Summer Reading: 7 Education Books to Take to the Beach

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Whether you're heading to the beach, the mountains, or somewhere else for a summer break, you can rest assured that the education wars will continue unabated while you're gone. Looking for some education reading to tide you over? Here are seven new education books to check out and get a taste of where the debate about our schools is headed.

Class Warfare, Steven Brill (Simon & Schuster)
Veteran journalist Steven Brill takes a look at the last few years of education reform, culminating with the Obama Administration's Race to the Top initiative. While a little breathless in places and clearly driven by many of the players' desire to get down a rough draft of history, Brill provides a lot of details that are sure to turn a lot of heads. It's not a full history of the reform movement, but this is the most inside account of the last several years. As evidence, people are already buzzing about Class Warfare, which won't be on shelves until mid-August, and wondering if Brill is on his way to becoming education's Bob Woodward.

Sub Culture: Three Years in Education's Dustiest Corners, Carolyn Bucior (Outskirt Press)
Critics of education reform complain that if reformers spent more time in schools, they wouldn't be so hungry for change. Carolyn Bucior, a journalist turned substitute teacher, amply illustrates why reform critics should be careful what they wish for. In this funny and terrifying book she examines the little-discussed but enormously important substitute teaching industry: the U.S. spends more than $20 million each school day on substitutes, and your child will spend upwards of a year of their time in school with a sub in front of them. What Bucior reveals about low standards, lower pay, and all manner of craziness will shock you. After reading this book, you'll be a lot more concerned about who is in front of our children when their teacher isn't.

The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Paid For, Naomi Schaefer Riley (Rowman and Littlefield)
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal turns in a lively, unsparing, and challenging look at many of the problems plaguing colleges and universities. You may not want to read it if you just wrote a big check for tuition. But if you want to learn more about higher education's problems — such as tenure, adjunct teaching, academic publishing, and lousy incentives — as well as future trends like increasing unionization, then this is the book to read. Few people will agree with all of it, but higher education leaders must respond to the challenges the author lays out because The Faculty Lounges is the long-form version of conversations a lot of parents are having.

The American Public School Teacher, Darrel Drury and Justin Baer (Harvard Education Press)
From 1955 to 2010, the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, surveyed teachers each year about their work and practices. That survey is unfortunately ending, but the association and several academics joined forces to bid it adieu in style. American Public School Teacher rolls up all the survey data and includes a variety of analytic perspectives on what it all means. Mixed in with the analysis, including an essay I wrote on the frequently unprofessional work environment for teachers, are the perspectives of current classroom teachers. The book is wonky in places, but a valuable compilation of views and data about the teaching profession past, present, and future.

Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools, Terry Moe (Brookings Institution Press)
Stanford political scientist Terry Moe's scathing look at teachers' unions is slow going but comprehensive with tough arguments and plenty of evidence. At 513 pages, Special Interest checks in as probably the most thorough indictment of teachers' unions yet and one of the most straightforward arguments that while teachers are too often powerless, their unions are among the most powerful special interests in American politics. You're unlikely to agree with all of it — Moe often sees impossibilities where others in the reform world see real but surmountable challenges — but if the teachers' unions want to halt their slide into scorn and irrelevance, they'd better have real answers for many of the issues Moe raises.

The Failure of Environmental Education (and How We Can Fix It), Charles Saylan and Daniel T. Blumstein (University of California Press)
Charles Saylan, a non-profit leader, and Daniel Blumstein, an ecology and biology professor at UCLA, see our failure to address environmental issues as partly a failure to teach about the environment in school. Maybe. But it's also possible that people just disagree about environmentalism and its costs and benefits and that the special interests clashing around environmental policy is unavoidable. In any event, getting students more engaged with the environment (and simply getting students outside more) would no doubt pay a lot of dividends. Unfortunately, Saylan and Blumstein offer just one vision of environmental education — eating less meat, for instance — so their recommendations are more likely to run into a political buzzsaw than penetrate the nation's classrooms. Still, although the book meanders, they're asking the right questions, and our schools are doing too little to connect students with the natural world. It's easy to blame that on today's focus on standardized testing when in fact it's a much more longstanding problem.

The Same Thing Over and Over, Frederick M. Hess (Harvard University Press)
If the above books seem like the same old fights in education, Frederick Hess says there is a reason for that — we do keep fighting over the same things rather than figuring out new ways of solving problems. In this wide-ranging discussion, Hess, an education analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that education reform must be about finding a new path, not just arguing about today's educational arrangements. He chides educators for failing to look outside the sector for fresh ideas and approaches. Agree or disagree with his remedies, he's spot on about how frustratingly insular education remains in such a rapidly changing world.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.