As an education reporter for the Chicago-Sun Times, Maribeth Vander Weele has been to the trenches of education reform. Reclaiming Our Schools: The Struggle for Chicago School Reform is her critique of one of the most radical reform efforts in the nation: the decentralization of Chicago's schools. Through the voices and experiences of individuals she interviewed for her articles, Ms. Vander Weele traces the decline of the city's schools and the ensuing battle to resurrect them. Her findings would be discouraging if not for the determination of some citizens to improve the school system. These front-line heroes are a cause for hope in this disturbing tale of corruption and politics. (Loyola University Press, $12.95).
The multicultural movement has "slipped from its moorings and turned into a new petrified opinion of the sort it was supposed to transcend," the New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein contends in Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future,. Once intended to educate and enlighten society, the multicultural movement, he believes, now intimidates people and restricts democratic discourse. This trend threatens to pull society apart in a slow political tug of war which, his book demonstrates, has already begun in the nation's classrooms and other venues. At stake, Mr. Bernstein asserts, are truth and justice for those who truly need it. (Knopf, $25.00).
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a Harvard University professor of education whose heritage is African-American, learned early in life that education was not confined to the classroom. Animated discussions with family and friends around the Lawrences' dining-room table supplemented the teachings of her predominantly white school and sowed the seeds of inquiry that would later flower into her newest book, I've Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation. In it, the self-styled "human archaeologist" gently excavates the lives of six successful African-Americans, weaving their tales of achievement and loss into a richly layered portrait of black society. It is an image, she believes, that adds important balance and depth to our perception of African-Americans. (Addison Wesley, $25.00).
Twenty-six people died in a 1988 school-bus crash in Kentucky. They didn't die from the impact; they were burned to death. The journalist James S. Kunen has chronicled the legal battle of two families to prove that even their most ardent prayers and the most careful vehicle maintenance could not have altered the fate of their loved ones. Two design factors proved fatal: the bus's exposed fuel tank and the highly flammable polyurethane seat covers. Reckless Disregard: Corporate Greed, Government Indifference, and the Kentucky School Bus Crash replays the sadly ironic events of the crash and exposes the corporate lobbying and lax government regulations that made it possible for the bus defects to go uncorrected. It also pays tribute to the dead and issues a warning to the living: If school-bus design flaws remain unchanged, there may be tragic sequels to this story. (Simon & Schuster, $23.00).
Buried among the widely cited studies showing gender-based inequities in education are very real young women with stories to tell. But who they are and why they flounder in the Sargasso Sea of adolescence are questions often obscured by the statistics. In School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap, the journalist Peggy Orenstein attaches faces, names, and personalities to the numbers. She spent a year at two middle schools in California listening to girls talk about their education, their fears, and their ambitions. With her book, Ms. Orenstein invites the reader to hear these young women, understand them, and help them retain their intellectual curiosity and confidence as they travel toward adulthood. (Doubleday, $23.50).
In the not-too-distant past, school worries that went beyond grades and normal growing pains were confined to such problems as bullies, head lice, and acne. Now, students must confront drugs, gangs, and guns. In a timely wake-up call to educators and policymakers, the child-care expert Joy G. Dryfoos urges the creation of schools that can care for the whole child in these expanded social contexts. Full-Service Schools: A Revolution in Health and Social Services for Children, Youth, and Families charts the "emerging phenomenon" of full-service schools, linking these modern-day manifestations to their precursors, settlement houses. In the first book of its kind, Ms. Dryfoos outlines why children's health, social, and educational services need to be integrated to contend with these "new morbidities." She highlights schools that have successfully made these connections and provides a valuable resource for people working in this field. (Jossey Bass, $25.00).
Like an anthropologist studying another culture, Tony Wagner immersed himself for several years in the daily activities of three Boston-area schools. He wanted to learn why many schools have remained relatively unchanged in the decade since A Nation at Risk. The ingredients necessary for constructive change, he discovered, were not exotic. They were pretty basic: clear academic goals, core values, and collaboration between teachers, students, parents, and community members. How Schools Change: Lessons from Three Communities details the ongoing efforts of three very different communities to improve their children's education. By sharing these examples, Mr. Wagner, currently president of the Institute for Responsive Education, says he hopes to provide a blueprint for other schools in the throes of reform. (Beacon, $25.00).
Education may begin in the classroom, but it does not necessarily end there. In Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way, the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson (whose mother was the towering figure in that field, Margaret Mead) asserts her own definition of learning and education, challenging the classroom as the primary arena for these processes. Life and its myriad experiences provide the natural catalysts for inquiry, she says, calling this approach to life "peripheral vision." The individual's response to different events and peoples, she explains, is what constitutes real education. Drawing on her own life as a respected academic and the daughter of a famous mother, she broadens the definition of education, recasting it as a gift to be accepted, rather than as a burden to be undertaken. (Harper Collins, $23.00).