Hard to believe, but yet another school year has come and gone and now it’s time to chart a course for maximizing your summer break. What a tremendous chance to decompress, devour a few good books, and engage in a little personal learning. If you’re like me, you may often wonder where to turn for something new, compelling, and relevant. A great book should challenge you to think, maybe shift your consciousness a bit, and ultimately, change your practice. That being said, let’s dive right in!

Let’s begin with a couple of my favorite contemporary thinkers in the field of educational transformation: Alan M. Blankstein and Pedro Noguera. Their recent anthology, Excellence Through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student, pairs leading-edge ideas from various scholars and practitioners with case studies that illustrate the power of these strategies when applied in multicultural K−12 settings. Blankstein and Noguera issue a “call to action,” describing a new paradigm that addresses one of the most charged issues of our time: ensuring that schools are set up to enhance the success of every student through equity.  They define equity as “a commitment to ensure that every student receives what he or she needs to succeed.” Seems like such a simple premise, but in practice, the act of galvanizing the collective might of every member of a school community around this singular purpose is no small feat.

The authors offer three pillars within their equity framework that may represent a new way of thinking about creating equitable environments. They stress that “equity is not about treating all children the same.” Instead, they propose that educators heighten their awareness of three critical factors—child development, neuroscience, and recognition of environmental influences—as a means to designing environments that are responsive to all students needs. The authors characterize “courageous leadership” as the “engine that drives the paradigm shift.”

Each chapter of the book gives some of these courageous leaders a platform to tell their own story. One of my favorites, Michael Fullan, is featured in a chapter on whole-system change – not unlike Catapult Learning’s Five Strand Design of Exemplary Schools, a framework for transforming learning organizations holistically. Other key ideas that link to much of the work that we’ve been involved in lately relate to personalized learning and performance-based assessment. It’s rewarding to see echoes of our PD solutions being hailed as an example of best practices in such an important book.

If you’re looking for something a little on the lighter side, ASCD recently released a series of “mini books” printed under the ASCD Arias brand. Easily affordable, and perhaps an even easier read, these short-format publications are each 48 pages in length and answer a crucial question: “How do I . . . ?” The content can be read in one sitting: on the plane, around the pool, or before you drift off to sleep each night. Best of all, whether you’re a teacher or a leader, the topics selected by ASCD represent strategies that can be immediately applied to your practice when you return to school in the fall. These easy-to-digest books offer the expertise of education thought leaders, experienced practitioners, and researchers. And another really intriguing thing—they invite would-be authors to submit proposals to become Arias authors!

I recently purchased several of these mini books, and dove headfirst into A Differentiated Approach to the Common Core. Why start there? One of my favorite voices in the world of differentiated instruction, Carol Ann Tomlinson, co-authored the book with Marcia B. Imbeau. I was curious to see the latest thinking from Tomlinson, someone who I’ve been following nearly my entire career. In this short text, she and Imbeau lay out an eight-step process for creating differentiated lessons based on more rigorous college- and career-readiness standards. Whether you’re implementing the Common Core State Standards or one of their closely related cousins, the lesson planning framework Tomlinson and Imbeau describe is not unlike our Core Instructional Model. I was excited to see that the authors also incorporate the concept of “teaching up,” or “planning instruction for the broadest possible range of learners,” while at the same time ensuring that you are continually “aiming high and then building scaffolding that helps all students reach those heights.” Teaching up has close ties to the growth mindset work of Carol Dweck (2006), which describes leveraging a person’s “willingness to work hard and persist in the face of difficulty and the presence of a support system that both encourages and informs the hard work.”

I think my favorite aspect of this mini book is the attention the authors pay to developing and communicating learning targets. Through our work in and around schools, this tried and true practice is so often neglected by teachers and students alike. We’ve known for quite some time now the value that well-crafted, student-friendly learning targets have in the learning process, and yet the simple act of clearly articulating the lesson objective and revisiting it with students throughout the lesson is not often a routine part of every lesson. The other elements that Tomlinson and Imbeau describe include: designing lessons and refining instruction, assessing formatively and summatively, and both scaffolding and extending learning. If you have an hour, this one is well worth the investment.

Finally, if you haven’t yet read Amanda Ripley’s 2013 book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, I would highly recommend taking the time to read it. Riply offers an interesting perspective on the why, how, and what of three education systems—Poland, Finland, and Korea—that both starkly contrast with and outperform our own U.S. education system by large degrees. The book examines the “geography of smart” – as measured by the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) since its inception in 2000.

The PISA represented a shift in international tests, not merely asking students to respond to multiple choice questions, but rather to think creatively and think for themselves. And for the past 15 years, the U.S. has not fared as well as we’d like to think, given the deep investments we make annually in sustaining our educational system. Here are a few stark figures from The Organization of Economic Cooperation (OECD), who last administered the PISA in 2012. (Take note of Ripley’s publish date; her book examined more successful countries in light of the test 2012 results.):

  • Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 27. The United States ranks 17 in reading and 20 in science, both around the OECD average. There has been no significant change in these performances over time.
  • The U.S. spends more per student than most countries; however, this does not translate into better performance.
  • The United States, which ranks 3rd after Luxembourg and Switzerland in terms of per capita GDP, has a substantial economic advantage over many other OECD countries because of the amount of money it has available to spend on education. And yet, while a comparison of countries’ actual spending per student, on average, from age 6 up to age 15 puts the United States at an advantage, (only Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland spend more on average per student), the Slovak Republic, which spends around $53,000 per student, performs at the same level as the United States, which spends over $115,000 per student. Similarly, Korea, the highest-performing OECD country in mathematics, spends well below the average per-student expenditure.
  • While most would presume that the U.S. suffers because of the large numbers of students served who live in poverty, the actual share of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the United States is about average.

Ripley embarks on an examination of these three systems—Poland, Finland, and Korea—throughout the entire school year, and largely through the eyes and experiences of a few select students. The book is full of “ah ha” and “if only” moments. But at its core, it serves to challenge educators in the U.S. to think differently about the way we are educating our children so that we can challenge ourselves to better prepare them for future success in the 21st century, which a colleague recently reminded me is already a bit passé!

I hope these quick book reviews have sparked your interest. If you have a book that you’d recommend for summer professional learning, please leave a note in the comment box for everyone to see. And enjoy the summer!