We asked experts to name the best book they had read about teaching. A few are not about education at all.
Professor at MIT and chief executive of edX, an online learning destination
Although this is not an education book per se, I like “The Innovator’s Dilemma” because there are terrific lessons about how technology can transform existing industries. Education leaders and innovators should take this book to heart because its lessons are directly applicable to how we can transform higher education.
Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and expert on historically black colleges
“The Education of Blacks in the South” by James D. Anderson
It literally changed my life and career. Anderson demonstrates the agency and activism on the part of blacks after the Civil War in shaping their own lives. Rather than see blacks as mere victims of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation, Anderson highlights the voices, anger, protest and actions of blacks prior to 1930. This is the book that introduced me to historically black colleges and universities in a scholarly way. It is beautifully written and includes a nuanced history of early black education. I became a professor because of this book and how it inspired me. I also use it as a touchstone for excellence in research and writing and integrity.
Chief policy and strategy officer for Oscar Insurance, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education from 2002 to 2010
“Radical” by Michelle Rhee
It documents some of the most important work ever done in school reform. Michelle’s work changed the educational landscape in Washington, D.C., and throughout the nation, and the book memorializes, with candor and clarity, how she did it.
Research professor at New York University, whose latest book is about the privatization of schools
“Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed” by James C. Scott
It is not an education book per se. It is a book about how central planners impose grand schemes on the people they see from 20,000 feet above. Scott details great theoretical constructs that failed because they didn’t take into account the thoughts, ideas, values and sentiments of the people on the ground.
“Seeing” this way is common in Washington. It explains the failure of the Common Core and the coming failure of Betsy DeVos’s plan to replace public schools with a bazaar of choices.
This book explains why education, which is so closely interwoven with the lives of families and communities, can never be redesigned by think tanks and government agencies in Washington.
Michael S. Roth
President of Wesleyan University
“Democracy and Education” by John Dewey and “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” a lecture by William James
These two seminal American pragmatist texts stand out for me. Dewey makes the case that a broad, liberal education serves the development of citizens and is essential for democracy. James reminds us how easy it is to be blind to how other people experience the world, and how education can fight this by cultivating the ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective. These two works were central for me while writing “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” and they continue to be important for my efforts at Wesleyan to show how pragmatic, liberal education remains powerful today.
Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools
“Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World” by Adam Grant
Social-emotional learning and how to help every student succeed is a major priority for D.C. Public Schools. I often read books outside of the education sector to think about how we can support every student, no matter their background, to be successful in college, career and life. We need big ideas to transform our schools, and those ideas can come from anywhere.
Chief executive and co-founder of Curio Learning and 2016 Kentucky teacher of the year
“Teacher Man” by Frank McCourt and “Troublemakers” by Carla Shalaby
My gut reaction is “Teacher Man.” Frank McCourt tells a raw and real story about teaching that resonated with me as a first-year teacher and since. I’ve read it several times over the years, and it still rings true. He illustrates the relationship between teacher and student with humor and heart.
However, recently I read “Troublemakers” and can’t stop recommending it to other teachers. Carla Shalaby explains how the idea of public school is rooted in freedom and — after following four troublemaker students over the course of a year — questions whether our schools are set up to support the right to freedom for all of our students.
Kindergarten teacher at Abram Simon Elementary School in Washington and DCPS 2013 teacher of the year
“Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire
Freire challenges the traditional model where the teacher is the giver of knowledge and the student is the recipient. He encourages educators to establish mutual reciprocal relationships in which both students and teachers exchange knowledge. As educators strive to create equitable classrooms, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” helps us question teaching practices and attitudes that further encourage the societal oppression that remains the status quo.
Writer and activist whose work focuses on education inequality, recipient of the National Book Award for the nonfiction “Death at an Early Age”
“Emile, or On Education” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
This is my favorite book on childhood education. In spite of Rousseau’s romance with nature (much derided by the skeptics of our time) and his relative disregard for the impact of society on a child’s formative development, what I love about Rousseau is his belief that children ought not to be judged “for good or ill” and have a right to know the taste of happiness in “the fleeting days” which, he writes, “will no more return for them than for you.” These words, of course, run directly counter to the bombast about No Excuses schooling — “there must be penalties for failure” — that infests the dialogue of public education nowadays. “Hold childhood in reverence,” Rousseau wrote. Try saying something like that at one of those business-sponsored conferences where bullheaded billionaires and those whom they’ve effectively suborned are telling us we need to get much tougher with our children.
If I had to choose a book published in more recent years, it would be a toss-up between “The Power of Their Ideas” by Deborah Meier, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire, “Work Hard, Be Hard” by Jim Horn or “Taking Back Childhood” by Nancy Carlsson-Paige. I might add I always keep by my bed a book signed by Fred Rogers, which reminds me of the gentle voice of a friend I dearly miss who taught me quite a lot about the need to listen patiently to children and not worry when they rambled off into endless sentences that had no connection with my lesson plans. His words would be good medicine for many of the overpressured teachers in our public schools today.
— Compiled by Timothy R. Smith and Nicole Chung