The Top Education Books of 2007

By Rebecca C. Jones

ASBJ’s editors recommend the must-reads of the year

Not much happens in schools these days without an eye toward how it will affect test scores. So it should come as no surprise that testing issues showed up in most of the books published about education over the past year. In fact, almost all of the 2007 Notable Books in Education—the books selected by ASBJ editors as the must-reads of the year—deal, in one way or another, with standardized tests.

This year, for the first time, ASBJ's editors also selected two works of fiction to include in the list. Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes examines the cause and aftermath of a school shooting, while Tom Perotta’s The Abstinence Teacher looks at the ongoing debate over sex education in schools.

One American School Struggles to Make the Grade
By Linda Perlstein. Henry Holt and Co. 302 pp. $25.

To hear politicians tell it, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was designed precisely for students at schools like Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, Md. Only 17 percent of Tyler Heights students performed satisfactorily on the state exams in 2001, the year NCLB was enacted. Four years later, 86 percent of kids taking the test passed reading, and 80 percent passed math.

Education reporter Linda Perlstein monitored Tyler Heights through the following academic year, when Principal Tina McKnight and her staff set out to prove the scores were not a fluke but proof of real progress at the once-abysmal school. The result is Tested, probably the most accessible and thorough account of NCLB’s effects on a single school.

The book describes the small triumphs, discouraging setbacks, daily interactions, and constant pressure on staff members who, according to Perlstein, worked with “children who thought it was okay to sass their teachers, who refused to or couldn’t follow the rules of a simple game of checkers, who failed to quiet down even when the principal appeared, whose innate desire to please adults seemed to have died shortly after kindergarten.”

Tyler Heights held pep rallies, hired consultants, and provided a seemingly endless supply of rewards for students who even pretended to try. (As one teacher said, “Soon we’re going to be giving them candy if they wipe their butts.”) While some readers might be horrified by what NCLB has driven us to, others will surely be taking notes.

Only Connect
The Way To Save Our Schools

By Rudy Crew with Thomas Dyja. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 256 pp. $23.

Cursed with a title that doesn’t make sense until you’re almost halfway through the book (and even then it’s a little sketchy), Only Connect rises to become one of the best books ever authored—okay, co-authored—by a sitting superintendent.

Rudy Crew, chief of Miami-Dade County Public Schools and former chancellor of New York City’s public schools, combines his personal story with his outrage over the state of American public education. “Every year millions of teenagers graduate from high school with no tools, no skills, and no sense whatsoever of what they’re going to do with their lives,” he writes. “That’s easy to sniff at as if it were someone else’s problem. But the fact is, those kids aren’t just living in the nation’s inner cities; they live in corn-fed towns in Iowa and under the shadows of the Rocky Mountains, too.”

Crew tells enough about his own philosophy and about his interactions with students and staff to make you wish he were sitting behind the big desk in your district. But the real hero of this book is Eugene Crew, the single father/night watchman/jazz musician who raised and inspired the future superintendent and his two sisters after their mother died when Rudy was 2. There’s no better endorsement for parent involvement than the stories Crew tells about his father’s repeated attempts to demand the best for and from his son.

Eugene Crew was, in essence, creating connections for his son—something Superintendent Crew thinks we should all be doing for the next generation.

Tough Liberal
Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy

By Richard D. Kahlenberg. Columbia University Press. 524 pp. $29.95.

Depending on who’s doing the talking, the late Al Shanker is often described as either the best thing or the worst thing that happened to public education since John Dewey. A new biography by Century Foundation senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg indicates that the leader of the American Federation of Teachers might have been both.

“The bad Al was the early, militant teachers’ union leader who thirsted for power and poisoned race relations,” Kahlenberg writes in the introduction to Tough Liberal. “The good Al came much later and was the statesman who led his union in the direction of education reform, even as parochial elements within the AFT fiercely resisted.”

Shanker, who once dabbled with the idea of running for president of the United States, spoke and wrote about many issues before he died of cancer in 1997, but Kahlenberg indicates his greatest contribution was probably in embracing the recommendations of 1983’s A Nation at Risk, despite the objections of his AFT colleagues. In so doing, Shanker kept the standards movement alive and, according to Kahlenberg, established himself as “arguably the most influential American educator of the last quarter of the 20th century.”

