The most important books on education in the past decade?

by Harry on September 1, 2010

Education Next is celebrating its tenth birthday with a poll to uncover which are the most important education books of the decade. The short list of 40 titles is curious (and what is curiouser, given EN’s political leanings, is that Linda Darling-Hammond’s and Diane Ravitch’s books are currently way ahead of the pack). Several, but I’ll only single out Karen Chenoweth’s It’s Being Done, and Jay Mathews’ Work Hard, Be Nice, really have no business on any such list at all. Others (like David Cohen and Susan Moffitt’s outstanding book The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools?) belong but are not being voted for, presumably because they are too new to have actually been read by the readership, whereas others still (like Goldin and Katz’s equally brilliant The Race between Education and Technology) are faring badly because they do not have a colon in the title. (So, go vote for them, now, they’re both great).

The striking thing is that several key books, some of which must be contenders, are missing. Regular readers will be able to guess the three absentees which top my list, and which would have competed only with The Ordeal of Equality for my permitted three votes if they’d been there. But to ensure there’s no mystery, here they are:

1. Richard Rothstein, Class And Schools: Using Social, Economic, And Educational Reform To Close The Black-white Achievement Gap must have outsold all but two or three of the books on the list, and has more google scholar citations than any of the ten books on the short list that I looked up (it’s discussed here (which should explain why It’s Being Done doesn’t belong on the list) and here)

2. Again Richard Rothstein, this time with Tamara Wilder and Rebecca Jacobson, Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right (discussed here)

Ravitch’s likely winning entry draws on very heavily on both of the above books, so, really, they must be important if hers is.

3. CT favourite, Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (discussed here and lauded here).

Perhaps it was the curse of a positive Brighouse mention on CT that sunk them (but then why is The Global Achievement Gap on the list?). Feel free to recommend other absentees from the list in comments.



Doc 09.01.10 at 11:46 am

Bracy, G.W. (2009.) Education hell: Rhetoric vs. reality Educational Research Service: Alexandria, Virginia.

It’s not the best education book of the decade, but it’s the last we’ll hear from a too-often-dismissed voice. I keep picking it up, and I keep missing him in the debate.

The public policy “debate” on education in America is as sorry as any other: based almost entirely on fantastic assumptions, deliberately ignorant of related scholarship, carefully and cynically staged for the benefit of legislators and state and local education bosses.

Gerald Bracy was the smart kid in the back of the room who had enough of listening to tbe noisome braying of those who should know better, and thus could always be found shooting spitwads at the suck-ups and sycophants undeservedly getting all the attention.

He was right about almost everything, and no one cared much, and I miss him greatly. His book should be on this list.


Pete 09.01.10 at 3:25 pm

At “faring badly because they do not have a colon in the title”, I went back and to my suprise dsquared did not write this post.

Internet polls are spectacularly useless..


Eli 09.02.10 at 12:54 am

I loved Lareau’s book. I thought it was a great companion, and in many ways a qualitative fleshing-out of Meaningful Differences, by Hart and Risley. I’d add Changing the Odds for Children at Risk, by Susan Neuman. It’s a bit repetitive and wonky sometimes but lays out some excellent (and proven) policy options.

Doc I’ll agree with you. But in my head the main thing missing from policy debate is less that we aren’t measuring skills accurately, but that the poverty/minority achievement gap is so great and we’re not really doing anything meaningful about it. I have plenty of problems with testing, but I do think that it has done a very good job of aiming the spotlight on poor schools. But now that it’s there we’re misdiagnosing the cause, misdirecting blame, and misallocating resources .


chris 09.02.10 at 3:08 pm

but that the poverty/minority achievement gap is so great and we’re not really doing anything meaningful about it.

I think that’s because the obvious, but depressing and politically explosive, conclusion is that there’s not much we *can* do short of fixing the poverty itself. Children who grow up in poor households have a variety of disadvantages that just can’t be fully fixed during the school day.

