What to read? These days, this isn’t exactly a question likely on the minds of school reformers. After all, between the dirge of reports, the flurry of op-eds, and the hundreds of tweets churned out daily, there is certainly a lot to read. But everyone needs to take a few days out of the year to just plain read a book. Why? Partly for pleasure. But also because we all need intellectual stimulation, and to glean new ideas and insights on how to overhaul a failed education system; there is so much that can be gotten out of one good book. More importantly, we have to show the importance of literacy own children (including nephews and nieces) and not just talk about it.
This year, Dropout Nation is offering its help by selecting The Top Eight Books of 2011 That School Reformers Should Read. Culled from more than 100 books, the selections include a wide range of texts. This includes three books that aren’t specifically focused on education; after all, school reformers need to continually glean lessons from history and from other sectors in order to build up the movement’s intellectual caliber. (It also makes one well-rounded.)
The selections were judged on four criteria: Does it have a strong narrative or polemical power (also known as “is it well-written” or, would Mrs. Dropout Nation fall to sleep on it)? Are the lessons relevant to the reform of American public education? Is the book thought-provoking (or does it offer new arguments or new thinking on familiar issues)? And would you pay at least $14 to put it on your Nook Color or Kindle Fire (or, for those of you still reading traditional books, pay at least $20 for the paperback or hardcover)?
Below are Dropout Nation‘s selections. Offer your own suggestions in the comments. And, most importantly, read, read, read.
Push Has Come to Shove: Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve — Even If It Means Picking a Fight: As I noted earlier this month in my American Spectator column, Dr. Steve Perry’s book is a Parent Power guide that can help families– especially those without any school choice or Parent Trigger options — push for school reform within their own communities. The plain-speaking Capital Prep Magnet School principal offers a step-by-step guide on how to negotiate through the school bureaucracies and force school boards to pay attention. He also explains what parents can do on their own to help their kids succeed in school and in life; and gives an inside look at how laggard leadership, low-quality teaching, and teachers’ union bosses have contributed to the nation’s education crisis. And in the process, he also provides a guide to school reformers on how to rally families on behalf of overhauling American public education. For both families and school reformers, Push Has Come to Shove is a book worth having on the shelf or Nook Color.
Why America Needs School Choice: Jay P. Greene’s monograph offers the most-succinct and persuasive arguments for supporting and advancing vouchers, charter schools, and other forms of choice. Throughout the book, Greene not only cuts through the arguments against choice, he also shows how the lack of school options is contrary to the state of affairs even in sectors heavily dominated by the public sector such as healthcare. Best of all, it can be read in an afternoon.
Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice: The abridged version of Raymond Arsenault’s tale about one of the most seminal moments in the history of the late-20th century Civil Rights Movement may not seem like a natural read for school reformers, especially those in the Beltway. But the book offers amazing lessons on how our new voices for reform — including Parent Power activists — must challenge the thinking and tactics of longstanding players in the Beltway who now find themselves at a strategic crossroads. And for other reformers, Arsenault’s narrative should be a reminder of the importance of zealous, unapologetic advocacy and speaking truth to power. Freedom Riders is one of two books featured in Dropout Nation‘s Building a Culture of Genius commentaries this year.
Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools: Based on just the visceral reaction of teachers’ union supporters at an American Enterprise Institute conference earlier this year (and Richard Kahlenberg’s defense of education traditionalists disguised in review form), Terry Moe has written what is probably the second most-controversial book on education this year. And for good reason. Moe provides a cogent analysis of how the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have helped perpetuate a failed vision of American public education that has condemned far too many young men and women to despair. And he also explains how the development of online learning efforts may do more to weaken the influence of NEA and AFT affiliates than the work of reformers in reshaping policy.
Eiffel’s Tower: The Thrilling Story Behind Paris’s Beloved Monument and the Extraordinary World’s Fair That Introduced It: Historian Jill Jonnes’ profile of the construction of the world’s most-iconic monuments was the guiding text for another Building Culture of Genius commentary, this on the need for innovators in school reform. And for good reason. The book offers amazing insights on how Gustav Eiffel managed to navigate the treacherous terrain of political intrigue, and still pulled off one of the greatest path-breaking efforts of all time. From Jonnes’ book, school reformers can glean some lessons on the kind of dynamic minds and path-breaking thinking we need for the reform of American public education.
Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools: There are plenty of reasons why Steve Brill’s look at the three decade-long battle over reforming American public education has become the most-controversial — and most talked-about — book on education this year. One of the most-important reasons lies with its strong, even-handed (if sometimes, incomplete) reporting on how the school reform movement has emerged as one of the most-powerful forces in American policy and politics. Another lies with Brill’s rather sharp insight into the craven defense of traditional public education practices by folks such as Ravitch and American Federation of Teachers President Weingarten — and the tactical errors of school reformers (including the problems that came up with the selection process for the federal Race to the Top effort). Class Warfare isn’t a perfect book; Brill fails to detail the important work of such reformers as Howard Fuller and John Norquist (who brought the school choice movement to life — and brought urban leaders to the fore in school reform — with their successful launch of the nation’s first school voucher program), and leaves out the important work of Greene, Robert Balfanz, Christopher Swanson and Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Michael Holzman in revealing the depths of the nation’s dropout crisis. But Brill has written an important book that can even inform the thoughts of political scientists who aren’t studying education.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention: At first glance, the late Manning Marable’s autobiography of the famed civil rights and religious leader would not seem to be a text that school reformers should read. But the book’s chapters on how Malcolm X attempted — and failed — to launch a grassroots movement after his departure from the notorious Nation of Islam are textbook lessons on why strong leadership and operational skills are critical for sustaining reform efforts. Marable’s tale about the rise of the Nation also shows school reformers how a strong movement can be built when dedicated advocates do all they can to reach down into the grassroots — and his discussion about the religious cult’s downfall offers insight on problems of personality-driven organizations, an issue for some of the foremost outfits in both school reform and among education traditionalists. And finally, Malcolm X’s amazing life and constant reinvention — including how he became an autodidact of the first order — shows how education can spark anyone to turn their lives around for the better.
Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives and America’s Future: Your editor will admit that he doesn’t agree with every suggestion or view offered up by University of California, Berkeley Professor David Kirp in this book. Let’s just mention one: It isn’t too late to help children get on the path to success in school and life once they enter school. But Kirp’s book is certainly one of the most-compelling reads any reformer can pick up this year and in the coming days. He strongly and thoughtfully argues for government budgeting and public policy agenda based on the simple idea that all kids deserve that which you would provide to your son, daughter, nephew or other child in your life that you love. More importantly, unlike similar books in this arena, Kirp actually lays out what this should look like in concrete ways.
There were three other books that were so good, yet, because this is only a list of the top eight books (and because of the list’s emphasis on mentioning books that were not specifically focused on education) didn’t make the cut. These Next Three are Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors, Alexander Russo’s narrative on Green Dot’s overhaul of Locke High School; Richard Whitmire’s profile of Michelle Rhee, The Bee Eater (despite what once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch wants to think); and Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics, which offers reformers insights on the driving forces behind other intellectual and political battles (and, is also a fine primer on Austrian and Keynsian economic theory).
Update: Howard Fuller notes that Thomas Friedman’s and Michael Mandelbaum’s That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back should be among the other books school reformers should read; education is one of the issues the book covers. Another reader also puts on the list Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems, which ably tears apart arguments from education traditionalists about the nation’s woeful academic performance against its peers. Given that one is on my Nook Color at this moment (and being read) and the other is in the order queue, your editor, in particular, couldn’t judge either book one way or the other. But I will give my thoughts at the beginning of the new year.