In 1983, a national panel of education experts released the report that launched a thousand headaches. The document, "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform," warned that public schools were foundering. The nation's jaw dropped, and politicians promised improvements.

Two decades later, they're still promising. But the bickering over reforms is ceaseless. Take the No Child Left Behind Act, the controversial federal law requiring schools to show annual progress on state tests taken by students in grades 3 through 8. Supporters say the get-tough program promotes high standards and accountability; critics say the plan is too rigid and out of step with reality. Who's right? And how do such big questions relate to struggles in school systems near you?

Satisfying answers rarely come from politicians and wonks, who dwell in a fog of slogans and statistics. But welcome are those authors who find the pulse of human drama in the education trenches. The experiences of students, parents, teachers and administrators in American schools make compelling stories, full of heroes, villains and conflicts.

A School House Divided

A girl named Pineapple poses the question that haunts Jonathan Kozol's The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (Crown, $25). "What's it like," the black sixth grader asks the white author, "over there where you live?" Like other students in this sweeping report, Pineapple attends a public school where minorities make up nearly 100 percent of the enrollment. Her curiosity about whites, who attend schools in an unknowable "over there," speaks to the racial divide that Brown v. Board of Education attempted to bridge a half-century ago. Kozol, a best-selling education writer, argues convincingly that de facto segregation endures in urban school systems from Seattle to the South Bronx. His firsthand reporting reveals districts in which schools are separate and unequal. He relays insights from poor students who learn in buildings where ceilings leak, rats scurry, and toilets don't flush. In these ramshackle places, which often lack enough books, desks and qualified teachers, the drumbeat of school-accountability measures sounds hollow.

In an effective series of anecdotes, Kozol asserts that standards-based reforms turn poor schools -- with the fewest resources to teach the skills those tests measure -- into mindless educational factories. He warns that high-stakes tests threaten to turn low-income students into "examination soldiers" who do not so much acquire knowledge as regurgitate facts. He provides statistics that suggest the much-touted reforms have failed to close the so-called achievement gap between white and minority students. And he cites data showing the gaps between per-pupil spending in predominantly white urban school districts and districts that serve mostly minority students. In a chapter called "Deadly Lies," the author predicts that until students from different economic backgrounds attend schools of equal quality and resources, No Child Left Behind will not shrink but expand "the vast divide between two separate worlds of future cognitive activity, political sagacity, social health and economic status, and the capability of children of minorities to thrive." A call for activism, The Shame of the Nation firmly grounds school-reform issues in the thorny context of race and concludes that the nation has failed to deliver the promise of Brown.

Power to the Parents

Bribes, lies and scandals are part of education's ugly underbelly, Joe Williams reveals in Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education (St. Martin's, $24.95, forthcoming in October). Williams, a veteran education reporter, makes full use of his journalistic skills in this blistering analysis of public-school politics. (Friends of teachers unions, take cover.) Vivid anecdotes about administrators skimming from school budgets and teachers-of-the-year getting fired because of their expensive seniority support his case that the goals of education bureaucrats often conflict with the interests of students.

"As a society," Williams writes, "we are dismissing the needs of individual students to protect a romantic notion of public education whose very core is consumed with meeting the needs of adults first and foremost." Occasionally, these valid structural critiques of "the system" lapse into broad-brush criticisms of the "education cartel." But his frustrations, grounded in accounts of bureaucracy run amok, echo those of many parents.

Even so, Cheating Our Kids hits an inspirational note with its instructive explanation of how parents, business leaders and activists from both ends of the political spectrum helped bring school choice to Milwaukee in the 1990s, allowing low-income families to send their children to private schools at the public's expense. The tale proves that dedicated citizens who demand a better education for their children can move the mountains known as politicians.

Unconventional Wisdom

Everybody knows that reducing class sizes in public schools improves the quality of education. But where did they get that idea? Not from Jay P. Greene's Education Myths: What Special Interest Groups Want You to Believe about Our Schools -- And Why It Isn't So (Rowman & Littlefield, $24.95). Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, challenges 18 popular assumptions in this accessible, data-driven polemic.

The attacks come fast and furious against popular beliefs about class sizes, graduation rates and underperforming schools. Greene argues that public schools receive adequate funding, countering Kozol's "anecdotal reasoning" that there are spending gaps between urban and suburban schools. He also argues persuasively that voucher programs do not harm public schools, as some critics of school-choice contend. His arguments stick close to the numbers compiled from numerous education studies, and, generally, Greene makes strong cases that would keep even education-policy gurus on their toes.

Still, all the numbers in the world won't end the debate over what's true. Just ask your favorite teacher what he or she thinks about the elaborate statistical analyses behind the following statement from Education Myths: "It is simply not the case that teachers are less richly rewarded for their work than those in similar professions."

Daydream Believer

In Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education (Riverhead, $24.95), Chris Whittle, the maverick businessman who became an education insider, describes his vision for American schools in painstaking detail. Whittle is the former owner of Esquire magazine and the founder of Edison Schools, a company that manages 157 public schools in 19 states and educates 70,000 students. Naturally, the author promotes splicing the private-sector's DNA (think free-market competition) into the traditional education system.

Whittle's blueprint calls for radical new curricula, massive educational research-and-development efforts, and better training and pay for teachers and principals. He imagines students studying independently, freed from the constraints of regimented class schedules. "We are still operating in a type of Charles Dickens mindset," Whittle writes, "believing that these young, half-civilized things called children must be literally whipped into shape, if not by a stick then by a never-ending schedule."

The detailed business strategies in Crash Course may cause drowsiness in some casual readers, and the 37-page leap into the year 2030 may puzzle others. But the scale of Whittle's imagination and his disarming optimism make this a refreshing companion to gloomier education tomes.

Pragmatism 101

My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (Cornell Univ., $24) is the true tale of an anthropology professor who became a fly on the dorm-room wall. Rebekah Nathan (a pseudonym for Cathy Small of Northern Arizona University, recently unmasked by the New York Sun) enrolled as an undergraduate student at the university where she teaches, moved in with her subjects and took classes for two semesters. Her goal was to understand the mysteries of modern students, including why they snooze in classes and skip assigned readings.

A few distracting scholarly digressions aside, Nathan engagingly observes that many students care little about intellectual matters and see their university as a career greenhouse. No revelations there. But that campus life is no "Animal House" may come as a surprise. Juggling classes, assignments and jobs demands survival skills, the professor discovers. The key to sanity: "controlling college by shaping schedules, taming professors, and limiting workload."

My Freshman Year provides some keen insights into the causes of students' fierce pragmatism. For one thing, debt often drives their career aspirations and, in turn, their choice of majors and extracurricular pursuits. Colleges, Nathan argues, must adapt to those 21st-century realities: "Educational policy . . . cannot afford to rely on inaccurate or idealized versions of what students are." But understanding students is not the same as sympathizing with them. Nathan's vow to lighten students' loads by assigning them less reading sounds like blasphemy to this bookworm. My Freshman Year provides a long list of what ails college students, but a short list of remedies. *

Eric Hoover is a senior editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.