Top Education Books of 2011

By Kathleen Vail
Teachers unions continued to take a beating in 2011 in the court of public opinion, and the books on our list of top education reads certainly reflect their place on the firing line. Class Warfare, one of most talked-about education books of the year, portrays unions as the obstacles to reform. And author Steven Brill is not alone: Terry M. Moe’s Special Interest covers some of the same ground, as does Richard Whitmire’s The Bee Eater, a portrayal of a former superintendent who has become the most visible face of union-bashing: Michelle Rhee.

Providing some balance on the list is The American Public School Teacher, a look at how the teaching profession has changed over the years through the National Education Association’s teacher survey. Alfie Kohn’s Feel-Bad Education and David Kirp’s Kids First offer some antidotes to the current testing frenzy in education, as does our list’s sole fiction selection, The Perfect Test, by Ron Dietel.

Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, Steven Brill, Simon & Schuster.
Writer Steven Brill’s 2008 New Yorker article on New York City’s so-called “rubber rooms,” where incompetent teachers spent their time, earning a salary while waiting for their cases to decided, sparked a firestorm of debate over the role of teachers unions in education. The book that grew from that article, Class Warfare, has set off yet another round in the education reform rhetoric battle, with unions again being portrayed as barriers to change. You will be all too familiar with the book’s main story of the push for charter schools from the Obama administration on down and disappointed that the school board role is all but ignored. (For more information, read Robert Rader’s review on page 21.)

The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District, Richard Whitmire, Jossey-Bass.
“Cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are way overrated,” former District of Columbia school chancellor Michelle Rhee famously once said. Rhee, whose tenure ended abruptly in 2010 when her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, failed to win reelection, was a lightning rod for urban reform. USA Today editorial writer Richard Whitmire has produced another in the bumper crop of books in the last year that blame unions for the woes of education. The Bee Eater unfortunately does not take a very critical view of its polarizing subject, who battled with the D.C. teachers union but produced few academic wins for her students.

Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, Terry M. Moe, Brookings Institution Press.
You may remember Moe’s previous book, written with colleague John Chubb, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, and published in the early 1990s. This buzz-generating publication extolled the virtues of private-school vouchers. Moe, a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution, now takes on teachers unions as the cause of all education ills (not surprisingly, Michelle Rhee was quoted on the book’s back cover). If you agree that teachers unions are a bane, then you’ll find much to like here. Those searching for a nuanced approach should look elsewhere.

I Used to Think ... and Now I Think ... : Twenty Leading Educators Reflect on the Work of School Reform, edited by Richard F. Elmore, Harvard Education Press.
Harvard professor Richard F. Elmore asked 19 other educators to use a common teaching tool to show how their beliefs on school reform have changed over the years. The book includes essays by education luminaries such as Deborah Meier, Howard Gardner, Dennis Littky, and Sonia Nieto. The short pieces are illuminations into the minds of some of education’s great thinkers and practitioners. Elmore encourages everyone involved with education, practitioners and policymakers alike, to consider doing a similar exercise about how their beliefs have been shaped over the years. 

Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling, Alfie Kohn, Beacon Press.
Many longtime education observers are no doubt waiting for the inevitable backlash against high-stakes testing and standardization. Kohn, through much of his writing, and certainly in his latest book of essays, is hoping to hurry along that pendulum swing. Taking aim at what he calls “the cult of rigor,” Kohn argues against excessive homework and extreme emphasis on grades, saying that none of these techniques produces academic benefits for children. His thesis: Only by bringing back the concept of educating the whole child and making schools places of joyful learning will we then produce students with true 21st century skills. 

The American Public School Teacher: Past, Present, and Future, Darrel Drury and Justin Baer, Harvard Education Press.
With teachers and their unions at the heart of so many public arguments on education, here’s a volume that looks at the teaching profession from the inside. National Education Association statisticians Drury and Baer analyzed years of American Public School Teacher surveys from 1955 to the present. The result is a comprehensive look inside the professional lives of teachers, then and now, interspersed with commentary by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, among others. 

The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts, Neal Bascomb, Crown.
If you’re looking for the next Stand and Deliver, this might be it. The movie rights have already been purchased for journalist Bascomb’s account of how California physics teacher Amir Abo-Shaeer and his high school robotics team won a David-and-Goliath victory at a national robotics competition. Abo-Shaeer, the first public high school teacher to win a MacArthur Genius Award, brought the group of smart, technology-savvy kids together through his high school engineering academy. The teacher’s vision of making academic achievement “the new cool” on par with student athletics is the impetus for the students’ journey from robot builders to national competitors. 

Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives and America’s Future, David L. Kirp, PublicAffairs.
Educators and policymakers talk about leveling the playing field -- closing the gap among children who have so many advantages and those who have so few. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California, proposes a radical notion that all children deserve what is good enough for your own child. Further, he advocates for what he calls “smart politics of the heart” -- five policy changes that would transform the lives of children in the U.S. Those changes are: strong support for parents; high-quality early education; linking schools and communities to improve what both offer children; giving all youngsters access to a caring and stable adult mentor; and providing kids a nest egg to help pay for college or kick-start a career. And for those of you wincing at the money this would cost, Kirp provides a cost-analysis that shows it’s not that expensive.