Which means that, ultimately, the only way to address the failures of our educational system is to address the larger failures of our economy that leave so many families in poverty. And that subject is taboo because leaving many people in poverty is highly profitable to the few who control the politics of this country in all but name.


shah8 09.02.10 at 6:42 pm

I have an antipathy towards Lareau. I don’t think she understand race very well, and it shows up in the selection of black families (all of whom are some variant of intellegentsia, at least relative to immediate peers), and how she compares them with white families. And as much as she acknowledge the structural impediment to transmitting class status to black children, I think she fundamentally mis-comprehends the nature and labor of swimming against the tide. As silly and as morally stupid as Sudhir Venkatesh tends to be, he also tends to give a more complete sketch of an entire community and how it meshes towards economic goals, and I wanted more of that than I got with Unequal Childhood.


Eli 09.03.10 at 12:21 am

Shah8, do you think you could flesh that criticism of Lareau out more? I thought she was spot on in describing the sorts of human and social capital that are transmitted regardless of race.

Chris, I think that’s true to an extent. But we’re so far from the kind of education reform that would really attack poverty that I’m not sure you could even separate very much. Basically, we need to be treating poverty (human and social capital deficiencies) like we do with “special needs” children, in the sense that we make a legally mandated intervention, involving massive shifts in public education spending from affluent to poor neighborhood schools. Just because they don’t necessarily have biological disabilities, they have environmental “disabilities” that can effect similar results. There are models that work, but they require funding.


Harry 09.03.10 at 1:00 am

Yes, I’ve never understood this criticism of Lareau (that she doesn’t understand race). Her book is not about race, it’s about class. It turns out that the upper-middle and middle class black families she describes behave in very similar ways to the white families with regard to one particular thing — the way they transmit human and social capital. Not so surprising really. She is also very clear that she is talking about the way they treat their 9-10 year olds, not their mid-teenagers or babies, about whom she has no data (well, that’s no longer entirely true — she has some data about how the same families, several years later, treat decisionmaking about college with the same kids).

Pete — that is so flattering, especially as I wasn’t even trying.


shah8 09.03.10 at 5:18 pm

Sorry, it’s been too long since I’ve read the book. I do remember arguing quite vociferously with the text when I did. Harry‘s comment above, in all of its tautological glory, gives me a frisson of memory.

But again, Lareau has (or at least made) no understanding of black class (or family) structure and little understanding of how black people of various classes assimilate in a white world, and oh, white-ordered school structure–even with the admin and teachers are black. Even with respect to the white families, it is so danged drenched in unexamined proximal values such that the value that it has in comparing white families of different classes is limited. I could literally pop open an urban fantasty book by D.D. Barant (who is not the norm, of course), and get vastly more sophisticated and *examined* analysis of class, race, and economics. It’s just popular because it’s just a “middle class” book rubbing “middle class” goody good feelings.

I finally finished an awesome history “Green Imperialism” by Grove. Just staggering. Very limited topic, but reaches everywheres and enriches what you gleaned from other books.


Harry 09.03.10 at 6:11 pm

“It’s just popular because it’s just a “middle class” book rubbing “middle class” goody good feelings.”

Wow. We read different books. Just the reverse, in fact. Extraordinary that you could read it like that (though, I know, that seems to be how David Brooks reads it, but I don’t think he really read it).


Eli 09.04.10 at 2:14 am

Shah, what you’re saying doesn’t make sense to me. Aside from all the research out there that supports Lareau’s model, I have direct experience in my years teaching young children and their families. I mentioned Hart and Risley’s work in this area before, but in my kindergarten class serving low SES populations, kids consistently came in with very limited skills. It wasn’t that their parents didn’t care – but not only did many face very difficult struggles in life that higher SES families don’t, they lacked the same sort of parenting skills and priorities. I currently teach high school and many of the girls have gotten pregnant. These girls certainly don’t know how to raise children. Paying attention in class is hard enough.

I think you probably raise some interesting concerns, but I worry you’re missing the larger and more powerful effects of generational poverty that extend beyond race. There are obviously larger social forces at work that minorities are taking the brunt of, but that does erase the fact that their children are not acquiring the same level of capital required for success. There are ways of remedying this, but first we need to come to terms with the reality of the situation.


