Top books that top education reporters say will make you a better journalist.
By Kristen Doerer
What’s the one book that every education reporter should read in 2018? The Grade posed that question to some of the top reporters in the field.
The all-star recommenders include the New York Times’ Erica Green, Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie, USA Today’s Greg Toppo, freelance writer and author Amanda Ripley, veteran education reporter John Merrow, and Voice of San Diego’s Mario Koran.
They told us about books that have shaped their reporting trajectories, imparted knowledge of particular policy topics, given them historical context to seemingly simple issues, and inspired better narratives.
The 11 books they recommended include an array of historical context for issues arising in schools today, such as segregation, testing, and school funding. Many are also recommended as examples of stellar reporting, moving prose, vivid characters and compelling stories.
SO YOU THINK THIS IS A MERITOCRACY?
The Big Test by Nicholas Lemann
Recommended by both the Baltimore Sun’s Liz Bowie and USA Today’s Greg Toppo, “The Big Test” is about the history of the SAT. Toppo calls it “the best book [he’s] read on how and why standardized testing ate the U.S. education system in the 20th century… showing how education movements often rise and fall on the whims of just a handful of powerful people with what seem (at the time) like good ideas and the best of intentions.”
ALL ABOUT THE TEACHERS
The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein
This 2015 book, recommended by EWA public editor Emily Richmond and Voice of San Diego reporter Mario Koran, explores the history of the teaching profession from the feminization of the profession in the early 1800s to the data-driven testing of the early 2000s.
While Koran finds Goldstein’s descriptions of charter schools to be a bit too general, “her control of the material more generally is impressive,” he says. “Her descriptions are nuanced, but she’s got a very approachable style that makes the book accessible to those without a background in education.”
Koran keeps a copy at his desk for reference. “If I was an editor coaching an education reporter just coming onto the beat, this would be one of the first books I’d hand them. In fact, I’ve done so,” he adds.
If I was an editor coaching an education reporter just coming onto the beat, ‘The Teacher Wars’ would be one of the first books I’d hand them. – Mario Koran
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY
Educational Economics by Marguerite Roza
“There are many great books out there, but if I could suggest one book that would be most useful for a reporter, I’d nominate ‘Educational Economics’ by Marguerite Roza,” says Amanda Ripley, frequent magazine writer and author of “The Smartest Kids in the World.”
The book is “readable and surprising, and it offers a steady guide through the labyrinth of K-12 education funding — a critical but baffling subject for any education reporter,” Ripley says. “Best of all: it is blessedly short.”
NOT MUCH NEW UNDER THE SUN
The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System By Jeffrey Mirel
“Easy,” says Education Week’s Benjamin Herold, who responded in such a brief amount of time it seemed he’d already pondered the question. Mirel’s book, which focuses on Detroit, is “sweeping enough in its scope, and thorough enough in its documentation, to have … nearly every major issue (sans charters/choice) that most education reporters will be covering on the beat today.”
It’s also timeless, notes Herold: “Often, we think that what we’re seeing on the beat now is new. It’s not. Often, we think that what we’re seeing on the beat now is purely local. That’s rarely the case.”
Often, we think that what we’re seeing on the beat now is new. It’s not. Often, we think that what we’re seeing on the beat now is purely local. That’s rarely the case. – Benjamin Herold
FOUNDATIONS OF RACIAL INEQUALITY
The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 by James Anderson
This book “provides important, and deeply troubling, context for how white supremacy influenced and shaped the early development of our nation’s public schools,” says EWA’s Richmond, who previously wrote for the Las Vegas Sun.
“Understanding the origins of institutionalized racism is also helpful for education reporters covering recent actions by predominantly white, wealthier communities to try and break off from countywide systems and form their own school districts,” she says, pointing to Jefferson County in Alabama, where one town’s attempt to secede was recently blocked by a federal appeals court.
A SYSTEM THAT’S NEVER WORKED FOR BLACK AND BROWN KIDS
Simple Justice by Richard Kluger
Recommended by Spencer fellow Cara Fitzpatrick, this 1970 book, updated for the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, pulls from extensive research and original interviews with participants, and analyzes the nation’s racial progress since the Brown decision.