Letters to a Young Teacher
By Jonathan Kozol. Crown Publishers. 304 pp. $19.95.

Letters to a Young Teacher allows Jonathan Kozol to be Jonathan Kozol—master storyteller, supportive colleague, playful teacher, and righteous advocate for poor children. The format of this book—16 letters to a first-year teacher named Francesca—gives the award-winning author/teacher freedom to hop around the educational landscape, offering memories and opinions on everything from middle school curricula to the late PBS television host Fred Rogers. (Kozol thinks highly of the latter, but not much of the former.)

Kozol alternates between fond recollections of children he’s known and passionate soliloquies about issues in education. He pronounces vouchers “the single worst, most dangerous idea to enter education discourse in my lifetime”—another way to shortchange low-income children in a society that only pretends to value diversity.

For decades, Kozol notes, governors and legislatures have brazenly defied court orders aimed at correcting inequities in school funding. Even if future governors and legislatures decide to make things right, it will be too late for the generations of children who have passed through inadequate schools. “Courts,” he writes, “do not grant children reparations for the loss of childhood.”

Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire
The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56
By Rafe Esquith. Viking. 244 pp. $24.95.

Imagine fifth-graders who play Vivaldi, perform Shakespeare, study algebra, take annual cross-country trips, and have their eyes on top-notch colleges. No, they don’t attend an exclusive prep school. They’re students at a public school in a Los Angeles neighborhood known for its poverty and violence.

Their teacher, Rafe Esquith, explains how he turns his classroom into a nurturing, inspiring place in Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire. (Yes, his hair did catch fire while he helped a student with a science experiment.) In a book that includes advice on everything from creating a classroom culture to making string art, Esquith emphasizes the importance of making kids feel comfortable in his classroom—even when they’re taking standardized tests.

Although his students have scored well on those tests, Esquith says he always reminds them “that life’s most important questions are never asked on standardized tests.” Tests don’t ask about “character, honesty, morality, or generosity of spirit,” he says, probably because “raising test scores a little higher is easy. Teaching honor and ethics is not nearly as simple a task.”

Beyond the Bake Sale
The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships

By Anne T. Henderson, Karen L. Mapp, Vivian R. Johnson, and Don Davies. New Press. $25.
It’s well known in education research circles that family involvement is closely linked to better test scores, higher graduation rates, and better-adjusted students. In fact, some research indicates family involvement might even be more important than socioeconomic status in predicting a child’s success in school.

Knowing this, several researchers collaborated on Beyond the Bake Sale, a guide full of suggestions for schools interested in beefing up family-involvement programs and policies. As might be expected, most of the book’s suggestions and activities are aimed at teachers and principals. But a healthy section of the book focuses on what needs to be done at the district level, beginning with a written policy and a supportive superintendent.

“Leadership is key,” the researchers write. “When a superintendent demonstrates a serious, consistent commitment to parent and community engagement, everyone in the district gets the message.”

A Class Apart
Prodigies, Pressure and Passion Inside One of America’s Best High Schools
By Alec Klein. Simon & Schuster. 320 pp. $25.

New York City’s Stuyvesant High School might well be the most exclusive school in America—harder to get into than Harvard or Yale. Applicants must take an entrance exam, with only about 3 percent scoring high enough to be offered a seat. What happens after they’re accepted is the subject of Washington Post reporter and Stuyvesant alum Alec Klein’s new book, A Class Apart.

More than two decades after his own graduation, Klein returns to Stuyvesant, where he records the ups and downs of teachers, administrators, parents, and students over a school year. Much of what he finds could happen at any school—faculty protests over time cards, for instance—but some of his observations have an only-at-Stuyvesant spin to them. One father, for instance, demands to know why his son’s grade-point average dropped to 98.

