He spins around to his keyboard and zaps an e-mail to the board members of the School District of Clayton, letting it be a warning against similar folly. As he types, the tops of his burnished penny loafers nudge against four three-foot stacks of similar e-mails jammed under the computer credenza.
J. Martin Rochester is the self-appointed conscience of the Clayton school district.
The members of the Board of Education will smile when they read his missive: Linda Henke, the district superintendent over at jammie-clad Maplewood-Richmond Heights, served for ten years as assistant superintendent at Clayton, and they remember her as one of Rochester's archvillains. He even mentions her in his newest book, Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence.
Released in November, the book brought C-SPAN to town and has been showcased on the Web sites of such conservative national radio hosts as Laura Schlesinger, Phyllis Schlafly and Dennis Prager. G. Gordon Liddy and Bob Dornan have interviewed Rochester (so has NPR). Teacher Magazine reviewed the book this month, calling it "essentially a back-to-basics tract" and stating flatly that if it "isn't absolute nonsense, it's certainly an utter failure." Meanwhile, Rochester has received hundreds of grateful letters from parents across the country -- he saves those e-mails, too -- and he's discussing his book at venues throughout St. Louis. The timing's lousy for the Clayton school district: Proposition E on the April 8 ballot will ask voters to approve a tax hike on district homeowners to bolster the acclaimed school system.
Politics is familiar ground to 57-year-old Rochester, a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who made his reputation writing about geopolitics and global affairs.
He swears he's always been a liberal, but he's obviously feeling a little abandoned by liberalism: He recently hung an upside-down map of the world on his office wall to remind himself "that there are a lot of PC people who would like to put the U.S. at the bottom of the world instead of the top."
Progressive education has been the biggest disillusionment of all. For nearly two decades, Rochester has criticized school boards -- first in University City, then in Clayton -- for, in his assessment, ushering in educational fads without critical evaluation or debate. In turn, he's been labeled a right-winger, an elitist, a social Darwinist, a Volvo vigilante. But he insists that the real divide isn't between right and left: It's critical thinking and high academic standards versus what he calls "pack pedagogy," a thoughtless rush to follow the latest teaching trends.
Rochester also insists that he's not denigrating the Clayton schools by drawing anecdotes for his book from that district. The district itself is "world-class," he says, explaining that he and his wife moved from University City to Clayton at considerable sacrifice precisely so their two sons could attend the Clayton public schools. A public-school product himself, he believes passionately in public education and wants it to excel. But he finds it ominous that unproved and mushy-minded fads can creep into even the best public schools. The progressive dream, he warns, is a nightmare.
"Educators have taken a wonderful idea, that all kids can learn, and stretched it to the absurdity that all kids are gifted," he notes. "You cannot really believe that unless you have zero standards.
"The Clayton assistant superintendent called it 'mass excellence,'" he adds pointedly.
Linda Henke smiles when asked about the phrase. "As I remember it," she replies, "Marty is the one who coined the term. He asked if I believed 'mass excellence' was possible. Of course I do -- I wouldn't be in this job if I didn't. I do not believe there is a limited amount of intelligence or excellence in this world. I believe both can be cultivated." She pauses, letting the silence add emphasis to her next words: "Marty said 'mass excellence' was an oxymoron."
He did say it. He even wrote about their conversation back in an April 2001 column published on Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum Web site. "A former assistant superintendent for curriculum in the Clayton school district once told me that her goal was 'mass excellence,'" he wrote. "I had to explain to her that mass excellence is an oxymoron." In the article, Rochester offered an array of examples to illustrate his point, among them: the honors English class in which his son's assignment was to make a cut-and-paste scrapbook (of such things as Nike shoe ads) for a project on Greek mythology; the Clayton High School English teacher "who actually had her students produce a Cliff Notes version of stories they were reading, complete with the famous or infamous bright yellow covers, and had them proudly submit the crib sheets to Cliff Notes Inc. for possible publication." Many of the teachers were brilliant, he acknowledged, but they'd "been sucked into the dumbing-down currents of our time."
The whole idea, Rochester says, that you can put kids with different abilities into one classroom with one teacher and then expect to maximize their abilities? "It's noble -- and it can't be done."
Clayton board member Lilly Canel-Katz, who has four children in Clayton schools and a daughter who just graduated, agrees. "The district has as one of its goals what, in shorthand, is called 'differentiation,'" she says. "Inside a classroom with the full range of abilities, the teacher is supposed to individualize and meet each one's needs. And I think sometimes Marty is right -- it is too hard."
Rochester objects to the Clayton district's efforts to soften or eliminate competition and to artificially inject self-esteem ("It can't be done," he maintains.) He also opposes the introduction of "whole-language learning" and "whole math"; the promotion of "social" programs, such as violence-prevention classes, at the expense of academics; and the lowering of standards that may help the least prepared students but, in his opinion, hurts those at the top of the class.
