Books Critiquing the School System

Copyright © 2013 Karl M. Bunday, all rights reserved.

Critiques of the education system in various places are numerous, and some are more thoughtful than others. If you have suggestions of books that explain the way the school system is, or the way it ought to be, I'd be glad to hear from you. Please write to me [mailto link]
with any suggestions you have for future revisions of this list. Books that I know to have been written by persons with public classroom teaching experience are marked in the list. International standard book numbers are included to help you request these books from interlibrary loan or bookstores. Books of this nature are generally classified 370 through 372 in the Dewey system, LA through LC in the Library of Congress system of library classification.

General Overviews of the System

The Public Orphanage
Eric Buehrer (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995) (ISBN 0-8499-3532-6). 244 pages; notes, selected bibliography, index. KMBseen_HCO

Sylvia Farnham-Diggory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Press, 1990) (ISBN 0-674-79272-6 [pbk.]). vii and 236 pages; notes, suggested readings, index, photographs. (The Developing Child series). Overview of schooling by a thorough scholar. Favorite quotation: "At best, the school reform efforts of the 1980s may produce a few more 'good pupil bureaucrats.' The types of reforms that have been imposed (often by state law)--longer school hours, stricter promotional requirements, and so on-- make it even more difficult for schools to teach the problem-solving, reasoning, conceptualizing, and analyzing skills that enable citizens to escape from passive bureaucratic roles. School reform typically means reassertion of traditional educational structures and reorchestration of the traditional roles that participants are expected to play." KMBseen_HCO

We Must Take Charge: Our Schools and Our Future
Chester Finn (1991) (ISBN 0-02-910275-8). KMBseen_HCO

Why Schools Fail
Bruce Goldberg (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1996) (ISBN 1-882577-39-6; 1-882577-40-X [pbk.]). US$9.95; xi and 124 pages; bibliography and index. Freedom-oriented critique of schooling through history, especially since schooling became compulsory. Devastating analysis of the illogic of most would-be school reformers, including several of the authors of other books listed here. KMBowns

A Place Called School: Prospects for the Future

John I. Goodlad (1984) (ISBN 0-07-023627-5). KMBowns

The Great School Debate: Which Way for American Education?
edited by Ronald Gross & Beatrice Gross (New York: Touchstone, 1985) (ISBN 0-671-54136-6). 544 pages; biographical sketches of participants in debate on education reform, resource list, bibliography, index. Collection of articles from other publications, by authors including Chester Finn, Lawrence Stedman, Russell Baker, Ernest L. Boyer, John Goodlad, Theodore Sizer, Joe Nathan, Mary Hatwood Futrell, James Herndon, Mortimer J. Adler, Diane Ravitch, Herbert Kohl, Eda LeShan, James Hunt, Mary Ann Raywid, Albert Shanker, and Leo Botstein. KMBowns

Radical School Reform
Beatrice Gross & Ronald Gross editors (1969) (SBN 671-20412-2). KMBseen_MNU

Making Schools Work: Improving Performance and Controlling Costs
Eric Hanushek, et al. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1994) (ISBN 0-8157-3426-3). xxvii and 195 pages; bibliography. Thorough study from an economic perspective on incentives that tend to increase the efficiency of government-operated schools. Favorite quotation: "Efforts to reform U.S. education have continued unabated for a decade. The outpouring of concern, strategies, and objectives is truly impressive. Yet, virtually all of this work has either neglected or downplayed two factors that we believe are absolutely critical: efficiency and incentives." KMBseen_MPI

Does Anybody Give a Damn?
Nat Hentoff (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1977) (ISBN 0-394-40933-7). 245 pages. Hard-hitting, thought-provoking book by well-known Village Voice columnist. Favorite quotation, among many: "Indeed, the performance of the public schools does not present ground for optimism. And it is of no comfort whatever to read revisionist historians of education who demonstrate that the public schools have always performed poorly with regard to sizeable numbers of their poorer charges. If such schools as those in this book have learned how to prevent youngsters-- even among the most likely candidates-- from dropping out of their potential, then there is no reason to absolve the others. No matter what history shows. Furthermore, as the potential of so many youngsters continues to be ignored or twisted by public schooling, it is, or should be, the shame of the nation that such destruction is allowed to continue." KMBseen_MNU