Repeatedly, Klein brings up the question of whether Stuyvesant (and, by extension, other special schools for the gifted) should even exist. The segregation of brains strikes some educators as elitist—almost un-American. But others, especially the parents who begin grooming their children for the Stuyvesant entrance exam almost before they can talk, see the school as one of the few places that will set the bar high enough for their children.

Five Minds for the Future
By Howard Gardner. Harvard Business School Press. 171 pp. $24.95.

Howard Gardner, the Harvard professor who gave us multiple intelligences in 1993’s Frames of Mind, is still thinking about thinking. Insisting he has no crystal ball, he evidently peers into someone else’s to see what kinds of mental abilities—which he calls minds—will be needed in the future.

The result is a list of five distinct thinking skills that Gardner says both students and adults need to develop: a disciplined mind that has mastered the distinctive way of thinking that characterizes a specific skill or scholarly discipline; a synthesizing mind that finds new meaning in information gathered from different sources; a creating mind that “puts forth new ideas, poses unfamiliar questions, conjures up fresh ways of thinking, arrives at unexpected answers”; a respectful mind that welcomes differences between individuals and tries to work effectively with them; and an ethical mind that ponders how people “can serve purposes beyond self-interest ... and work unselfishly to improve the lot of all.”

Some readers might lose patience with Gardner’s penchant for categorizing and labeling thought processes. (His discourses on “multiperspectivalism” and “synthesizing tracks” would send Noah Webster himself to the dictionary.) But legions of Howard Gardner fans will surely treasure the MacArthur genius’s latest thoughts on thinking.

The Power of Play
How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children

By David Elkind, Da Capo Press. 240 pp. $24.

It’s hard to imagine anyone seriously arguing against a child’s right to play. But in The Power of Play, child psychologist David Elkind—whose 1982 classic The Hurried Child scolded us for rushing kids into adulthood—produces convincing evidence that thoughtful parents and well-meaning educators have systematically cut into playtime with bright ideas like eliminating recess and organizing team sports for the just-out-of-diapers set.

“Over the past two decades,” he writes, “children have lost 12 hours of free time a week, including eight hours of unstructured play and outdoor activities.” Even passive entertainment has gotten more intense, Elkind notes, with goof-offs like Fred Flintstone and George Jetson giving way to such industrious characters as Bob the Builder and SpongeBob SquarePants.

In this manifesto on the importance of play in children’s intellectual, physical, and emotional development, Elkind takes particular aim at the academic emphasis in today’s preschools and kindergartens. Citing research that shows no long-term academic benefit of such early rigor, he points to evidence that low-income children who start school in play-based programs later earn higher math and reading scores than similar children who begin with academic preschools and kindergartens.

These benefits last well into middle school—indicating that even a workaholic like Bob the Builder might do well to chill out once in awhile.

“It’s Being Done”
Academic Success in Unexpected Schools

By Karin Chenoweth. Harvard Education Press. 250 pp. $26.95.

Poor students = poor schools. For as long as this sad equation has existed, a few schools—often called islands of success—have escaped their destinies and delivered high-quality education. In “It’s Being Done,” education writer Karin Chenoweth examines 15 of these schools to see how they manage to produce high scores on standardized tests, despite the poverty of their students.

When Chenoweth began the project, she worried she would find “soul-deadening test-prep factories” or “schools where the teachers and principals are worn to a frazzle.” Instead, she reports finding schools led by strong principals and hard-working (but apparently unfrazzled) teachers who use the data from standardized test results to drive their instruction.

Chenoweth recognizes the shortcomings of standardized tests but notes they are the only way schools can be sure they’re teaching—and students are learning—what they should. “To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous line about democracy,” she writes, “tests are the worst way to assess student and school performance—except all the others.”

Honorable mention

A Glossary of Education Terms, Phrases, Buzzwords, and Jargon

By Diane Ravitch. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 243 pp. $23.95

Historian and researcher Diane Ratvitch’s new book is for anyone who has ever sat at a school board meeting and wondered, “What the heck is a ‘full inclusion program’ anyway?” EdSpeak, says Ravitch in her introduction, “is my attempt to explain in everyday language the esoteric terms, expressions, and buzzwords used in U.S. education today.”