Eli 09.04.10 at 2:16 am

“does not erase the fact” – oops


shah8 09.04.10 at 5:16 am

Keeping in mind that I’m trying to argue based on my memories of my feelings for a book I read about 1.5 years ago…

Firstly, Lareau has a rather poor notion of class in general–most specifically in terms of the signifiers of class rather than the realities. She strongly underestimates the hostility that people who don’t display certain norms face, from skin color to cloth color, from institutions. It’s not that she misses them entirely, but that she treats the fact as if it was a detail to be overcome rather than permeative reality. She also does not seem to understand that much of what she is describing wrt upper middle class families are more a stress reaction to the precariousness of class status than a primary vehicle for transmitting class. The reality is that there is no bifurcation in terms of how kids are socialized by parents, but in how *parents* are socialized by institutions to transmit “values”, and it’s always been like that.

I consistently found that Lareau tends to ascribe explanations and scenarios to her black families in a way that I find incredible. In general, I did not like how fundamentally similar to each other the black families were, even though they were of obviously different SES. This meant that her sample size was much thinner in quality than it otherwise could be. I also didn’t like how there was a white-black dichotomy when that wasn’t really strictly necessary, and it brings on the skeev since that might mean she specifically thinks of black people as a kind of other. If she was going to do that, then she *really*, *really* needed to have had a more obvious grounding in what black people were like, more specifically, the sort of people the black families came from–other than they were from down South. Otherwise, there was absolutely no need to care about the race of the participants. This sort of thing matters–What if she had done a Jamaican cab-driver’s daughter or a Creole builder’s son? Asian-Americans, even those originating from the same country, aren’t all alike in class transmission either.

So Eli, I think this was a work that is really primed to readers who already agreed with the premise before opening to the first page, like say…libertarian economic books like A Farewell To Alms or Hernado De Soto’s ouvre. As far the kids that you see? Change the economic opportunities and social opportunities, loosen up on all the oppression stuff, and you’ll have a tennis dad in no time!


shah8 09.04.10 at 5:27 am

Ah, one thing to keep in mind Eli, is that this isn’t the first time black parents had to teach their kids from nothing. It’s not even the second time. It’s more like the fourth or fifth time, and any perusal of the relevant social histories, from De Bois on, would show a very diverse set of practices and attitudes that wouldn’t support Lareau’s or your opinion. Especially in the (general) sense of cultivation vs free running…



Eli 09.04.10 at 4:02 pm

Are you talking about Unequal Childhoods? Because as I recall, one of the upper SES families was black and had the same sort of cultivated parenting style as the other upper SES families. All she was pointing out in the book was that there is a pattern of different parenting styles across SES that leads to different educational outcomes. She also made the specific point that this was not necessarily a value judgment, but that in our contemporary world the “natural growth ” model isn’t appropriate for academic success.

Now, her approach was obviously flawed in that her sample size was quite small. But this allowed her to be much more qualitative. Yet if you look at other studies, her model is completely supported.

“She strongly underestimates the hostility that people who don’t display certain norms face, from skin color to cloth color, from institutions. It’s not that she misses them entirely, but that she treats the fact as if it was a detail to be overcome rather than permeative reality. ”

Your examples seem to be very superficial here. Her thesis was built upon socializing factors that were not superficial at all, such as language and attitudes toward authority and learning. It is an empirical fact that the SES vocabulary gap in 5 year olds can be as much as 10,000 words. And this isn’t a mystery. If you have two college educated parents, versus a single parent who barely finished high school and has a limited vocabulary herself, the socialization is going to be very unequal.

“I did not like how fundamentally similar to each other the black families were, even though they were of obviously different SES.”
Again, this sounds like a different book. Her thesis is that SES has much more to do with any race or ethnicity. Poor whites are going to transmit class no different than poor blacks. Obviously they face different challenges, but what matters most is the socialization process.

“this isn’t the first time black parents had to teach their kids from nothing.”
I’m not sure what you mean by this. Could you explain it in more detail.

“As far the kids that you see? Change the economic opportunities and social opportunities, loosen up on all the oppression stuff, and you’ll have a tennis dad in no time!”
This just isn’t true. The economic and social opportunities are there, and I’m not sure what you mean by oppression. Kids are failing in school and dropping out. They’re simply not aware of the opportunities out there. many of my students had never been out of town, or knew anyone who had attended city college.