The Schools We Need: And Why We Don't Have Them
E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (New York: Doubleday, 1996) (ISBN 0-385-48457-7). xv and 317 pages; Critical Guide to Educational Terms and Phrases, notes, bibliography, index. KMBseen_HCO

The School in Question: A Comparative Study of the School and Its Future in Western Society
Torsten Husén (Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1979) (ISBN 0-19-874086-7). xii and 196 pages; references and index. Overview of the effect of schooling on most industrialized societies, by a Swedish scholar with a long career in investigating school systems. Favorite quotation, from the foreword by Alan Bullock: "We are in real danger throughout the industrialized world of building up a force of frustration in our young people which could disrupt our societies. Human beings between the age of puberty and, say, 25, are at their most creative and energetic; yet in all advanced societies there are steadily fewer opportunities for them to express their creativity and energy in the satisfaction of responsibility." RECOMMENDED. KMBseen_MNU

Class Action: How to Create Accountability, Innovation, and Excellence in American Schools
John Katzman and Steven Hodas (New York: Villard Books, 1995) (ISBN 0-679-43430-5). xvi and 162 pages; notes. I disagree with several of the conclusions of the authors about what to do about the problems they identify. See my Books on School and State bibliography for better books on what could be done. KMBseen_HCO

Public Education: An Autopsy
Myron Lieberman (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard U Press, 1993) (ISBN 0-674-72232-9). xi and 379 pages. Best available analysis of education policy in the United States today. Dr. Lieberman draws on his years as a teacher union activist (he is a life member of the NEA), his legal training and experience as a teacher contract negotiator, and his thorough study of the economics of education to shine a light on the inside story of education in the United States--and throughout the industrialized world. Full of inside information on how the system really works, Public Education: An Autopsy is the book readers new to these subjects should start with first, among all those on this list. Favorite quotation--among many: "From my first day in the first grade in McKinley Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota, I attended public schools exclusively. . . . This book would not have been written if I thought that public education could function for most young people today as it did for me more than sixty years ago. . . . I am saddened by the anguish and sense of loss that will eventually emerge-- not necessarily or primarily or even at all from this book but from the inescapable truth of the matter. The decline of public education does not negate the fact that many individuals associated with it perform invaluable services that deserve our respect and gratitude. My analysis concerns the strengths and deficiencies of educational systems, not of the persons associated with them." RECOMMENDED. WRITTEN BY A TEACHER. KMBowns

School's Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education
Lewis J. Perelman (New York: Avon, 1993 c. 1992) (ISBN 0-380-71748-4 [pbk.]). 368 pages; notes, index. Astounding and controversial view of school as obsolete, full of information on new technologies used in the workplace. Favorite quotation, about the America 2000 school reform program in the United States: "[Current reform efforts are as if business leaders of the 1890s] instead of investing in Ford and Delco and Goodyear, instead of lobbying for paved roads and traffic lights and parking lots, put millions of dollars into 'business-stable partnerships,' 'wrangler of the year' awards and 'break-the-mold' horse breeding demonstrations.
"As ridiculously shortsighted as this sounds, it accurately reflects how technologically blind the past decade's costly and futile education 'reform' movement will appear to future historians. For a technological revolution is sweeping through the U.S. and world economies that is totally transforming the social role of teaching and learning. . . . In its aftermath, most of what now passes for education 'reform' will appear as useful to economic security in the 1990s as the Maginot Line was to military security in the 1940s." WRITTEN BY A TEACHER. KMBowns

The Schools We Deserve: Reflections on the Educational Crises of Our Time
Diane Ravitch (New York: Basic Books, 1985). KMBseen_HCO

