Originally published in The Huffington Post as “Wanna be a School Reformer? You Better do Your Homework!”
Shouldn’t people bold enough to call themselves “school reformers” be familiar with some of the literature on the subject?
Most of the school leaders who signed last weekend’s completely discredited“manifesto,” are unqualified to lead major urban school districts. Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein are not qualified to be a substitute teacher in their respective school districts. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could not coach basketball in the Chicago Public Schools with his lack of credentials. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that they advocate schemes like Teach for America sending unprepared teachers into the toughest classrooms armed with a missionary zeal and programmed to believe they are there to rescue children from the incompetent teachers with whom they need to work. In public education today, unqualified is the new qualified.
The celebration of inexperience and lack of preparation is particularly disconcerting when it comes to education policy. When you allow billionaires, ideologues, pop singers and movie viewers to define reform, you get Reform™.
Reform™ narrowly defines school improvement as children chanting, endless standardized testing preparation, teacher bashing and charter-based obedience schools who treat other people’s children in ways that the rich folks behind Reform™would never tolerate for children they love.
If that were not bad enough, Reform™ advances a myth that there is only one way to create productive contexts for learning. It ignores the alternative models, expertise and school improvement literature all around us. Public education is too important to society to allow the ignorant to define the terms of debate. Great educators stand on the shoulders of giants and confront educational challenges with knowledge, passion and intensity when afforded the freedom to do so. There are a great many of us who know how to amplify the enormous potential for children, even if we are ignored by Oprah or NBC News.
Reading is important for children and adults alike. Therefore, I challenged myself to assemble an essential (admittedly subjective) reading list on school reform. The following books are appropriate for parents, teachers, administrators, politicians and plain old citizens committed to the ideal of sustaining a joyful, excellent and democratic public education for every child.
In A Schoolmaster of the Great City: A Progressive Education Pioneer’s Vision for Urban Schools, school teacher and principal Angelo Patri identifies and solves every problem confronting public education. This feat is all the more remarkable when you learn that the book was published in 1917!
Recently deceased Yale psychologist Dr. Seymour Sarason published forty books on a wide range of education issues well into his eighties. A good place to start is The Skeptical Visionary: A Seymour Sarason Reader. You have to admire a guy who published a book with the title, The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform: Can We Change Course Before It’s Too Late, twenty years ago! Books written in the 1990s, And What do YOU Mean by Learning, Political Leadership and Educational Failure and Charter Schools: Another Flawed Educational Reform? remain quite timely and instructive.
No serious citizen or educator concerned with the future of education can afford to ignore the role of technology in learning. Jean Piaet’s protegé, Seymour Papert, began writing about the potential of computers to amplify human potential in the mid-1960s. His view is a great deal more humane and productive than using computers to quiz students in preparation for standardized tests. All of Papert’s books and papers are worth reading, but I suggest you start with The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.
Want to see what sustainable scaleable school reform looks like where children are treated as competent? The Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business by Dennis Littky with Samantha Grabelle describes urban high schools with small classes, consistent student teacher relationships and an educational program based on apprenticeship. Students don’t go to “school” on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They engage in internship experiences in the community in any field that interests them. The other days of the week, the curriculum is based on whatever the students need to learn to enhance their internships. This is not vocational. It prepares students for university or any other choice they make. The Big Picture model has spread across the United States with impressive results.
The biography of Big Picture Schools co-founder Dennis Littky, Doc: The Story Of Dennis Littky And His Fight For A Better School, by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell may be the first school reform thriller. The book chronicles how Littky transformed a failing school and was wrongfully fired the second political winds changed. Anyone interested in “reforming” public education would be well advised to read this exciting page-turner.
MacArthur Genius Deborah Meier has forgotten more about effective teaching and urban school reform than today’s entire generation of “reformers” ever knew. Meier is often considered the mother of the small school movement and her work as the founder of the Central Park East Schools and Mission Hill in Boston remain influential inspiration for parents and educators committed to the preparation of learners with the habits of mind required for a healthy democracy. Her book, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, is a masterpiece sharing the wisdom developed over more than a half century of teaching and school leadership. You should also read Meier’s weekly online discussion with Diane Ravitch, the Bridging Differences blog.
The Schools our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” is but one of the many terrific books by Alfie Kohn in which he challenges conventional wisdom on sacrosanct topics like homework, grades, standardized testing and rewards with clarity and evidence. His books are fearless and make you think. His articles are collected at Alfiekohn.com. Alfie’s small book, The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schoolsshould be on the kitchen table of every parent and teacher. If you’re tired of reading, you may watch two terrific Kohn lectures on the DVD, No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.
Dr. Theodore Sizer was a school principal, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and unofficial leader of the high school reform movement over the past twenty-five years. His intellect, calm demeanor and practicality led to the creation of the Coalition of Essential Schools and a template by which any secondary school could improve from within. The first book in his “Horace trilogy,” Horace’s Compromise, tells the story of American high schools, warts and all, through the eyes of a fictional English teacher, Horace Smith. This book and the two that follow share Horace’s epiphanies about the shortcoming of American high schools, their strengths and how he and his colleagues can make their school better. The organization Sizer founded, The Coalition of Essential Schools, continues to inspire such local reform efforts one school at a time.
National Book Award-winning author, educator and civil rights activist has been giving voice to the poorest children in our nation and the injustice they face since the 1960s. All of Kozol’s books are equal-parts profound, infuriating and inspirational, but the tender and beautifully written, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, reminds us why we should care about public education.
Herbert Kohl has shared his insights as a teacher and teacher educator in dozens of brilliant books. His recent anthology, The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching, should whet your appetite for reading many more of his books.
There is no more fierce or tireless critic of the higher tougher meaner standards and accountability movement than Susan Ohanian. The book she co-authored with Kathy Emery, Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? engages in the old-fashioned “follow the money” journalism we keep waiting for from news organizations. This book will help you understand how we got to reform being defined and advanced by billionaire bullies.
Right before he died last year, respected scholar, Gerald Bracey published, Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality – Transforming the Fire Consuming America’s Schools. This book disembowels many of the premises and data used to justify the high-stakes accountability rhetoric and school reform strategies currently being advanced. It’s a must read!
Not With Our Kids You Don’t! Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools by Juanita Doyon is a short must-read book for parents tired of their schools being turned into little more than Dickensian test-prep sweatshops. The book was written by a fed-up mom, turned activist from Washington who has upended her state’s political establishment in defense of the sort of high quality education Americans came to expect before No Child Left Behind.