Reading & Resources

School Administrator, April 2018

Book Reviews
Assigning Blame
by Mark Hlavacik,
Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2016, 199 pages, softcover

Mark Hlavacik, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of North Texas, expands upon the theory that much education reform proceeds by blaming someone or something, e.g. bureaucrats protecting their own interests, failure to desegregate education and housing, etc.

Hlavacik tests his theory by analyzing the rhetoric of four visions that have competed for control of America’s public school system—Milton Friedman’s free market, A Nation at Risk, Jonathan Kozol’s desegregated America, and No Child Left Behind legislation—and indeed finds that these visions have often been promoted by identifying blame.

While this analysis of the rhetoric of education reform may be interesting to education historians, the typical superintendent is all too familiar with explanations, defenses, scapegoating, rationalizations, and excuses, and will gain little from analyzing blaming as it has been used to promote national educational reform.

Reviewed by Louis Wildman, professor of educational administration, California State University-Bakersfield

Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying
by Naomi Drew 
and Christa M. Tinari, Free Spirit Publishing, Minneapolis, Minn., 2017, 272 pp. with index, $39.99 softcover

Naomi Drew and Christa Tinari have provided an appropriate mix of brain science, research, innovation and practical application in their work entitled, Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School

Based on interviews with students and teachers, surveys and proven practical applications, Drew and Tinari offer 48 character-building lessons to foster respect and prevent bullying. Further, students are provided opportunities to transform learning into action through the multiple enrichment activities that are included near the end of each lesson outline.

Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School
 is an easy read and can be used as a roadmap for schools that are developing character-building curriculum to cultivate positive relationships with students and staff, leading to a culture of kindness and empathy. We know through research that a positive school climate is tied to high or improving attendance rates, test scores, promotion rates and graduation rates. As a result, it goes without saying that the opportunities to provide a climate of hope from the information included can be powerful for practitioners.  

Finally, and maybe most importantly, Drew and Tinari write around a growth mindset with the goal of creating positive change, not only in schools, but all the way down to the student and teacher levels. The message is clear that people can change and learn positive behaviors that lead to greater emotional health and that kindness is contagious. 

The book also embraces important topics such as diversity, conflict resolution, empathy, acceptance and students moving from bystander to upstander by challenging behavior that does not support a positive culture of civility. Drew and Tinari believe students can make a difference in their schools — something all of us should employ as educational leaders.

Reviewed by Mark Adler, superintendent, Ralston Public Schools, Ralston, Neb.

Dancing in the Rain: Leading with Compassion, Vitality, and Mindfulness in Education
by Jerome T. Murphy,
Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2016, 255 pp. with index, $31 softcover

Jerome T. Murphy, former dean of Harvard's graduate school of education, has first-hand experience dealing with the stress, burnout and anguish that can come with meeting the demands of faculty, staff and students in a higher education setting. "Honking and hissing like geese," goes Murphy's goose theory of leadership, "faculty and staff members will cruise into the boss's office, ruffle their feathers, poop on the rug, and leave," expecting a solution to whatever problem they brought in. The reaction of many leaders under these conditions is to obsessively ruminate, struggle with the discomfort and try to avoid it, and admonish themselves for not measuring up. And yet, the more they work to escape the discomfort, the more entangled they become.

Based on the quixotic notion characterized in the classic motion picture “Singin’ in the Rain” where Gene Kelly happily sings and dances his way through puddles in the pouring rain, Murphy's answer in Dancing in the Rain: Leading with Compassion, Vitality, and Mindfulness in Education, is learn to live with the emotional discomfort of leadership life and make it work for you. When it rains, rather than running for cover; learn to dance in it. 

His formula for doing this is summed up by the acronym MYDANCE: Mind your values; Yield to now; Disentangle from upsets; Allow unease; Nourish yourself; Cherish self-compassion; Express feelings wisely. Murphy uses his years of experience as a dean and couples it with his knowledge of Buddhism and meditation. His theory harvests transcendental practices to create a way to bring more mindfulness into leadership practice. Fully realizing this style allows one to express feelings wisely in order to build trusting relationships. Murphy believes mindfulness can be the antidote to the common leadership affliction of unintentionally getting in your own way.

Dancing in the Rain is fundamentally designed to address stress as a factor in leadership life. Readers can dig deep into the seven steps of Murphy’s dance with dozens of exercises aimed at developing both knowledge about these steps and the understanding required for putting the dance into action. Although this book is not written directly for school leaders, the message becomes clear through Murphy’s personal anecdotes, and insightful and artfully written stories. Identify your core values, act upon them and, at the same time, learn to take your anxieties along for the ride. After all, Dancing in the Rain implies getting out of your own way and being fully present no matter what circumstances you find yourself in.

Reviewed by Jeff Smith, superintendent, Balsz School District, Phoenix, Ariz.

A Fighting Chance: Supporting Young Children Experiencing Disruptive Change
by Jane Humphries
and Kari Rains, Redleaf Press, St. Paul, Minn., 2017; 184 pp., $29.95 softcover

Augusta University, like many, is located near a military base and, as such, our local school superintendents have many children who come into their schools having made multiple moves from one community or country to another during their school careers. This type of disruption, coupled with the anxieties of a deployed parent(s), can have significant impacts on children’s ability to learn.  