Henke recalls that on her first day in the district, Rochester left a letter on her desk, protesting the district's move away from "ability grouping" at the elementary-school level -- Bluebird readers on one side, Cardinal readers on the other and everybody knowing which would soar -- and asking her not to tamper with ability grouping at the high-school level.
When the school principal assured him that, according to the latest research, "grouping" students didn't hurt the bright kids, he shot back, "So we're no longer worried about challenging them -- just damage control?"
Rochester takes particular aim at the board's decision in 2000 to introduce the controversial "whole math" curriculum into the district's schools. Some six months earlier, the Washington Post published an open letter from 200 of the nation's top mathematicians and scientists -- including four Nobel laureates -- begging then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley not to endorse curriculum changes proposed by the Department of Education. The new math curriculum is known by various names: Adherents call it "whole math" or "new new math"; critics, among them parents and scientists, call it "fuzzy math" or "Mickey Mouse Math." In January 2000, for example, a Los Angeles Times editorial opposed adoption of the curriculum: "... a method that disdains the notion of adults hierarchically imparting knowledge to kids, integrated math does not require students to memorize multiplication tables, compute fractions or learn other basic skills essential to algebraic success. It's often rightly derided as 'fuzzy math' because of its murky goals, which include, according to one popular integrated math program, 'linking past experience to new concepts, sharing ideas and developing concept readiness through hands-on explorations.'"
The Washington Post letter wasn't included in Clayton's discussions, says Rochester, though district officials did ask Professor Steve Krantz, chairman of the Washington University math department, for his opinion, "and he sent a devastating five-page critique, saying they'd be doing their students a great disservice to adopt the book in question. The following spring, the board voted to adopt it."
"We adapted it," corrects Don Senti, the district's superintendent. "'Fuzzy math' is one of Marty's targets -- even though our sophomores' scores are, I believe, the highest in the state. For a political scientist, he doesn't use a very scientific approach."
On the standardized Missouri Assessment Program exam, the math scores of Clayton sophomores in the top-scoring categories, "advanced" and "proficient," shot up from 28.1 in 1998 to 40.8 in 2002. But scores in the lower two categories dropped during the same period, from 33.2 to 29.6. Statewide, the averages were far lower but followed the same basic pattern: Math scores in the advanced categories rose from 6.9 to 10.7, whereas scores in the lower categories dropped from 65.0 to 58.9.
In other words, it's hard to prove anything at all from the standardized test scores.
In February 2001, Rochester was gearing up for another battle: The district's Language Literacy Committee was boosting the "whole-language" approach to reading "as a way to "preserve children's self-esteem as learners." This was a progressive shift championed by "Henke and her henchmen," Rochester says, and one that ignored the value of phonics. He claims the Clayton school board ignored a $25 million National Institutes of Health study critical of whole-language-only programs and recalls that "at a literacy meeting, the chairman put out dozens of stacks of materials for parents on the table, and nowhere to be seen was that study."
The whole-language controversy introduced another Rochester bugaboo: inventive spelling, wherein, he says, teachers are trained not to correct spelling errors "because that will cause instant shutdown, stop the creative juices, damage self-esteem."
Senti sighs. "'Inventive spelling' is just a term for when real little kids start to write and teachers let them spell [incorrectly] without putting red marks all over the paper," he notes. "We have spelling lists at every grade level and expectations and benchmarks for spelling, and Marty knows this."
Benchmarks aren't enough, counters Rochester. "I am quite aware that Clayton has benchmarks for spelling, grammar, computation skills and other basics," he says. "Nonetheless, the very existence of inventive spelling -- that is, the reluctance of teachers in early grades and even, in some cases, later grades to use red ink to correct errors -- is in my judgment a mistake.
"If you read the National Council of Teachers of English national standards, which Clayton English teachers swear by," he continues, "they reinforce the notion of inventive spelling, of sloppy imprecise use of language. At a Clayton Citizens Curriculum Council meeting, I mentioned that the NCTE awarded a prize to two authors for an essay in which they urged writers to intentionally make errors in the use of standard English conventions so as to protest the tyranny of the English language. I quoted that to a Wydown Middle School teacher, a leader in language arts in the district, and she refused to repudiate the quote."
One of Rochester's lesser quibbles is the application of "school-to-work" curricula for both public schools and vocational-technical academies. The heavy use of computers and hands-on learning and the emphasis on practical job preparation "are of the same one-size-fits-all cloth," he says. In that 2001 article for Schlafly's Eagle Forum, he wrote that "the anti-textbook, anti-lecture, anti-homework pedagogy being prescribed for the St. Louis Career Academy, a local alternative, vo-tech school ... is the very same model being pushed in world-class and college prep districts." (The St. Louis Career Academy was launched in 1996 in a federally mandated Career Education District as part of a desegregation order.) Rochester noted that "at Wydown Middle School, a School-to-Work consultant was brought in to talk to a class of students, 99 percent of whom will go to college, including Harvard, Yale and other elite schools, and proceeded to tell them they should not necessarily consider going to college, that there are many ways to have a productive life."
