Reading List.

CityBridge constantly seeks out compelling thinking on education and education-related topics to guide our work and to form a basis for discussion with education champions in DC.

Recommended Readings

This report describes the need for race equity within education nonprofits specifically and provides rubrics for how to look at specific structures and activities within an organization along a continuum of “awake” to the need for race equity work, “woke” to the deeper structures, and doing the “work” of undoing systems of oppression.

At age 11, Rodney Walker came to a stark realization: His life was not normal. In the past six years, he had been relocated 12 times, living sporadically in group homes and with foster families or relatives, and the emotional trauma of being separated from his family soon led Rodney down a tumultuous path. Wanting nothing more than to be reunited with his parents, he began acting out, and his grades and relationships suffered severely. Against difficult odds, Rodney Walker—now a successful entrepreneur and Yale University graduate—journeys from foster care to Ivy League excellence with a spirit of determination and a community of caring supporters. A New Day One chronicles his story and the unique challenges that children in foster care face.

In The Bridge to Brilliance, Nadia Lopez, founding principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, takes readers on an in-depth journey of her experience launching and leading a school in one of Brooklyn’s most impoverished communities. Equipped with vision and determination, Lopez faces many challenges along the way—budget cuts, low student enrollment, neighborhood violence, and new standards and mandates being issued by the state, to name a few. Most palpably, though, it is the low expectations her students have faced elsewhere that challenges her progress day over day. In the end, Lopez’s unwavering commitment to see each of her students excel propels Mott Hall Bridges Academy into the national spotlight, earning a special meeting with President Barack Obama and much more.

In his book The End of Average, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Todd Rose explores the history of the concept of average and how averages permeate our society today. He argues that, to our detriment, we take for granted that the average is a useful and reliable form of measurement. Rose demonstrates that the way in which society evaluates and predicts aspects of individuals according to the group average is even more limiting than we think—and is actually incoherent. While using averages might make sense for uniform groups, he argues, it does not make sense for individuals. After all, the only thing that we all have in common is that we are each unique.

The United States ranks twelfth in the world for high school graduation rates, and only 59% of undergraduate students complete college within six years. Moreover, fewer and fewer graduates are prepared to join the increasingly competitive 21st-century workforce. As American technological innovation flourishes and industries adapt to the changes of the new millennium, why hasn’t education done the same?

In Deeper Learning, education strategist Monica Martinez and sociologist Dennis McGrath describe the practical strategies of eight innovative public schools across the nation. At these schools, teachers are developing students to not only master academic content but also to direct and drive their own learning. Based on extensive research and interviews with school leaders, teachers, and students, Deeper Learning makes the case for why schools that seek to innovate must empower students with more than just academic knowledge—skills like critical thinking, collaboration, and effective communication. Deeper Learning sets out a successful path for launching the leaders, inventors, and citizens of tomorrow.

Is America really the “Land of Opportunity”? Renowned political and social scientist Robert Putnam challenges this notion in his latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. His conclusion is grim: Compared to a quarter century ago, far fewer Americans have the opportunity for upward mobility.

Coupling portraits of U.S. families with compelling research on socioeconomic mobility, Putnam reveals the unprecedented and outsized role that social class and access plays in achieving prosperity. The bestselling author shatters the romantic ideal that the “American Dream” can be achieved through simple hard work and determination when a widening opportunity gap inhibits so many from living decent and fulfilling lives. We hope you will join us to discuss the social impact of rapidly expanding class gaps and the role that schools can play to ensure all of “our kids” have an equal opportunity to excel.

Mark Zuckerberg surprised America when he publicly announced his gift of $100 million to transform Newark’s public school system. Zuckerberg’s investment was one of the single largest philanthropic investments in education in US history—and perhaps one of the most controversial.

Dale Russakoff’s book, The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools, is a compelling story and unflinching examination of the Newark reform effort. The book looks critically at this story of well-intentioned philanthropy, intransigent public bureaucracies, resource allocation between traditional and charter schools, and—most bracingly—what happens when local politics go toxic.

In Creative Confidence, authors Tom Kelley and David Kelley contend that every person can tap into an innate creativity and ultimately produce positive change in the world. Each of us can be like Doug Dietz, who outfitted MRI machines like pirate ships to make medical scans less traumatizing for pediatric patients, or like the Stanford graduate students who invented a portable baby warmer that saved millions of premature and low-weight infants in remote villages. Through these and other stories from their work at IDEO and Stanford’s—two of the country’s premiere design thinking institutions—the Kelley brothers share strategies to unleash our creative potential.

