Reading & Resources

School Administrator, September 2017

Book Reviews
Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children
by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek,
American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C., 2016, 314 pp. with index, $19.95 softcover

While Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirse-Pasek repeatedly state they are not opposed to standardized tests nor traditional instructional practices in Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, they clearly have another educational model in mind. They view current education in this country as too narrow and not preparing students for the evolving world. While they recognize that content is important, they emphasize that too much attention is placed on content knowledge, especially in early childhood. Numerous examples are offered, with their most serious criticism directed at “educational toys,” which promote young children parroting facts without any true understanding of meaning.

They challenge readers: “What if we could create a world in which the educational system matched what we know about how children learn? What if school actually offered programs that matched the demands of the future world that our children will inhabit?”

Based upon their own learning laboratories, they have observed how infants, toddlers and preschoolers learn. They highlight a few schools and educational programs where they watched children learn through discovery, and have connected with scientists around the globe to form theories of learning. 

From these experiences, they have come to stress process over content. The result is a set of six interrelated Cs, which they cite as “the road maps toward success” and “a new report card for lifelong learning”: collaboration; communication; content; critical thinking; creative innovation and confidence.  For each of the Cs, there are four levels of development that children progress through in order. The bulk of the book describes each of these stages with examples. The goal is to have children advance from level one to four and across the Cs. A table captures this theory in compelling simplicity and logic, which makes it a useful rubric.

Like many ideas, implementation on a wide scale could be problematic as teachers and other caregivers would need extensive training. Overlaying this process design on traditional curriculum would have appeal to many educators.  Accountability is possible, as with any rubric-based subjective evaluation. The Reggio early childhood learning model demonstrates that at least for young children, the six Cs with their respective four levels is a manageable approach for teaching and learning. Expanding this methodology to all ages and learning in the home and general environment, as advocated by the authors, may foster happier, productive and confident adults.  To do so, “we must all reinvent an education that is worthy of our children.”

Reviewed by Art Stellar, vice president, National Education Foundation, Washington, D.C. 

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Revised and Expanded Edition) 
by Diane Ravitch, Basic Books, New York, N.Y., 2016, 354 pp. with index, $16.99 softcover

“But I was wrong to expect standards, testing, accountability, and school choice to improve education.” 

It takes courage to admit that you were wrong, particularly to write it down and publish it for everyone to see, but that is exactly what world-renowned educational historian Diane Ravitch does in the prologue of her revised and expanded edition of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

In the first edition of the book, Ravitch explained why she no longer believed that aspects of the education “reform” movement were the answers to improving education in America. In this edition, she clarifies that she no longer feels a national curriculum is needed and that standards and assessment will not lead to equal educational opportunity.  

The book reviews a history of the “reform” movement, providing insights into major aspects such as NCLB and Race for the Top. Included are case studies of strategies implemented in New York City and San Diego. This is followed by a critique of how mega-rich foundations such as Eli & Edythe Broad, the Walton Family and Bill & Melinda Gates have been exerting influence over our nation’s schools.   

Ravitch cites research studies to debunk many of the claims made by proponents about the current state of education and the promises of current “reforms.” For example, she points out that NAEP scores are generally higher than they have ever been, graduation rates are at an all-time high and dropout rates are at an all-time low. The panaceas of charter schools, vouchers, standardized testing, standards, accountability and value-added teacher evaluation are not resulting in better education and, in many cases, are proving to be harmful. She concludes that the current reforms do not address poverty and segregation, which research consistently shows are the most important factors hindering student success.

This book is an important work for us as educational leaders; however, it is even more critical that the general public be made aware of the fallacies that are being espoused in the name of reform.

Reviewed by Leonard H. Elovitz, retired superintendent and associate professor of educational leadership, Kean University, Union, N.J.

Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student
by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc., San Diego, Calif., 2016, 296 pp., $26.95 softcover

When two of my favorite bloggers, John Spencer, educational technology professor at George Fox University in Oregon, and A.J. Juliani, education and technology innovation specialist at Centennial School District in Pennsylvania, wrote a book together, I knew it would be a practical book that would make me laugh and stretch my thinking about innovation. Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student, delivers exactly what the title promises.
The authors take you through the LAUNCH cycle, an acronym for the design thinking process, with stories of their own successes, failures and the learning that resulted along the way. They provide a variety of tools and options to help every teacher bring out the makers in their students. There are sample lesson plans, ideas and FAQs, with much more available on their website.  

Spencer and Juliani clearly demonstrate an understanding of difficulties teachers may have taking risks — many of which come from district or school leadership and are outside of the teachers’ control. However, they provide entry points for overcoming obstacles and integrating standards, creativity, critical thinking and much more in ways that will help students learn.
This book is written for the classroom teacher; however, school and district administrators will find it valuable for when they dream about what learning could look like. Here, they are provided a way to bring amazing learning opportunities for children. The authors share “we can’t forget to remember what’s most important: giving students the opportunity to make an impact right now. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Not when they graduate. Right now.”

Reviewed by Nancy Wagner, superintendent, Beach Park School District 3, Beach Park, Ill.

Leading the Unleadable:  How to Manage Mavericks, Cynics, Divas, and Other Difficult People
by Alan Willett, AMACOM, New York, N.Y., 2017, 225 pp., $17.95 softcover
Alan Willett is a leadership development and organizational culture consultant who reminds us in Leading the Unleadable that leading an organization is a difficult job. He proposes that most organizational problems are rooted in people-related issues. A good leader needs to understand not only the company’s purpose, but the people who are working to realize the goal.  

Leading the Unleadable is almost like a self-help book. Willett begins by discussing the call to leadership and encouraging all leaders to strive for excellence in their role. Brief scenarios help the reader understand how to spot and deal with trouble, and then how to prevent it. While the examples used are not from the field of education, the general situations are easily transferrable.  

Willett reminds the reader that managing people, especially difficult people, is the best way to guide the organization toward fulfilling its goal. It is rare for organizations to run smoothly all the time and for everyone to get along every day. However, it is the responsibility of the leader to find the cause of the friction and develop a proper solution. One cannot ignore the situation; the problem will not go away without an intervention.  

Leading the Unleadable is an easy read for a school administrator and a good way to start examining the climate of the workplace. The reflection points at the end of each chapter can be used as tools for those who may not have a large professional network or mentor to think through a current issue and help to bring the reader closer to a possible solution. 

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

Mindfulness: How School Leaders Can Reduce Stress and Thrive on the Job
by Caryn M. Wells, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Md., 2016, 159 pp. with index, $35 softcover

In her new book, Mindfulness: How School Leaders Can Reduce Stress and Thrive on the Job, Caryn Wells provides a very simple and straightforward approach focused on how mindfulness can impact educational leaders.

Wells, who serves as associate professor at Oakland University, in Rochester, Mich., has 15 years of experience as a high school assistant principal and principal. 

I found it very helpful that this book was written from the perspective of a school leader for school leaders. It is organized into eight chapters and includes an appendix containing a variety of mindfulness resources and references. Throughout each chapter, there are multiple summaries and at the end of each chapter, a detailed review of the information.

Mindfulness and related topics such as stillness, letting go and acceptance do not seem to be areas that school leaders or leadership teams spend much time discussing. However, dealing with burnout, trust building and becoming a better listener are very common discussions. Wells effectively provides examples throughout the book illustrating the interconnectedness of these topics.
As school leaders continue to take on more duties and stress, the concepts reviewed in this book can be very helpful. The book could be utilized in a variety of ways. For example, some of the specific topics and activities could easily be pulled out for short discussions or the entire book could be used for a deeper look into mindfulness. 

Reviewed by Justin B. Henry, superintendent, Goddard Public Schools, Goddard, Kan.

Personalizing 21st Century Education: A Framework for Student Success
by Dan Domenech, Morton Sherman and John L. Brown,
Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, Calif., 2016, 130 pp. with index, $29.95 softcover

Dan Domenech, Morton Sherman, and John L. Brown ought to know something about schooling and learning, as these three educational leaders have served in significant leadership roles in several districts for many years. Given their professional histories, one might expect a narrative from them that seeks to protect traditional schooling and to preserve the status quo. Refreshingly, however, in their book, Personalizing 21st Century Education: A Framework for Student Success, the authors have found a way to challenge assumptions of traditional schooling practice with a focused discussion on personalized and individualized education.

One challenge that might seem obvious is that when we know how students learn effectively, we would do well to teach them accordingly. Imagine the assumption in this affirmation: Effective teaching reflects how students learn and not the reverse. This logic is followed throughout the book, offering the reader specific and intentional instructional practices that might be associated with a student-centered curriculum. I suppose it is so obvious that maybe the authors did us a favor, reminding us that student learning is always a priority.

Another important challenge offered by these authors is the notion that standardized tests rule supreme. They, like so many others, acknowledge that standards are critical and assessment of performance is also essential. However, they refreshingly remind us that depth of understanding, even if on a limited number of standards, is consistent with a personalized and relevant curriculum, and to high academic achievement. Currently, we do too many superficial assessments and not enough thoughtful ones. 

A central theme for these writers is learning that matters to students is likely to continue beyond the school day. In these habits of learning derived from a personalized system, we help to create students who become lifelong learners. In such a place “curriculum is organic and alive, constantly evolving and transforming…” 

I want our children to go to a school room where there is a focus on children, on meaningful learning and on high impact instruction. Clearly, so do Domenech, Sherman, and Brown. They offer a way to begin building such a place as we keep our focus on personalizing the school experience for children in the 21st century. From transitioning traditional views of teaching and learning to reconsidering assumptions for the role of parents, principals and other school personnel, the authors provide an effective and guiding map to crafting a school that matters for everyone.  

Reviewed by Zach Kelehear, dean, College of Education, Augusta University, Augusta, Ga.

Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
by Thomas L. Friedman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, N.Y., 2016, 486 pp. with index, $28 hardcover

You’ve undoubtedly heard some on your staff say, “We cannot handle another new curriculum, technology, or program; too much is changing too quickly.” Thomas L. Friedman’s book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, doesn’t solve this challenge, but provides valuable insight into why change is accelerating and how to cope with it. 

Friedman explains how the increased processing power of the microchip has significantly advanced the speed of computing. Technological developments have accelerated the implementation of scientific creations and increased the speed of access to communication, money, ideas and awareness. 

Perhaps Friedman’s best description of these merging events is explained by Eric “Astro” Teller, the CEO of Google’s X research-and-development lab. Teller uses a simple line graph to represent the exponential and increasingly rapid growth of scientific and technological progress over time. For example, the rate at which the telegraph was introduced was relatively slow compared to the rate at which today’s technology is assimilated into our practices.

Teller adds a second line that starts above the first line and is flatter, representing the more modest pace at which human beings and our governance and social institutions respond and adapt to scientific and technological changes. Teller claims that the scientific and technological line crossed over and above the human adaptation line sometime in 2007. Friedman notes it takes 10 to 15 years to adapt laws, regulations and protocols to safeguard society from such “progress.” Because technology becomes integrated into usage within five or seven years, people feel they are slow or behind. Friedman suggests that the accelerating nature of climate change, some of which is the result of human activity and the global marketplace, adds to the disorientation of many.

This phenomenon has a significant impact on education — how it is organized and when it occurs. The pace of innovation is not likely to slow down and the systems that prepared people for a much more static form of stability must now adapt to dynamic, rapid changes. 

Friedman provides valuable insight into various ways our world must adapt to this relentlessly faster pace of change driven by innovation. Chief among his recommendations is the demand for preparing young people for life-long learning. Schools and educators must simultaneously model this and prepare every child for living with it. He further advocates that embracing the benefits of diversity will allow people to more effectively cope with acceleration. Personal ownership of responsibility to embrace these factors, being entrepreneurial and decentralized in our structures are vital elements of thriving in a world of accelerations.

Friedman ends Thank You for Being Late using a detailed examination of the community he grew up in to demonstrate the need for sustaining healthy communities to successfully adapting to this brisk pace of change. Further, he says education is key because “… in this age of accelerations, everyone is going to have to raise their game in the classroom and for their whole lifetime.”

Superintendents, school boards and other educational leaders will gain valuable insight into the inter-connected nature of challenges facing our world. Friedman aptly notes that this challenge is “… probably the most important governance challenge across the globe.”

Reviewed by Brian L. Benzel, a retired superintendent and adjunct professor at Whitworth University, Spokane, Wash.

Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2016, 191 pp., $31 softcover

E. D. Hirsch Jr. is founder of the nonprofit Core Knowledge Foundation, an organization that continues to advise and help schools, with over one thousand Core Knowledge Schools in 47 states and abroad.

One doesn’t have to search very hard to find Hirsch proponents and opponents. In my career, I’ve had many opportunities to work with Core Knowledge Schools, homeschooling support programs based on his approach, as well as many other fine schools. I asked to review his latest book to discover for myself if this famous education researcher had softened his message or evolved in his thinking. Why Knowledge Matters is not an olive branch. Inside this well-written book, Hirsch is unapologetic and passionately advocates for a communal, knowledge-based curriculum. He labels all other approaches (careful readers will find there is a very long list) failed educational theories.

Hirsch devotes much attention to the data showing education in France declined after moving from a national curriculum to a system where the curriculum is locally adopted. He argues the U.S. education system is declining due to many of the same forces at play in France. He believes only a prescribed, knowledge-based curriculum can save American education and eliminate achievement gaps. 

For superintendents and prospective superintendents, this work is a rehash of Hirsch’s former ideas, wrapped up nicely and easy to follow. To be sure, Hirsch has included recent evidence and research so long as it supports his argument. Missing is any acknowledgement of the progress and success by the policies he labels “failed.” He states that “…it takes knowledge to gain knowledge.” I don’t believe educators will dispute this premise. What is missing from his book, is any understanding that today’s students benefit from acquiring knowledge AND skills, and that programs and schools using different theories are also successful. This book is the poorer for it.

Reviewed by Kenneth E. Hoover, retired superintendent and co-author of The Superintendent and the CFO: Building an Effective Team


Work-Life Balance

Work life significantly affected personal and family life for six superintendents who were studied in a 2016 doctoral dissertation for an Ed.D. at the University of Calgary.

Researcher Dennis G. Parsons used in-depth personal accounts to document how the complex and demanding work lives of superintendents, all of whom had at least five years in the role, made having family lives outside the job challenging. Regardless of location or size of school district, all described an all-consuming work life: rampant with political agendas, conflict, public scrutiny, unreasonable expectations and one where technology has left superintendents even more exposed to the whims of the disenfranchised.

The study also revealed that, while superintendents recognized student learning was the important work they needed to do, they were clearly hindered across all jurisdictions by troublesome and disruptive elements in their work role. The pervasiveness and extent of the personal toll taken on superintendents and their families by the work was revealed in clear and explicit detail through the individual narratives.

“The evidence is so compelling it calls into question the current system of elected school board governance and forces consideration of how the system can better support school superin-tendents,” Parsons concluded.

Copies of “The Impact of the Office of Superintendent of Schools on the Personal Lives of Superintendents” are available from ProQuest at 800-521-0600.

Why I Wrote this Book ...

“I saw the need to illuminate the mental and emotional fortitude that is absolutely necessary for today’s leaders. I sought to provide a candid and passionate blending of leadership theory and practice that will instill faith, hope and possibility in every current and aspiring school system leader. It is written with the reader in mind — short enough to be read cover to cover while provoking reflective thoughts and parallels.”

L. Oliver Robinson, superintendent, Shenendehowa Central Schools, Clifton Park, N.Y., and AASA member since 2002, on writing Naked in the Public Eye: Leading and Learning (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)


Privacy Toolkit

CoSN has released the “Protecting Privacy in Connected Learning Toolkit, Version 3,” which guides school districts in protecting student privacy.

Updates include expanded sections on FERPA and COPPA, privacy requirements of the National Student Lunch Act, definitions of privacy terms and new details on how key federal data privacy laws operate together.

Communication Newsletter

Superintendents can sign up for a subscription of NSPRA’s Communication Matters for Leading Superintendents newsletter, which is published six times a year.

Naming Schools

A new search tool from the National Center of Education Statistics helps guide districts through the selection process of naming a school.

The tool allows districts to find out how many schools throughout the United States and near their own zip codes have the same name.

Evidence Newsletter

Best Evidence in Brief, an e-newsletter produced by the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Center for Research and Reform in Education, carries a roundup of items on education research.

Tiered Intervention

Aimed at preventing students from falling behind in class, MDRC has released a research brief with practical tips to implementing a tiered Response to Intervention system.
Humanitarian Award Nominees

AASA seeks nominations for the 2018 Dr. Effie H. Jones Humanitarian Award, which honors leadership in educational equity and excellence. To qualify, AASA members must demonstrate a com-mitment to the advancement and mentorship of women and minorities into positions of educational leadership.

Nominations close Nov. 6. Visit the Awards and Scholarships section at for information or contact Stephanie St. John at

A Magazine Honor

School Administrator magazine has earned the Award of Merit for its March 2016 issue on rural school leadership in the National School Public Relations Association’s 2017 Publications and Elec-tronic Media contest in the magazine category.

The contest received 546 entries in the publication categories. The full list of winners appears at

AASA Policy Reports

“Cutting Medicaid: A Prescription to Hurt the Neediest Kids” details the results of a survey of nearly 1,000 school leaders about the educational and economic consequences of a proposed 30 percent cut in Medicaid reimbursements.

The full report by AASA, an executive summary and an infographic with the eight facts about children on Medicaid and the services they receive in schools are available at

AASA’s report “Public Loss, Private Gain: How School Voucher Tax Shelters Undermine Public Education,” co-sponsored by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, details how state and federal tax policy promotes the privatization of education funding, while simultaneously draining public coffers and profiting savvy taxpayers. Find the report at

Insured Children

AASA, in partnership with the Children’s Defense Fund, manages “Insure All Children,” an interactive toolkit for school-based child health outreach and enrollment.

Educators use the tool to enroll uninsured students in Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program as the new school year begins. Find it at