Book Review

Political Leadership and Educational Failure

Reviewed by William G. Keane,
Associate Professor, Oakland University,
Rochester, Mich.


The writings of Seymour Sarason, professor emeritus of psychology at Yale University, reflect several paradoxes. Though he believes the present public education system "is not rescuable," he offers hope that the American political system will find the will and the way to a form of public education that will work both for children and the larger society it is supposed to serve.

In his latest work, Political Leadership and Educational Failure, Sarason offers no magic formula to change the system. He is clear, however, about what is wrong with public education: Classrooms do not provide "contexts" (arenas) for productive learning in which children acquire new knowledge to change their concept of self and their potential. They are unable to do so because teachers are smothered in a system that abhors change.

He concedes that pockets of success and innovation do exist in K-12 classrooms, but they are invariably site specific and seldom embraced even by other schools in the same school system.

Sarason argues that fundamental change cannot come until the president makes clear to American citizens that such change is necessary. He devotes a chapter to Thomas Jefferson, whom he describes as the "only serious education president." He contends Jefferson would be appalled to find the public's preoccupation with test scores when participation in civic affairs--a major purpose of educating the citizenry--is perilously low. He calls for a commission made up of the country's best minds to reinvent the system, not simply study it.

Sarason displays cautious optimism about charter schools. However, he believes their potential could be squandered because neither the governors who favor them nor the president who supports them insists on carefully controlled evaluations of these mini-systems.

(Political Leadership and Educational Failure, by Seymour B. Sarason, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, Calif., 1998, 158 pp. with index)