What's Wrong with Our School System...

For years, teachers have been demonized and vilified for the perceived failure of our education system to provide our students with a high quality education. Comparisons of our students scores on international tests that measure academic ability with students from other high flying countries seemed to indicate that our students were not only performing poorly, but were falling behind students in other industrialized countries. Yet, as many educational experts rationalized, there are many outstanding teachers in the U.S. with access to high quality educational resources; how, they asked, if we are constantly measuring and testing our students, could they be falling behind? This resource, prepared as a professional development tool for my colleagues, attempts to answer this question through an examination of ten books whose authors sought to identify what is wrong with our education system, and what steps need to be taken to fix it, thus ensuring our students a fair shot at succeeding in our 21st century globalized world. All books reviewed below are available for checkout at our library!

Most Likely to Succeed

Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. (2015). Most likely to succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era. New York, NY: Scribner.

Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith's book Most Likely to Succeed argues that our education system was designed for efficiency and compliance, traits that were desirable for jobs in the industrialized economy of the late 1800s. Through interviews with corporate leaders, Wagner and Dintersmith find that today's economy requires innovation and creativity, traits that our standardized test crazy system does not value. Schools must shed outdated pedagogies, and shift away from teaching content and towards teaching the skills that our students will need to be successful in our 21st century economy. By carefully debunking myths such as "We're falling behind other schools" (yes, on tests that measure the meaningless skill of how well students can memorize information) and "If only we could fix our underperforming schools" (you can't fix what's irreparably broken), Wagner and Dintersmith persuasively put the lie to notions that incremental fixes to our current system will lead to better educated students. By comparing, in detail, how students have traditionally been taught in each subject area, versus how we should be teaching students if they are to be successful in our globalized economy, and looking at what other educational systems are doing to produce engaged and well-educated students such as in Finland, Wagner and Dintersmith offer a course correction and a new path for schools that cold restore the American education system and preserve the country's rich heritage of creating innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs who are responsible for producing more patents than any other country in the world. This is a highly engaging book that will give teachers a reason to examine their pedagogical practices and hopefully inspire them to rethink how they teach by putting learning in the hands of their students. Most Likely to Succeed has been made into a film that is being screened in small venues around the world. Who should read this book: Any teacher who still believes that standardized testing will make America great again (with apologies to Donald J Trump).

Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Changing Schools

Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2016). Creative schools: The grassroots revolution that's transforming education. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Building on his 2006 TED Talk "Do Schools Kill Creativity," as well as well as several earlier books on education, including The Element, and Finding Your Element, Sir Ken brings years of educational experience to bear in this insightful examination of America's school system. Arguing that our education system was designed to serve the needs of an industrialized economy, Sir Ken makes a strong case that schools are not teaching students the non-cognitive skills they will need to be successful in our 21st century economy. Sir Ken is critical of the architects of today's educational system, and especially the standards movement introduced by No Child Left Behind. A relatively poor performance by American students on the PISA test led to a tidal wave of testing and assessment, which, in turn, led to a teach-to-the-test movement. Creativity and innovation were victims of this ill-conceived push for accountability. The fix, Robinson believes, is to make learning more student-centric, personalized and flexible, and to allow students to pursue their interests, which will turn them into motivated, creative learners. Who should read this book: Teachers who are as checked out of education as their students and believe the whole education system should be torched and rebuilt from the ground up.

Feel-Bad Education and Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling

Kohn, A. (2011). Feel-bad education: And other contrarian essays on children and schooling. Boston: Beacon Press.