Look, in the broad sense I agree that this is all terribly unfair, and a result of a legacy of discrimination. But the reality is that kids are growing up in families incapable of socializing them properly. There are structural reasons for this – the parents are doing the best they can. But the problem has little to do with how society treats the parents and children in their day to day lives, but simply the lack of appropriate parenting going on at home. Families are uneducated, stressed, broke. There are drugs, violence, peer pressure, environmental toxins, etc. that are all risk factors applying downward class pressure.

But there are interventions that work, such as home nurse visits, parenting classes, childcare, pre-K enrichment, etc. Basically anything that remediates for lack of social capital and results in an increase of human capital. It is hard, and expensive. And will require a massive shift in the way we approach public education and community investment. But it is proven to work.

Yet from what I understand of your criticism, the problem is not in changing behavior, but society at large. Would there be any kind of policy remedy for this? What worries me is that this view, that there is nothing wrong with poor communities, means that we don’t need to invest in them at all, and instead try and find ways of changing public attitudes. What is ironic to me is that it is almost a mirror image of what you get on the right – that poor people have the necessary human and social capital, and just need to change their attitudes. And yet the policy position leaves us in the same position – doing nothing and waiting for society to “change” on its own!


shah8 09.04.10 at 9:35 pm

You know, I think I only have to mention The Wire to half or more of your rebuttal.

Moreover, I think your ahistoricism is feeding a rescue complex that isn’t justified. Let’s go through this sloooowwwwwwly…Children have *always* grown up in families that are incapable of socializing them–pretty much in all social classes. There has never been, in any era of human civilization, a huge number of socialized, truly literate, and cosmopolitan people. Not even among the rich.

Now, let’s go to the next thought. If there has always been this recognized effect of low SES, how is there any social mobility? US history pretty much explains it–by predating on other low SES people, whether that be Native Americans/earlier settlers or by selling drugs/running lottos/card sharking/women, etc. Last, but oh so not least, just because you’re low SES doesn’t necessarily mean you do a ton of free ranging of your kids compared to your peers. There are always some group of dirt poor people around who will do what they have to to ensure that their kids have a better future. They do an awful lot of “cultivation”. Geez, I come from a black family that isn’t poor because we’ve been educated post-high school longer than most white people got to these shores, practically. We were never rich either. I went to school at Morehouse, where I regularly come into contact with kids whose families had absolutely nothing and who hails from, I guess you might think of, the ghetto.

There are many black families like mine, and Asian Americans are notorious for this (and by the by, wrt Koreans, most of those came here dirt poor with little social capital) Most of those people were cultivated, as best as their parents could manage. Low SES parents don’t practice cultivation because the society at large largely tells them (and precludes) real opportunities for children of low SES families. If you hire the parents for good jobs, and they see opportunities for children to get jobs like their parents, then the parents will “cultivate”. If the parents get good opportunities to practice small businesses and there is an anticipation that their kids might take over, then the parents see direct opportunities for their children in the future that requires an education to obtain. If the parents *don’t* get any of those things, then the parents have little incentive and socialization to “cultivate” their kids.

I am finding this dialogue obnoxious. It just strikes me as full as crocodile tears as all the “help Haiti” crap that went on. Haiti is a hellhole because that’s standard post-colonial MO, and you need to convince the US bureaucracy to stop doing all the things it does to keep Haiti down, not give more resources to parasitic aid agencies that generate more need by preventing farmers from getting good prices for their crops. In that same vein, sure, intervention with nurses, preschool, free breakfast and lunches are all good things, but they exist as a salve for a very corrupt system that brutalizes people openly. That would be great if we could have nurses and preschools and the like, how about we fully fund them and insist that all kids have a right to regular, nutritious meals? In practice, it would have to survive determined efforts by many constituent groups that would view this as resources going to people who would undermine their status in one way or another. We could insist that all schools be equally funded and any system has to match the average funding of a private school. Would that happen? Or would we have riots worse than the ones around the topic of busing? We could make a stronger effort at stopping redlining and make a state led lending agency + caps on land tax/rent growth and push growth back into economically deprived areas. Would that happen? Or would landowners just buy off the local leadership?