Every day, teachers stand in front of rooms full of students and face a seemingly impossible task: Impart upon every child—each of whom has different academic, social, and emotional needs—the knowledge required to be both good students and good citizens. All of this is expected to take place in a 60-minute period of time. How can these teachers be set up for success?

In Building A Better Teacher: How Teaching Works and How to Teach it to Everyone, journalist Elizabeth Green suggests an answer to a question that has confounded the field of education for centuries: What does it take to create an excellent teacher?

Rejecting the notion of the “natural-born teacher,” which suggests that great teaching stems from a mysterious, innate gift, Green credits A+ teaching to a depth of knowledge, skill, and practice—all of which can and should be learned. Through the stories of all-star teachers Deborah Ball, Magdalene Lampert, and others, Green showcases the keys to their success. She explores the importance of teacher collaboration, evaluation and real-time feedback, consistency across student curriculum, teacher training, and testing, and a deep understanding of and love for one’s students.

No one expected Joel Klein to be named New York City Schools Chancellor. For then-Mayor Bloomberg, who envisioned education as an “influence-free zone,” the career lawyer’s outsider status and experience attacking monopolies made him exactly right to shake up the status quo.

In Lessons of Hope, Klein offers a candid look into the triumphs, stumbles, politics, and lessons of his 2002-2010 tenure as head of New York’s Department of Education. Armed with a mandate to foster excellence and equity, Klein prioritized four strategies: establish the Three C’s (centralized control stripped of bureaucratic inefficiencies; a coherent citywide curriculum; and capacity-building for teachers), dramatically expand school choice, empower principals by coupling increased autonomy with strict accountability, and catalyze innovation. These controversial reform efforts sparked highly publicized battles with the teachers’ union, politicians, and charter opponents—but they also dramatically improved education for at-risk children.

Klein’s advice for creating a high-performing system of quality schools? Above all, he emphasizes empowering principals, whom he calls “the most important part of the education puzzle.” Klein also underscores raising teacher quality, and using technology (and private sector backing) to both extend the reach of teachers and ensure that instruction is personalized to students’ needs.

Less than 1/10 the size of New York’s school system but facing many of the same challenges, DC is poised to learn from Klein’s successes, as well as his frank retelling of a few missteps along the way.

In Just Mercy, civil rights attorney and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson draws attention to the way bias and fear drive us to quickly—and unjustly—condemn society’s most vulnerable people.

As a young lawyer defending poor inmates on Alabama’s death row, Stevenson uncovers unconscionable flaws in the criminal justice system—racial bias, abuse of power, excessive punishment, denied access to legal counsel—concluding that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” He recognizes that the hopelessness afflicting poor, African American communities is collateral damage from years of accumulated injustice, insult, and distrust. And yet in the moving stories of those he defends—including Walter McMillian, a poor, innocent Black man sentenced to die for the murder of a White woman—Stevenson unearths hope and humanity, as well as the healing power of mercy.

In order to understand what is broken in our courtrooms, communities, and lives—and in our schools, as well—Stevenson urges us to get close and bear witness, and to offer hope and compassion.

Just before his third birthday, Owen Suskind “disappears.” In Life, Animated, Ron Suskind—the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Owen’s father—shares his family’s deeply moving story, starting from the moment that regressive autism transforms his youngest son. Set in DC, the autobiography follows the Suskind family’s heartbreaking, inspiring, and relentless efforts to reach Owen after he stops speaking and understanding. It is through Owen’s singular (and obsessive) solace—watching and later acting out animated Disney movies—that the Suskinds are finally able to enter Owen’s world and reintroduce him to theirs.

Woven into this highly personal narrative about a boy’s journey from silent sidekick to hero are themes that translate to public education: the challenges of finding the right school or instructional method to meet a student’s individual needs; the impact of social stigmas on expectations and performance, particularly for “discarded students” in low-income neighborhoods, and the need for a culture of high expectations to counter those negative societal assumptions; the importance of tireless, focused, caring teachers who do whatever it takes to help students succeed; and the ability for all children—regardless of learning challenges or race or income level—to learn. Life, Animated is a universal story, too, about resilience and hidden strengths, about family, and about the heroes that are everywhere.

