By now, we all know that reading is fundamental. But for the school reform movement, reading a broad, well-rounded collection of books is especially critical to success. Because the nation’s…
By now, we all know that reading is fundamental. But for the school reform movement, reading a broad, well-rounded collection of books is especially critical to success. Because the nation’s education crisis feeds into the social, economic, and political issues facing our nation and world, 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 be the lifelong readers we demand all of our children to be.
This is why Dropout Nation offers its help with the 2015 edition of The Top Eight Books That School Reformers Should Read. Culled from more than 100 books, the selections include Ta-Nehisi Coates’ exposition on racialism in America; academic N.D.B. Connolly’s exploration of the forces that have shaped the urban segregation that continues to exist in Miami and other cities today; journalist Stephen Witt’s reporting on how the Internet disrupted the music industry; and Nick Salvatore’s biography of famed preacher C.L. Franklin’s leadership in music and civil rights. Also on the list are Dale Russakoff’s tome on Newark’s school reform efforts, a Parent Power book from Tom Vander Ark and his team at Getting Smart, and a tome on education governance from famed education policy wonk Paul Hill.
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.
A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida: There are plenty of reasons why reformers should pick up Johns Hopkins University Professor N.D.B. Connolly’s exploration of how political forces and real estate speculation shaped housing segregation in Miami (and ultimately, the rest of the nation). One reason: Connolly clearly details how the development of cities — including urban renewal programs and the construction of housing projects that blighted so many cities in the 20th century — were strongly influenced by Jim Crow segregation. This, in turn, explains why the traditional district model of public education perpetuated state-sanctioned racial bigotry, as well as why expanding school choice is critical to addressing this shameful legacy. Connolly’s skillful dissection of how black real estate owners — including local civil rights leaders such as Athalie Range — worked together with white counterparts and politicians in perpetuating segregation should also be considered. After all, those collaborations against the futures of black people can be seen today as black teachers, school leaders, police officers, and politicians team up with others to perpetuate the nation’s education crisis and the overcriminalization of black lives. For reformers, Connolly’s book provides important lessons on the thinking we must use to build brighter futures for every child.
The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools: Plenty of well-deserved praise and equally-warranted scorn has been heaped upon New Yorker writer Dale Russakoff’s report on the very mixed success of now-former Newark Supt. Cami Anderson’s effort to overhaul the New Jersey city’s long-floundering district. But for reformers, regardless of their views on the book, Russakoff’s analysis should be considered with an open mind. Why? Because in illustrating how Anderson as well as allies such as former Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg failed to fully engage and empower families and communities in overhauling the district, Russakoff points out the failures of the movement to build strong grassroots ties that are needed to sustain reforms for the long haul. As seen this month in the evisceration of the No Child Left Behind Act, there are grave consequences for not doing so. Even if The Prize isn’t the messenger reformers want to hear, the message deserves reading and listening loud and clear.
Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces:
As Dropout Nation has detailed within the past year, overuse of harsh school discipline has commingled with the militarization of police departments and referrals by districts to juvenile courts to endanger the futures (and lives) of poor and minority children in and out of school. But as you read Washington Post columnist Radley Balko’s book on police militarization, this didn’t happen overnight. Throughout the book, Balko demonstrates how bad policymaking at federal, state, and local levels — from the SWAT teams instituted by the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1960s, to Bill Clinton’s launch of the Community-Oriented Policing program, to the Section 1033 program that has equipped school cops with assault rifles — has led to innocent lives being endangered even within their own homes. For school reformers, Balko’s book offers more reasons why they should team up with criminal justice reform advocates on ensuring that children are free from harm everywhere they go.
How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy: Be they school choice advocates or activists for revamping teacher quality or even standards and accountability proponents, many reformers have a tendency to believe that their favored solution will transform American public education. Yet the history of the movement itself, as well as what has happened in other sectors, has long ago shown that it takes numerous solutions to overhaul and even disrupt failing sectors. Stephen Witt proves this point in How Music Got Free. Throughout his reporting, Witt shows how various actors — from the work of Karlheinz Brandenburg and his colleagues at the Fraunhofer Institute in developing and releasing the MP3 format, to the effort of Dell Glover to upload music onto the Internet, to the emergence of Apple Computer’s iPod and iTunes music service — upended the music industry’s traditional and archaic business model. At the same time, Witt also offers reformers some new ideas on how they can continue to upend traditional public education. Certainly there are differences between the Big Six music labels and traditional districts. But for any reformer looking for new lessons for their efforts, How Music Got Free is important reading.
