1.0 out of 5 stars
Yet Another Book Claiming to Have The Answer - It Doesn't.
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on October 1, 2017
This is a frustrating book, in that it takes a promising idea - applying proven brain research to public education - and then squanders it through a series of missteps, including frequent overgeneralization, lip service to important aspects of the issue, and sometimes trying to put the proverbial square peg in a round hole. By this, I mean the author, Zaretta Hammond, misuses the entire concept of applying research in brain development to teaching.
Who am I to review this book? I am a seventh-grade Social Studies teacher in my 21st year in the second-largest school district in the United States, the spectacularly dysfunctional Los Angeles Unified School District. I've spent my entire career teaching children of color, both Black and Latino, in Title I schools, which by definition serve children of poverty. I entered the profession in my forties, and for the last twenty-one years have seen the negative effects of "edufads" on the most vulnerable children serviced by public education.
The problems I have with this book start on the first page of the first chapter. First, Ms. Hammond declares that "underserved English learners, poor students, and students of color routinely receive less instruction in higher order skills development than other students. . . . Their instruction is more focused on skills low on Bloom's taxonomy."
There is so much wrong in that one quote. First, are "poor students" students who get poor grades or students from poverty? Ms. Hammond does not say. However, as a seventh-grade teacher, I will tell you that my first order of business is to get students who are reading below grade-level to improve their reading skills. This takes massive amounts of time, and is made much more difficult by the truly awful textbooks provided by my district.
Second, to mention Bloom's Taxonomy in a book claiming to employ brain research is striking, as there is absolutely no brain research that supports the validity of Bloom's Taxonomy, which is if nothing else one of the longest-lived edufads out there. I repeat - there is absolutely nothing in neuroscience to support its validity.
The first of Ms. Hammond's serial overgeneralizations comes on the second page of the first chapter. "For culturally and linguistically diverse students, their opportunities to develop habits of mind and cognitive capacities are limited or non-existent because of educational inequity." I don't agree. First of all, at this point, on the second page, for heaven's sake, Ms. Hammond is employing euphemisms. "Culturally and linguistically diverse" means either children of poverty who come to kindergarten already one or two years behind, or children who are learning English at school because they speak a foreign language at home. It's not "educational inequity" that is the problem, it's poverty. Not the "culture of poverty", which Ms. Hammond says does not exist, but the effects of poverty: malnutrition, instability of housing, more or less continuous uncertainty about daily life, all of which cause massive stress in children who need as little stress as possible in order to function in school. Children of poverty frequently come to school in a state of mind that makes learning very difficult, if not next to impossible.
Many children of poverty come to school so overloaded with the stress hormone, cortisol, that their state of mind is reduced to "fight or flight". Their behavior in the classroom leads them to get sent out for "defiance", which Ms. Hammond incorrectly calls a "subjective" offense. At this point Ms. Hammond goes off the deep end by saying, "Students of color, especially African American and Latino boys, end up spending valuable instructional time in the office rather than in the classroom." Ms. Hammond has completely lost track of the idea that if the children had behaved appropriately, they'd be learning in the classroom. What makes missing this point especially egregious is that Ms. Hammond is aware of it, and applies it to her own childhood in school on the top of the second page of the introduction.
Ms. Hammond pays lip service to the idea of high student-stress on page 33 of Chapter 2, noting a study that shows that up to a third of children in U.S. urban neighborhoods have PTSD, "nearly twice the rate reported for troops returning home from war zones in Iraq." In her world, perhaps culturally responsive teaching will solve this problem. In my world, it doesn't.
The intellectual sloppiness continues in the second chapter, in which Ms. Hammond states, "I don't want to stereotype cultures into an oversimplified frame . . . .", and then does that very thing. She then goes on to strongly imply that cultures with an oral tradition of transmitting and preserving knowledge are superior to those with a written tradition of doing the same. Quite frankly, this is a stupid idea, and completely flies in the face of history. Oh, Ms. Hammond also breaks cultural structures down into three layers: the surface culture, the shallow culture, and the deep culture. Having done this, however, she doesn't provide any support for the notion.
As you see, this review could go on forever, so I'll stop looking at the trees and mention the forest. The United States at this point isn't one native, or even white, culture. The problems this book spuriously claims to address exist equally in lily-white Appalachia, as well as in African American urban centers or urban Latino neighborhoods. I think we'd be better off trying to change the circumstances of poverty that bring so many children of color to the classroom pretty much unable to function. "The Harlem Children's Zone, with its comprehensive approach to health, education, and job development", was actually set up to do this. Ms. Hammond recognizes this, and cites it. Culturally responsive teaching has nothing to do with it.
The now-defunct Baraka School did a wonderful job, taking African American middle school boys from their inner-city Baltimore neighborhoods and putting them out in the country - in Kenya - so that they could be free of the violence and drugs that were part of their normal daily lives. Most of them thrived, until international circumstances following the U.S. invasion of Iraq forced the school to close.
This book puts the cart before the horse, but frequently - in my opinion - it's the wrong cart and the wrong horse.
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