In Feel Bad Education, Kohn once again challenges conventional wisdom and widely accepted practices in education, and readers familiar with Kohn’s work will recognize familiar themes as he takes on homework, rubrics and the “cult of rigor.” Kohn begins this book of nineteen essays with a piece that places him squarely in the tradition of progressive education and he stakes out his position regarding what good education should look like; much of the rest of the book offers insights into how our education system has gone astray. For example, Kohn challenges the value of homework, noting that it contributes little to students’ education and is mostly a time wasting exercise. Kohn is especially critical of what he calls the “cult of rigor” that has evolved in the American school system, arguing that in the push to achieve accountability in schools through standardized testing, our education system has successfully killed all joy in our students. Kohn’s essay on grades is quite intriguing, and he makes a compelling case that grades cause students to think less deeply and avoid taking risks, and ultimately, to lose interest in learning. Rubrics, held up by many educators as a significant improvement in grading practices, are also excoriated by Kohn, who dismisses arguments from proponents that rubrics make grading easier by noting that rubrics are just another tool to standardize education when we should be running away from anything that smacks of standardization. Kohn’s meticulously researched and footnoted essays do not paint a flattering picture of the current state of the American education system and he holds no illusions that the fixes will be easy, but he does make a strong case that the first step to fixing the problems lies with educators questioning their current practices and assumptions; there are few better ways to accomplish this than by immersing oneself in Kohn’s acerbically witty volume of essays. Who Should Read This Book: Teachers who think gold star rewards programs are a good way to foster student motivation or who gleefully assign hours of homework every night.


Gallagher, K., & Allington, R. L. (2009). Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse.

Gallagher's critique of how schools are teaching reading begins with the following definition: "Readicide: noun, the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools." Pointing out that the enthusiasm for reading drops precipitously the older kids get, Gallagher lays the blame squarely on standardized test preparation which leads to shallow teaching and learning due to teachers feeling the pressure to cover as much material as possible; this, he believes, kills students motivation to read. Gallagher effectively puts the lie to the myth that standardized testing actually works by exposing the fallacies underlying the push to implement standardized testing. The balance of Readicide explores mistakes teachers are making in teaching reading and how these mistakes can be fixed. For example, Gallagher believes that there is a lack of interesting reading material in schools, and students are not doing enough reading during school time; the solution, he believes, is to expose students to a "book flood" that provides students with voluminous access to interesting reading materials, and to provide more Silent Sustained Reading time for students to read at school. Gallagher is also highly critical of intensive overanalysis of literature, noting that students are "drowning in a sea of sticky notes, marginalia, and double-entry journals." Overanalysis leads to the chopping up of novels as teachers constantly stop to note something "important," this, Gallagher argues, prevents kids from ever getting into the reading "flow" that fosters a love of reading. Gallagher ends each chapter with a helpful list of suggested actions that teachers can take to address the problem raised in that chapter. Who Should Read This Book: Every English teacher who subjects their students to novel dicing, sticky noting Other recommendations: Check out Penny Kittle's Book Love as another solution to the Readicide epidemic!

...And How We Can Fix It!

Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom: Using 20% Time, Genius Hour, and PBL to Drive Student Success

Juliani, A. J. (2015). Inquiry and innovation in the classroom: Using 20% time, genius hour, and PBL to drive student success. New York: Routledge.

Although A.J. Juliani did not come up with the idea of 20% time and Genius Hour (thanks Google and Daniel Pink!), he has done much to popularize the idea that 20% time and Genius Hour have a place in education through his book Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom: Using 20% Time, Genius Hour, and PBL to Drive Student Success. Juliani prefaces his argument for 20% time by making a strong case for the fact that schools are doing a poor job of preparing students for a 21st century workplace in which students will need to be resilient, resourceful and innovative to survive in a gig economy in which over half of all jobs that our students will end up working in haven't even been invented yet. Juliani makes a strong case that Maria Montessori's methods for educating children may reflect the direction we should be heading in, noting that several great tech innovators, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, were both educated in Montessori schools. Brin and Page introduced the idea of 20% time at Google, and idea that was being used by other innovative companies such as 3M, and found that when employees were given 20% of their work time to collaborate and work on projects they were personally interested and invested in, amazing innovations resulted. Juliani advocates for bringing 20% time into the classroom, noting that students will be more motivated to learn if they have the opportunity to explore topics of their choosing. Juliani recognizes that teachers' responses to the idea of bringing 20% time into the classroom will run the gamut from enthusiastically supportive to highly skeptical it can work. For those ready to introduce 20% time, he carefully lays out the components necessary to make it work successfully, and for those who are skeptical, he carefully debunks many of the myths and misconceptions that many teachers put forward as to why it won't work. One noteworthy point is that Juliani is adamant that 20% time work product not be graded due to the negative impact grading has student motivation. Throughout the book, Juliani includes worksheets, targeted suggestions and carefully laid out explanations about how to implement 20% time in the classroom. Who Should Read This Book: Teachers who believe that standardized testing has killed creativity and innovation, and who want to be responsible for educating the founders of a monster future start-up.

Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms

Ostroff, W. L. (2016). Cultivating curiosity in K-12 classrooms: How to promote and sustain deep learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

For teachers looking to infuse creativity into their classroom, Wendy Ostroff's Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms offers numerous, bite-sized ways to do this. Organized around seven major concepts, including "Allow Autonomous and Effortless Learning," "Embrace Intrinsic Motivation," and "Bolster Imagination and Creativity," Ostroff's work draws extensively upon research into behavior and motivation to provide a fact-based context for her suggestions. Ostroff's book is, in many respects, a compilation of many of the best ideas emerging today about what best practices in classrooms should look like. For example, in her chapter "Allow Autonomous and Effortless Learning," Ostroff makes the case for allowing more voice and choice and greater independence, arguing that this will increase student motivation, curiosity and agency. She also makes the case for learning being more collaborative, noting that this helps develop students communication and listening and leadership skills. Embedded within each chapter are multiple instances of curiosity techniques for teachers to try in their classroom and Ostroff also helpfully offers a Quick Recap summary of main points covered every few pages throughout the book. Ostroff's book is an excellent choice for teachers who want a snapshot picture of current best practices and useful practical suggestions on how to implement these practices in classrooms. Who should read this book: teachers who believe that curiosity has been summarily executed by standardized testing.

Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry

Pahomov, L. (2014). Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

In 2005 Larissa Pahomov was hired to help conceptualize and bring to fruition the Science Leadership Academy, an inquiry and project-based school based in Philadelphia that took a very different approach to how students should be educated. Pahomov's experiences at the SLA are at the center of this guidebook on how to harness the power of technology when undertaking authentic learning. Pahomov's approach is post-knowledge - it's not what students know anymore so much as it is how they acquire knowledge and what they are able to do with it. She presents a framework for how to implement an inquiry-based education into a high school classroom that is based on the five core values at the heart of learning at the SLA: inquiry; research; collaboration; presentation; and reflection. At SLA, technology is understood to be a force multiplier, and Pahomov offers useful insights on the transformative effects of technology, including how you can use it to shift the emphasis from content to skills, allow for constant engagement, democratize learning and connect to the real world. For those concerned that basing a school on project-based learning might negatively impact on student achievement, Pahomov boasts that their model has reduced the achievement gap between black and white students, the school has a 99% graduation rate, and 98% of their students continue on to college, many earning lucrative scholarships. Pahomov helpfully includes "Making the Shift" suggestions at the end of each section that will facilitate introduction of this model into a classroom. She also offers anecdotal comments from students who attended the school that offer insight into how they benefitted from the school, as well as advice from experienced teachers who have implemented the framework and are able to offer suggestions about how teachers can proactively avoid the most common problems that arise when making the shift to an inquiry-based classroom. Who Should Read This Book: Teachers with a sense of adventure who are ready to let go of the reigns of the educational process and become learning facilitators and co-constructors of their students' education.

