School reformers have plenty of op-eds to read, policy papers to peruse, and endless tweets coming through their Twitter feeds. But every now and then, everyone needs to pick up a few good books and just read. And not only for pleasure. The need for intellectual stimulation and new ideas for reforming American public education — especially from those outside of policymaking circles — makes thoughtful polemics more-important than ever. And besides, we need to be good examples to the children in our lives.

All of these reasons are why Dropout Nation offers its help this year by selecting The Top Eight Books of 2012 That School Reformers Should Read. Culled from more than 100 books, the selections include a wide range of texts. This includes two books not specifically focused on education from which reformers can gain insight, and build up the movement’s intellectual caliber. It also includes two books by icons of the civil rights movement of this past century who struck blows for bending the arc of American (and world) history; reformers must also heed those lessons from one of the building blocks of the modern school reform movement today.

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 Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle’s wife fall asleep 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)? When research is involved in the narrative, does it stand up to scrutiny? And would you pay at least $14 to put it on your Nook or Kindle Fire (or, for those of you still reading traditional books, pay at least $20 for the paperback or hardcover)?

Below are the selected books. Offer your own suggestions in the comments. And as we say here around this time of the year, read, read, read.

achievabledreamThe Achievable Dream: College Bound Lessons on Creating Great Schools Certainly former College Board President Gaston Caperton and Richard Whitmire (whose biography of Michelle Rhee was among the honorable mentions cited in last year’s Top Eight) have put together some important examples of successful systemic reform efforts. But The Achievable Dream doesn’t just talk about the jobs well done. Particularly in looking at the effort of the Harrison district in implementing a performance pay plan, Caperton and Whitmire illustrate the slow and tough work reform-minded school leaders must undertake — including working with veteran teachers who prefer the guaranteed benefits that come with degree- and seniority-based pay scales — to move away their operations away from fiscally- and educationally ruinous traditional teacher compensation. In short, it is a worthy addition to the school reform bookshelf.

amissionfromgodA Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America  At first glance, James Meredith’s autobiography (the subject of an upcoming Building a Culture of Genius commentary) would not seem like a natural book for reformers to pick up. But the civil rights icon’s story about how he undertook a years-long , single-minded, and (given his presence in the Jim Crow South) death-defying effort to state-sanctioned racial bigotry by becoming the first black man to officially attend the University of Mississippi shows reformers — especially those from the Beltway — how impromptu leaders can emerge from the grassroots to take down status quo thinking, bring down injustice, and transform lives for the better. And Meredith’s passionate call for the reform of American public education — and his thoughtful reminder of how transforming our schools is part of rectifying the damaging effects of racial bigotry on American society — is one that all should embrace.

thinkingfastThinking, Fast and Slow There are at least three good reasons why DN Contributor Alex Hernandez used Daniel Kahneman’s book on how people think in his critique on the expertise myth that is endemic within American public education. The first lies in the book’s cogent analysis of how biases such as hindsight, as well as beliefs that we have better understanding of past events and other matters , makes us overconfident in analyzing actions and activities around us. The second? Kahneman offers important insights on how reformers and everyone else can understand errors in decisions and choices, especially our own. Finally, Kahneman’s explanation of why expertise is only useful when combined with objective and accurate data — and valuable when it is acquired in stable conditions in which events can be predicted — is humbling, especially to reformers and traditionalists who don’t always think about the consequences of faulty thinking.

9781118216583_cover.inddPractice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better For school leaders looking to help good and great teachers build upon their talent (and beat the general rule that teachers are no better after 25 years on the job than they are after four) Doug Lemov’s follow-up to Teach Like a Champion, co-written with his Uncommon Schools colleague, Katie Yezzi, and teacher Erica Woolway cannot make it easier. That’s because it isn’t. As Lemov, Yezzi, and Woolway point out, it can be easier to help teachers practice habits that lead to failure in improving student achievement than to train instructors on ways to achieve success. At the same time, Practice Perfect also offers plenty of insight on what can be done to improve teacher quality inside the school building. And this is always a manifest benefit for our children.

