When is a campaign book better than usual?

It’s better when it transcends simply attempting to get the author elected and provides a window on character development and insights into social problems. Books by President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain come to mind as recent examples. Now add Steve Poizner’s new book to that list.

Poizner is California’s insurance commissioner and wants to be the state’s next governor. But he’s also a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded two successful companies and then went on to teach American government and economics for a year at an East San Jose public high school.

Poizner’s “Mount Pleasant: My Journey From Creating a Billion-Dollar Company to Teaching at a Struggling Public High School” is a “warts and all” book, primarily about that teaching experience. It is not bland and predigested. The author is tough on himself, his students, his fellow teachers and public schools.

But the book is also animated by love and respect. Poizner loves his students and loves bringing out their potential. He loves the challenge of teaching them. He respects his fellow teachers and respects the difficult job they have. He wants schools to succeed in educating kids.

Poizner points to his own classroom presentations and doesn’t fail to say that sometimes they did not succeed in engaging and motivating his students. He seeks continuous improvement. He wrestles with when and whether to fail students (eventually all his students pass his course). The reader can see Poizner learning on the job.

The author sprinkles stories from his childhood and business life throughout the book. It is evident from these anecdotes that he takes to doing the difficult “like a pig to mud” to use his own simile.

One personal insight that Poizner comes to is how difficult it can be to boost student achievement. He arrives at Mount Pleasant High School somewhat romantic about what one teacher can accomplish for children who have been in weak schools for years.

He never lets go of the goal of bringing out his students’ full potential, but comes to recognize that many of them are missing the academic “background knowledge” and scholastic aspirations that many students have in upper-middle-class schools. He courageously faces these politically incorrect facts and the extra work they necessitate, without ever giving up in the least on his students.

The book contains policy insights as well as personal ones. Poizner finds the public schools a bureaucratic morass, with too many details dictated from the state Capitol. This red tape constrains principals and teachers, the educators who could be making teaching and learning happen.

Poizner’s solution is to empower educators by cutting Education Code red tape and reforming school finance so that decisions about money are made close to the classroom. At the same time, he wants incentives that will encourage educators to put student learning first.

Poizner’s book has a six-page epilogue of pure public-policy discussion, in which he sets forth policy lessons. He likes charter schools because they—by definition—aren’t tied down by red tape and can provide competitive pressure and examples to learn from for regular schools. He wants to have teachers treated “like professionals.” He wants to give “great teachers great pay” and hold all teachers “accountable for their work.” Poizner is not afraid to say that ineffective teachers “should be dismissed.”

Yet, without downplaying the importance of Poizner’s policy proposals, I can predict that readers will be more caught up in his experience of being a brand-new teacher in a school where student achievement is weak. He is filled with energy and enthusiasm, but he also makes sure the students are actually learning. He has students present proposals, backed by their own research, to the mayor of San Jose. He brings in guest speakers. He uses an improvised “Jeopardy” game to review for an end-of-course test.

Even though this school and surrounding neighborhood seemed rather rough and dangerous to Poizner, some of the discussion about and criticism of the book since it came out indicate that, in fact, the neighborhood is average for San Jose and that, while there are third-generation gangs in the neighborhood and “gang-intervention specialists” at Mount Pleasant High School, the number of fights among students is not dramatically high.

While making points such as these, radio journalist Ira Glass, a major critic of Poizner’s book, acknowledges that “some things about the school could clearly be better,” when it comes to academics. Glass notes: “The school doesn’t hit its goals in statewide testing.” It is in the bottom 40 percent of California schools.

Poizner found that Mount Pleasant High is a school where problems such as leaking roofs and broken copy machines are real, but ultimately less important, in his view, than red-tape rules from state government that stifle effective instruction, teacher morale and student success. Poizner’s principal gives him a Rookie of the Year award, and readers will be fascinated to watch the rookie’s progress.