Learning to Choose Choosing to Learn

Anderson, M. (2016). Learning to choose, choosing to learn: The key to student motivation & achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Anderson's work offers an insightful exploration of the topic of choice in classrooms. Drawing on the work of Vygotsky and Pink, Anderson provides a number of compelling benefits to offering students more choice, arguing that by allowing for greater differentiation there is a higher likelihood of individual engagement, and that greater choice can help to overcome student apathy. To foster choice in the classroom, Anderson notes the importance of creating a safe and supportive environment, in which students will feel comfortable taking risks, through purposeful teacher-student and peer relationship building, creating a positive tone in the classroom, encouraging collaboration and creating an egalitarian classroom in which all students feel equally valued and in which all space is shared. Anderson makes an interesting argument against competition, which can lead to resentment between students and inappropriate task choices due to a fear of embarrassment. Another important element to making good choices, according to Anderson, is student ownership of work; moving away from choices that a student thinks will make a teacher happy and towards choices that the student finds intrinsically rewarding will boost learning. To this end, he makes the case that extrinsic incentives such as gold stars do not have a place in the classroom, and he makes a compelling case for grading less or not at all. Teachers will appreciate the hands-on, practical advice that Anderson offers and those willing to throw off the shackles of traditional educational practices should expect to see a meaningful transformation in their classroom through implementation of Anderson's ideas. Who Should Read This Book: Teachers who hate grading, decorate their classrooms with maps and charts instead of student work, and are interested in exploring a more student-centric pedagogical approach.

Teaching 21st Century Skills: an ASCD Action Tool

Beers, S. (2011). Teaching 21st century skills: An ASCD action tool. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

Beers' highly practical book is rooted in an understanding that we must be teaching our students 21st century skills if they are to be successful in college, career and life. Beers draws heavily upon the work of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, using the Partnership for Learning framework as the inspiration for the ideas she shares in this book. For those new to the work of P21, Beers kicks her book off with a detailed explanation of the framework and the 4Cs skills that teachers should be working on developing in students. Beers offers a succinct but helpful guide to designing instruction for 21st century learning, which she claims should include learner components such as: learner attitude and motivation to learn; thoughtful engagement; and effective use of technology, including information, media and ICT literacy. Beers offers lists of helpful tips about how to teach the 4Cs, then devotes the bulk of her book to tools which teachers can use to design and implement instruction that employs the 4Cs; these tools can be accessed online through the use of a code provided with the book. Who Should Read This Book: Teachers who are ready to dip their toe into the water of teaching the 4Cs and want guidance and practical tools to help them scaffold their practice.

Comprehension & Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action

Harvey, S., & Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension & collaboration: Inquiry circles in action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Daniels and Harvey bring their extensive body of experience together here in a collaborative endeavor that offers an excellent introduction to the use of Inquiry Circles in the classroom. Daniels and Harvey, like most educational experts today, are highly critical of the drill and kill mentality driven by standardized testing, and this book offers a contrarian view of what learning should look like. Inquiry Circles, they argue, are one of the best tactics teachers can use to motivate and engage students. At the heart of Inquiry Circles according to the authors, are comprehension (teaching for understanding) and collaboration, and they offer excellent analyses of what these are and how they should be realized in a classroom setting. Daniels and Harvey offer a compelling argument for why we should be using small groups in the classroom, pointing out, among other things, that small groups reflect the reality of how people in the workplace operate, and allow for much more differentiated instruction. No pie in the sky idealists, the authors recognize there will be issues with group learning, and offer suggestions to help teachers address challenges in implementing group work. Through id-depth exploration of mini-inquiries, curricular inquiries, literature circle inquiries and open inquiries, Daniels and Harvey work to help teachers understand what each type of inquiry is and off specific ideas and examples to help teachers implement inquiry circles in their classes. Daniels and Harvey jokingly note that many educational books purport to be suited to K-12 teachers, but usually aren't; they insist, correctly, that theirs is, and support this with specific examples throughout the book that address elementary, middle and high school scenarios. Even when examples do not address the reader's specific grade level interest, there are interesting take aways from other grade level examples. Who Should Read This Book: Teachers who are tired of being the sage on the stage, who are ready to start giving more independence to students and who are curious to see whether student choice and collaboration contribute to more effective learning.

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