In The Urban School System of the Future, Andy Smarick contends that the traditional structure of urban public education has failed, and that it must be replaced with an entirely new one defined by choice and competition. He sees the key to this new structure in the chartering model, in which nongovernmental organizations are granted extensive autonomy by a government-appointed, independent authorizing board to operate schools in exchange for positive student achievement outcomes. Smarick’s “urban school system of the future” would be structured to ensure that high-performing schools are continually replicated, new schools with a diverse array of program offerings are continually opened, persistently failing schools are closed, and family choice is maximized.

Smarick’s vision calls for city government to act as a portfolio manager responsible for ensuring that policy conditions and school operator inventory are managed to best support the flourishing of this system. While other education thought leaders agree with Smarick’s arguments (though many do not), few offer such a well-argued, detailed vision for the future of urban public schooling.

There are fast ways and slow ways to solve complex social problems. And speed matters. This is criminology thought leader David Kennedy’s message in Don’t Shoot, which tracks an unconventional experiment to dramatically reduce urban gun violence. Don’t Shoot provides an invaluable frame for the work of urban education reform: There is an important distinction between the slow, gradual systems reform that results in tiny bits of progress in lots of places, and a targeted, surgical-strike approach that is highly successful against a very specific problem. The traditional approach to education reform in DC and most large US cities assumes that the right set of district policies can establish in all schools the core components of a high-performing school. While this strategy can lay a valuable foundation for reform, at best, it yields slow, small improvements in performance. CityBridge believes that we must couple the key district-wide reforms with highly targeted tactics (like replication of high-performers and intensive school turnaround) that we know will create more transformational schools much, much faster.

Disappointed by the lack of rigor in the US public education system but encouraged by the small number of countries that have dramatically improved student performance, investigative journalist Amanda Ripley set out to uncover what is happening in their public schools that we could—and should—be doing in our own classrooms. Enlisting as field agents three American exchange students studying abroad, Ripley does a superb job of sleuthing out the active ingredients for success in Finland, Poland, and South Korea. In The Smartest Kids In the World, she spells out what is distinctly different—and surprisingly logical—about the way these three counties approach education. Ripley’s book makes clear what the world’s smartest countries are doing and how, in many cases, it is at odds with the American education system. Armed with compelling and well-research narrative, she posits: “We say we are serious about education, but are we ready to act like it?”

In her first book, Michelle Rhee speaks out about her time in DC—both her achievements and her regrets—and about the complex, layered work needed to reform a national school system. One part memoir, one part commentary on the ed reform movement, and one part manifesto for fixing public education, Radical has real applications for DC and what it will take to realize a world-class education for all children.

The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog is a series of (horrific) stories from a child psychiatrist’s work with severely traumatized children. It is the story of how adults can work to “reset” children whose brains and emotions have been damaged by exposure to violence, trauma, or neglect. Everything in the reading is in the extreme, but it is that very extremity that has lessons for the work we are trying to do in schools. What succeeds in extreme situations is usually very applicable as systemic, broad-based reform for chronic problems, as well. The children in the book are exposed to horrors that most of us have never seen. But the settings and interventions that work to heal them—particularly an increase in the quality and number of healthy relationships in their lives—are exactly what we need to address the core chronic, toxic stress that kids in urban schools suffer. This book is not about school reform, but its ideas are relevant and impactful for low-income classrooms.

In The One World Schoolhouse, Sal Khan shares how his personal experience of virtually tutoring his niece inspired him to found the famous Khan Academy and fundamentally rethink the way teachers deliver content. Khan brilliantly applies entrepreneurial thinking to point out the design flaws in our current public education system and proposes innovative solutions to liberate teachers and students from the old, one-size-fits-all model. His revolutionary ideas are catching on: Across the country, innovative educators are exploring a variety of blended learning models to help realize the vision of redesigned classrooms and schools that use personalized learning environments to accelerate achievement for all students. Early evidence indicates that combining the best of face-to-face instruction with the best of online instruction offers educators new opportunities to differentiate instruction for individual students, to motivate students to take ownership over their own learning, and to extend teacher capacity to reach additional students.

We all cheat. How is it, then, that most of us (honestly) consider ourselves to be true, honorable, and ethical? According to Dan Ariely, the powerful effects of irrationality protect us from seeing discrepancies between our morals and our behavior. All of us—teachers, doctors, investors, politicians, employees, ed reformers, students—are driven by the oft-conflicting desires to view ourselves as virtuous and to reap maximum possible benefits. So we fudge just a little, unconsciously exercising the “cognitive flexibility” that justifies (such a small!) dishonest behavior and therefore preserves our sterling self-image. Unintentionally and intentionally, we fudge more than we think. How can we keep ourselves honest? Ariely examines what makes us more and less likely to cheat, including biases incentives, signed pledges, social dynamics, and other factors that impact honesty in the office, on Wall Street, in schools and everywhere in our lives.

