Top Education Books of 2012

By Kathleen Vail

Educating poor children is much on our minds, if our top education book picks of 2012 are any gauge of the national education zeitgeist. Four of the books on our list deal with the educational inequalities facing children in poverty and how schools can and cannot change their fates.

Venerable author Jonathan Kozol is back with another installment in his chronicles of the impoverished children in New York City. Paul Tough follows teachers and researchers as they attempt to inoculate poor children against diversity. Lisa Delpit’s new book tells of how the last decade of school reform has hurt minority children most of all. And William H. Schmidt and Curtis C. McKnight suggest that national standards could level the playing field in U.S. classrooms.

Education reform -- what works, what doesn’t, and how to tell -- rounds out the rest of the list, including education entrepreneur Sal Khan’s reform suggestions and Michael Brick’s microcosm tale of how education reforms affected one school, its staff, students, and community.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.
Education can help children overcome the affects of poverty -- we know that. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of agreement over what schools can actually do to help students recover from early adversity. Enter journalist Tough, who chronicled Geoffrey Canada’s work with the Harlem Children’s Zone in 2009. In his new book, Tough shows how educators and researchers are working with children to develop skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control. Regardless of their backgrounds, children with these skills are more likely to succeed later in life, Tough concludes.

Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America, Jonathan Kozol, Crown Publishers.
The question of why some children in poverty succeed in life while others fail continues to be explored in Kozol’s newest book. Educator turned celebrated author Kozol has spent his career giving voice to the poorest, most disadvantaged children. He interweaves the issues of urban schools with the stories of students growing up in one of the most blighted areas of the country. Some of these children manage to graduate from high school and attend college, while others crash and burn.

"Multiplication Is for White People": Raising Expectations for Other People's Children, Lisa Delpit, The New Press.
Delpit, a MacArthur Genius Grant winner and author of the seminal book, Other People’s Children, is back. This time she reflects on two decades of reform efforts -- including No Child Left Behind, standardized testing, the creation of alternative teacher certification paths, and the charter school movement. Those reforms, she writes, have left a generation of poor children of color feeling that higher math and other academics aren’t for them. Delpit outlines a blueprint for raising expectations for other people’s children.

Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools, William H. Schmidt and Curtis C. McKnight, Teachers College Press.
The growing achievement gap, particularly in math and science, is in part the result of uneven subject matter coverage, Schmidt and McKnight argue. This variation occurs even among classrooms in the same school. Looking at international test data and other research, they conclude that the Common Core State Standards are the key to creating a more level playing field for all students in the U.S.

The One World School House: Education Reimagined, Salman Khan, Twelve.
The founder of Khan Academy, the online source of free educational videos and software, Khan details his “radical” vision for the future of education. The popularity of Khan’s videos is undeniable, but school leaders and educators may shake their heads at some of his ideas, including the one that recommends teachers should be “liberated” from lecturing. However, Khan’s goal of free, universal global education is surely shared by most of us.

When Can You Trust the Experts? How to Tell Good Science from Bad Education, Daniel T. Willingham, Jossey-Bass.
School leaders want to make informed decisions, and author Willingham acknowledges that it can be hard to separate truth from nonsense in a great deal of educational research. In his new book, he suggests policymakers apply a four-step process based on what constitutes good science.

Saving the School: The True Story of a Principal, a Teacher, a Coach, a Bunch of Kids, and a Year in the Crosshairs of Education Reform, Michael Brick, Penguin Press.
Former New York Times reporter Brick tells the story of John H. Reagan High School, an Austin, Texas, school on the brink of being closed for academic failure. This character-driven story features the efforts of Principal Anabel Garza, who was given a year to raise attendance and test scores to save the school from closure.

Educational Courage: Resist the Ambush of Public Education, Nancy Schniedewind and Mara Sapon-Shevin, Beacon Press.
Educators Schniedewind and Sapon-Shevin have collected essays by resisters of high-stakes testing, charter schools, mayoral control, and merit pay. The diverse group of writers, including Alfie Kohn and Bill Ayers, detail how they are confronting education agendas that undermine teacher judgment, insist on stringent, punitive testing measures, and threaten to take away local control of schools.

These books will be available at NSBA’s bookstore during its annual conference in San Diego in April.

For past Notable Books lists, go to

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