experience the look at the focus driving and pressuring the teachers seems facile. Not that I think she is wrong but one does wonder how an educator with more experience, of the women whom Robinson worked with say. It is so unclear, mostly because Robinson is not in a position to know, whether or not cheating actually occurred. At times too, bias comes out – Robinson’s view of the press is, understandably, negative but it does color parts of her memoir when she uses descriptions that verge on petty. This all contributes to a wanting more feel to the book.
It is like there are two books that could be really good, or one longer book, screaming to get out. And this is a shame because what Robinson and Simonton are dealing with and the conclusions, they reach are vitally important both in the terms of race and education. Robinson is one of the people who should be telling it, not only about education but about the justice system as well. We do need to think seriously about education and the place if any testing has in the educational system. We do need to examine how and if we should hold teachers accountable. We should examine how race is a factor in who is charge for a crime. You should read this book, but you are going to be wanting a bit more afterwards.
Yet, there is much promise in the writing, and hopefully there will be a second book to pick up the themes of this one.