Terms such as “learning how to learn,” “manipulatives,” and “domain specification” are listed in alphabetic order with easy-to-understand definitions. Ravitch demystifies EdSpeak so well that you’ll want to keep a copy handy during board meetings for those times when the jargon starts to fly.

Rebecca C. Jones (, a former senior editor of American School Board Journal, is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md.

Q&A with Jodi Picoult, author of Nineteen Minutes

Jodi Picoult is a self-professed workaholic who has written a novel a year for her entire adult life. Like Richard Patterson, Stephen King, and other contemporary authors whose names have become brands, her work has a distinct formula—take a controversial topic, examine it from all sides, and shake up the readers’ preconceived notions.

Picoult, who writes one book while researching the next, looks at bullying and its horrific consequences in Nineteen Minutes, which debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list last spring. The book opens with a school shooting, then flashes back to look at the cause while the characters deal with the aftermath.

In an e-mail interview with Editor-in-Chief Glenn Cook, Picoult discussed why she took on a subject that is every school leader’s worst fear.

Your books focus on contemporary topics. What made you decide to look at a school shooting?

When I was in eighth grade, a bunch of friends and I had tried to petition the school board for an honors English class at our junior high. We got petitions signed by kids, teachers, the principal, and presented this. The next day, I was reaching into my locker and a kid walked by, called me a freak, and slammed the locker shut on my hand, breaking three fingers. Years later, as a mom, I saw all three of my kids face bullying—and it begged the question: In a post-Columbine world, why haven’t we figured this out yet?

What I appreciated most was the depiction of Peter, the shooter, and his mother. It is rare to see the archetypical “villain” portrayed sympathetically (or his family, for that matter), but you did so without casting judgment on the horrific nature of the crime. Why was it important to cast Peter’s character, in particular, in this light?

It’s very simplistic to say that bad parenting causes a bad kid. I think it’s a more interesting question to ask what happens if you have a good parent who winds up with a child who does something awful. How do you continue to love that child? How can’t you?

The biggest mistake I see after school shootings is the media’s attempt to portray the shooter as someone wildly different from the rest of us and our children, when in reality, he’s probably quite similar. The FBI list of characteristics of a shooter fits the common teen at some point in his/her life quite well—but that’s too scary to admit. It’s easier for us to say, “Oh, no, not my kid. Not in our school,” but I’d rather make people uncomfortable enough to ask the deeper question. What if it was my school, my kid?

Describe your research for the novel. Did you speak with the families of victims or shooters?

I went to Columbine and spoke with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office, about what they know they did wrong. They gave me the crime scene details, which the book is based on, and videotapes that weren’t released to the public of the two shooters target shooting and calling out the names of kids in their school. I spoke to grief counselors at Columbine, each of which was told to tell their family their child was the first to die and didn’t suffer.

I didn’t speak at that moment to Columbine survivors; I went back and did that afterward. Instead, I went to the site of a more recent school shooting (Rocori High School in St. Cloud, Minn.). I spoke to a boy who was in gym class with one victim and (was) the best friend of a second victim. He told me how he finished dressing 10 seconds after the victim went out in to the gym. He then heard “Get down, Aaron’s been shot” and ran into the gym to find Aaron in a pool of blood.

The teachers moved all the kids into the girl’s locker room at 11 a.m.; at 5 p.m. the cops came to get them and move them into the library to be interviewed as witnesses. There, this young man got on the Internet and learned his best friend had died too that day. He said he never forgot that if he’d gotten dressed ten seconds earlier, he’d be dead; he said he never forgave his parents for not watching more carefully before the world was watching post-incident. He said today you can still trail your fingers on the plaster of the walls at Rocori and feel where the bullets hit.

What did you learn from writing this book that surprised you, or debunked any preconceived notions you may have had about teens, bullying, and schools?

Bullying happens worldwide—the names of the cliques just change. It’s subversive, so you can bully someone on the Internet or via text message. And people believe school shootings happen in cities, or violent areas, but in fact, they tend to happen in places that are quiet and well heeled.