What does it really take to start—and then sustain—a great school? Through her personal story of founding a network of high-performing New York charter schools, Deb Kenny offers brilliant insight into public education, the hard realities of a start-up, and why culture matters more than any other single thing in establishing a strong school. Kenny’s schools were founded on the principle that teacher quality is paramount, and that giving teachers freedom and accountability produces greater teaching. As she struggled to turn these ideals into a strong school culture, she grappled with tough questions that all school leaders and entrepreneurs face: What is culture? How do you establish it? Who has to own it? Kenny unpacks each of these issues, explaining how each person she met and each book she read gave her a part of the idea that evolved into Harlem Village Academies.

Author and New York Times journalist Paul Tough’s work is the stuff of ed reform 2.0 and his newest book may provide the breakthrough intellectual frame the field has needed—a construct that moves us all one step beyond the “Is it poverty? Or is it the teachers?” debate. Exploring education and poverty and science, Tough concludes that it is both possible and necessary for the education reform movement to espouse two oft-competing ideas: that all kids can succeed and that children who grow up in poverty face unique and significant challenges. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character introduces extensive research about the paramount role of non-cognitive skills—or character work—in children’s success, and proposes a new system to support children in extreme poverty.

Daniel Coyle takes Malcolm Gladwell’s “ten thousand hours” rule one step further: What’s going on in muscles and in your brain when you get really good at an activity? What should you do to maximize the chances that practice yields excellence? Coyle looks at “talent hotbeds”—like Brazilian soccer fields and KIPP classrooms—to understand what breeds excellence.

One of The Atlantic’s newest stars, Florida is a “new cities” scholar: he studies how the knowledge economy is reshaping cities—who lives there, what jobs are there, what the city looks like physically, and what these trends mean for education. In this book, Florida unpacks the creative destruction done by the recent recession to our old-city formula (think rings of suburbs in Detroit), and he predicts what cities will need to do to adapt and thrive for the next century. Florida has a section specific to Washington, DC, as we are one of the flagship cities in the country where these new trends are coming together. Interestingly, our public education system—and the multi-generational poverty it aims to eradicate—is one of the only remaining barriers he identifies to DC having international city-superstar status. Anyone who thinks “3-D” about DC—about jobs and education and city planning and the knowledge economy—will like this book. It sounds dry; we promise it isn’t.

Mike Johnston was a Teach For America corps member in the Mississippi Delta from 1997–1999, and this book is his memoir of those two years teaching in a severely impoverished, troubled school. It is a gritty, at times difficult, book, and it has been somewhat controversial for its bleak portrayal of many of the lives of his students. It’s an important book, however, for anyone who wants to deeply understand what is happening in the most dysfunctional of our American schools. Johnston is a superstar in the education reform firmament. As a current State Senator, he has been leading Colorado’s legislative education reform efforts—and has been having stunning success.

Brill’s book has generated debate centering on whether he over-emphasizes the power of excellent teaching as a tool to advance student learning. We had just the opposite reaction: We think the book demonstrates that education reform is complex—that politics, policy, philanthropy, and practice all have to work together to create sustainable change.

“An idea is not a single thing. It is more like a swarm.” In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson identifies the seven key patterns behind true innovation, examining great ideas from Darwin to Google to illustrate how to promote innovation on the scale of our everyday lives.

In Whistling Vivaldi, social psychologist Claude M. Steele explores the many (and surprising) ways that social stereotypes affect our lives. Steele uncovers the phenomenon of “stereotype threat,” whereby individuals confronted by a negative stereotype attached to their social identity underperform, ultimately confirming expectations. Tying the impact of stereotype threat to the achievement gap, Steele strategizes how to reduce its damaging effects.

Many have read this book, but few of us have really talked about what it concludes about building effective schools. Gladwell argues that culture and a lot of hard work are the keys to real success. He uses the KIPP schools in one chapter as an example of strong culture and hard work overcoming the seemingly intractable barriers of poverty and low expectations. This book is a “lighter” read, but all things Gladwell make for great discussion.

In A Chance to Make History, Teach For America (TFA) founder Wendy Kopp reveals what it will take to provide all American children an outstanding education. Twenty years after she proposed TFA’s creation in her Princeton University undergraduate thesis, Wendy shares her unique insight as well as the stories of TFA teachers and alumni across the country, offering a vision of what is possible in public education.

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