10/29/2010 11:35 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Books I Couldn't Put Down

When you set out to begin a documentary like Waiting for 'Superman', you initially enter a chaotic period where you, along with your team, try to figure out where the starting point is.

I tend to want to jump into the center of the issue, yet also head off in all directions at the very same time. This is not very convenient. When we began to dissect the massive knot that is education, we explored all paths.

Davis Guggenheim had a strong vision for the film, from the beginning, yet you always want to explore and let the documentary lead you where it will. For me, the process goes something like this: Call everyone in education you know, including people you don't know at all. Read every article you can find. Ask teachers what they think. Read all the McKinsey, Rand, Pew, and think tank reports you can lay your hands on, both about the United States education system and systems in other countries. Interview experts. Talk to people who are new to the issue and those that have been around for 40 years. Interview parents all over the country. Read nonfiction books on education. Talk to people who are making a difference.

Take a deep breath.


Then... feel incredibly depressed and listless. Later... become excited and hopeful.

Being a filmmaker and not an education expert, I felt compelled to do all of the above with zeal. But the book reading nearly did me in. And yet, I kept reading. Books on the history of education, the problems, the theories, the complications.

Some books were so clear-headed and well-written that despite the complexity of the issue, I couldn't put them down. So from a non-expert's point of view, I want to share some of the books that enlightened me, and I think other non-experts may enjoy reading as well.

Warning: This is by no means the official crash course on education, and only represents a small part of what I read. It is also not in any way a definitive list of what informed the film. There are many, many, excellent books on education out there to read, these are but a nibble!

Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools, by Jonathan Kozol
Inequality being the key word, Kozol examines schools that spend the most on kids and schools that spend the least. Both savage and depressing, this book leaves you with little hope. Written in 1991, today many of these disparities have not changed. Important and compassionate.

Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, by Diane Ravitch
A long, intense read detailing the swinging pendulum that is education reform. Educate the masses; educate the few. Cultivate the individual thinker; concentrate on the group. Wonderful insight on why our education system is as complicated as it is and how we have coped, or not coped with, constant reform.

Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America, by Paul Tough
Amazingly well-written, this book chronicles Geoffrey Canada's comprehensive approach to education reform. It unflinching reports both early successes and failures. It's an inspirational read about determination, common sense, and one hero's mission to prove that all kids, no matter their background, can learn.

Work Hard. Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America, by Jay Mathews
This book came out while we were making WFS, and I read it at one of my most frustrated moments. Mathews follows Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg from their teaching days to the founding of KIPP Academy schools. Incredibly inspirational, and a wonderful lesson on how to not let excuses prevent you from doing something great. Couldn't put it down.

Education Myths: What Special Interest Groups Want You to Believe About Our Schools -- And Why It Isn't So, by Jay P. Greene
Spending has doubled since the 1970s, yet SAT scores, graduation rates, math, reading, and science scores have, with slight variation, flatlined. This book attacks many common myths, from poverty equals lower performance to the myth that smaller class size equals increased performance. I don't agree with every single point in the book, but it's still an extremely helpful overview of how special interest groups have crafted much of public opinion on education.

Not As Good As You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice, by Lance T. Izumi, Vicky E. Murray, Rachel S. Chaney
Wonderfully enlightening book on how our middle class schools are underperforming and, in many cases, are actually quite bad. This is not just a problem of underserved communities. The book takes a stab at those defending the status quo, in all neighborhoods. The book pushes an agenda of choice (which can be code for vouchers), but the essential tenet is that when you look more closely at many middle and upper class schools, you find a lot that needs improvement, and fast.

Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America's Public Schools, by Eric Hanushek and Alfred Lindseth
A comprehensive discussion on school funding including historical court cases, data analysis showing the impacts of teacher quality and accountability, and how improving school finance policies can help reform the system.

Make the Impossible Possible: One Man's Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary, by Bill Strickland and Vince Rause
Bill Strickland's personal story of how one amazing teacher and the art of pottery rescued him in high school and later inspired him to start a craftsman guild that grew into after-school arts programming for kids as well as an adult job training center for the underserved community in Pittsburgh. Transformative story.