Adults feel they can preach tolerance, but that’s not going to work. We’re too prejudiced for the kids to believe us. Instead, change will come one mind at a time by getting kids to help us find the right solutions, even though that means ceding some control and allowing them to be part of the process. When they are, they rise to the occasion pretty darn quickly.

In the wake of Columbine and other shootings, districts responded with metal detectors, zero tolerance policies, safety sweeps and the like. Are these effective deterrents? If not, what is?

Tolerance. Getting kids to see that they don’t have to change the world, but they can change their own behavior. If they see someone being bullied, go up and stop it. Make them realize that overt bullying isn’t different from ignoring the kid who’s sitting alone in the cafeteria. I’d love to see programs where jocks are paired with special needs kids for a certain number of hours each week, and truly develop a relationship with those kids, for example. I’d like there to be equal budgets for sports and for the math team.

One girl told me about a group of girls who were terrorizing her middle school. One day, the principal put all the kids in the gym and gave them paper and pencils and told them to write a solution to end the bullying. The next day, the kids didn’t go to class. They were split randomly by age, grade and sex and grouped with teachers, and given anonymous papers to read. They discussed what would and wouldn’t work and why, and the girl said that after that, the six years she spent in the school district, she could not recall another single act of bullying.

As a parent of three school-age children and a writer, what do you see as the strength of public schools, and what weaknesses do you think need to be shorn up for them to be more successful?

Public schools can be great places to foster diversity, and to help kids get a sense of finding their passions from within a wide range of possibilities. Right now, however, there are several caveats that I think are nationwide.

First, bullying isn’t taken seriously by enough schools. Second, the issue of academic integrity—cheating is rampant, and worse, is considered to be “cool”—because teachers assume kids will understand honor and ethics, even though it is rarely taught as curriculum. Third, the tenure system needs to be updated so teachers are rewarded for creativity and for engaging students, instead of simply longevity. There’s no benefit to being an innovative teacher, which means that the people who are teaching our kids aren’t always at the top of their game. Fourth, No Child Left Behind isn’t nearly as effective as Each Child Followed—and there’s a huge difference. Instead of teaching to a test, you get dedicated professionals who are tracking a child’s educational career and seeing where the holes are from year to year—that’s a far better measure of success than a standardized test.

Q&A with Tom Perrotta, author of the The Abstinence Teacher

Tom Perrotta has found a lot of work in public schools – two novels worth.

The first, Election, was published in 1998, shortly after the Oscar-nominated film of the same name (starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon) was released. The second, The Abstinence Teacher, was released last fall. Perrotta is writing the screenplay, on the heels of his 2007 Academy Award nomination for the adaptation of his 2004 best seller, Little Children.

Perrotta, who has been called the “American Chekhov” by no less than the New York Times, mixes high and low comedy with every day, topical storylines and characters that are flawed, yet easily identifiable.

“Writers should not be willing to hide their worst impulses or acts,” he said during a phone interview with Editor-in-Chief Glenn Cook. “It’s why I don’t like the term satire. That term implies that the author feels above the reader. I always feel implicated in the folly of my characters. You have to be willing to expose yourself to the reader to make them think they’ve been a little exposed as well.”

Here are other excerpts from the interview.

With “The Abstinence Teacher,” you again return to the turf of public schools that you dealt with in “Election.” Why have schools and school-related issues proven to be such a fertile backdrop for your work?

I do think of public schools as kind of a central institution in our American democracy. It’s the one place where everyone is thrown together regardless of where they come from. If you go to a public school in America, it’s probably the most powerful connection you will have to community for your whole life. When you become a parent, the schools are the most powerful connection that you have to your community. That’s why I’m drawn to them.

Abstinence-only education is at the heart of culture war that has divided our country politically. What made you want to take on this topic?

As a novelist, I am very interested in the intersection of public and private. Once there became this very public debate between abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education, I wanted to see where it was going.

What makes this so interesting for me is that both sides seem to be struggling over how to come up with the official adult line about sex. It’s not so much about affecting policy as it is really adults fighting other adults about what to tell their kids. What’s really fascinating about this generation is we have this experience and we’re not really sure about how to interpret it for our kids.

