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15 Books That Take American Education to Task

by Staff Writers

Education in America has received a lot of attention in recent years, from educators, reformers, and politicians alike, all looking to improve test scores, reduce dropout rates, and help American students achieve at the same level as their international peers. While some reforms seem to be making a difference, by and large the education system in America is still floundering, and schools at all levels, from kindergarten to graduate school, are facing some serious criticism. Some haven’t been afraid to voice their concerns and have penned books over the past decade that have exposed some of the biggest problems with education in America, taking the entire system to task in the process. Here we share just a few of these sometimes scathing takes on the American education system, which can be eye-opening reads for anyone working in or studying education today.

  1. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch:

    Diane Ravitch served as the Assistant Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, but during her tenure she became disillusioned with many of the methods being used to reform the American school system, including No Child Left Behind and replacing public schools with charter schools. In this best-selling book, Ravitch addresses those very methods, critiquing them as ineffective and potentially disastrous ways to change American education for the better. Ravitch also offers her own ideas on how to reform school, from how to pay teachers to who should make education policy decisions.

  2. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol:

    While many criticize America’s education system from the sidelines, Kozol has been in the trenches, an experience which has left him deeply concerned about the problem of equality in public education. In this book, Kozol documents the conditions in six of America’s poorest and most desperate school districts, contrasting the third world conditions, poor teachers, and lack of resources schools serving low-income students receive with those serving wealthier citizens just a few miles away. The book is eye-opening and heartbreaking, as Kozol exposes some of the worst injustices that face the neediest American schoolchildren.

  3. So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools by Charles M. Payne:

    A professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, Charles M. Payne is widely regarded as a key voice on issues like civil rights, social justice, and education. In this book, Payne exposes the ineffectiveness of nearly thirty years of school reform, leaving many urban schools in much of the country just as bad as, or in some cases even worse, than they were decades before. Yet Payne offers some hope for readers, too, exploring what does work and how effective reforms can change the lives of young students whose only way out of poverty may be a good education.

  4. Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, or Add by Charles J. Sykes:

    Sykes has some serious complaints about the quality of education available in school systems today and voices them quite passionately in this indictment of American education. Sykes points to the watered-down requirements, grade inflation, and ineffectual reading materials as contributing to the decline of academic rigor in American schools. While many may agree with this assessment, his solution is perhaps much more controversial, calling for the dissolution of the federal Department of Education, undergraduate education, and merit-based raises for teachers.

  5. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa:

    Even with ever-higher tuition, more students are heading to college than ever before, but are they really getting the education they’re paying for? Sociology professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roska don’t think so. They have research that points to some disturbing trends in higher ed, including a study which found that 45% of students showed no improvement in key skills, including critical thinking and writing, between their first semester and the end of their second year. They believe that the current culture at most colleges doesn’t adequately value education, preferring to focus on raising their rankings rather than putting out a smart, capable batch of graduates each year.

  6. The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing by Alfie Kohn:

    The more homework students get, the more they’re learning, right? Not quite. As Alfie Kohn explains, there are no studies proving the learning benefits of heavy loads of homework, yet teachers across America continue to load students up with hours of it every night. Busywork and a competitive environment, he argues, only turn kids off of school and are counterproductive to producing well-educated, thoughtful young adults. Most revealingly, he lays out six of the reasons heavy homework loads are so accepted, with arguments against each that may just change your views on homework.

  7. Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education by Peter Sacks:

    One of the most disturbing facts about education in America is just how different the educational experience is for students of different classes. As more and more Americans speak out about the growing divide between the wealthy and the rest of us, the issue of a class divide in American education has never been more relevant. Sacks takes to task the fallacy of equal opportunity in America by showing how schools in America at all levels shut out and disenfranchise poor students while catering to students who are more economically advantaged.

  8. The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol:

    One of Kozol’s most well-known books, this book exposes the segregation that is still found in many American schools, with the divide between races reverting to its highest level since Brown v. Board of Education banned segregation in 1968. Teachers, students, principles, and education leaders all share their thoughts on the issue in this informative and moving book, which encourages all Americans to fight for civil liberties for students in urban districts where basics like up-to-date textbooks and clean classrooms are often in short supply.

  9. Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas by Thomas Sowell:

    This book by Thomas Sowell is aging (it was published in 1992), but sadly many of the problems he points to in it still exist in education today, 20 years later. Sowell posits that the American education system, from kindergarten through grad school is full of incompetency, alienation, and moral bankruptcy, railing especially hard on athletic scholarships, the publish-or-perish syndrome, and academic brainwashing. Readers should note that Sowell can be a bit extreme (and sometimes downright wrong), but that doesn’t make his primary criticisms of the education system any less scathing or true.

  10. Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Gatto:

    John Gatto was the recipient of the New York State Teacher of the Year Award, but that doesn’t mean he loves the way the current education system works. In fact, quite the opposite, as readers of this book will quickly learn. Gatto believes that the American education system only teaches children how to follow orders and conform to social norms, not to think independently and critically. Most damning are the seven lessons Gatto says he must convey to students including: confusion, class positions, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and denial of privacy.

  11. Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More by Derek Bok:

    This book is another hard look at the American higher education system, this time from former Harvard president Derek Bok. As in the work of Arum and Roska, Bok showcases just how little many students learn during their college educations, lacking key skills in writing, reasoning, mathematics, and critical thinking. In fact, despite high tuition that supports new technology, more professors, and greater resources for students, there is little evidence to suggest that students are learning more and may in fact be taking away less from their college years (despite a much higher price tag).

  12. Below C Level: How American Education Encourages Mediocrity – and What We Can Do about It by John Merrow:

    PBS and NPR reporter John Merrow believes that American educational reforms can’t really be effective until they change one key element: the encouragement of mediocrity in American students. In this book, he turns a critical eye to the failings of American schools through a series of essays that touch on a wide range of teaching and learning topics. At the core of Merrow’s work is that assertion that in order to begin to change, schools must admit their problems, be willing to change, and use teaching methods that have proven results, things many just aren’t willing to do.

  13. Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools by Steven Brill:

    Journalist Steven Brill takes an uncompromising look at education in this book, exposing the multifaceted battle over reforming the system that Brill argues neglects the interests of children in favor of the interests of unions, politicians, and those in power. While Brill’s commentary may not be entirely unbiased, he takes shots at nearly all sides in the school reform debate, exposing inequities, problems, and shortsighted policies that are keeping American schools in the dark ages.

  14. Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms by Diane Ravitch:

    Think misguided education reforms are a modern invention? Ravitch shows in this revealing book that they’re really nothing new; Americans have been worrying about the quality of their education system for over a century. There are few better equipped to write a history of education reform than Ravitch, a historian of education and research professor at NYU, and she does not disappoint. While engaging, the book is also discouraging as it exposes the long, slow march towards the poor quality of many of America’s schools today. Ravitch does offer a source of hope, however, by highlighting some of the courageous voices throughout history that spoke out in favor of equal access to high-quality education for all American students.

  15. The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School by Neil Postman:

    Postman takes on the purpose of the educational system itself in this critical read. Instead of imparting students with a strong work ethic, an appreciation for diversity, a love of country, and an understanding of the larger purpose of the arts and language, Postman argues that schools now simply teach students how to be consumers and encourage the exclusion of those who are different from the norm. Instead of focusing on the means of education, as many reformers do today, Postman offers a critical look at the crux of the educational experience: the content.