Singing in a Strange Land: C.L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America: At first glance, a biography on the legendary preacher and father of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, seems a strange choice for this list. But if reformers look closely, they will realize that isn’t so. Why? By offering a strong look at how Franklin succeeded in becoming a major force in gospel music — and failed as a preacher to be as strong a player as contemporaries Martin Luther King and Fred Shuttlesworth in rallying civil rights activism — Nick Salvatore provides important insight on what can happen to leaders when their focus is more on celebrity than on transforming the lives of the communities in which they live. Through the portrayals of the efforts of civil rights leaders in Franklin’s home base of Detroit such as Albert Cleage and Richard Henry, Salvatore also provides lessons on building grassroots efforts in urban communities. Befitting his daytime job as a labor historian at Cornell University, Salvatore even manages to provide a strong look at how unions such as the United Auto Workers often discriminated, both internally and in municipal politics, against the black workers whose interests they purported to represent. Particularly for black reformers battling teachers’ union affiliates, Singing in a Strange Land is a reminder that Big Labor has never been friends of black communities and their children.
Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning: When families are provided knowledge and high-quality data, they can help their children succeed in school and in life. Yet as a movement, school reformers do little to equip them. So it is wonderful that Tom Vander Ark, with the help of his Getting Smart colleagues, Bonnie Latham and Carrie Schneider, have put together an important book advising families on how they can personalize learning as well as help their kids achieve in school and in life. From showing parents how they can help their kids become self-directed in their own learning, to crafting learning plans that focus on matters academic and otherwise, Smart Parents provides some important and useful tools. This isn’t to say that Vander Ark, Latham, and Schneider does the complete job. The book is particularly deficient on parent advocacy, failing to offer the strong advice given by Dr. Steve Perry four years ago in Push Has Come to Shove (a Top Eight book in 2011). It also fails to offer examples of successful Parent Power advocacy such as that of Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union or New York City Parents Union’s Mona Davids. That said, Smart Parents deserves a place on the bookshelves of reformers and families alike.
A Democratic Constitution for Public Education: The byzantine nature of education governance, especially at the state level is a serious problem. One key reason: Because the structure of school systems can be as much a culprit for why reforms don’t happen as it can be a reason for why tough action can happen swiftly. So former Center for Reinventing Public Education boss Paul T. Hill and his onetime colleague, Ashley E. Jochim, deserve plenty of praise for devoting 143 pages to addressing what reformers can do to overhaul governance. This includes offering a new vision of structuring public education, based largely on the portfolio model Hill and his successor at CRPE, Robin Lake, have advanced for the past decade, as well as crafting a new approach for financing education that expands high-quality school options for children and their families. At the same time, in refreshing moments of candor, Hill and Jochim acknowledge that the educational governance approach for which they advocate has its own issues. This isn’t to say that the book is without flaws. For example, it fails to consider Hunter v. Pittsburgh, the century-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that essentially renders districts (as well as other local governments) as subservient to state government, essentially making the very concept of local control a fiction. All that said, Hill and Jochim have offered an important primer for reformers to use in overhauling how American public education is overseen at all levels of government.
Between the World and Me: Atlantic Monthly columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates has garnered plenty of acclaim and more than a little scorn for his letter to his son on the racialism that is the Original Sin of American life. While Coates doesn’t touch on education policy, he essentially makes a strong historical case for why reformers (especially increasingly erstwhile conservatives in the movement) must go back to embracing accountability measures and a strong federal role in education policymaking that, along with other changes in American society, are key to helping children from poor and minority households (as well as their families and communities) attain economic and social equality. Coates’ reporting on meeting with the mother of Prince Jones, a young man murdered by an off-duty police officer while driving to meet up with his fiancee is one of the most-heartbreaking passages in the entire book. Whatever your perspective, Coates has written a compelling book. It deserves your attention.
As always, there are a number of books that are deserve praise, but didn’t make the cut. This Next Four includes The School Choice Journey, Thomas Stewart’s and Patrick Wolf’s analysis of the impact of Washington, D.C.’s school voucher program; The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s look at the Great Migration of African-Americans from the tyranny of the Jim Crow South during the last century; The Courage to Act, Ben Bernanke’s memoir of his term as Federal Reserve Board chairman during the most-recent economic malaise; and The Knowledge Capital of Nations, Eric Hanushek’s and Ludger Woessmann’s expository text on the importance of education policy in global economic development.