Top Education Books of 2010

By Kathleen Vail

Before “Waiting for Superman” and NBC’s “Education Nation” arrived last fall to dominate conversations about school reform, everyone was talking about the sudden conversion of Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch’s transformation from school choice and competition advocate and high-profile conservative commentator to staunch public school supporter, chronicled in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, tops our list of education books for 2010. Subtitled “How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” Ravitch’s historic about-face was the most noteworthy in a year that included a scathing analysis of the achievement gap from a former secretary of education, a look at why boys continue to fall behind girls academically, and an examination of what really motivates us (Hint: It’s not money).

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education
By Diane Ravitch, Basic Books.

A refutation of her advocacy of privatization, punitive testing and accountability, and unchecked charter school growth, Ravitch’s book also includes her solutions, which ought to make school board members and other education advocates cheer. First among them: Decisions about schools should be made by educators, not businessmen. Others: Make sure that charter schools help educate students and don’t compete with public schools, and pay teachers a fair wage—not one based on flawed merit-based systems.

Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind
By Richard Whitmire, AMACOM.

Yep, the boys are still in trouble. Former USA Today editorial writer Whitmire looks at the usual list of causes—toxic boy culture, violent video games, and “feminized” classroom expectations—before turning the spotlight on another issue: Many boys cannot handle the early emphasis on reading and writing skills. These boys fall behind and, without intervention, never catch up. Whitmire offers solutions, including figuring out ways to get and keep boys interested in reading, increasing literacy instruction in middle and high schools, and considering single-sex classrooms.

Below C Level: How American Education Encourages Mediocrity—and What We Can Do About It
By John Merrow, CreateSpace.

Veteran PBS and NPR education reporter Merrow’s most recent book is a collection of essays based on his reporting on a wide range of education issues. Among the topics that earn his scrutiny: The “new ADD”—affection deficit disorder—where children are starved for adult attention and interaction; public schools that aim not too high but too low; and the lack of emotional and intellectual safety children feel in schools. If you’re looking for platitudes and easy answers, go elsewhere. As Merrow writes, “Abandon our fantasy that a magic solution exists just around the corner. Our fixation on instant cures is actually part of the problem.”

The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is the Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our Time
By Rod Paige and Elaine Witty, AMACOM.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Paige and his co-author and sister, Elaine Witty, make the argument that closing the achievement gap between white and black students is the best civil rights strategy to attain social justice and racial equality for African-Americans. They do so by taking on some topics that are sure to make many readers uncomfortable: the failure of black leadership to address the achievement gap and the low expectations on the part of black students, including the notion that studying and getting good grades is equated to “acting white.” Suggestions, including a five-level framework of action, close the book.

Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in Our Schools
By Milton Chen, Jossey-Bass.

Chen, the former executive director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, uses his considerable media experience and background to create his new vision of learning. Published before NBC’s education forum of the same name, this book outlines his vision in six chapters focusing on places where educational change is already happening: the Thinking Edge, Curriculum Edge, Technology Edge, Time/Place Edge, Co-Teaching Edge, and Youth Edge. Chen advocates for a society where public and private resources are spent to make learning from preschoolers to senior citizens available through a “ladder of learning” including laptops and handheld devices, wikis, interactive classroom tools, open source curricula, video-sharing, games, social media, and GPS devices.

Educational Economics: Where Do School Funds Go?
By Marguerite Roza, Urban Institute Press.

The school districts that spend the most money on their students have the highest student achievement, right? You already know the answer to this one: not necessarily. Children from disadvantaged homes and communities are more expensive to educate, and some troubled urban districts spend more than surrounding suburban schools. Roza, senior scholar at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, offers some other explanations, including a teacher compensation system that pays based on experience and is not weighted toward the number of students or the difficulty of teaching assignments. Roza blames the patchwork of funding streams to schools as a reason why it’s difficult to get a grip on how and why money is being spent.

Schools Cannot Do It Alone: Building Public Support for America’s Public Schools
By Jamie Vollmer, Enlightenment Press.

Tired of being asked to solve all of society’s problems on your own? Vollmer, public school critic turned advocate, makes the argument that schools cannot do their jobs without the support of the community. Vollmer writes that schools can’t educate all students to high levels because the system is antiquated, designed to select and sort students according to skills and abilities that we no longer need. He offers a step-by-step system for schools to reach out to their communities to get the permission and support to change the system.

Different Learners: Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Your Child’s Learning Problems
By Jane M. Healy, Simon & Schuster.

Yes, the most recent book by author and educational psychologist Healy is aimed at parents, but it’s a useful read for anyone in education, particularly if you’re trying to get your brain wrapped around the seeming explosion of learning disorders showing up in young children. Healy’s theory is that our fast-paced, stressful lives are not good for children’s development, and that schools can actually worsen some learning problems in students. Like many other educators and child advocates, she worries about the overdiagnosis and labeling of students who may be “late bloomers,” those whose learning and behavioral problems are the result of immaturity, not pathology. For many children, changes in home and school can prevent and slow learning problems before the student needs special education services.

Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College
By Doug Lemov, Jossey-Bass.

Teacher, principal, and charter school founder Lemov’s book is a good choice for the teacher in your life or if you want to find out more about teacher quality. The author says he developed the 49 techniques over five years by watching the teachers in his urban-based charter program, Uncommon Schools. His techniques include: “No Opt Out: How to move students from the blank stare or stubborn shrug to giving the right answer every time”; “Do It Again: When students fail to successfully complete a basic task, doing it again, doing it right, and doing it perfectly, results in the best consequences”; and “No Warnings: If you’re angry with your students, it usually means you should be angry with yourself. This technique shows how to effectively address misbehaviors in your classroom.” The book includes training activities at the end of each chapter.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
By Daniel Pink, Riverhead.

Technically, this book belongs on last year’s notable book list, but it was published at the very end of the year (Dec. 26), after ASBJ’s last “Notable Books” issue went to press. Pink, whose bestselling A Whole New Mind looked at the rise of the creative thinkers, now turns his attention to motivation. Hope of gain and fear of loss are not the only way to get employees and others to do what we need them to do. Carrot-and-stick options actually reduce creative thinking, according to a large body of behavioral studies. What we really want, Pink writes, is the opportunity to grow and develop.

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