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Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Education Books of 2015

Here is my year-end list of books that every well-informed educator and public education advocate should read. The list is not all-inclusive; it includes only books that came to my attention and it certainly reflects my personal tastes and biases.  I think, however, you will find these books important, informative and written with heart, passion, style, intelligence and commitment.

Please support these authors and the often small publishing houses who get these books made.

In Praise of American Educators: And How they Can Become Even Better, by Dr. Richard Dufour, Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Former teacher and principal, Rick DuFour, offers both a spirited defense of public school teachers against the slings and arrows of corporate education reformers and a prescription for the continuing improvement of the profession. DuFour's concept of the professional learning community was very influential in my own administrative work over the last 10 years. His faith in teachers and in teacher's ability to improve their own practice through a culture of collaboration seems to me to be a major contribution to the field of teaching and learning.

In his current book, DuFour takes on every criticism of the American public school teacher and shows conclusively through thoroughgoing documentation and evidence, that teachers are not the problem and that indeed the current generation of American educators is the best we have ever seen. After analyzing all the "schools are failing" rhetoric in detail, DuFour concludes that "a fair and balanced analysis of the evidence can only lead to the conclusion that American schools and the educators within them are not failing, and are, in fact, achieving some of the best result's in our nation's history."

DuDour then takes on every proposed reform measure for improving schools (charter, vouchers, test-based accountability, value added measures, merit pay and school closures) and shows how they will not lead to improved learning and how all are doing damage to student learning and the teaching profession. Real improvement is possible, according to DuFour, if we change the scope and frequency of testing, pay the college costs for high performing high school students who enter the teaching profession, establish career ladders with increasing responsibilities and compensation for teachers, establish clear guidelines for what teachers should know and be able to do, provide universal early childhood education, support career and technical education, and ensure that teachers are provided with time for collaboration.

It is through this concept of teacher collaboration and the development of a collaborative culture in schools that DuFour believes real and ongoing improvement can be made. The rest of the book lays out how teachers and their leaders can establish a collaborative structure that leads to improved student learning. In DuFour's collaborative professional learning communities, student learning improves through teachers learning from teachers, through viable curriculum developed and delivered by teachers and through assessment that informs and improves instructional practice.

Rick DuFour's vision of the American school is one that rejects quick education reformer fixes and focuses on the professional educators in the schools collaborating to improve student learning. It is a vision that I believe all of this "greatest generation of educators" can embrace.

Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance, by P.L. Thomas. New York, NY: Garn Press.

Many of you may know P. L. Thomas from his own fine blog, the becoming radical, where Thomas holds forth in his own unique and winning way on issues of public education, pedagogy, literature and social justice. His book, Beware the Roadbuilders, is must reading for anyone interested in these same topics. You can find my full review of the book here. The "roadbuilders" of the title are the education reformers; those plutocrats, politicians and pundits who have seized on urban education as the "civil rights issue of our time." 

But this book is much more than an anti-reform polemic. This is a book for people who love literature and love finding the lessons in literature that help us understand our own lives and the world we live in. In Roadbuilders, Thomas leads us on one reader's journey into critical understanding. It is a journey informed by personal experience and shaped through the reading of great literature. I encourage you to join Thomas on his journey.

The Prize: Whose in Charge of America's Schools, by Dale Russakoff. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

The Prize is the great cautionary tale of all cautionary tales for education reformers. Russakoff, a long-time Washington Post reporter, tells the story of Facebook entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg's 100 million dollar gift to the public schools of Newark, NJ. This gift was so extraordinary that it was announced on The Oprah Winfrey Show with Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sharing the stage with Zuckerberg.

In the end this 100 million failed to make any appreciable differences in the lives of the students of the Newark Public Schools. The reason it did not is a story laced with hubris, arrogance and lack of understanding of the issues. Essentially each of the players wanted to use the money for his own political agenda, Zuckerberg to experiment with teacher merit pay, Christie to damage the teacher unions, and Booker to open more charter schools and advance his own political career. The leaders of the project failed because they ignored the people who would be most impacted by the money: the teachers, students and community members of Newark. This was a failure of top down reform. Reform driven by carpetbaggers from outside the city, including Christie's hand-picked superintendent of schools, Cami Anderson.

Russakoff does not make the same mistake as the reformers. She goes out and talks to teachers, students and parents in the community and it is their stories that make this book rise above the level of expose' to the level of great reporting and great sociological insight. If Zuckerberg, Christie and Booker had had a little of this insight, this tragic waste of resources might have been avoided.

Preparing the Nation's Teachers to Teach: A Manifesto in Defense of "Teacher Educators Like Me", by Curt Dudley-Maring. New York, NY: Garn Press.

Curt Dudley-Maring is one angry teacher educator. In this book, he takes on the reform minded National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) for defaming the work of teacher educators everywhere through their sloppy and politically driven research on teacher education programs. Dudley-Maring does not let his justifiable anger interfere with a well-reasoned argument, however. In this brief book he systematically deconstructs NCTQ's criticisms of teacher education, while exposing the market driven ideology that underlies their efforts to discredit schools of education.

Dudley-Maring was a hero of mine long before he wrote this book. He is a long-time advocate of "meaning-based reading instruction" and I first came to know his work in this context. Dudley-Maring sees a clear connection between NCTQ's ratings of teacher education and the reformer take on reading instruction in simplistic behaviorist terms where phonics instruction takes center stage to the exclusion of all the other complex factors that make up skillful reading. For my money his section on "A meaning-based perspective on reading" is well worth the price of the book.

The reader comes away from this book with an understanding that teaching and learning, and especially teaching and learning to read, is a much more complicated and sophisticated intellectual enterprise than NCTQ evaluators, driven by a behaviorist ideology, could ever know or imagine. The book is a rousing defense of teachers and those who educate teachers.

The Reading Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers, by Jennifer Serravallo. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

This one is for my readers who teach reading to children in grades K-8. Jen Serravallo, teacher, parent, consultant, has written what is simply the most useful, most comprehensive, best informed handbook for teaching reading imaginable. I wrote a full review of the book that you can read here. If you work with children and literacy you simply must have this book on your shelf. I gave it to my elementary teacher daughter for Christmas.

This book is informed by the best current research in literacy education; it is comprehensive in addressing all aspects of literacy learning K-8, and it is practical, offering specific targeted lessons based on student needs. I can see the classroom teachers reaching for this book everyday while planning their literacy lessons or when looking for just the right instructional approach for a student who is struggling.

So there you have my list. Please feel free to add your own favorites in the comment section. Right now I am reading a book that just arrived in the mail yesterday, A Teacher's Tale, by fellow blogger and defender of the profession John Thompson. It is an early favorite for next year's "Best of" list.

I look forward to still more rewarding reading in 2016. Happy New Reading Year!

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