• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


School Books - K-12 Edition

A roundup and capsule reviews of some education-related reading.

September 1, 2014

I’ve been reading a lot of education-related books lately. Some of it is because I’ve gotten especially interested in education reform and I’ve been hoovering up as much as I can manage on the subject.

Also, I just like reading.

A handful of brief capsule reviews/responses on my recent reads.

Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green

The opening chapter made me a little squeamish because Green frames her book as an exploration of the divide between those – like the Obama administration – who support “accountability” for teachers, and teachers themselves, who would prefer an “autonomy” system. While she, I believe correctly, identifies this as a false choice, she also mischaracterizes the “autonomy” half of the divide, implying that individual teachers would like to be left entirely to their own devices. The reality is that most teachers love feedback, particularly of the formative/collaborative kind. The biggest problem to fostering more of it is 30 years of education reform that exclusively pushes accountability.

While I was worried that Green had predicated her book on a strawman, the remainder of the text reveals her actual thesis, which is that teaching is very very complicated and we don’t do enough to support teachers in getting better at their jobs[1]. In fact, my main takeaway is that the difficulty of teaching is almost inversely proportional to the age of one’s students. Teaching 4th grade math requires more knowledge of subject and skill than teaching high school calculus because that 4th grade teacher needs to know not only know how to add fractions, but to understand why a student is making a particular mistake when it comes to the adding of fractions.

Often, Green’s own conclusions seem at odds with her narrative, as though she’s hesitant to go where her experience points her, which seems to definitively suggest a reshaping of the system to allow teachers much more time for ongoing training and collaboration. She seems to fall squarely into the autonomy camp, but never comes out and admits it.

Well worth reading, however, and an important narrative in the current debate on education reform.

Blackboard by Lewis Buzbee

A book of reflection as Buzbee, a well-regarded essayist, returns to Bagby Elementary in California’s Santa Clara valley, the place that so profoundly shaped him from a possible dropout to someone who loves learning and subsequently made it a lifetime practice.

Buzbee is disturbed by what he sees, a space he once saw as paradise now betrays a crumbling infrastructure and overburdened teaching force dependent on bake sales and the like to fund basic necessities. In a series of interlocking essays, Buzbee charts a narrative of governmental and societal neglect of California public schools, a story that seems applicable to just about any state. He questions why we’ve turned our backs on supporting an institution that provided an amazing opportunity for so many.

A testimony worth listening to.

Getting Schooled by Garret Keizer

After 17 years away from the high school classroom, Garret Keizer returns to teach English in a rural school in the Northeast Kingdom portion of Vermont.

It’s a chronicle of Keizer’s year, written in wonderful, accessible, incisive prose, where nothing goes uninterrogated. Keizer’s best trait as a writer and a teacher is to question everything, starting with the course tracking software in which he’s required to enter grades, and including his own choices and approaches to reaching his students.

Keizer originally left teaching to dedicate himself full-time to writing, but also because it’s clear that the degree of thought and consideration he puts into his work is mentally and physically exhausting.

Building a Better Teacher is a reporter’s look at the complexities of teaching. Keizer delivers the personal testimony side of the equation, and reinforces how far short we fall in supporting teachers and their work.

For sure, Keizer’s story is personal and subjective, but time and again, we see how the programs of the accountability regime interfere with teachers who want to genuinely and meaningfully connect with their students.

Also a great vehicle for reflecting on one’s own choices in the classroom, regardless of what grade you might teach.

Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools by David Kirp

Kirp, a professor of public policy at Cal Berkeley spends a year observing the high achieving  Union City, NJ schools. The demographic makeup of the inner city Union City schools suggests that students should be struggling, but they achieve test scores, graduation rates, and college matriculation at levels on par with their wealthier suburban brethren.

As a narrative, it serves as a counterpoint to Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and the culture of the “no excuses” charter movement which seeks to run schools with a kind of military discipline. Union City is driven by the concept of “abrazos” (which literally translates as “hugs”), in which children are valued and nurtured as individuals, starting with a key part of the program, full-day preschool for children begining at three years old.

Lest you think this is some sort of hippy-dippy alternative to “rigor,” Union City also makes significant use of testing data, though rather than using it to “weed out” low performing teachers or students, data is a tool for formative feedback and development. They also engage in very similar parental outreach as the “no excuses” charters, with the important difference that unlike those charter schools, they cannot reject students whose parents don’t get involved.

As you may be guessing, or already know if you’ve read my previous posts about my skepticism regarding the “grit narrative,” I am philosophically aligned with Professor Kirp’s[2] conclusions, so if you’d like to add a grain of salt to my assessment, feel free, but I also urge you to check out what he has to say for yourself.

Kirp’s book garnered significantly less attention than Tough’s, perhaps because it was released by a university press, but I think the more likely reason is because Kirp’s conclusion is that making schools better is very difficult, very complex, culturally dependent, and best done at the local level utilizing a bottom-up approach informed by, but not slavishly adhering to successful practices elsewhere. He’s not selling a miracle because he recognizes there is no such thing.

After my summer of reading about educational reform, I’ve come to know that anyone who is peddling a miracle, or thinks that top-down initiatives like Common Core will help teachers teach better or students learn more is either kidding themselves or deliberately conning the rest of us.


There’s a companion piece on “school books” for higher education in the works. I shall announce its release on Twitter.  


[1] As a teacher in higher ed who has largely had to engage in self-study to develop my own pedagogy, I could relate.

[2] Kirp is also the author of one of my favorite examinations of higher education, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, published a decade ago now, which identifies all of the insidious trends that have come home to roost, and helped cause our present “crisis.”



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