Those individuals with the most say over what happens in American classrooms are often several decades and pay grades removed from them. Some, like the philanthropist Bill Gates and College Board president David Coleman, have never taught in a K-12 school at all. This fact has not hindered them from drastically altering the landscape of the American classroom in recent years. Thanks to Gates’s $200 million push for the Common Core and Coleman’s reengineering of the SAT, public education has grown increasingly data-driven. Instruction focuses on analytical skills and points to measurable outcomes and standards, and more and more schoolwork occurs on computers and other electronic devices. But who reports what these changes actually look like from the ground?
Enter Nicholson Baker, the award-winning novelist whose trademark is his attention to the quotidian: his work includes the steamy Vox, which consists entirely of dialogue on a phone-sex line, and Mezzanine, which occurs entirely during an escalator ride. In many ways he is the ideal writer to chronicle the minutiae of a modern school day. Spurred by a desire “to know what life in classrooms was really like,” he spends twenty-eight days as a substitute teacher in a public school district near his home in Maine, and records what he observes.
The result is Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids, by far the most accurate portrayal to date of the modern American classroom. Teachers will instantly recognize the fragmented tedium Baker depicts—P.A. announcements, online learning games, worksheets, PowerPoint presentations—and the often heroic effort of students and teachers to carry on in spite of it. Baker’s painstaking attention to detail means that Substitute’s 700-plus pages are difficult to get through, but this is a necessary price to pay for a book that shows how the sausage is made.