Desert Island List: 12 Must-Read Education Books

Published on: December 30, 2013

ed-books-90-kb The book that currently sits on top of my stack of education-related must-reads is Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way. Ripley follows three American students who each spent a year studying abroad – in Finland, South Korea and Poland —and uses their experiences and global education research to draw conclusions about the merits and challenges of different education systems and the role of teachers, students and parents.

As an education reporter, who has been closely following the sometimes-contentious U.S. debate about education, the opening sentences of Ripley's author note grabbed me: "Writing this book was a blatant escape attempt. In the early twenty-first century, the debates about education in the United States had become, in my opinion, so nasty, provincial, and redundant that they no longer led anywhere worth going. I wanted to wander off, as far away as I could, and see if the conversation changed."

As readers, we know that books can provide, not only escape, but also a quiet space to contemplate ideas. In addition to the education-related books I've been adding to the growing tower in my office, I've also been compiling a long list of books on education and child and adolescent brain development that I've been meaning to read. And I've started asking trusted educational professionals to recommend books they find inspiring.

The good news is there is no shortage of interesting material to inform the way we think about kids and their education. The bad news is there is a shortage of time to read everything worthwhile.

Here are the top titles currently on my Desert Island Education Reading list.

Books on success, character development and pressure

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. Stanford University psychologist Dweck explains that, in addition to abilities and talent, success is dependent on whether we approach our goals with a fixed or growth mindset. A growth mindset fosters the belief that ability can be developed through dedication and hard work.

How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. The importance of fostering perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control. Early adversity can alter the physical development of the brain, but even children who grew up in the most challenging of circumstances can gain skills that lead to success.

Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, by Hilary Levey Friedman. Harvard sociologist Friedman follows children involved in chess, dance and soccer, showing the differences among these sub-groups, how and why these competitive activities work and the resulting implications for inequality and gender in the educational system.

Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students, by Denise Pope. Is the single-minded pursuit of success all it's cracked up to be? A veteran teacher follows five students throughout the school year and discovers they feel pressured to manipulate the system by cheating.

Books about gender-specific issues

Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure, by Roni Cohen Sandler. The pressure girls feel from too much pressure and how it impacts their social behavior. A clinical psychologist illustrates why girls feel more pressure than boys to succeed academically and socially, and how this affects their performance, self-esteem and well-being.

The War Against Boys: How the Women's Lobby is Harming Our Young Men, by Christina Hoff Sommers. This second edition also carries the subtitle "How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men."  The original edition was subtitled "How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men."  Sommers believes that boys are languishing socially and academically. The different subtitles suggest she's not sure who is to blame.

Masterminds and Wingmen:  Helping our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends and the New Rules of Boy World, by Rosalind Wiseman. From the author of Queen Bees and Wannabees, a seminal book on girl social dynamics, this book creates an analytical framework to understand the world of boys. Rosalind Wiseman will appear as part of ParentMap's fall lecture series on October 8 at Town Hall.

Education reform and the achievement gap

Other People's Children and Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People's Children by Lisa Delpit. In these two books, a MacArthur award-winning educator provides perspectives and a blueprint on addressing the education achievement gap among racial groups in our schools.

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools by Diane Ravitch. The latest book by one of the most outspoken opponents of the current education reform movement in the U.S.

The One World Schoolhouse:  Education Reimagined, by Salman Khan. The founder of Khan Academy, the free online tutoring resource, on how technology can transform education.

On teachers

The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers can Learn from Each Other, by Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot. The insights of a Harvard professor of education after close and subtle observations of parent-teacher conferences. Recommended by a seasoned school administrator.

Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Published in 1971, this was the education reform manifesto of its era, promoting inquiry-based learning.

I see some unifying themes on my list. What's on your list?

About the author: Alison Krupnick is ParentMap's education editor.

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