Nearly a decade ago, The Huffington Post published an article I wrote, Wanna be a School Reformer? You Better do Your Homework! Today, all the cool kids are getting “FutureReady®!”

Whenever school leaders suggest that they want to improve the educational experiences offered students, if only they knew how, I do two things.

  1. Wish the education community could find a cure for amnesia
  2. Tell them to swing by my place. I’ve got a thousand books on how to improve education written with authority, clarity, and specificity by generations of gifted education leaders.

The best way to be “FutureReady®!” is to be well-versed in the education literature (not get-rich quick books found in airport gift-shops en route to school discipline conferences) and recognize that every problem in education has been solved before.

If you are a classroom teacher, parent, or school board member, I humbly recommend this assortment of books, suitable for whole faculty book groups (PK-12).

School leaders should step away from the TED Talks and dig into some of the books recommended below. Your students will thank you!

Wanna be a School Reformer? You Better do Your Homework!

Originally appeared in The Huffington Post on 10/19/2010

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 Schools should 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.

October 2019 two-day seminars with Will Richardson in DC, NJ, & Boston!


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.


Future Ready Schools® is a project of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

I once heard former President Clinton say, “every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” Educators stand on the shoulders of giants and should be fluent in the literature of their chosen field.  We should be reading all of the time, but summer is definitely an opportunity to “catch-up.”

Regrettably too many “summer reading lists for educators” are better suited for those concerned with get-rich quick schemes than enriching the lives of children. Case-in-point, the President of the National Association of Independent Schools published “What to Read this Summer,” a list containing not a single book about teaching, learning, or even educational leadership. Over the past few years, I offered a canon for those interested in educational leadership and a large collection of suggested books for creative educators and parents.

When I suggested that everyone employed at my most recent school read at least one book over the summer, the principal suggested I provide options. Therefore, I chose a selection of books that would appeal to teachers of different grade levels and interests, but support and inspire the school’s desire to be more progressive, creative, child-centered, authentic, and project-based.

Gandini, Lella et al… (2015) In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, Second Edition.
Aimed at early childhood education, but equally applicable at any grade level.  Illustrates how to honor the “hundred languages of children.”

 

 

 


Little, Tom and Katherine Ellison. (2015) Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools
A spectacular case made for progressive education in the face of the nonsense masquerading as school “reform” these days.

 

 

 


Littky, Dennis. (2004) The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business.
Aimed at secondary education, but with powerful ideas applicable at any level. Students spend 40% each week in authentic internship settings and the remaining school time is focused on developing skills for the internship. This may be the best book written about high school reform in decades. 


Papert, Seymour. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.
A seminal book that situates the maker movement and coding in a long progressive tradition. This is arguably the most important education book of the past quarter century.  Papert worked with Piaget, co-invented Logo, and is the major force behind educational computing, robotics, and the Maker Movement.


Perkins, David. (2010) Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education.
A clear and concise book on how to teach in a learner-centered fashion by a leader at Harvard’s Project Zero. 

 


Tunstall, Tricia. (2013) Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music.
“One of the finest books about teaching and learning I’ve read in the past decade.” (Gary Stager) Tells the story of how hundreds of thousands of students in Venezuela are taught to play classical music at a high level. LA Philharmonic Conductor Gustavo Dudamel is a graduate of “El Sistema.” The lessons in this book are applicable across all subject areas. 

Check out the CMK Press collection of books on learning-by-making by educators for educators!

Dear School Leaders and Policy Makers:

Our university used to boast of a 100% job placement rate for MA students with a freshly minted teaching credential. The Class of 2010 faced nearly 100% unemployment. A remarkable portion of each of my recent pre-service class sessions was dedicated to questions of employment and unemployment. That’s a shame since the only thing bigger than these wannabe teachers’ graduate school debt is their desire to improve the lives of children. Despite the wholesale debasing of teachers by the media, foundations and political leaders, I am inspired by anyone who still wants to teach and am honored to help them develop.

Apprenticeship is a powerful way to learn. That’s why future doctors and teachers intern before being credentialed. The theoretical principle at work is that you learn best through the careful emulation, collaboration and supervision of a master practitioner. I remain staggered by the remarkable impact of student teaching on candidates – for good and bad. It does not matter what my colleagues or I teach in the ivory tower of academia. Those techniques, learning theories, even deeply held values might be shelved within days of becoming a student teacher. This is commonplace when student teachers apprentice with the best educators. The results are more catastrophic when assigned to less competent, generous or inspirational teachers.