School is Dead: Alternatives in Education
Everett Reimer (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1972, c. 1970, 1971). (ISBN 0-385-02695-5). xiii and 179 pages; notes and references, index. Critique of schooling by a close associate of Ivan Illich, based on his years of study of education of poor children in the third world. "The pernicious effect of schools on cognitive learning, of which Einstein complains, is best seen by contrasting the impact of schooling on privileged and underprivileged children. The underprivileged, whose home environments are lacking in the specialized resources schools provide, are relatively unsuccessful in school and soon leave it with an experience of failure, a conviction of inadequacy, and a dislike for the specialized-learning resources of which they are subsequently deprived. The privileged, whose home environments are rich in the specialized resources of the school, who would learn on their own most of what the school has to teach, enjoy relative success in school and become hooked on a system that rewards them for learning without the exercise of effort or initiative. Thus the poor are deprived both of motivation and of the resources that the school reserves for the privileged. The privileged, on the other hand, are taught to prefer the school's resources to their own and to give up self-motivated learning for the pleasures of being taught. The minority of Einsteins and Eldridge Cleavers lose only a little time. The majority lose their main chance for an education."
"Every thinking person knows that real education occurs primarily at home and at work, but a number of facts have conspired to rob this truth of its former general acceptance. The modern organization of society, by offering free schooling, rewards both parents and employers, in the short run, for reducing their educational roles." KMBseen_MNU

The Dark Places of Education
Willi Schohaus translated by Mary Chadwick (New York: Henry Holt, 1932). 351 pages; foreword to the English edition by P. B. Ballard. Examination of schools in Switzerland, which Ballard thought was equally appliable to England. Ballard draws attention to this quotation from Schohaus: "The most elementary, the most obvious condition which the school should achieve, is that the children will want to go there." (emphasis as in Ballard's foreword) KMB

Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education
Charles Silberman (New York: Random House, 1970). Shows how little has changed for the better in twenty-five years. Crisis in the Classroom is the first book I read on my own on this subject (after earlier reading John Holt's How Children Fail on the recommendation of my junior-high assistant principal), in 1972. KMBowns

Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas
Thomas Sowell (New York: Free Press, 1993) (ISBN 0-02-930330-3). x and 368 pages; notes and index. Thoroughly researched, impeccably thoughtful examination of numerous issues in American education, all informed by Sowell's nearly unmatched familiary with international conditions. Sowell's Inside American Education is a valuable guide to primary sources for further research. Favorite quotation, among many: "There are no moral obligations to institutions which do not serve human purposes as well as other institutions. The most important fairness is fairness to children." RECOMMENDED. KMBowns

The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education
Harold Stevenson & James W. Stigler (New York: Summit Books, 1992) (ISBN 0-671-70983-6). Superb examination of the American education system from an international perspective. RECOMMENDED. KMBseen_HCO

Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good about Themselves but Can't Read, Write, or Add
Charles Sykes (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995). Highly recommended, well-researched recent book about what's really going on in American schools. Historical sources are used with considerable insight to show the roots of current problems. Favorite quotation, among many: "Not to put too fine a point on it, meaningful reform means breaking the stranglehold of the educational bureaucracy and the educationist establishment on the nation's schools. Any systematic effort to improve the schools that fails to wrest them from the 'interlocking directorate' of the special interests will run aground--as previous attempts have done when they left intact the very institutions that nurtured, sustained, and fed off of educational mediocrity." RECOMMENDED. KMBseen_HCO

In the Name of Excellence: The Struggle to Reform the Nation's Schools, Why It's Failing, and What Should Be Done
Thomas Toch (New York: Oxford U Press, 1991) (ISBN 0-19-505761-9). Includes fascinating, fact-filled, lengthy chapter on the corrupt influence of schoolteacher unions on United States education policy. KMBowns

Parent Prerogatives: How to Handle Teacher-Misbehaviors and Other School Disorders
Richard L. Weinberg and Lynn Goetsch Weinberg (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1979) (ISBN 0-88229-442-3). x and 214 pages; index. Excellent how-to advice on how to deal with school staff and administrators. KMBseen_MNU,HCO