A lot of people on the abstinence side had sex early and regretted it. They grew up in a turbulent time and they’re trying to put the genie back into the bottle. On the other side you have people that want their kids to have all the information they didn’t have. As a Catholic, I grew up in repression, where you were told that sex was something only to be used for procreation, so as a parent, I’m reacting to a very different set of lessons.

Do you think abstinence-only education is effective?

Any form of education that is basically trying to restrict kids’ information seems doomed. We’re going to teach you by not teaching you? I think that’s going to be problem for teachers and ultimately self defeating in a culture where information is widely available.

What did you learn from writing this book that surprised you, or debunked any preconceived notions you may have had about this debate?

The irony of the culture wars is that both sides are conflicted, and they’re forced to take more simplistic positions than they actually want to. You can see Christians genuinely struggling with their previous image as being anti sex, so they’re trying to recast themselves as pro sex and pro abstinence. Really what they’re trying to be is pro marriage, and yet that is really hard to talk about with teens.

It’s hard to say, “This might be the central drama of your life now, but don’t do it. Just put it off.” And it’s tough, because a lot of questions center on where to draw that line so you don’t seem prudish or puritanical. That’s why you have a number of young pretty women out there who are saying that you can dress up and participate in the great American sport of being sexy without actually having sex.

The problem is that’s kind of a dangerous version of mixed messages. I think it’s great if kids hold off from sex until they’re adults. Why should telling them that birth control exists change that message? Also, I think anything that adults don’t approve of makes it all the more luring to go there.

“Coming of age” stories for books and film have often centered around schools, but usually they are of the strict authoritarian prep variety. Few writers manage to accurately capture what life is like in a public high school. How are you able to do that—albeit in a slightly exaggerated vein—not once, but twice?

That’s my job as a writer, and this is a subject that I’ve been drawn to. Most of the images of teachers in pop culture are not well rounded. Either you have the teacher as the hero or the teacher as the pathetic authority figure. I try to treat them as people with lives beyond their professional function.

I tend to treat teenagers, again, as actual characters. I don’t believe you become interesting the day you become 18. We all have moral decsions to make long before adulthood sets in.

As a parent and a writer, what do you see as the strength of public schools, and what weaknesses do you think need to be shorn up for them to be more successful?

I often think the problems public schools face today are as much cultural as they are educational. I look back now on the time when I was in school, and it was a much less competitive culture. I think I was allowed to wander intellectually and find my interests. My sense now is that schools are so structured and so rigorous that we’ve moved to the Japanese model to try and “keep up.” I might have done well in that sort of educational culture, but I don’t think I would be as happy or have learned as much.

Now I live in a good suburb with good schools, and my kids are interested in what they learn as students. What I’m worried about is them having the freedom to find themselves intellectually.

I’m sure that your readers are dealing with more issues, but as a writer, I’m concerned with the decline of reading and particularly with the decline in teaching literature. Actually, decline is a funny word. Perhaps it’s not as central as it once was.

Q&A with Alvin Poussaint, co-author of Come on People

Alvin F. Poussaint’s resume is extremely impressive. A native of East Harlem, N.Y., he served as Southern Field Director of the Medical Committee for Human Rights in Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s. He is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston. He has coauthored three books.

The latest, Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors, is notable for Poussaint’s coauthor, entertainer Bill Cosby, and for its message—that something has to be done to “help our youth and reenergize our neighborhoods to move in positive directions.”

The book’s message of accepting personal responsibility and embracing self-help is targeted to African Americans. The authors held numerous “community call-outs” in the three years since Cosby decided to “call-out” the black community at a NAACP rally commemorating Brown v. Board of Education.

Poussaint did not discuss Cosby’s comments during a phone interview with Editor-in-Chief Glenn Cook. Instead, he points to the increasing role of the black middle and upper class –- professionals in every industry, doctors, lawyers and school teachers –- as evidence that something can be done.
“I come from a generation where you had very few of these professionals who were black, and today, we have so many people with MBAs,” he says. “It’s not enough, but there are many more than we ever had before. We have the woman power and the manpower to be a bigger resource for the black community than we ever had before.

