Dig Deeper Into The Schools Debate

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Kindergarten teacher Alison Brackman of P.S. 230 in Kensington, Brooklyn, tells parents that there are two kinds of books: Meat-and-potatoes reads, which stay with you long after they’re finished, and potato-chip books – momentarily delicious, but utterly forgettable. Summer reading traditionally falls square into the potato-chip camp, but for readers still hungry for substance–especially with a focus on city schools–three recent books are worth a bite.

Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 284 pp., $26.95) itemizes New York’s premier education historian’s evolution in school-reform thinking. Long before it was fashionable, Ravitch championed data-based accountability and national curriculum standards, as part of the (first) Bush and Clinton administrations. Yet now that the reform pendulum has swung hard to the accountability pole, Ravich’s book recants her earlier positions, with meticulous explanations of why her beliefs have shifted. For those with a stake in public education – which effectively includes anyone invested in the city’s future – Ravitch’s newest work is a provocative must-read, challenging accepted ‘wisdom’ and market-driven education reform.

WNYC radio education reporter Beth Fertig’s Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read?: Three students and a mayor put American schools to the test (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pp., $27) captures the story of three “invisible” New York City students, challenged by learning disabilities and the labyrinthine circumstances of complicated lives. As young adults, they sued the city (with the help of Advocates for Children) in order to learn to read. Fertig’s clean, precise prose animates her players, like the sweetly girl-hungry Antonio, who longs to read so he can trawl MySpace for potential dates, and pent-up Yamilka, frightened by a world of symbols and squiggles – and “really angry” by age 26, when she finally wins city-funded tutoring. The book’s poignant narratives are bolstered by exhaustive, carefully explained research detailing how and why reading instruction (and traditional schooling) too often fail.

Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind (Amacom, 256 pp., $24.95) by Richard Whitmire upturns conventional wisdom on the boy-girl achievement gap, which holds that boys outshine girls in math and science. While boys still lead (slightly) in those subject areas, girls are steadily gaining – as boys’ literacy falls behind. Whitmire explores why boys lag as readers, citing increased academic demands for reading fluency before many boys are developmentally ready. He also notes more than a few disturbing trends: Nearly 60 percent of 2010 college graduates are young women; many selective colleges and universities admit boys with significantly lower academic averages than girls, because fewer boys apply; and the literacy gap yawns largest of all for high-need boys of color. But Whitmire also showcases schools that work to develop boys as readers, like Bed-Stuy’s Excellence Boys Charter School and talks about unorthodox ways to develop young readers, via graphic novels and computer-based learning. Maybe there’s something to be said for those potato-chip books, after all.