Other Critiques Related to Specific Defects of Schools

Government Nannies: The Cradle-to-Grave Agenda of Goals 2000 & Outcome Based Education
Cathy Duffy (Gresham, OR: Noble Publishing Associates, 1995) (ISBN: 1-56857009-0). US$12.95, 270 pages; introduction by John Taylor Gatto. KMBowns

Brave New Schools
Berit Kjos (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1995) (ISBN 1-56507-388-6). 308 pages; glossary, notes, index. KMBseen_HCO

"Propaganda in the Classroom,"
in J. Michael Sproule, Channels of Propaganda (Bloomington, Indiana?: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication, 1994) (ISBN 0-927516-61-6 [pbk.]). viii and 382 pages; index. KMBseen_HCO

Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education
Douglas Wilson (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991) (ISBN 0-89107-583-6). (Turning Point Christian Worldview series). ix and 215 pages; appendixes, notes, select bibliography, indexes. KMBseen_HCO

Teacher Training and Teacher Incompetence

Bad Teachers: The Essential Guide for Concerned Parents
Guy Strickland (New York: Pocket Books, 1998) (ISBN 0-67152934-X). Strickland is very good in his book at providing English translations for the bureaucratic language too often used by school officials when responding to legitimate parental concerns. He also suggests ways in which parents can respond without provoking anger (even when the parents themselves have every right to be outraged) and that encourage a search for constructive solutions to problems. My only disagreement with Strickland doesn't go to the heart of his book. I think his analysis of why children have reading problems in school is not as thorough as that found in most of the books described in my Web page of books on reading instruction, but he and all compassionate teachers agree that the most constructive thing to do for a child who has reading problems in school is to find the child better instruction that helps the child learn to read. KMBowns

Books on What Learning Is, for Perspective on Schooling

Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Kevin Rathunde, Samuel Whalen, with contributions by Maria Wong (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) (ISBN 0-521-41578-0). x and 307 pages; appendixes, references, index. KMBseen_HCO

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (New York: Harper Collins, 1996) (ISBN 0-06-017133-2). viii and 456 pages; appendixes, notes, references, index. KMBseen_HCO

The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach
Howard Gardner (New York: Basic Books, 1991) (ISBN 0-465-08895-3). xii and 303 pages; notes and index. KMBseen_HCO

Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of Exceptional Individuals and an Examination of Our Extraordinariness
Howard Gardner (New York: Basic Books, 1997) (ISBN 0-465-04515-4). xii and 178 pages; references, index. KMBseen_HCO

The Growth of the Mind: And the Endangered Origins of Intelligence
Stanley I. Greenspan with Beryl Lieff Benderly (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1997) (ISBN 0-201-48302-5). xi and 364 pages; notes, further sources, index. KMBseen_HCO

Peak Learning: A Master Course in Learning How to Learn
Ronald Gross (New York: Jeremy Tarcher, 1991) (ISBN 0-87477-611-2). KMBowns

Learning All the Time
John Holt (1989) (ISBN 0-201-12095-X).

Education and Ecstasy
George B. Leonard (New York: Delacorte, 1968). 239 pages. What Leonard calls "ecstasy" appears to be what Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow." KMBseen_MNU

The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer
Seymour Papert (New York, Basic Books, 1993) (ISBN 0-4465-01063-6 [pbk.]). Stunning, thought-provoking book by a student of Jean Piaget and developer of the Logo computer language, now Lego Professor of Learning Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Favorite quotation, among many: "In principle, the traditional public school has the potential of ensuring equal opportunity for everyone. . . . The situation once again evokes an analogy with the Soviet economy. The USSR used to boast that all its citizens had jobs and a degree of social security. It proclaimed that it protected everyone. . . . I do not see that School can be defended in its social role. It does not serve the functions that it claims, and it will do so less and less." KMBowns

[Last revision 9 March 2013]

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This School Is Dead: Critiques of the School System page is copyright © 2013 Karl M. Bunday, all rights reserved.

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.
John Stuart Mill On Liberty (1859)
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