The “Policy” Books I Recommend Most Often

I've been asked a few times over the past year to recommend books for writers new to education or to social policy more broadly, and I thought it might be fun and useful to share this list on the blog. These are titles I turn back to constantly, both as references and as touchstones for my own thinking about education, public health, gender, race, and class. Interestingly, none of these books were written by policy wonks; rather, they are by journalists, sociologists, and historians with a strong grasp of how public policies operate in the real world. 

David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia

There are many interesting histories of American education, but this is a history of American education reform–the cyclical churn of philanthropists', politicians', academics', and business leaders' attempts to improve our public schools. From test-driven instruction to merit pay to small schools, what goes around in American education history truly does come around again, often despite poor track records for students. Why do so many American education reforms fail? Because they are deployed with little understanding of how schools and teachers work on-the-ground, relying too much on visionary ideas and too little on the practical knowledge of experienced educators.  Tyack and Cuban's classic offers a bracing reminder that when it comes to policy-making, realism and humility are just as important as "innovation" and "big ideas"

Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep

Two sociologists report from inner-city Philadelphia on how low-income women approach relationships, sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting, finding that across racial lines, many unmarried mothers want and even actively plan their pregnancies. In part this is because in communities in which higher education and decent jobs remain largely out of reach, motherhood is viewed as the key marker of adult womanhood. The book challenges the Bush administration's emphasis on promoting marriage among the poor, demonstrating that many welfare moms choose not to live with or marry their children's fathers because those men are unemployed, abusive, addicted, or otherwise unable to fulfill the basic responsibilities of family life. In other words, marriage promotion won't work unless it is accompanied by real anti-poverty, pro-jobs measures that help poor men become more attractive mates. But some of my own pro-choice talking points were also challenged by Promises, which depicts abortion as an afterthought to these women, many of whom oppose the procedure for moral and religious reasons and wouldn't seriously consider it as an alternative to bearing children they are hard-pressed to support. When it comes to birth control, most of the women in Promises do know how to access and use it, but often abandon the Pill or condoms as a way to prove commitment and love to their male partner. The book serves as a reminder that poor single moms, like the rest of us, base their decisions on a complex mix of well-reasoned costs and benefits and messy human emotions. 

Paul Tough, Whatever it Takes

This is magazine journalist Paul Tough's admiring account of the various programs within the Harlem Children's Zone. In addition to making a powerful case for an education reform agenda that combines in-school efforts with out-of-school supports around health, nutrition, and childcare, Tough cogently reviews 50 years worth of academic thinking on the causes and effects of poverty, including the latest evidence on how poverty impacts cognitive development during early childhood and even in the womb. Best of all, he does all of this while building a page-turning narrative around the real lives of Harlem parents and children.

Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods

A groundbreaking sociological study that defined two fundamentally different American parenting styles: "concerted cultivation," generally practiced by middle-class, affluent, and college-educated parents; and "natural growth," generally practiced by poor and working class parents. Both styles have benefits and drawbacks. More affluent kids are better at challenging authority and talking to strangers, and also benefit from more athletic and artistic enrichment. Working class kids have less sibling rivalry, less stress, and tend to enjoy closer ties within their extended families and neighborhoods. When it comes to academic success, however, the deck is stacked against kids raised by "natural growth" parents, who are less likely to know how to deploy a school's resources in their child's favor. This book reminds us how "formed" children are by their home lives before they ever enter a classroom–and what a difficult job teachers face in tailoring instruction to a classroom of students who may come from very different kinds of families. 

Donna Foote, Relentless Pursuit

If you read one book about Teach for America, this should be the one. Foote shadows a group of TFA recruits as they undergo trial by fire in Los Angeles public schools, demonstrating these young people's extraordinary commitment, but also the program's limited ability to overcome the lack of resources, professional development support, and competent administration within many inner city schools. Foote also reveals the sometimes strange group think behind TFA's missionary zeal, and the way in which some recruits simply find the program–and high-poverty teaching itself–impossible to balance with a normal personal life.

6 thoughts on “The “Policy” Books I Recommend Most Often

  1. Lauren M.

    I completely agree with Relentless Pursuit. It’s the most comprehensive and personal look at TFA I’ve read and manages to walk the fine line between being hopeful yet not making TFA into a savior organization.


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