School reformers need to read more than just op-eds and magazine pieces on education policy. After all, as it has been discussed over the past two weeks alone, the nation’s education crisis feeds into the social, economic, and political issues facing our nation and world; this means we must break out of specialization and become interdisciplinary in our thinking. There’s also the fact that as parents and caregivers, we must continually practice what we preach to children every day: Read books and be lifelong learners.

geniuslogoThis is why Dropout Nation offers its help with the 2014 edition of The Top Eight Books That School Reformers Should Read. Culled from more than 100 books, the selections include a look at how the legendary James Meredith’s march through Mississippi helped splinter the Civil Rights Movement of the last century; political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s treatise on modern government; and an analysis of how the Salvation Army and other religious groups transform civic society. There are also chronicles on reform from school choice pioneer Howard Fuller and former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein.

As with every edition of the Top Eight, the selections met five important criteria: Does it have a strong narrative or polemical power (also known as “is it well-written”)? 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 tablet (or, for those of you still reading traditional books, pay at least $20 for the paperback or hardcover)?

Below are this year’s selections. Offer your own suggestions in the comments. And just read, read, read.


downtothecrossroadsDown to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear: There are plenty of reasons why reformers should pick Aram Goudsouzian’s book on the 1966 March Against Fear, the last great protest of the 20th century Civil Rights Era. For one, it offers fascinating profiles in activist leadership. This includes Martin Luther King’s calm resolve in spite of sniping from Thurgood Marshall and other rivals; Stokely Carmichael’s penchant for fiery rhetoric and shoddy strategizing, the clever machine politicking of Charles Evers; the organizing genius of Ella Baker; and the near-messianic spirit of James Meredith, who originally organized the march before being shot on the first day of it. More importantly, in detailing how the Civil Rights Movement fell apart just a year after achieving such policy successes (including Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), Down the Crossroads offers important lessons on how movements can fall apart in the face of diverging priorities, clashes of egos, struggles in collaboration, and sparse financial and manpower resources. At a time in which the school reform movement is in transition, reformers of all stripes should read this book in order to learn how to keep history from repeating.

politicalorderPolitical Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy: Francis Fukuyama is probably the greatest political scientist of his generation in part because he combines crisp writing with strong, prescient analysis on how politics can shape society. All of his talents are on full display in his latest polemic what makes for good government (and why it rarely becomes reality in much of the world). As Fukuyama details the evolution of American government and those in Africa and Asia, he shows how accountable is key to ensuring that citizens are protected from fiscal and social harm, he offers lessons to those reformers who doubt the importance of the No Child Left Behind Act and its strong accountability provisions. At the same time, by noting how the United States’ own system of checks and balances often leads to a “vetocracy” in which political interests can impede good ideas along with the bad (as well as how “intellectual rigidity” can lead to crises such as the global financial meltdown) Fukuyama also reminds reformers that we must also balance strong accountability with enough room for the kind of innovation and policies needed to ensure the common good in American public education. Your editor doesn’t agree with all of Fukuyama’s conclusions, especially on whether American-style democracy is workable in all nations. But Political Order and Political Decay deserves to be on your bookshelf.

nostruggleNo Struggle No Progress: A Warrior s Life from Black Power to Education Reform: From teaming up with the late Polly Williams and former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist to launch the nation’s first school choice initiative, to his willingness to speak truth to traditionalists and reformers alike, the aforementioned Fuller deserves his place as one of the nation’s foremost school reformers. In discussing his evolution from civil rights activism in the 1960s to his role guiding the leadership of Black Alliance for Educational Options, Fuller shows how reformers can advance systemic reform for our children through strong grassroots activism, cannily navigating the corridors of policymaking, and agitating within institutions. At the same time, Fuller’s story shows reformers that they must recognize the interconnections between what happens inside our schools and what happens outside of them. Any reformer who hasn’t read this book yet should do so. Now.

claimingsocietyforgodClaiming Society for God: Religious Movements and Social Welfare: There are plenty of reasons why reformers should pick up Nancy J. Davis’ and Robert V. Robinson’s sociological study of how religious groups such as the Salvation Army and the Muslim Brotherhood succeed in becoming influential players in the societies in which they reside. The most important: Because it offers reformers a blueprint for how to sustain systemic reform. Davis and Robinson show how these groups gain credibility and support for their visions of what society and government should be by addressing the needs of the communities — especially those of poor and minority backgrounds — in which they work. This includes becoming the substitutes for the welfare state role played by governments in their respective countries, and engaging in the kind of grassroots activism that wins them critical support on the ground. For a school reform movement that needs to have a stronger grassroots presence in order to advance its efforts, Claiming Society for God is book that will help it get there.

lessonsofhopeLessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools: Along with former Boston Superintendent Tom Payzant, the aforementioned Klein is the most-successful reform-minded traditional district leader of this generation. Thanks to his book, reformers can now learn what it took for him and his onetime boss, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to improve student achievement for Big Apple children, as well as understand the obstacles to implementing systemic reform that remain. From vivid accounts of his battles with the American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple local over simply conversing with teachers on the district’s staff, to conceding how his inattention to curricula may have limited the successes the Big Apple could have had in improving student achievement, to his battles to increase the array of school choices for kids and their families, Klein offers important examples of how institutional-oriented players can achieve the kind of changes that help more children attain the high-quality education they deserve.

thereckoningThe Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Making and Breaking of Nations: Amid all the efforts over the past few years to weaken No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions, reformers should take time to read Jacob Soll’s exhaustive historical survey of what happens when nations weaken checks and balances in financial affairs. As he details how double-entry bookkeeping and other accounting innovations led to the rise of nation-states, as well as how retreats on checks and balances (as well as transparency) have led to crises such as the global financial meltdown of the last decade, Soll offers reformers new reasons why they must resist efforts to weaken accountability by traditional districts and even institutional players within their own ranks (including charter school operators and private schools that benefit financially from the expansion of choice). Soll also shows how inattention to the details of accountability (which can easily be seen in the education policy arena through the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit) can lead to disaster. Advocates for reforming traditional teacher compensation (including busted defined-benefit pensions) can also learn plenty from Soll’s book.

alightshinesinharlemA Light Shines in Harlem: New York’s First Charter School and the Movement It Led: Mary C. Bounds story about the Sisulu-Walker charter school offers an eye-opening chronicle of how difficult it can be to take one aspect of systemic reform: Launching and sustaining schools that can provide our children with cultures of genius. There is plenty to learn from the steps (and missteps) financier-turned-educator Steve Klinsky and his teammates (including civil rights activist Wyatt Tee Walker) made when they took the arduous step of launching the Big Apple’s first charter school. This includes the importance of being passionate about building schools fit for the futures of children, as well as the willingness to change direction (in the form of moving away from Sisulu-Walker’s initial use of the low-quality Direct Instruction approach to teaching) when it is clear it won’t work. Particularly for Parent Power activists looking to launch their own schools and take over failing operations, this is a book they should read.

buildingabetterteacherBuilding a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach it to Everyone): Folks such as Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless have criticized Elizabeth Green’s book as an exercise in edu-tourism. DN Editor RiShawn Biddle offers a far more-substantial critique: That Green’s general disdain for the teacher training efforts of Doug Lemov (whose follow-up to Teach Like a Champion was a Top Eight selection in 2012), especially in dismissing its focus on matters such as classroom management, ignore the reality that it has proven empirically to be superior in effectiveness in improving student achievement than the approach developed by University of Michigan’s Deborah Ball (which Green champions). [Update: Green disagrees with DN’s comments, noting that she doesn’t disdain his approach and arguing that the review didn’t mention aspects of Lemov’s training that he is looking to improve. The editors stand by the assessment.] Yet Green’s book deserves to be on your bookshelf because it is an important chronicle of the struggles reformers and others have had in overhauling how America recruits and trains its teachers. Just as importantly, Green’s book is also a clarion call for bringing greater attention to developing alternative teacher training programs as well as reforming the nation’s low-quality ed schools.

As always, there are a number of books that are deserve praise, but didn’t make the cut. This Next Eight includes On the Rocketship, Richard Whitmire’s profile of the blended-learning charter school operator; The Bill of the Century, New York Times editorialist Clay Risen’s narrative on the politicking that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Slavery by Another Name, Douglas A. Blackmon’s account of how Jim Crow segregationists and companies teamed up to use criminal codes to put blacks into virtual slavery; Jonathan Darman’s LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America, which details how the 1964 election season sowed the seeds of destruction and success for two legendary politicians; British politico Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor, which profiles the legendary statesman’s leadership long-ranging impact on world affairs; Unreasonable Men, Michael Wolraich’s chronicle of how tensions between Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette led to the rise — and fall — of early 20th-century progressive politics; Teachers Versus the Public by Paul Peterson, Michael Henderson, and Martin West, which focuses on the divergent views of teachers and the people who pay their salaries; and Putting Education to Work, Mega Sweas’ profile of the Cristo Rey collection of Catholic schools.  

While Dropout Nation doesn’t place books written by contributors on this list, it would be remiss to not mention  The Black Poverty Cycle and How to End It, Contributing Editor Michael Holzman’s treatise on how the black children are harmed by the intersection of the nation’s education crisis and the drug war.