Educators vote on most important educational policy books of the decade

iStock_000010045687XSmallAccording to a poll of more than 4,000 readers of the journal Education Next, the most important education policy  book of the decade is The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010) by Diane Ravitch,  an education historian and former assistant secretary of education.

Once a champion of the role accountability,  school choice and the market could play in education, Ravitch explains why she changed her mind about many of the most popular reforms she once supported in her book and makes strong arguments for a national curriculum.

The book won the #1 slot of most important books of the last decade by a wide margin in the survey—22% of readers selected her book from a list of 41 candidates. Education Next, asked its online and print readers to name 3 books they believed were the most important of the last decade.  A total of  4,343 readers participated.

Ravitch found herself at the center of controversy after her book was published.“She has done more than any one I can think of in America to drive home the message of accountability and charters and testing,” Arthur E. Levine, a former president of Teachers College, told the New York Times. “Now for her to suddenly conclude that she’s been all wrong is extraordinary — and not very helpful.”

The 7 other books chosen by 3% or more of Ed Next readers are in order as follows:

2. E. D. Hirsch, The Knowledge Deficit (2006)—9 %
3. Linda Darling Hammond, The Flat World and Education (2009)—8 %
4. Karin Chenoweth, It’s Being Done  (2007)—7%
5. Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School (2009)—6%
6. Deborah Meier, In Schools We Trust (2002)—5%
7. Clayton Christensen, Curtis John and Michael Horne, Disrupting Class
8  Anthony Bryketal. Organizing Schools for Improvement (2010) –3%

The Knowledge Deficit warns that without an effective curriculum, American students are losing the global educationrace. Hirsch shows that schools need to help students develop the complex and essential skill of reading comprehension with rich content and by building core knowledge.  The educational theorist also takes educators to task for claims that they are powerless to overcome class differences.

In The Flat World and Education (2009), Linda Darling Hammond contends that improving America’s performance in the global economy is tied to closing the minority–majority achievement gap at home. Today in the U.S, only 1 in 10 low-income kindergartners graduates from college. The U.S. high school graduation rate has dropped from first in the world to the bottom half of rankings for comparable nations. The author focuses on the successes of effective school systems in the U.S. and abroad in order to develop a clear and coherent set of policies that can be used to create high-quality and equitable schools.

It’s Being Done focuses on schools that are successful and have high percentages of students with low incomes and students from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Chenoweth profiles individual schools based on test score data and her visits to each school and interviews with key stakeholders at the school. The final chapter summarizes the commonalities among these successful schools.

In Why Students Don’t Like School, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham helps us become more sympathetic to students by describing how inefficient the brain can be at learning. Consider how much better our brains are at the complex operations of seeing and at moving our bodies. Our brains do them instantaneously and effortlessly. Thinking, by contrast, is slow, painstaking and unreliable. Willingham explains the role that working memory and emotions play in learning and ends its chapter with implications and practical suggestions for the classroom.

Four of the eight books perceived to be the decade’s best were published in 2009 or 2010.  Only one book was from the first half of the decade—In Schools We Trust (2002) by Deborah Meier. The author writes that to meet the needs of children, schools must build communities of learning.  Schools must be smaller, more self-governed and places of choice, so kids and their families feel they are truly part of these communities. Teachers need time and space to develop collegial relations with each other. According to Meier, standardized testing is either irrelevant to academic excellence or an actual deterrent to learning.

The theory of disruptive innovation, originally outlined in the blockbuster, The Innovator’s Dilemma, lays the groundwork for Disrupting Class. Christensen, a leading business strategist and Harvard Business School professor,  explains how entire industries can be overturned and revolutionized by the introduction of a single, new technology.

Recognizing the need for a system-wide upheaval, Christensen and his co-authors say that only a revolutionary change can “disrupt” the flawed educational system and set American students on the path to achievement. New technology that supports customized instruction is the disruptive innovation that is needed, according to the book, and charter schools are a setting that accommodate this innovation.

In 1988, the Chicago public school system decentralized, giving parents and communities significant resources and authority to reform their schools.  The authors of Organizing Schools for Improvement collected a wealth of data on elementary schools in Chicago over a 7-year period identifying 100 elementary schools that had substantially improved and 100 that had not.

The book identifies a comprehensive set of practices and conditions that were key factors for improvement, including school leadership, the professional capacity of the faculty and staff, and a student-centered learning climate. In addition, they analyze the links between schools and their communities.

Books on the original list of 41 received many votes as well but if they got less than 2.5% of votes they are not included on this short list.  As with any internet poll,  the end results may also reflect voting campaigns.

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