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20 Essential Books on U.S. Education Policy

by Staff Writers

By Katheryn Rivas

As with any publicly-funded institution, education incites some impassioned controversies. Standardized testing, demographic divides along racial and economic lines, limited resources and the dismissal of creative thinking and innovation.

No wonder dark sarcasm runs rampant in the classroom.

Education involves more than just teachers, students and administrators, however. Parents and politicians must both strive towards a more positive climate for future generations. Understanding the history, policies and propositions that led to the current state of American public schools remains the best way to formulate viable reformations. The following books open up minds to both the problems at hand as well as some of the historical events that came to shape today’s education system.

Many more excellent books on education reform and policy exist beyond these, of course, and anyone desiring the broadest possible view should seek them out. Think of this list as a quick guide to some nice, diverse starting points rather than anything steadfast. And please — take no offense to any omissions or inclusions. Arguing opinions as fact is most unbecoming.

  1. Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka: A Brief History with Documents by Waldo E. Martin, Jr.: One of the most important Supreme Court rulings of the 20th Century directly involved the public education system. It declared the segregation of schools along racial boundaries unconstitutional and ordered schools across the United States to accept students of all backgrounds. This book provides some of the legal documents associated with the trial as well as a basic overview of the peoples, places and policies involved.

  2. Waiting for "Superman" by David Guggenheim Karl Weber: Along with the lauded documentary, the Waiting for "Superman" book also exposes many of the most pressing failings of American public schools as a whole. It issues forth a plea to reform the practices that leave kids unable to thrive in the business world, suggesting resources and activities for parents and educators alike. Because it aims for a broader audience, anyone outside the industry can pick it up and understand the main points.

  3. The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch: After interviewing educators, staff members, parents and philanthropists, Diane Ravitch pieced together a portrait of the public schools’ plights. She analyzes how various policies came to impact today’s practices and what needs to be done in order to improve conditions for the children. One her main ideas involves moving away from the use of corporate models when proposing and passing reform.

  4. Summer for the Gods by Edward J. Larson: Read up on the Scopes Trial and its subsequent impact on religion and public schools. Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes underwent a grueling and emotional legal battle for the simple "crime" of introducing students to evolutionary theories. Though science has a place in most American schools today, some states feel similar senseless battles between its role in education.

  5. The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn: It’s a thesis certain to fill many students with joy — homework causes too much stress and too little family time, and experts question its value to an overall academic experience. Alfie Kohn discusses why educators and parents still embrace the concept in spite of contrary evidence and what needs to be done to make schools more competitive. Homework, he argues, leads to burnout and disillusionment.

  6. Many Children Left Behind by Deborah Meier and George Wood: Several education experts weigh in on the pros and cons of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act. Most of them see it as a detriment to American students because it does not genuinely address the real issues plaguing schools. Most of them provide solutions to the problems at hand that provide equal educational opportunities to kids across the country.

  7. Work Hard. Be Nice. by Jay Mathews: Learn about Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin’s KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), meant to revitalize poor inner-city schools. Their work involves appropriate incentives and engaged mentors and teachers meant to give them opportunities on par with students in wealthier neighborhoods. It definitely warrants consideration from both the people and the politicians.

  8. So Much Reform, So Little Change by Charles M. Payne: In spite of numerous reforms and policies, inner-city public schools see little to no improvement. Charles M. Payne presents comprehensive research regarding the major problems and the failed changes that lay in their wake. Anyone interested in the history and possible future of urban education needs to pick up this book for consideration.

  9. The Ordeal of Equality by David K. Cohen and Susan L. Moffitt: Most of The Ordeal of Equality revolves around questioning the efficacy of federal education regulations. The authors compare and contrast these with more localized policies, offering a look at what works, what doesn’t, and what needs improvement. One of the more depressing facets of the American school system involves novice teachers assigned to positions at institutions in desperate need of the experienced, and this book certainly addresses this disparity.

  10. The Law and Special Education by Mitchell L. Yell: Both special education teachers and parents need to pick up this essential guide to the legalities and procedures associated with the industry. It covers all the policies that have come to impact special education in America, including No Child Left Behind and the Individuals with Disabilities Acts, among others. At the moment, it is currently on its second edition.

  11. The Teachers We Need vs. the Teachers We Have by Lawrence Baines: Policies also shape how teachers themselves receive the necessary training before even setting foot in a classroom. These differ from state to state, creating notable gaps in quality that need serious addressing. Lawrence Baines also argues against market-driven policies, favoring ones that center more on offering students exactly what they need to succeed in life.

  12. Class and Schools by Richard Rothstein: Education relies on much more than specifically targeted reform. Social, political and economic factors also play an integral role in shaping effective, safe schools as well, and divides crop up because of this. Class especially impacts the quality of American public schools, with one of the major discrepancies in quality between the poor and the exorbitantly wealthy.

  13. Disrupting Class by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson: One of the most heavily criticized facets of the public school system involves the emphasis on standardization, which almost completely ignores child developmental psychology. Dismantling the current system and rebuilding it in a way that encourages creativity and thought will certainly benefit students, though the time, money and resources required means such a system could take years to fully implement. The "disruptive learning" style, however, still holds promise for the nation’s kids.

  14. The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner: American public schools lag behind other nations in the same socioeconomic category, especially when it comes to making and analyzing arguments. Tony Wagner suggests "Seven Survival skills" that need stressing in the classroom so that students graduate with the proficiencies needed to land jobs or go to college. He backs up his research with observations, interviews, statistics and more, providing a provocative thesis on what policymakers, parents, teachers and administrators should strive towards.

  15. A Mind at a Time by Mel Levine: University of North Carolina’s Mel Levine recognizes eight different learning types, yet the American school system insists on standardization in spite of his and other experts’ contrarian evidence. A Mind at a Time outlines how teachers and parents both can cater to the strengths and weaknesses of these different groupings. And, of course, it makes an excellent case for why extensive reform is necessary.

  16. Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol: Although segregation has been ruled unconstitutional, Jonathan Kozol’s travels led him to discover that it still takes place in an unofficial capacity. Schools divide along socioeconomic lines rather than racial, but this unfortunately leads to the existence of institutions full of marginalized minorities. It may have been published in 1991, but it still eerily (and more than a little depressingly) resonates today.

  17. Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto: The former New York State Teacher of the Year winner pulls from his thirty-some years of experience to beg Americans to better notice their neighborhood schools. He makes note of many practices that serve only to squelch creativity and inspire boredom — complaints that other experts have held the past few decades, incidentally! Suffice to say, educators, parents and politicians should certainly seek it out and use it as a guide for forming viable policies.

  18. Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Educational Issues by James Noll: This book is only one in a series on developmental psychology and education (not to mention their relationship) that presents different sides of relevant debates. Each issue comes packaged with different arguments, summaries and personal questions so the readers at home can formulate their own opinions. Stay on the lookout for new editions as policies and attitudes change over time.

  19. Education Nation by Milton Chen: Not one to accentuate only the negative, Milton Chen is quick to point out the schools and techniques that educate without discouraging inquisitiveness — most especially as they relate to technology integration. However, progress does not necessarily indicate that American schools no longer need reform and policy changes. This book delves into the resources and practices that politicians, teachers, administrators and parents must understand in order to provide the best possible education system possible.

  20. The Knowledge Deficit by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.: E.D. Hirsh, Jr. tackles a common thesis — American students statistically lag behind many of their international peers. He dissects many of today’s largest controversies, including standardized testing, and dispels some of the myths regarding the education system. One of the most glaring problems lay in curricula emphasizing reading, while paying little attention to fully comprehending the words.