Class War

Marty Rochester wages war against the dumbing-down of public education -- even in the best of schools

"So Maplewood-Richmond Heights' idea of preparing students to take final exams is to throw a giant pajama party," the professor mutters. He's back in his office after an otherwise lovely lunch with a Maplewood informant, and the news flash about the latest education fun has roiled his digestive juices. "The students wear their jammies and bring their slippers, and perhaps even their teddy bears, so they can relax! Does this not diminish the role of a teacher, to preside over a PJ party?"

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.

Ryan Greis
Marty Rochester in his digs at the University of Missouri-St. Louis
Amy Bautz
Marty Rochester in his digs at the University of Missouri-St. Louis

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."

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