A few of my student teachers report being paired with teachers who are hostile, mean or sleepwalking. That’s unfortunate, but not half as tragic as the lessons newbies are learning from the “good” well-intentioned teachers and principals. What are young teachers expected to learn from what they observe in today’s public schools? Are good teachers being required to behave in miseducative ways based on directives from school administrators?

Here are just a few of the common scenarios being reported from the field.

  1. I asked several dozen California student teachers, “Tell me about science instruction in your school?” The nearly unanimous response was that elementary science education is a lot like Big Foot. Teachers have heard it exists, just never seen it for themselves. The Sasquatch Effect may also be applied to art, music, drama, social studies or any other meaningful pursuit not reduced to a standardized test. The innate curiosity of young children is being squelched while learning is supplanted by being taught or worse – prepped. An archaeologist would be required to find evidence of thematic units, classroom learning centers, experiments or authentic project-based learning.
  2. Principals evaluate teacher efficacy based on the volume of their students. Students are taught to be quiet, compliant and work in isolation. Elaborate time-consuming systems are enforced for eating lunch in silence, walking down the hall and playing only with children in your own class, if your school is liberal enough to still condone recess. There is zero tolerance for joy, conflict, exuberance or the expression of any other human emotion. We then have the audacity to pretend that one of the benefits of schooling is socialization. Right, anti-socialization.
  3. Math and language arts instruction has been reduced to teachers delivering a script and students chanting. Neither teacher nor student is privy to the secret logic of the seemingly infinite and random list of concepts and skills being “covered” in preparation for the test. Second graders are forced to solve worksheet problems concerning half-dollar coins even if you can’t remember the last time you saw one in circulation and the chincy manipulative kit does not include them. That’s OK, because tomorrow’s lesson will be on perimeter or from the new “algebra in-utero” curriculum. Nothing connects. There is no big picture. There’s just more instruction, more quizzes, more tests and less learning.
  4. Reading is reduced to mechanical acts or a prelude to comprehension tests. Classrooms are devoid of books, except for the basal that interrupts each boring paragraph with a quiz and compels every child to read the same thing at the same rate, regardless of their ability. Strong early readers endure years of needless phonics instruction just because while struggling readers are poked, prodded and drilled. Students receive “credit” for books they race through, but only if the school purchased the computerized quiz for that title. Reading for pleasure, information or any other intrinsic reason has gone the way of butter churning. It’s now an unpleasant unrewarding chore without the yummy creaminess. Yet, in the golden age of publishing and dynamism of the information age, we pretend to be mystified by illiteracy and low rates of independent reading.
  5. Not only has the standardization of curriculum begot test-prep and boredom, but “pacing” is its toxic spawn. Teachers are not only forced to pretend that every student is “keeping up” with whatever the pacing guide throws at them, but students are forbidden from “going ahead.” My student teachers report that teachers are punishing kids for going ahead of the sacred lesson. Some teachers make these students sit in isolation outside of the classroom if they have the audacity to express understanding of what they are being taught. Make no mistake, this obscene teaching practice is a form of child abuse and demonstrates that teachers, even the best intentioned ones suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. At best, this phenomenon demonstrates that a primary lesson of contemporary schooling is helplessness. If you act helpless, your teachers will teach that lesson to their students.

Where will one find creative teachers when agency is deprived and compliance celebrated? Every subject at every grade level could be taught in conjunction with a current event like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but by whom? When?

Five years from now, will any teachers know how to seize the teachable moment and build upon student interest or connect the curriculum to the world outside of the school?

I realize that politicians and the media are kicking your ass, but it is morally reprehensible for you to compel teachers to behave in ways that harm or inhibit the natural potential of children. Invoking the Nuremberg Defense is unacceptable. Who will stand up for the children? For your profession? For what is right?

Let’s imagine that non-traditional paths like Teach-for-America are effective and recruit the best and brightest university graduates as they promise. How many of these teacher candidates would be willing to suspend their own expression what they know about learning and allow academic content to be forced through the narrowness of the standardized curriculum?

What would you have me say to the young teacher who chokes up and testifies, “I don’t want to become like that?” (referring to the terrorized, risk-adverse, authoritarians she sees in schools as a result of the high-stakes accountability movement)

Why should a young teacher work for you? After you remove all joy, creativity, freedom and individuality from education, who will teach your child?