“Now,” he continues, “all of that needs to be mobilized to salvage and get a lot of our young people and families back.”

Mr. Cosby has described the book as a “how to” for African Americans who are and feel “stuck.” What are some of the lessons that you are trying to teach?

I think it’s important for people to feel and appreciate what can do for themselves. What we found and what Cosby found was that a lot of people in the black community feel helpless and hopeless. When they are overcome they succumb to victim status and feel there is nothing they can do with themselves, with their lives, and with the choices they make. A lot of people are giving up, and when they give up they are more likely to be stuck. … We’re trying to rally people to know that there are certain things they can do that are under their control, and in doing so they can help children for the future.

What are some of those things?

One is to be the best possible parents they can be. There’s a lot of poor parenting in the United States in all groups. … We caution parents against using physical punishment, because a lot of physical punishment leads to child abuse. Physical punishment also sends a message that it’s OK to use violence.

We want parents to model the behaviors they want their children to have. If they don’t want their kids going to school and calling their teacher a “M.F.,” then they shouldn’t be using that language in the home.

These things may seem obvious to you or to your readers, but often they’re not obvious in the way people show their behavior. Parents often say, “Do as I say.” But if a child sees them lying, they’re going to lie. If they see the parents use violence, they’ll use violence. If they see their parents engage in drug use, then it will give them an excuse to use drugs as well.”

The book describes violence in several contexts, including community violence and neighborhood influences, the alarmingly high percentage of African-American males in prison. Can you address those issues?

It’s about choices. If you want to cut down on violence in your community, then you shouldn’t have guns in the home. You need to have an alert to conceal group that takes a community wide stand against guns.

You’ve got to take the high road, not the low road. Parents have to be concerned if they put on a CD and it’s some gangsta rapper using the N-word and the H-word and the B-word. They have to protect their children from some of the media influences that are degrading and that promote values that are destructive to them. None of this media stuff promotes getting an education. The implication is that it’s hip not to get an education.

Why should we promote the thug lifestyle and glorify violence when we have so much violence in black community? Some of it is under individual and community control. If we work at it, then we can get unstuck and moving on a stronger path toward moving on with our lives.

We have to make the effort at the same time to get rid of some of the systemic things – the inequities in the criminal justice system, for one thing. We have to have good schools and good teachers. We have to deal with our cities, our counties and our states to make sure those things happen. But it’s more likely to happen if parents are activists who are concerned with getting their children a good education and backing it up with their own behavior toward their children.

Much of your book addresses parents and parenting. Discuss how parents can help educators.

I feel like there’s a lot of opportunities for parents to support education as something they want for their children. They have to send the message that education is very important. I don’t think parents are doing that.

As much as people say it, so many parents don’t read to their children at all. They have to get the books out and they have to start reading to their children. And we talk about using the standard English. The black English dialect does not function well in the standard English curriculum.

We talk about parents getting involved enough with the schools and enough with the children to provide the supports that kids need. That includes participating in tutoring and mentoring programs in the community and looking at where their children stand. What do they do when their children are approaching being a high school dropout? You see what I mean? They can’t do that enough.

The statistics cited in the book, especially for black males, are particularly frightening: Dropout rates of more than 50 percent, unemployment rates twice as high as white, Hispanic and Asian men, a disproportionate number in the prison system. How did this happen?

Let’s face facts. If you drop out of high school, you are much more likely not to get a job. You have a two-thirds chance by the age of 30 of being incarcerated. The book tries to provide information about the outcomes that keep them stuck. It all has a circular effect.

If a child drops out of high school, then we push heavily toward the child getting a GED and going on to community college to learn a trade or some occupation in two years.

It’s not all their fault. If they come out of jail, they need a second chance. And there are enormous numbers of blacks who come out of jail. Look at the statistics – 45 percent of the prison population is African American, while blacks are only 12 percent of the population. They come out of jail and they’re stigmatized. They can’t get jobs. It’s all circular. We want people to consider giving them a second chance.

