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Summer Reading List: Why Reform Fails

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Summer's halfway over, but there's still plenty of time to do a little professional reading. Here are my picks for this summer—five books about education reform that every teacher and parent should read:

1. Tinkering toward Utopia by David Tyack and Larry Cuban - this book is first on the list because it is the shortest, the most optimistic, and possibly the best. Clocking in well under 200 pages, Tinkering covers 100 years of school reform and makes a powerful case for incremental change. Schools, they argue, continue to get better and better; but progress can only be made slowly and steadily.

2. So Much Reform, So Little Change by Charles Payne - So Much Reform is perhaps the bleakest of these books and portrays all actors involved in educational improvement—teachers included—as naive, selfish, and short-sighted. Still, the book is a worthy read, and raises important questions about the task of providing a quality education to all students.

3. Teaching and Its Predicaments by David K. Cohen - Cohen is a genius at explaining why teaching is hard work. Not surprisingly, given its title, his book is focused on teaching; but it is also a story about why reform so frequently fails. As Cohen argues, fragmented school governance, coupled with the lack of a coherent educational infrastructure, make it difficult to improve teaching and learning. Long story short: most reform fails because it doesn't address what really matters.

4. Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch - this book has a cult following, and there are some dubious positions that have arisen out of its wake. But there are also some important ideas in it. And the book is practically a best seller. As such, teachers should be able to discuss it in order to remain current in a community of thinkers.

5. Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott - this book isn't even about schools; but it's my personal favorite. Analyzing failed cases of large-scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields, Scott asks why well-intentioned plans for improving the human condition so often go awry. And, though none of his cases address schools directly, readers will learn a great deal about supermarket tomatoes, Tanzanian villages, Prussian forestry, and the disastrous design of Brazil's capital city. They may also learn why reforms—even the best intended of them—fail to produce results.

Extra Credit: Excellence For All by me - it isn't as luminous as Tinkering toward Utopia, but it is just as short. It's not as incendiary as Reign of Error, but it does cover much of the same ground. It's broader, if not smarter, than Teaching and Its Predicaments, and more recent than So Much Reform, So Little Change. And Excellence For All certainly deals more directly with schools than Seeing Like a State does (although the author of the latter is both a genius and a sheepherder, while the author of the former is, sadly, neither).

That's it. Five books. Go buy them. And enjoy the rest of the summer.

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