Your responses, Eli makes me think even more that Lareau’s book is one of those pernicious attempts at giving you the feeling that we’re generally okay, and we got control of the situation, much like those silly libertarian economics books. I think there is some use in it, in the sense that it gives well-meaning teachers and administrators some idea of how low SES parents approach authority, but at the same time, I think the book vastly underestimates just how much low SES people in general have good reason to assume ill faith/callousness on the part of authority figures.


Eli 09.05.10 at 3:49 am

I think its pretty obvious that we’re really far apart on some really basic things. I mean it appears we can’t even agree on some facts. Trust me, I’m as frustrated as you.

I’m still not clear on much of what you are saying. You seem to have said that poor people are perfectly capable of practicing cultivation, yet decide not to because they have little incentive to do so.

That is absurd. I think you are right that the poor are confused as to their opportunities. They don’t know how to access, or are incapable of accessing them themselves. But that doesn’t mean the opportunities aren’t there. Every child can graduate from high school and go to college. It isn’t difficult. But kids are getting raised without the proper parenting to do so. That is no one’s fault but the parent.

Now, something should probably be cleared up. I can tell you have some snotty ideas about me being this white dude with a savior complex. As you mentioned your family’s history, your high SES in my book. SES is about agency, not money. As far as I’m concerned you’re more privileged than most people in this country, so you can save the trite superiority.

Again, your attitude ironically has more in common with the right wing than you probably understand. The right thinks poor people can do better than they do, yet choose not to. Thus they oppose government intervention on the grounds that it is unnecessary. You think poor people can do better than they do, yet choose not to because they are just so “oppressed”.

Well, that’s BS. Poor people are only oppressed in that they don’t have the skills or means to advance in society. But they could generally succeed if they knew how, or had some help. Basically I think you’re just unconsciously making up stuff to fit your radical liberal studies marxist theories. You may have met some kids from “what I would call the ghetto” (that’s rich) at your fancy school. But I’ve actually lived and worked among poor children and their parents for over a decade and no one is being “brutalized openly”. Dysfunctional behavior is rampant. I know that doesn’t quite fit with your clean little narrative about colonialism, etc.

Look, I know as well as you do that this is all a legacy of oppression and that our economic system is corrupt and forces the poor into neighborhoods where local schools become cesspools of disadvantage. And I know that I am profoundly privileged because of my racial/ethnic/class heritage and that everything I have I owe to that privilege. But I hope as you get a little older you’ll realize that problems aren’t as easily as you think they are now. Progress is messy and takes time.

Of course there are interests allayed against the poor. But it isn’t banks and business owners. It is the right wing notion that nothing can be done for the poor, and that there shouldn’t be a massive restructuring of public education so as to give these kids the tools to be successful. Most of these people are just white republicans who have a completely different understanding of human development and government. Meanwhile generations of people continue to be ravaged by a lack of human and social capital, which means they have little to invest in their own community themselves. To the extent that we can properly address their needs, people like Lareau are zeroing in on what exactly society can do to help.

As far as I can tell, you’re just waving fancy theories around, bitching without offering any real solutions. What do you want, a revolution? What would you do then? Force businesses to move into the ghetto and hire people? I don’t think you have a very good idea of what you think needs to be done at all, in practical ways, to effect change, right now. I think you are actually pretty ignorant of the massive amount of social research that has been done in the past 30 years that completely supports everything I have said, and apparently contradicts everything you are saying. I can give you the links if you want. But you’ll probably dismiss them all out of hand because they don’t fit your preconceived ideological narrative you’ve uncritically adopted. Hopefully you’ll learn to be less dogmatic and open to a broader array of ideas that are supported by research.


shah8 09.05.10 at 4:43 am

Reading all that, I think I win.


Brussel Sprout 09.05.10 at 7:23 pm

I keep trying to get on to the Education Next website, but I keep getting database error, so I can’t check out the list of 40 nominees.

My two would be Alison Wolf’s Does Education Matter (2002) and Stephen Ball’s The Education Debate (2008).

One that maybe doesn’t quite squeak in there is Mike Bottery’s Education, Policy and Ethics (2000).


Harry 09.06.10 at 3:16 pm

Oh yes, Alison Wolf’s book should be there. Probably not US-centric enough for EN. Their site seems to be completely down at the moment, I’ve tried getting in several ways and get the same result you do.


