Just the Facts: Summer Reading

Published August 1, 2001

School Reform News’ contributing editors and friends helped compile this list of recommended books for summer reading

Top Picks

John Merrifield, The School Choice Wars Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press Inc., 2001

With refreshing even-handedness for one who advocates parental choice as a reform catalyst, Merrifield contends that “much of what is said to advocate and oppose parental choice is wrong, misleading, or irrelevant.” But while discussing policy errors and political strategy mistakes, he also suggests corrections.

“[This book] is a courageous call for proponents of competition and parental choice to put behind them the frustrations and compromises of the 1990s and embrace once again the case for universal nondiscriminatory school choice,” says Heartland Institute President Joseph L. Bast, who named the book his “favorite for Best School Reform Book of 2001.”

Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2000

Although the express purpose of American public education is to educate every child–essentially a gift of knowledge to posterity–high dropout rates and mediocre test scores belie that promise for many children.

In this disturbing book, education scholar Diane Ravitch relates how education reformers over the past century deliberately betrayed that promise of educational equality by promoting the belief that high-quality education was only for a select few, that imparting knowledge was relatively unimportant, and that the public schools could solve any social or political problem.

While Ravitch identifies several educators who challenged these wrong-headed ideas, their influence likely would have been much greater had parents possessed school choice options when the public schools began to dumb down their offerings.

What’s Wrong With Public Schools?

Myron Lieberman, The Teacher Unions San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2000

According to teacher union officials, the major problem facing U.S. public schools is a lack of money, which in turn is blamed for poor teacher pay, dilapidated school buildings, class sizes that are too large, and too many underqualified teachers.

But lifetime teacher union member and education policy expert Myron Lieberman disagrees and here presents a convincing case that the teacher unions themselves are the major roadblock to improving our public schools.

Lieberman details how the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, with over three million members and national revenues of over $1 billion a year, use their power to advance their own interests, block reforms, and maintain the status quo.

John Taylor Gatto, A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Hill Books, 2001

This book is a collection of 16 key essays and talks by Gatto.

One essay is particularly apropos as state and federal officials debate what to teach in the nation’s public schools. In that chapter, Gatto lists what parents expect elite private boarding schools to teach their children:

  • self-discipline;
  • good manners;
  • a public sense of decorum;
  • leadership;
  • sound intellectual knowledge;
  • a common core of western culture for a shared set of values; and
  • an appreciation for the natural world.

Wealthy parents expect schools to teach their children to adapt naturally to any social setting and to move freely through the economic system. “But don’t we all want this?” asks Gatto.

School Choice

An Education Agenda: Let Parents Choose Their Children’s School National Center for Policy Analysis and Children First America, 2001

This 174-page book contains essays by almost two dozen of the nation’s leading school choice authorities who address why choice is needed, what progress has been made, and what remains to be done. They examine what policies are working and what can be done to multiply the successes. This is a good book for people who are beginning to tune into the choice debate and want to get up to speed on the issues quickly.

Daniel McGroarty, Trinnietta Gets a Chance: Six Families and Their School Choice Experiment Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 2001

Rather than presenting parental choice in education as a multi-parameter policy option, McGroarty uses this book to show what existing school choice programs mean to real people, profiling six families who were desperate to find an alternative to the public schools for their children. Now, because of the voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and San Antonio, their children are meeting educational success.

Herbert J. Walberg and Margaret C. Wang, School Choice or Best Systems: What Improves Education? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2001

This book pits choice advocates against people from the education establishment who believe they have made breakthroughs in helping all children. All the chapters, particularly the school choice chapters by Paul Peterson and Terry Moe, are evidence-based.

Nina Shokraii Rees, School Choice 2000: What’s Happening in the States Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 2001

Perhaps a 230-page bound report does not qualify as a book, but this Heritage Foundation publication is an indispensable companion for anyone who needs specific, up-to-date state-level information on school choice. For each state, the report profiles K-12 student demographics, academic performance, educational expenditures, recent school choice legislation, homeschooling laws, and contact information for state organizations that support parental choice in education.

Teachers and Teaching

John Corcoran, The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family, 1994

After reading this book, it’s difficult to have any faith at all in the quality of college education courses, teacher certification, high school employment screening, and on-the-job performance assessment. That’s because, in John Corcoran’s case, every one of those processes failed to catch the fact that he was illiterate. He couldn’t read in elementary school, couldn’t read when he was awarded a high school diploma, was still illiterate when awarded a degree in education from Texas Western College in 1961, and still couldn’t read a word after a 17-year career as a high school teacher and coach in California. He finally learned to read in 1986.

Rita Kramer, Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers New York, NY: The Free Press, 1991; reissued as a paperback from iuniverse.com.

If it’s difficult to believe what Diane Ravitch and John Taylor Gatto say about the anti-intellectualism prevalent in the public schools, Rita Kramer’s book will dispel those doubts.

Kramer spent a year looking at what goes into the training of public school teachers at 15 schools of education across the country. What she found was that the teachers of teachers “almost nowhere” emphasized the measurable learning of real knowledge–a fact that ceased to surprise her when it became clear that the goal of schooling is not instructional or intellectual but political.

“The school is to be remade into a republic of feelings–as distinct from a republic of learning–where everyone can feel he deserves an A,” she concludes gloomily.

Conspicuously absent from the training was any knowledge of the American Republic or any appreciation of the nation’s common culture and the institutions from which it derives. After television, she concluded, “our schools of education are the greatest contributors to the ‘dumbing down’ of America.”


Marsha Ransom, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to HomeschoolingBryson City, NC: Alpha Books, 2001

Ransom’s book is a very practical guide to home educating children of different ages and needs. She provides a comprehensive guide to homeschooling resources, from curricula to cyber schools, from study programs to support organizations. While designed with the new homeschooler in mind, this book is likely to serve as a comprehensive resource for veteran home educators, too.

Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer, The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at HomeNew York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1999

Mother and daughter Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer have assembled a comprehensive handbook on how parents can prepare their child to read, write, calculate, think, and understand by providing the child with an academically rigorous classical education at home.