Two Good Books

As a follow up to my last post, I thought I would recommend two books that have helped me to shape and clarify my views of education reform.

The first book is “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” by Diane Ravitch. Ravitch is one of our nation’s leading educational historians. Her latest book chronicles the evolution of education reform over the past twenty years. Ravitch’s account examines the passage of No Child Left Behind, the rise of the charter school movement and the failures of large urban school districts. The book investigates the legacy of the Bush Administration– especially its obsession with testing and accountability.

Although I wished Ravitch would have spent more time discussing the future of education rather than the failures of the past, I believe she brings some important questions to the table. Foremost, she questions whether large philanthropies (such as those created by Bill Gates and the Waltons of Wal-mart) possess too much unchecked power and influence in the world of education reform. She also expresses concern over the explosion of charter schools and the shrinkage of neighborhood schools  (she theorizes that parents are more likely build community and engage in collective action at neighborhood schools).

Where or not you agree with Ravitch’s conclusions (she argues fervently for the creation of a rigorous national curriculum, and calls for re-investment in the traditional neighborhood school)–the history she provides can help you understand why our national educational system looks and operates  the way it does today. Furthermore, the book is concise, accessible and though-provoking.

The second book I would like to recommend is “So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools” by Charles Payne. Payne’s book seeks to explain why so many reforms are unsuccessfully implemented in urban school districts. Dr. Payne explores how school cultures are formed, and he explains how such cultures might help or hinder school performance. His descriptions of a “culture of failure” completely synchronized with my own experiences as a teacher. During my second year of teaching– the understanding I gleaned from this book helped me to make sense of the context I was working in. For those of you who feel deeply frustrated by the failures of our urban school system– Payne helps to de-mystify the complex problems facing teachers, students, parents and communities. This book helped me to see that school climate can thwart changes efforts and that reforms are likely to fail without the buy-in of teachers. In sum, Payne’s book teaches us that reform efforts that fail to acknowledge the nuanced, and interwoven nature of problems in our public school systems are unlikely to be successful.

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