Harry 09.06.10 at 3:18 pm

By the way, the second edition of Unequal Childhoods is in preparation and should be out next year, with several brand new chapters (including the results of a follow-up study at the cusp of college age), and a great Doonesbury cartoon. I’ll alert everyone to it when it comes out.


shah8 09.06.10 at 6:26 pm

Well, for a little “counter-programming” as I suppose I must be accused of, I’d suggest reading Jean Anyon, who’s been on this beat for quite a while, especially “Ghetto Schooling”. She has since written on a wider public policy level in 2005, but they are more general in scope rather than schools. Do keep in mind that much of this ouvre has been written on, from Bowles to DuBois and way before. The ultimate conclusions always creep to the sort of running arguments DuBois had with BT Washington and Marcus Garvey–about building institutions and protecting them. These arguments are present in many language and many cultures. It’s a big part of why I had the “Oh Look! A dumb idea just found a friend!” reaction. Lareau is valuable in the sense that if you’re a teacher/admin who *isn’t* trying to start something be more aware in trying to reach out.

Anyways, last decent book on education *I* read was “The Flickering Mind: Saving Education From the False Promise of Technology”. It’s got the same need to filter out polemics as most other books on education, but it does illustrate quite well the state economy of testing and technological infrastructure, and the bad faith of venders in trying to encourage a Red Queen dynamic such that known valuable programs (but requires, uh, expertise that makes those darn teacher too expensive) like libraries full of books and music teachers are cut in favor of technological materials the district can’t use…cue Prez wondering into supply and finding all those up-to-date computers stacked and never used.


Eli 09.06.10 at 7:45 pm

I think I’ll be reading the Rothstein book next. The gap between what we should be doing and what we are doing is growing absurdly large. It seems like he’s zeroing in on the kind of picture that truly transformative policy solutions need to be built out of.

Regarding political intransigence, I think the most promising avenue at this point may be through the courts, such as Serrano vs. Priest in California, or Sheff v. O’Neill in Connecticut. My guess though is that this strategey puts us at least 10-15 years out, after the meaningless reform strategies currently in vogue get us nowhere. If we can argue that kids have a right to a basic level of human/social capital, and that ending poverty will only come through public education’s remedy of associated disadvantages, then schools (or “community improvement centers”, as they should come to be recognized as) need to be robust enough to perform that job. This makes anti-poverty education a constitutional right, thereby finally allowing the massive expenditures required to truly compensate for class deficits.


shah8 09.06.10 at 8:21 pm

Just understand that court-imposed anti-poverty changes in laws tends to face ferocious Jacksonian opposition, in general, and not just in terms of race. The most succesful countries that manage to impose certain kinds of minimums (and do not utilize emmigration as a safety valve) do so through executive fiat–if you look at it through the lens of land redistribution. Check out Taiwan vs Zimbabwe-before-current-difficulties. Taiwan had the KMT, an autocratic government all of a sudden ruling a disparate population of refugees and natives, and who understood that, in the context of the geopolitical situation, it wouldn’t last very long as the party of the plantation owners–many of whom were Japanese or Japanese sympathizers. In Zimbabwe, promised land redistribution was fustrated by the white elite, backed by the UK, resulting in a very helter-skelter set of reforms that amounted to looting by ex-soldiers and friends of the leadership. It was fustrated through “democratic” processes, in a very similar way to the current situation with the US Senate.

What I’m trying to get at is that resource redistribution, whether that be land or education is not something democratic processes are good at. It only tends to happen when the elite needs to buy the services of some faction of the populace because they are under duress in an unfavorable geopolitical situation. There is a strong argument to be made that Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Johnson’s willingness to use federal troops and assertive executive leadership in general were a response to the challenges that the Soviet Union made, especially in the third world. There is usually never a strong constituency in a democratic system for fairness, and legislatively, it takes very strong willed people like Old Senator Bayh doing some funky two-steps in a more-chaotic-than-usual legislative era to bring big dollops of real fairness to an educational system.

Education is a real challenge, given the symbols it represents in class aspiration. Most things that would really help happen outside of the school, because there is no shortage of good teachers and a little bit of a shortage of good admin. Give them secure, fed, children, and there will be policy innovations all over the place.

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