CityBridge Book Club

Launched in the fall of 2010, CityBridge Book Club convenes small groups of local business leaders and philanthropists for a series of discussions of great writing about education (and related topics).  Groups are kept intentionally small to foster candid discussion and ensure a fully inclusive conversation.

Since the inception of CityBridge Book Club, our selections have included:

Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools by Joel Klein
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, D.C. is poised to learn from Klein’s successes, as well as his frank retelling of a few missteps along the way.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
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. 

Life, Animated
by Ron Suskind
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 D.C., 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.

The Urban School System of the Future
by Andy Smarick:
In his book The Urban School System of the Future, Andy Smarick offers a novel answer to this question:  Not if past is prologue, but let redesigned school districts, and a range of other school operators, try. 
Smarick contends that the traditional structure of urban public education has failed, and 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.  

The Diverse Schools Dilemma
by Mike Petrilli:
In the U.S., where 87% of white students attend a majority white school, many middle-class and affluent urbanites grapple with what Mike Petrilli calls the Diverse Schools Dilemma:  Should I send my child to a local public school that offers racial, cultural, and economic diversity or to a more homogenous—but perhaps higher-performing—school?

A D.C. parent and education expert at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (an ed policy think tank), Petrilli couples compelling research about the pros and cons of socioeconomically diverse schools with his own experience searching for a great “common school” for his sons.  The book offers a compact guide to help parents evaluate diverse school options—district, charter, magnet, and even private—by examining school performance and economic data, by looking for a strong principal, instruction, and school culture, and by understanding how diverse classrooms can both benefit and limit students.

Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America
by David Kennedy
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 D.C. and most large U.S. 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.

The Smartest Kids In the World: And How They Got That Way
by Amanda Ripley
Disappointed by the lack of rigor in the U.S. 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?”

The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog
by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., and Maria Szalavitz
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.

The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined
by Salman Khan
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.

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty
by Dan Ariely
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.

Born to Rise: A Story of Children and Teachers Reaching Their Highest Potential
by Deborah Kenny
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.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
by Paul Tough
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 noncognitive skills—or character work—in children’s success, and proposes a new system to support children in extreme poverty.

The Talent Code
by Daniel Coyle
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 and to develop a set of conclusions around talent, practice, and neurology.

Getting Smart: How Digital Learning Is Changing the World
by Tom Vander Ark
Tom Vander Ark, formerly of the Gates Foundation, is now a full-time proselytizer for the power of technology to transform education.  In this book, Vander Ark beautifully covers the field and produces a primer for the uninitiated.  He explains technology's ability to customize content for each student—what we refer to as "differentiating learning"—and to use gaming techniques to capture student attention.  Though this field is just emerging, chapter six spotlights a handful of the most promising digital learning models, including some up and running in DC.

The Great Reset
by Richard Florida
One of the 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.  We found this book fascinating.  Florida has a section specific to Washington, D.C., 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 D.C. having international city-superstar status.  Anyone who thinks “3-D” about D.C.—about jobs and education and city planning and the knowledge economy—will like this book.  It sounds dry; we promise it isn’t.

In the Deep Heart’s Core
by Michael Johnston
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.

Class Warfare
by Steven Brill
Brill’s book has generated some recent 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.

Where Good Ideas Come From
by Steven Johnson
"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.

Whistling Vivaldi
by Claude M. Steele
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.

by Malcolm Gladwell
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.

A Chance to Make History
by Wendy Kopp
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.

Saving Schools
by Paul Peterson
Everyone who didn’t major in education (which is most of us) should read this book.  It’s the review we all need of the major trends in the history of American education.  But—we promise!—it’s well-written, interesting, and each chapter is an easy length for one sitting.  The sections on virtual learning and on “Baumol’s Disease” (the curse of diminishing quality and higher costs for labor-intensive industries) are especially relevant.

To learn more about CityBridge Book Club, please contact Jane Meyerson.