In 1991, a New York State teacher of the year, John Taylor Gatto, wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in which he announced his departure from public school teaching after 30 years. He was no longer willing to “hurt kids” in a broken system where political pressure snuffed out worthy efforts for change. By now, he wrote, “even reformers can’t imagine school much different.”
Indeed, the first priority of education reformers is often not success but the preservation of methods with which they are already comfortable. As Harold Henderson writes in “Let’s Kill Dick and Jane,” the American educational establishment possesses “an uncanny ability to transform golden ideas for change — from left, right, or center — into a leaden sludge.” Mr. Henderson, a longtime staff writer for the Chicago Reader, describes the fate of one textbook company — Illinois-based Open Court — as it tried to bring its share of golden ideas to a resistant school system.
The book’s title refers to the basal readers that were once a mainstay in American schools: Dick and Jane, created by advocates of the “Look-Say” theory of reading instruction in which children were taught to memorize the appearance of words at the expense of phonetic understanding. The theory has since been discredited, at least in part by the publication in 1955 of Rudolf Flesch’s best-selling “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” which urged a return to phonics instruction.
Blouke Carus and his wife, Marianne, Americans with strong German roots and a familiarity with the exacting standards of the German gymnasium, read Flesch’s book and formed Open Court in 1962. Together with a small band of dedicated educational theorists and consultants, they created innovative materials with the goal of educating the American masses as rigorously as the elites of Europe. Providing both a history of this remarkable company and a withering portrait of the education culture, Mr. Henderson’s book is more compelling than any lay reader could reasonably expect.