urban_school_systemThe Urban School System of the Future: Applying the Principles and Lessons of Chartering  One can argue that there is at least one flaw in Andrew Smarick’s otherwise-excellent treatise on how reformers — especially reform-minded mayors — can push for the end of the traditional district model. Those of us who would prefer state education departments to provide oversight for schools (a move embraced by Dropout Nation through the Hollywood Model of Education) will not be a big fan of Smarick’s concept of mayoral-appointed chancellor regulating all the education players in an urban area; this despite the fact that this publication is generally supportive of mayoral control for traditional districts. Yet that flaw doesn’t deflect from Smarick’s strong overall argument for why traditional districts are obsolete for providing education in an age in which scale is far less useful in providing all kids with high-quality education than strong standards in teaching, curricula, and school leadership.

newgeographyofjobsThe New Geography of Jobs: Who Wins, Who Loses in the New Innovation Economy Anyone looking to understand the consequences of the nation’s education crisis — and any municipal chief executive looking to make the case for mayoral (or county executive) control — need only to pick up University of California, Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti’s text on the underlying reasons why some American cities are thriving in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. Moretti’s discussion about how “brain hubs” — or municipalities with large numbers of highly-educated white- and blue-collar workers — continue to thrive economically and socially because talented men and women understand the multiplier effect of being around equally well-educated peers, should motivate every city leader to become bold school reformers. At the same time, Moretti’s observations about income inequality is represented by the low levels of mobility among high school dropouts and high school graduates with no higher education training (who, unlike the college-educated, cannot move out of economically laggard communities because they lack high-quality education) is one that should inform reformers in their efforts to transform American public education.

warriorsdontcryWarriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High School Sometimes, reformers must be reminded about why they are working to reform American public education. And several reminders can be found in Melba Patillo Beal’s diary of her year attending the first high school in the American South desegregated after Brown v. Board of Education (and the alma mater of the wife of this magazine’s editor). Beals’ description of the first day she attended Central High — and how she had to confront adults who would rather see her remain uneducated (and, in fact, dead) than see her attend the city’s top high school at the time — can’t help but arouse moral indignation. And this is indignation that reformers should use today in confronting adults who, like those who gathered in front of Central High then, think just as lowly of poor and minority kids, and want to keep Zip Code Education policies that are just as damaging to futures now as state-sponsored racism was then.

howchildrensucceedHow Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character: There’s quite a bit with which Dropout Nation finds fault with What It Takes author Paul Tough’s latest tome on the role of character-building in helping students achieve lifelong success. For one, he buys too much into both the Poverty and Personal Responsibility myths held by most traditionalists, papering over the systemic issues — including low-quality teaching, lack of strong, college-preparatory curricula, and the disdain among many teachers and school leaders for poor and minority families — that have led so many kids onto the path to poverty and prison. The fact that Tough essentially dismisses the role of strong, comprehensive college preparatory curricula (especially intensive reading remediation for young men) in building strong character and helping all kids know their names is also disheartening. Those looking for a more-thoughtful book on the importance of helping kids develop executive function they need for success later in life would be better off reading Ellen Gallinsky’s excellent Mind in the Making. At the same time, Tough smartly illustrates the importance of foster nurturing cultures of genius in every school that can help all children — especially those coming from home lives of dysfunction — develop the emotional fortitude needed to succeed in adulthood. And in showing how KIPP and other schools and systems are building these cultures, Tough offers a road map that all players in the school reform movement should consider in their efforts.


As usual, there are five books which were so good, yet because Dropout Nation only lists eight top books, didn’t make the cut. This Next Five include: Getting Smart, Tom Vander Ark’s important exploration of the role of digital learning in transforming education; The Diverse Schools Dilemma, Thomas B. Fordham Institute research czar Mike Petrilli’s text on the challenges facing middle class and white families in big-city schools (even though Petrilli buys into not-so-thoughtful notions about how economic status of families structure their engagement and power in schools); The Last Lion, the biography of Winston Churchill (a subject of a Culture of Genius essay on the importance of being divisive in advancing reform) started by famed historian and journalist William Manchester and completed after his death by Paul Reid; Pension Games, the Chicago Tribune’s collection of reports on the consequences of defined-benefit pension deals between state and local governments and public sector unions such as the National Education Association affiliate there; and Leverage Leadership, a key primer on building cultures of genius written by Lemov’s Uncommon Schools colleague, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo.