Reading & Resources

School Administrator, December 2017

Book Reviews
Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education
by John Merrow,
The New Press, New York, N.Y., 2017, 271 pp. with index, $25.95 hardcover

For anyone who wants to enter into a discussion about how best to improve public education, John Merrow’s Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education offers a candid (and sometimes painful) examination of current policy and practice that will definitely enhance the conversation. Bringing more than 40 years of experience as an educational journalist, Merrow approaches the topic of reform with candor and many uncomfortable facts. Whether or not you agree with all of his points, it is a compelling read.

Merrow begins with the premise that Americans are addicted to reforming public schools through a testing regimen based on a “carrot and stick” approach. He skillfully dissects the reasons that “addiction” is harming our public schools more than helping and he proceeds to offer the steps he believes Americans should take to make our public schools better.

As he explores the policy and practice he believes have taken our schools off course, Merrow prompts all of us to “own the problem.”  He candidly warns that some of what the reader learns may raise blood pressure, but he offers solutions that address policy, instructional practices and community support. His solutions are logical and align with suggestions offered by many current educational advocates.

Throughout the book, Merrow punctuates each “step” with a personal vignette based on the stories he has covered over four decades. These vignettes add an emotional connection to the “steps” and are quite memorable. 

I recommend this book for those who care deeply about transforming public education to better serve our students. I suggest that you share the book with several other people who do not understand the complexity of the challenges facing our public schools. If change is going to happen, it will indeed take the whole village and this book promises to be an excellent conversation starter.

Reviewed by Theresa Alban, superintendent, Frederick County Public Schools, Frederick, Md.

BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships, and Empower Learning
by Eric Sheninger and Trish Rubin, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, Calif., 2017, 320 pp. plus index, $27.95 hardcover

BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships, and Empower Learning introduces school leaders to the importance of establishing an active and effective brand. Typically a topic in the business world, branding is growing in criticalness as schools continue to face increasing competition. The book begins with introducing the reader to what branding is, regarding establishing a concise and appealing message that resonates with the school’s stakeholders.

Throughout BrandED, several recognizable brands such as Apple and Disney are used to set the stage for school leaders to “tell their stories, build relationships, and empower learning.” Authors Eric Sheninger, a senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education, and Trish Rubin, founder of communications consultancy Trish Rubin Ltd., use this book to convey the importance of creating a school brand with positive results. They implore school leaders to effectively communicate using a variety of tools and strategies that resonate with the school’s stakeholders.

The authors introduce several school leaders who are charting a new pathway to engage stakeholders in the school process. The authors stress, “When adapted by schools, a brand becomes a physical, digital and social beacon for communication.” Borrowing ideas from the business world, BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships, and Empower Learning offers so many practical and relevant strategies that can be used by the digital migrating school leaders.

When school leaders establish a brand, they improve the school’s culture and stakeholder performance, and increase education resources. From a superintendent’s perspective, this is a precisely needed exploration and discussion of school public relations. As schools continue to face increasing expectations, school leaders must embrace the need to have a long-term strategic communication plan that begins with establishing a brand that connects with stakeholders and a concise message that is student-centered. 

Reviewed by Brian K. Creasman, superintendent, Fleming County Schools, Flemingsburg, Ky.

Educational Entrepreneurship Today
edited by Frederick M. Hess and Michael Q. McShane, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2016, 243 pp. with index, $12 softcover

Frederick Hess’s and Michael McShane’s book, Educational Entrepreneurship Today, is an excellent collection of chapters authored by a mix of researchers, entrepreneurs, professors, CEOs and consultants. The editors’ work as director of educational policy at American Enterprise Institute and Show-Me Institute, respectively, is directly related to educational entrepreneurship issues discussed throughout the book.

While the overall slant of the book is toward a need for ongoing entrepreneurship initiatives in the K-12 public sector, there is an attempt to provide a balanced approach and point out where past and current efforts may be misguided. The strongest argument against most of what is happening today is provided by Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

Readers can compile a lengthy list of companies serving as school start-ups and technology-based enterprises as they progress through the book. These include Teach for America, Noodle, Khan Academy, KIPP Schools, BloomBoard, The New Teacher Project, and 4.0 Schools. The increase in capital investments by today’s key foundations such as those of Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael and Susan Dell, the Walton family and Eli and Edythe Broad are also pointed out.

The book starts out by defining entrepreneurship in education as more of “an activity rather than a type of person or company,” and that entrepreneurial behavior is “identifying an opportunity to create value and then making it happen by mobilizing the necessary resources along the way.” The chapters provide an interesting examination of how this behavior began and how it is not changing from wholesale transformation of schools to identifying a specific problem and working to better address that problem. It is also interesting that even those organizations that have been around for several years are finding the investment dollars more competitive as new initiatives appear. Many large funders now prefer to invest in several smaller and targeted endeavors instead of larger ones.

There is an acknowledgement of a need for more research into what is successful. However, the cost of rigorous research models paired with a sometimes unwillingness on the part of venture projects to be funded are a hindrance. Due to the desire to keep money coming in, such companies can be more willing to let the “market” drive what happens rather than knowing what really works. Obviously, this is a real concern for educators.

Entrepreneurs are also learning that partnering with educators can bring about better results. Educators already know the need and they are familiar with any policy and regulatory hurdles that may be present. If this trend continues, there may be opportunities for educators to pursue activities they would not otherwise have funds for as well.

Marc Tucker’s chapter is an important one to balance the increasing desire to radically change today’s schools. He points out that competition and market driven decisions don’t work well in the public sphere like they do in the private one. He also argues that if such strategies work, we should see educational systems that are based on competition in those countries who are touted as out-performing the U.S.; however, that isn’t the case. He also argues that the U.S. educational system has been impacted by more innovative efforts and researched more than any other country’s.

The book provides an excellent framework for those wanting to know how to enter the educational entrepreneurship realm. Those interested will find many key learnings and ideas for future efforts. For public educators, it is also useful as a tool to understand what entrepreneurs are doing and why. Such knowledge will better equip educators to foster their own desires for change while finding ways to either work with or partner with non-profit or for-profit ventures. There is a desire by both, as well as parents and other stakeholders, to change and provide more flexibility, so why not seek ways to maximize impact by working together? 

Reviewed by Lyle C. Ailshie, superintendent, Kingsport City Schools, Kingsport, Tenn.  

Extreme Teams: Why Pixar, Netflix, Airbnb, and Other Cutting-Edge Companies Succeed Where Most Fail
by Robert Bruce Shaw, AMACOM, New York, N.Y., 2017, 247 pp., $27.95 hardcover

Books written about successful business practices often do not translate well to schools and school districts. This one is different! Extreme Teams has a wealth of ideas and practices that, if applied to educational settings will likely result in successes comparable to the companies cited.

Robert Bruce Shaw is a management consultant who earned a doctorate in organizational behavior from Yale University. In Extreme Teams, he examines the work practices of high-performing companies in the current business environment. Shaw believes the success of these companies is grounded in rules of teamwork, and he thoroughly examines the employment of these rules that spark high-energy performance, producing extraordinary results. Shaw explains each rule in detail with specific examples of implementation by companies he has studied. The advantages of each practice are carefully spelled out — and the perils that may be encountered when introducing them can serve as guidelines for the team leadership.

Unique to this set of actions is the emphasis Shaw places on the basic structure of the teams. The compatibility of team members is fundamental to team success. Competence is necessary, but the ability of team members to work as a team is essential. Also, team members must not only know and practice the values of the institution, they must recognize the moral value of their work as a step toward improving the world beyond their workplace. Teachers, most of all, will appreciate the recognition of their commitment and contribution to the future of their students.

The outlined practices can be applied at several layers of school district organization — teacher teams, school teams, central office teams. The examples in the book can help team leaders evaluate their efforts and the missteps that may be hindering them. Commitment to a defined purpose is key at all levels. Superintendents who adopt the teamwork approach must demonstrate their passion for their district and their trust in those who are working to achieve it.  

Reviewed by John C. Fagan, retired superintendent, Oak Park, Ill.

Partnering with Parents to Ask the Right Questions: A Powerful Strategy for Strengthening School-Family Partnerships
by Luz Santana, Dan Rothstein and Agnes Bain, ASCD, Alexandria, Va., 2016, 230 pp. with index, $29.95 softcover

Partnering with Parents to Ask the Right Questions is a guide for teaching parents how to ask questions. Luz Santana, Dan Rothstein and Agnes Bain are the co-founders of the Right Question Institute, and have created this guide for educators to create a partnership with parents. 

Educators understand that not all parents feel comfortable in schools based on their past experience. Most parents want to encourage their children to do well in school, but don’t feel equipped to do so. The question formulation techniques developed by the authors are designed to invite the parents to learn how to ask about the concerns they have for their child’s educational experience. 

The authors want to empower parents as partners in their child’s education by teaching them how to focus on a “problem” area with the teacher and design a solution as a team. The ultimate purpose of the Right Question Strategy is for parents to be better equipped to support, monitor, and advocate for their child. 

There are several cases studies presented by the authors to demonstrate how to use the Question Formulation Technique with various size groups and for varied purposes. These are well-documented and can be used as guides for implementation in similar situations. The facilitation material included in an appendix would also be helpful for those interested in implementing this process.    

Partnering with Parents to Ask the Right Questions is an interesting approach to parents becoming more comfortable interacting with educators. Administrators could use this approach to inform community members of district initiatives or to introduce new parents to the school system. However, it needs to be used with some caution. The question development process could be viewed by some as a bit too basic and a way to put off answering questions, especially if used in conjunction with a highly charged situation. This book is certainly worth reading for ideas to further engage parents in the district. 

Reviewed by Edythe B. Austermuhl, superintendent, Berlin Township School District, West Berlin, N.J.

Safe Is Not Enough: Better Schools for LGBTQ Students
by Michael Sadowski,
Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2016, 218 pp. with index, $29 softcover

Michael Sadowski opens Safe Is Not Enough by exploring the fundamental question of why we have public education in the United States. He acknowledges that safety at school is a “basic prerequisite for schooling,” but then challenges the “all-too-prevalent attitudes and practices that suggest ‘safe’ schools are enough for LGBTQ students.”
In the foreword to this book, Kevin Jennings, an educator who helped form the first high school gay-straight alliance in 1988 and worked with the governor of Massachusetts to develop the first Safe Schools for Gay and Lesbian Students program in 1993, lamented that he couldn’t get past safety to more substantive curriculum when that program was put together. Twenty-four years later, Jennings sees Sadowski’s book “moving us beyond what is politically possible to what is educationally required for LGBTQ students to thrive.” Just being safe is not enough.

Sadowski, who teaches about youth development and education at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and is an editor for Harvard Education Press, understands that this book can’t just share stories of progressive communities under the leadership of LGBTQ adults. He also gives examples of religiously or politically conservative schools and communities with programs facilitated by straight adults that have made a positive impact.

The eight chapters of the book are designed to address what will be needed to create more schools that are “supportive, inclusive, and affirming of all LGBTQ students — all day and every day.” The first seven chapters address one aspect of the work that needs to be done and the final chapter, “Where do you start?,” guides schools to define their core values as a first step toward developing a comprehensive program.

An appendix provides samples of a syllabus and assignments for an LBGTQ literature class, policies on transgender students, strategic plans and suggested responses when concerns about LGBTQ inclusion are posed. Thorough footnotes will guide readers to resources mentioned in the chapters and a 10-page index helps readers find data and anecdotes to build support as a school or district moves forward. 

There is comfort in knowing that even if you find yourself in a situation where your school or district is not progressing as quickly as you would hope, Sadowski gives some reassurance with the reminder that, “One of the simplest and yet most powerful ways an educator can support a young person who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning is just by listening.”

Review by Bob Schultz, adjunct professor, Brandman University, Irvine, Calif.

Schooltalk: Rethinking What We Say About — and To — Students Every Day
by Mica Pollock, The New Press, New York, N.Y., 2017, 368 pp. with index, $24.95

Mica Pollock, director of CREATE at the University of California, reminds us, in a very realistic way, that the most basic thing we do all day in school is talk. Yet she goes a step further as she brings to the forefront of her book, Schooltalk, what anyone working with children needs to remember — we can derail children when the way we talk to them harms them. Through a variety of types of talk (group talk, inequity talk, smart talk, culture talk, data talk, life talk and opportunity talk), Pollock discusses the significance of equity as the collective development of children.

Ensuring that educators are familiar with the realities of a student’s culture and the experiences they bring to class rather than placing labels based on assumptions is fundamental to being able to reach students and meet their needs. Being culturally responsive is one way the author suggests teachers become more knowledgeable about the lives, needs and experiences of their students. Whether students come from poverty or wealth, are white, black, Hispanic or Asian should not be a factor in the expectations a teacher has for them.

Schools are where educators take on the responsibility of shaping today’s and tomorrow’s society. Through equitable school talk, responsive teachers learn about special circumstances their students may have and use this knowledge in their teaching methods. Pollock suggest that teachers “learn about and then build on students’ experiences in the communities” to engage their students, as well as knowing when labels help and harm to frame each student as one with potential, strengths and values. Reading Schooltalk reminds educators that, “every school is full of amazing young people with talents of all kinds,” and encourages them to use equitable talk to ensure all students enjoy the same baseline opportunities to learn.

Reviewed by Priscilla A. Boerger, department chair, Department of Education, Regis College, Weston, Mass.

Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms

by Timothy D. Walker, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, N.Y., 2017, 210 pp. with index, $25.95 hardcover

Education in Finland has gained international prominence over the past 15 years, based on student achievement on PISA scores. Studies have substantiated that success, and analyzed program and instruction has produced such a positive result.

In Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms, Timothy Walker gives us an inside picture of learning delivery in a Finland elementary school. He is a regular classroom teacher who has American classroom experience and is able to compare and contrast what is successful in each system.

Walker has written articles for The Atlantic, where he outlined significant aspects of the Finnish success. In this book, he brings focus to the overall factor of joy and happiness in the classroom that he sees as sponsored by the living style of Finland.

Throughout the chapters, Walker shares what he has learned and how he has adjusted on the job in Finland. Based on his teaching experience, he has determined what he feels are the strengths of this system and talks about how these can be applied in American schools. He does not provide just a checklist, but attempts to understand a program that gets positive results. He brings an American lens to Finnish learning, comparing strengths and advocating for what is good for kids in both systems.

The 33 strategies are interesting observations and worthy of consideration by any good teacher. 

Reviewed by Frank Kelly, executive director, Council of Ontario Directors of Education, Oakville, Ontario


A Digital Profile

A doctoral study by Eisa Megan Cox at Wingate University found differences among superintendents who are leading one-to-one digital transformations compared to other district leaders.

Her study described the characteristics, experiences and behaviors of superintendents nationwide involved in one-to-one initiatives compared to superintendents who have not implemented such programs and compared to superintendents who are members of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools.

Statistically significant differences emerged on most indicators on the CoSN Self-Assessment for Superintendents. Superintendent members of the Digital Promise League were more likely to exhibit these qualities: a visionary focus, openness to innovation and new ideas, interest in building capacity through training in pedagogy and learning and continuous collaboration.

Copies of “Profile of a Digital Superintendent” are accessible from ProQuest at 800-521-0600 or

Why I Wrote this Book ...

“In truth, our schools are not failing, but many schools do house students who have varying degrees of struggles and barriers. This book describes how two low-performing schools were able to turn around achievement and performance through focused, data-driven processes.”

Craig Lockhart, deputy superintendent, Newton County Schools, Covington, Ga., and AASA member since July, on writing School Genetics: A Blueprint for Saving Public Schools (Asta Publications, 2015)


Technology Trends

The New Media Consortium and Consortium for School Networking have released a new report identifying six key trends, six challenges and six important developments shaping the future of education.

Deeper learning approaches, coding as a literacy, teaching computational thinking, the rise of STEAM learning and sustaining innovation through leadership changes are among the topics.

Pipeline Expenses

A RAND report “What It Takes to Operate and Maintain Principal Pipelines: Costs and Other Resources” examines the expenditures of six large school districts, all participants in a Wallace Foundation initiative, as they built and operated principal pipelines.

Among the chief findings: The costs represented a very small slice of annual district spending.

Conference Proceedings

Those who attend AASA’s national conference in February in Nashville, Tenn., will have a daily summary of the event’s major events.

Conference Daily Online is an electronic newsletter produced on site that includes stories about major speakers, topical sessions and award winners. The newsletter also includes daily blog postings by AASA members, short videos and a conference-dedicated Twitter feed.