Frankly, I was rather pre-disposed to have a bad attitude toward Arne Duncan's How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation's Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education.
For one thing, political memoirs generally leave me cold. It's too much "history is written by the victors," for me, for one thing. And they are written (duh!) by politicians, who while they may be very smart in many ways, are usually not experts in the particular field in which they are commenting.
Moreover, over the years, I hadn't really paid much attention to matters of public education policy (shame on me!), so I didn't have a lot of burning questions of my own on which I was hoping to hear from Duncan.
So I approached How Schools Work with a fair amount of trepidation.
But I was quite surprised!
Duncan is a great writer; How Schools Work moves right along, with a nice mixture of concrete anecdotes, more abstract material about policy struggles, and frank and honest self-evaluations of where he felt he got things wrong versus where he still feels strongly that he understands the way things ought to be.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this (slim!) volume is that Duncan attempts too much. He covers a lot of ground and necessarily leaves many critical topics covered in only a cursory fashion.
But surely the purpose of a book like this is to take people like me, and get them to comprehend a least a little bit of the enormous complexity of trying to fashion a social system that will help each child as much as possible.
If Duncan can manage to get his readers to at least fathom some of the underlying issues that are under debate, that by itself is worthwhile.
Sadly, the problems he wrestles with are hard, very hard, but I can report that How Schools Work is certainly worth your time.