Summer reading suggestions

by Michael Hirsch

Tired of scanning bodice-ripping romance novels or predictable police procedurals over the summer break?  Below are seven titles — dealing with education, economics and labor — that are beach-readable and worth reading, too.

kohlreaderLove him or lose him, Herb Kohl (the education writer, not the Wisconsin senator and Milwaukee Bucks owner) is always thought-provoking and unfailingly honest. His new collection, “The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching” (New Press, 2009), with excerpts from his pathbreaking “36 Children” and sizable, useful chunks of his numerous other works, is not only a good introduction to Kohl, but a handy way to catch up on other books of his that you missed.

There’s nothing wrong with setting standards and keeping schools accountable for student outcomes. Question is: does high-stakes testing measure student learning? In “Measuring Up: What Education Testing Really Tells Us” (Harvard U. Press, 2008), author Daniel Koretz says high-stakes testing leads to a narrow instructional focus on just the material tested, which in turn leads to inflated test scores. There’s no evidence that learning has or has not gone on, and the book is chockablock with examples of testers and education reformers making easy assumptions proved wrong. Koretz doesn’t disparage testing as such, but warns of risks and side effects if testing, like medication, is used indiscriminately and with little independent oversight.

Here’s one we don’t recommend for the beach, because it’s oversized and weighs more than your old laptop. Read and enjoy it at home. It’s Gerard J. Pelisson and James A. Garvey III’s charming “The Castle on the Parkway: The Story of New York City’s DeWitt Clinton High School and Its Extraordinary Influence on American Life” (Hutch Press, 2009). You needn’t be a Clinton alum or a former or present staffer to appreciate the school’s 111-year history and its astounding number of graduates going on to prominence in the arts, politics, business and education. As the authors write, “The key to DeWitt Clinton High School’s achievements has been its willingness to educate all and still produce the best.” It’s a multigenerational yearbook for all of us.

In his New York Times op-eds, Paul Krugman masterfully covers economics as politics. In “The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008” (W.W. Norton, 2009), Krugman describes at length a runaway financial system that will take more than reregulation to put right.

pluner)or_blunderStill can’t figure out why Wall Street went south last fall and stayed there? Dean Baker’s “Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy” (PoliPoint Press, 2009) tells the story in gripping detail. Baker, like Krugman, is one of a handful of economists whose texts nonspecialists can read and benefit from without pain. His latest explains the bubble economy and why it burst. While less an overarching analysis of capitalism as a system and more a portrayal of the financial sector’s self-destruction, it’s faultless in showing how years of government deregulation and a predatory mentality on Wall Street caused the fall 2008 collapse.

Marshall Ganz is an organizer’s organizer. In “Why David Sometimes Wins” (Oxford U. Press, 2009), the one-time director of organizing for the United Farm Workers uses the David vs. Goliath metaphor to write a combination farmworker-union history and organizing manual about how “the powerless sometimes challenge the powerful successfully.” It’s about how “strategic resourcefulness” that takes advantage of commitment, information and connection to the lives and culture of workers can sometimes compensate for the lack of material advantages held by employers. It’s knowing, as union founder Cesar Chavez said, that “power makes you stupid” and how to use that arrogance to topple giants.

Unions are organizations of workers knowing they can improve their wages and working conditions, fight cutbacks and even better their profession’s standing by working together. But what if unions work just for their own dues-payers and confront only their own employers? Is that enough to deliver even for their own members?

In “Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice” (U. of California Press, 2008), a former AFL-CIO leader and a California labor educator contend more is necessary in a global capitalist economy where labor worldwide is on the defensive. The authors, Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin, call for “social justice unionism,” where unions don’t only organize by craft, industry or even sector, but also by city and county, building social blocs and contending for power. The UFT did that in prototype this year with the One New York: Fighting for Fairness coalition and its demand that all of the city’s most vulnerable — not just children, but the sick and aged, too — not pay for the financial sector’s blundering. The authors want to make that model the rule.

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