“I think any new education reporter would find it helpful to know that the education system has never really worked on behalf of black or brown children,” Fitzpatrick says. “That frame is so useful when you’re looking at modern test scores, attendance boundaries, magnet schools, and reform strategies that have been branded as part of the civil rights struggle.”
I think any new education reporter would find it helpful to know that the education system has never really worked on behalf of black or brown children. – Cara Fitzpatrick
FOCUSING IN ON BLACK GIRLS
Pushout by Monique W. Morris
Recommended by New York Times reporter Erica Green, “Pushout” chronicles the lives of black girls at school, how they are often misunderstood, and judged by peers and educators alike.
Why should reporters read it? To provide a more fair and balanced coverage of black girls, says Green, and balance out gendered coverage in general: “There’s been so much focus on boys, [girls are] ignored in most debates.”
A STARK LOOK AT INNER-CITY PUBLIC EDUCATION
Death At An Early Age by Jonathan Kozol
This book about Kozol’s experiences as a young teacher in the Boston Public Schools “shaped my thinking and reporting more than any other book,” veteran education reporter John Merrow says.
The book is heart-wrenching and jarring, with lines like these: “For Boston schoolteachers for years have been speaking [of] their Negro children as ‘animals’ and the school building that houses them as a ‘zoo.’”
The Atlantic has an excerpt.
EDTECH AND WARY TEACHERS
Teachers and Machines by Larry Cuban
“A slim little volume that totally changed my thinking about the relationship between teachers and their tech tools, reaching back all the way to the chalkboard,” says Toppo. “Cuban’s basic thesis is that instructional technology is ‘any device available to teachers for use in instructing students in a more efficient and stimulating manner than the sole use of the teacher’s voice.’ Though it’s more than 30 years old, the book offers the best explanation for why teachers are wary of the always-emerging latest, greatest thing.”
LEARNING FROM BOSTON
Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas
“The book that’s influenced me the most over the years is Anthony Lukas’ astonishing ‘Common Ground,’ which covers court-ordered school desegregation in Boston (and beyond),” says veteran education reporter Danielle Dreilinger, now on a fellowship after five years covering New Orleans schools for the Times-Picayune.
The 1986 book follows three families: a white-working class Irish family, a working-class African American family, and a liberal middle-class white family. Why should you read it? “These are great illustrations of in-depth, scrupulously fair reporting that go literally into people’s kitchens to flesh out participants’ feelings, impressions, drives, etc.”
Dreilinger’s other favorite: Sarah Carr’s “Hope Against Hope,” which she says “perfectly captures the post-Katrina moment in New Orleans.”
‘Common Ground’ contains great illustrations of in-depth, scrupulously fair reporting that go literally into people’s kitchens to flesh out participants’ feelings, impressions, drives, etc. – Danielle Dreilinger
A TRAGIC NEW ISSUE FOR THE BEAT
Columbine by Dave Cullen
In this 2010 book, author Dave Cullen documents the first mass school shooting in the United States that killed 13 students in Columbine, Colorado, and profiles the teenage killers.
USA Today’s Greg Toppo calls it “the definitive book… on school shootings.” He says Cullen “spent nearly a decade embedded in Littleton, and the reporting shows. An amazing, harrowing book that reads like true crime, which I suppose it is.”
‘Columbine’ is amazing, harrowing book that reads like true crime, which I suppose it is. – Greg Toppo
WHAT DOES THIS LIST SAY ABOUT EDUCATION JOURNALISM IN 2018?
These are all strong recommendations. They are also very much a snapshot of education journalism in 2018, a period during which racial injustice is a topic that nearly everyone seems to be trying to cover.
The Times’ Green is acutely aware of the shift. “When I started the beat in 2010, in Baltimore, that [racial inequality] was not a focus,” she says. “We were writing about things like [student] suspension without the context.”
But in the past few years, that’s changed. “Education reporters are increasingly deconstructing a system that has not worked for children of color and really digging deeply into why that is,” says Green. “For so long we were just taking the achievement gap on its face as an easy label for all these other societal factors.”
Given the high percentage of education reporters who are white, perhaps it can also be said that these book suggestions are an acknowledgment that race may a blind spot for many reporters, and that one way to right that is by reading history. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues or whether the focus on segregated school districts wanes and historical insight with it. I, for one, hope the embracement of historical context and the emphasis on racial inequalities is here to stay.
So, with that, we have a question for you, dear reader: What’s missing from this list?