We also come down heavily against the drugs and the influences that we know are bad. You know in poor homes that children are watching too much television, and there’s a relationship between watching television and not doing well in school. Also, the television they’re watching is frequently a bad influence. You have to tell parents not to watch too much TV, but if they watch it, watch shows that are educational, not Jerry Springer.

What have you both learned from this experience? Did you expect the sort of backlash that you received?

We haven’t gotten much of a bad backlash. There was some backlash when Cosby made his speech, but I don’t want to get into that. With the book, we’ve gotten 90 percent very good reviews. There’s only a small percentage of people attacking the book. Some of the people who do attack the book still bring up this business that we’re airing dirty laundry, that we’re telling dirty secrets.

Everyone seems to know the problems that blacks are having in this country, sometimes overly so because the media goes for the negative. But there is more crime in the black community, more people being arrested, and black males account for half of the homicides in this country. I don’t think people are in denial.

When 94 percent of people who are murdered are murdered by black people, why shouldn’t we get in an uproar about that? We’ll picket about the nooses, and the hate crimes, but what about all of the other things that are destroying black people’s lives that are occurring right in their own communities? What about marching and saying that we’ve got to stop what’s happening in the black community? That’s not happening.

We have to be more self respecting. If we’re more self respecting, then our children will respect themselves and have more dignity. … Instead, we’re titillating them, sexualizing them, encouraging like behaviors that just get them into trouble. Who can put a stop to that if we’re doing it? We’re doing it and we have to stop it.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that more blacks are willing to point the finger at themselves for bad grades, bad behavior, high unemployment and poverty than they were a decade ago. Do you view this as a positive sign? Or is it a sign, as some have said, that we have “two black Americas,” in which middle-class African Americans are blaming low-income African Americans for the problem?

Some people say we’re blaming the victim. I don’t accept that notion in the first place. People who say we’re blaming the victim think the problems are caused by racism, whether it’s racism or a systemic bias against poor people. … That’s another way of making people feel helpless and hopeless.

I don’t think victimhood should be encouraged in people. Even if you are a victim, if you adopt that posture, it kind of paralyzes you. … One of the things Bill and I say in the book and people say more and more is don’t make excuses. We know there’s racism. But don’t take racism and make it an excuse for all the things that you’re doing that you know you shouldn’t be doing. We say, “I’m taking crack because racism made me do it.” You can’t do that.

I do think there’s more of a recognition of some of the problems. It’s a sign too that people are not giving up. There are things you can’t control, but you shouldn’t be satisfied with bad grades and high crime rates in communities.

The black middle class is in the black community working with black people. We have doctors, social workers, teachers working in these populations who often are feeling overwhelmed themselves. The black churches have many middle class people who are reaching out with faith-based programs to low-income blacks. Sometimes I feel in the media and the newspapers that it’s a good soundbite to say there’s a split between the black middle class and the low income.

We’re all affected by the noose incidents. We’re all in touch with the Jena situation. We’re all aware of the social inequities and the racism that exists. We see what’s happening to black men. There are a lot of things that are uniting the black middle class and the lower class. They are systemic things. When you go to vote in the presidential election and Bush gets 8 percent of the black vote, that’s low income blacks and middle income blacks and upper income blacks working together to change the system.

Where have public schools failed in educating black children? Where have they succeeded? What can they do differently to ensure that all children receive the best possible education?

That’s a whole couple of books. What I feel though is that things seem to work when everybody collaborates with each other. Schools should be in some type of collaboration with health services. School-based health clinics contribute to the validity of schools. Districts should know what’s happening with the youth service agencies in the community. What about mental health services for kids? How do you work with mental health services for kids with ADHD or other issues? How can churches be part of the school system?

I think that takes effort and everyone coming behind the single goal of trying to see what we can do for our kids.

The momentum has to be started in all institutions in the community – the home, church, and social organizations that are supporting education. We feel that education is key, and it is key. We appreciate it more as black people. When we were freed from slavery we were all poor. The way we rose up and made things better for ourselves and for our children was through education.