From New York to Los Angeles and from the White House’s backyard to classrooms across the country, education is weighing on the minds of many Americans. Four new books tackle some of the key challenges that continue to stir debate. Confronting the effects of standardized testing, racial disparity, child poverty, teacher morale and quality teaching, these books offer no-holds-barred accounts of the state of education.

NEVER GIVE UP

Rafe Esquith—who has spent 30-plus years teaching fifth and sixth graders at Los Angeles’ impoverished Hobart Boulevard Elementary School and is known for transforming his students through Shakespearean performances (as depicted in the documentary film The Hobart Shakespeareans)—returns with his signature wit and wisdom in Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: “No Retreat, No Surrender!” Esquith’s focus in his fourth book is more on morale than teaching tips. Dividing the book into sections for new teachers, mid-career teachers and classroom veterans, Esquith keeps it real, indeed, as he begins with his best advice: “You are going to have bad days.” Using humorous and memorable anecdotes from his own time in the classroom, he recognizes the isolation, exhaustion, jealousy, blame and guilt that come with teaching and encourages teachers not to give up. Whether discussing out-of-touch administrators, confrontational parents, apathetic students or the current era of high-stakes testing, the best-selling author reminds teachers to choose their character over their reputation and find balance in their professional and personal lives. Ever inspirational, Esquith shows educators that the best teaching is a journey, not a race to the top.

Respect for teachers and higher expectations for students are among the keys to success.

ONE SCHOOL’S PROUD PAST

Once touted as “The Greatest Negro High School in the World” by the NAACP, Dunbar High School of Washington, D.C., was recently categorized as a failing school. Inspired by her parents (both Dunbar graduates), award-winning journalist Alison Stewart traces the school’s path from prestige to decline in First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School. Upon its opening, Dunbar became synonymous with academic rigor, graduating such notable alums as Eva Dykes, the first African-American woman to receive a doctoral degree, and Edward Brooke, the first African American popularly elected to the Senate, as well as prominent scientists, artists, musicians, playwrights and civil rights activists. Its faculty included some of the most highly educated black teachers of the era, since Jim Crow laws barred them from working at other institutions. But as the neighborhoods surrounding Dunbar suffered economic and social woes, so, too, did the high school. When the author visited Dunbar, she was staggered to discover the faded glory of a building in disrepair and low-performing students with few dreams of college. Her detailed account of the school’s history firmly situates Dunbar in the broader context of the country’s educational reform and struggle for racial equality. As Dunbar looks to rebuild itself with a new building, new teachers and new students, Stewart sees a hopeful future.

A YEAR ON THE FRONT LINES

Formerly a senior vice president in publishing, John Owens traded a comfy office for a classroom in one of New York City’s tough South Bronx neighborhoods because he wanted to make a difference in the lives of young people. Based on an article he wrote for Salon.com, which immediately went viral, Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education recounts Owens’ first—and only—year in a high school he calls Latinate. He explains how, within days, he became a victim of his “crazed visionary manager” (aka the principal he refers to as Ms. P.) who set unattainable school-wide goals, terrorized teachers with threats of “unsatisfactory” rankings and filled folders with hard-working teachers’ presumed misdeeds. Owens uses vignettes from his teaching experience to introduce problems in the American educational system, most notably how teachers are blamed for today’s failing public schools and how the “witch-hunt” for bad teachers is destroying classrooms. He also emphatically addresses how the data-driven school reform movement leaves principals with all the power (even turning some into cheating “Bernie Madoffs of test scores”) and teachers with ineffective evaluations. His concluding lessons are a heartfelt call to action.

GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES

When the U.S. scored 26th in critical thinking in math, below the average for the developed world, acclaimed journalist Amanda Ripley wondered why some students learned more and others less than their global counterparts. The result is The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, in which the author follows three teens in different parts of the world through a year of high school. She purposely selected Finland, South Korea and Poland, nations that recently ranked much lower among their developed peers but now rank well above the U.S. In Finland, Ripley found teacher preparation programs as selective as those for U.S. medical schools. In Korea, parents acted as coaches to their children, compared to American parents who act more like cheerleaders. While poverty has been cited as a factor in America’s failing schools, Poland, with an even higher poverty rate than the U.S., delayed tracking students until the end of their school careers. Although Ripley observed three different approaches, she also observed commonality and perhaps the key to success: respect for teachers and higher expectations for students.

Ripley’s stirring investigation debunks many tenets of current education reform—but are U.S. leaders listening?

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