Monday, September 24, 2007

Gold Star Book Award Nominees

I've nominated four of this fall's best academic books on education for the first (quasi-recurring) eduwonkette gold star award. Here are the books and short blurbs from the publishers about each of them. Give me a couple of weeks to get through them all and I'll announce a winner. In no particular order:

Mitchell Stevens, Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites

In real life, Mitchell Stevens is a professor in bustling New York. But for a year and a half, he worked in the admissions office of a bucolic New England college that is known for its high academic standards, beautiful campus, and social conscience. Ambitious high schoolers and savvy guidance counselors know that admission here is highly competitive. But creating classes, Stevens finds, is a lot more complicated than most people imagine.

Admissions officers love students but they work for the good of the school. They must bring each class in "on budget," burnish the statistics so crucial to institutional prestige, and take care of their colleagues in the athletic department and the development office. Stevens shows that the job cannot be done without "systematic preferencing," and racial affirmative action is the least of it. Kids have an edge if their parents can pay full tuition, if they attend high schools with exotic zip codes, if they are athletes--especially football players--and even if they are popular.

Jack Buckley and Mark Schneider, Charter Schools - Hope or Hype?

Over the past several years, privately run, publicly funded charter schools have been sold to the American public as an education alternative promising better student achievement, greater parent satisfaction, and more vibrant school communities. But are charter schools delivering on their promise? Or are they just hype as critics contend, a costly experiment that is bleeding tax dollars from public schools? In this book, Jack Buckley and Mark Schneider tackle these questions about one of the thorniest policy reforms in the nation today.

Using an exceptionally rigorous research approach, the authors investigate charter schools in Washington, D.C., carefully examining school data going back more than a decade, interpreting scores of interviews with parents, students, and teachers, and meticulously measuring how charter schools perform compared to traditional public schools. Their conclusions are sobering.

Buckley and Schneider show that charter-school students are not outperforming students in traditional public schools, that the quality of charter-school education varies widely from school to school, and that parent enthusiasm for charter schools starts out strong but fades over time. And they argue that while charter schools may meet the most basic test of sound public policy--they do no harm--the evidence suggests they all too often fall short of advocates' claims.

Bruce Fuller, Standaridzed Childhoods: The Political and Cultural Struggle Over Early Education

A colorful array of childcare and preschool options blossomed in the 1970s as the feminist movement spurred mothers into careers and community organizations nurtured new programs. Now a small circle of activists aim to bring more order to childhood. Their battle cry, heard in a growing number of state capitals and school reform circles, seeks to create a more standard, state-run preschool system. For young children already facing the rigors of play dates and harried parents juggling the strains of work and family, government is moving in to standardize childhood.

Sociologist Bruce Fuller traveled the country—sitting in preschool classrooms, delving into the birth of universal preschool in California and Oklahoma, and interviewing this robust movement’s eager leaders—to understand the ideologies of childhood and the raw political forces at play. He details how these new progressives earnestly seek to extend the rigors of public schooling down into the lives of very young children. Fuller then illuminates the stiff resistance by some children’s activists, ethnic leaders, and conservatives, who hold less trust in government solutions and more faith in nonprofits and local groups in contributing to the upbringing of young children. Drawing on the voices of teachers, community activists, and political leaders actively shaping this debate,Standardized Childhood shows why the universal preschool movement is attracting such robust support—and strident opposition—nationwide.

David Kirp, The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics

The rich have always valued early education, and for the past forty years, millions of poor kids have had Head Start. Now, more and more middle class parents have realized that a good preschool is the smartest investment they can make in their children's future in a competitive world. As The Sandbox Investment shows, their needs are key to the growing call for universal preschool.

Writing with the verve of a magazine journalist and the authority of a scholar, David L. Kirp makes the ideal guide to this quiet movement. He crouches in classrooms where committed teachers engage lively four-year-olds, and reveals the findings of an extraordinary longitudinal study that shows the life-changing impact of preschool. He talks with cutting-edge researchers from neuroscience and genetics to economics, whose findings increasingly show how powerfully early childhood shapes the arc of children's lives.

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