The one-size-fits-all claim, says Senti, "is absolutely untrue. That whole school-to-work thing is a buzzword for the right wing. They think there's a conspiracy by big businesses to control what kids go into."
School-to-work is a peripheral point, Rochester acknowledges: "I certainly don't want to hang my whole spiel on that. I do recognize that many conservative groups are very upset, and I share that concern only to the extent that schools tend to treat all kids, whether college-bound or not, in the same mindless way. That not everyone should think of going to college is a valid message, but why would you send it to a heterogeneous classroom in which many kids are MIT material?"
You can almost hear the kids on the playground shouting, "Fight! Fight!" Yet in the education wars, there's no way to win; everybody comes with a singular bias, parents judge by their own kids' experiences and consensus is rare.
Rochester calls today's emphasis on so-called active learning -- in which students participate in class discussions, group problem-solving, and brainstorming -- the "Socratic method minus Socrates." The teacher who lectures these days is ridiculed as the "sage on the stage," he says, claiming that lecturing is taboo in Clayton. As evidence, he cites an article in the Clayton Curriculum Quarterly, in which a teacher said his colleagues felt they needed to apologize if they lectured.
But Senti says lecturing is "probably still the primary method" used in Clayton's classrooms. And Jossie Lake, a junior at Clayton High School, says her advanced-placement U.S. history class and her honors English class are both solidly lecture-based.
"They do still have very strong honors and AP courses," concedes Rochester, "but only because people like me have applied pressure.
"The very idea of factual knowledge is put down as rote memorization," he continues. "But if you can't remember something, that means you don't know it." He leans forward. "Educators take good ideas and go crazy -- like students doing 'peer editing' of each other's work, which is the blind leading the blind."
"Group editing is a good technique," argues Senti. "It doesn't mean the teacher doesn't grade the papers. It's just a technique for teaching writing --and there's nothing the Clayton district does better."
Nonetheless, Rochester remains convinced that Clayton is watering down its standards, trading rigor for multiculturalism and luring minority kids into AP and honors programs as a way of righting past wrongs of prejudice, poverty and disadvantage.
"Why is it that public schools are demeaning themselves?" he asks. "Why should working-class parents not have opportunities for their children to excel if they are very bright? Administrators rarely say they are eliminating honors courses -- they just say they are going to make them open to virtually anyone. I'm seeing this now with Clayton's AP courses. How can they be the ultimate capstone of academic challenge yet be doable by almost everyone? They're trying to square a circle."
Rochester recalls his younger son coming home and telling him about a brilliant African-American girl in middle school: "She was crying because the eighth-grade teacher had just told her not to worry about how she did on the exam to get into the high-school honors classes; the district wanted to see more African-Americans." The girl was insulted to the point of tears by that brand of reassurance. "Again, the policy is very well-intentioned, but I think there should be a standard all kids are expected to meet. Without that, we invite racial profiling."
Senti readily acknowledges that Clayton is trying to "close the achievement gap" and make its top programs more accessible and diverse. But that doesn't lower the assessment standards, he points out; AP tests, for example, are standardized, and they are scored off-site.
"I don't really see a lot of what Dr. Rochester says as applicable," offers high-school junior Lake. "It seems like he's sort of reactionary. Maybe he's just looking to what he did in high school."
Rochester's voice does soften as he recalls his own public high school in Baltimore, where he wrote a footnoted paper on the Renaissance scholar Erasmus. Then he compares the assignment one of his sons brought home, a project expressing students' feelings about prejudice.
"My son Sean and another really bright kid got disgusted, so they went out and bought Play-Doh of different colors, lumped it together in a ball and titled it 'Unity Amidst Diversity,'" he says. "I was all excited. I thought he'd said he was going to use Plato."
"Educators never like controversy," says former Clayton School District board member Barbara Keene, dean of corporate and community development at St. Charles Community College. "But in Clayton, we have the kids of some of the most brilliant minds at Washington University. When their voices are drowned out, it becomes disturbing."
Keene says she doesn't always agree with Rochester, but she's glad he's speaking out, especially when he's warning of pack pedagogy. She remembers one board member, a physician, who used this analogy: "If doctors adopted changes in medicine the way educators adopt new trends -- with no proof -- they'd have a lot of dead patients."
Rochester certainly has spoken out, and for nearly two decades. At every board meeting, he would rise, reliable as the sun, to comment; and he and Senti drank many a cup of coffee together, like family members who care about the same crazy uncle but have different notions of where he should live.
"Some people enjoy Monday Night Football," says Senti. "Some play fantasy baseball. And some like going to school-board meetings." He gazes out his office window at Clayton High's athletic field. "What I want to know," he says, "is how he'd say his sons turned out. He has two wonderful sons that went through the Clayton schools, you know. One graduated from Northwestern, the other from Yale."
Asked what his sons think of his book, Rochester stops short. "I think they would agree with 95 percent," he says finally, "and say I maybe carry it too far."
He grins. "I probably do."