Sub Culture: Three Years in Education’s Dustiest Corners, Carolyn Bucior, Outskirts Press.
After reading this book by journalist and one-time substitute teacher Bucior, you’ll never look at your subs the same way again. She deftly weaves in her own sometimes harrowing experiences as a substitute teacher with information from national sources about the state of the substitute teaching profession. For example, she points out the high cost of substitutes and teacher absenteeism, and how ineffective substitutes are in educating students. Bucior’s memoir also offers some common sense solutions, including offering initial and ongoing training for substitutes, interviewing subs face to face, and considering the use of the term “guest teacher.”

The Perfect Test: An Education Experiment That Went Terribly Wrong, Ron Dietel, Sense Publishers.
Imagine a world in the not-too-distant future where a reform-weary education system rejoices when two Stanford graduates create the perfect national test. In Dietel’s futuristic spoof of our current testing mania, the test makes the U.S. number 1 in math and science. Then one of the test developers discovers a secret list of the names of students who are exceptions to the high-stakes consequences of the tests. Dietel, a UCLA professor and ASBJ author, offers a cautionary tale of a world where testing is taken to an extreme.

Additional Reading
For past Notable Books lists, go to

Kathleen Vail ( is the managing editor of American School Board Journal.

Class Warfare: Where are the school boards?

By Robert Rader

If a school board member -- say, Rip Van Winkle -- fell asleep in 2008 and awoke in 2011, he would be amazed by changes now occurring in public education. It’s not exaggerating to say we are living through the largest transformation of politics, legislation, culture, and implementation of change that school boards have ever seen.

Much of this is due to those who consider themselves “educational reformers.” With the strong support of President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, foundations, philanthropists, hedge-fund managers and state legislatures have guided massive changes in how schools work. 

Author Steven Brill’s Class Warfare is essentially a history of that change. The cast of characters includes Duncan, former Washington, D.C., Superintendent Michelle Rhee, New York City Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. It also is peppered with stories about teachers, Teach for America, state boards of education (particularly New York’s Board of Regents), and the foundations and businessmen who have bankrolled this effort.

Brill goes into much detail about the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top (RTTT) competition, which was the real catalyst. He focuses on what the applications would require, the vetting process, and the vetters themselves who worked on the RTTT applications in almost every state. One interesting detail: Vetters could not be “involved in running school systems, active in reform, or those who consulted for any state or local school systems.”

Brill provides information on why some states did well and others, which might have been similar in many respects to a successful state, did not. Further, he described how the Department of Education scored the applications, doled out the money, and pushed the reformers’ agenda. The application was, according to Brill, “unrelentingly prescriptive,” which the reformers loved.

In Connecticut, I told officials that checking off boxes -- in a literal race to get points with very tough deadlines -- was an awful way to make public policy. Due to the recession, everyone chased the money at the cost of making hurriedly analyzed decisions. 

Despite this, many statewide changes have been positive. Local and statewide discussions about the importance of teachers in the classroom are taking place, including the critical role of appropriate evaluations and the use of data to support them. Brill also writes about school districts that turned down RTTT money because the implementation would cost more than they would receive from the federal government. 

Followers of the reform initiatives won’t be surprised by much in the book, but the quotes from reformers and others makes for fascinating reading and supports some of the scuttlebutt that has been part of these huge initiatives. 

Teachers unions won’t like the book, at least until the last few pages. They are blasted throughout as the reformers’ biggest obstacle to raising student achievement. Brill writes that unions -- usually those affiliated with the National Education Association -- put obstacles on virtually every part of moving the reform agenda through legislatures and state boards of education.

But, at the end -- and I mean the last 20 pages or so -- Brill talks about the need to collaborate with unions. He describes the need for teachers to receive adequate preparation and training, lots of feedback, engage in introspection, and to hold high expectations for all students. In a comment that will rankle reformers because of their sense of urgency, he says it will take time for states to implement the reforms and ensure they work.

What rankles me about the 437-page book was the lack of any real discussion about the role of school boards. It’s as if boards -- and superintendents other than those few Brill wrote about -- are invisible or play such a little part that they weren’t worthy of much mention. 

Volunteer school board members and those whose careers are about serving boards should be very concerned about this. I believe boards in individual communities -- though not as much in New York or Washington, where the book’s action is centered -- continue to play a critical role in ensuring student achievement increases. Does Brill think boards (and their representatives) are irrelevant?

Brill quotes Klein as saying that “collaboration is the elixir of the status quo crowd.” But in Connecticut and other states, school boards are critical in ensuring that the Obama/Duncan changes -- especially the required ones -- are implemented in a positive, beneficial way. Discussion and working through problems at the local level is necessary to reach the best solutions.

Perhaps the RTTT process got us through some of the decades-long obstacles to better teaching and more learning, and understanding the history is one reason to read Brill’s book. But ultimately, the onus is on school boards to wake up, get involved, become knowledgeable, and provide your own input into this amazing transformation.

Robert Rader ( is the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.