Likewise, there are environmental crises that can disrupt normal routines in life, home crises that might traumatize children or other changes that might impact children’s ability to cope and learn. I am not sure childhood has ever been particularly simple but it would seem that Jane Humphries and Kari Rains, authors of A Fighting Chance: Supporting Young Children Experiencing Disruptive Change, have rightly noted that these times seem uniquely challenging and require an intentional focus on supporting children so that they might, in fact, have a fighting chance.

The authors come to this discussion with powerful personal experiences and a grounded, realistic and authoritative narrative that focuses on taking care of what matters most — the children. I am pretty certain school and district leaders will recognize every scenario these authors bring forth for consideration. From fires in the west, floods in Texas and Florida and the East Coast hurricanes to mass shootings in Las Vegas, persistent wars against foreign armies and changing federal policy statements, it would seem all school leaders regularly encounter children living in uncertain times. What our school leaders will enjoy in this writing is the refreshingly authentic and clear guidance these authors bring to persistent challenges of growing up in the twenty-first century. There is hope in this book.

Across the chapters, Humphries and Rains introduce the reader to factors that often impact children’s ability to learn such as homelessness and incarcerated parents, the destruction of the family unit through separation, divorce or death, and the impact that natural disasters can have on families. In each of these case studies, the authors empathetically frame the discussion from the perspective of students.

The authors do not craft an image of doom, but rather one of positive possibilities. In other words, the authors offer us a way to give children “a fighting chance.” It is this persistently, maybe even relentlessly, positive approach to caring for the children that helps the reader move from seeing children as being victims of circumstances to being authors of their own stories, ultimately in control of their outcomes.

As important as the authors’ work around children is, there is also the powerful final chapter that school professionals would do well to consider. In caring for others, teachers and leaders often fail to care for themselves. In every school district, there is a need for faculty and staff “to care for themselves before, during, and after the change in the lives of the children in their care.”

The authors challenge us to remember that while we listen to the teachers and children in our schools, we should also listen to our families. While we encourage others to maintain perspective, we should press ourselves to do likewise. For Humphries and Rains, when we are healthy in our own practice, then we are more likely to be healthy with others. And in that type of caring environment, both the children and we will have a “Fighting Chance.”

Reviewed by Zach Kelehear, dean of education, Augusta University, Augusta, Ga.

Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair
by Bonnie Honig, Fordham University Press, New York, N.Y., 2017, 144 pp. with index, $19.95 softcover 

D. W. Winnicott (1896-1971) was an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst noted for his object-relations theory; Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a German-born American political theorist known for her theory on the permanence and durability of things. Their work formed the basis for three lectures by Bonnie Honig, the Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science at Brown University. These lectures are reproduced in Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair.

Understanding the arguments and points being made in each lecture is complicated by difficult-to-follow arguments and a wide-ranging relationship to topics as diverse as university governance, agriculture, protests of pipelines and the Occupy movement. Honig relies on a form of academic discourse not likely to be useful or beneficial for practicing school administrators to decipher. 

That said, Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair provides insight into the emergence of private schools in recent times and describes how neoliberal rationality may remove shared concepts from the public realm. Honig notes, for example, that “when public things are democratized, the response of the powerful is often to abandon them. White flight is not just from the urban to the suburban; it is from the public to the private thing.” This notion may aptly explain how the pressure to undermine the “public” in public education has emerged over time. Whether this understanding will help school leaders cope with and lead their public institutions is less clear.

These lectures, while linking important academic concepts, are more theoretical than practical. Prospective readers attracted to the title of the book will be wise to inspect a copy from their library before purchasing it.

Reviewed by Brian L. Benzel, adjunct professor, Whitworth University, Spokane, Wash.

Start. Right. Now.: Teach and Lead for Excellence
by Todd Whitaker, Jeffrey Zoul
and Jimmy Casas, Dave Burgess Consulting, San Diego, Calif., 2017, 233 pp., $26.95 softcover

The book Start. Right. Now., written by educators Todd Whitaker, Jeffrey Zoul and Jimmy Casas provides readers with practical tips of how teachers and leaders can make an immediate change in their craft with the idea that teachers are leaders and leaders are teachers.

Within each chapter, readers learn how to leverage what they know as leaders so they can show, go and grow others. At the end of each chapter, the authors provide QR codes that link to videos, articles and additional resources.

Woven within each chapter are also practical examples from real educators around the nation. For example, Ms. Marcie Faust, current director of innovative learning in Deerfield, Ill., Public Schools District 109, shares practical ways that leaders can “run the experiment” while acknowledging that change takes time.

The collective voices of Whitaker, Zoul and Casas suggest that although education can be challenging at times, it is mindset and the belief in celebrating “daily wins” that shapes what great leaders do differently.

Reviewed by Kristen Paul, principal, Barrington Middle School-Station Campus, Barrington, Ill.


Tweeting Politically

Superintendents use Twitter to discuss politics, to project a desirable political image and to protect themselves from potentially damaging political ramifications accompanying their discussions, according to a recent doctoral study by Todd Hurst at the University of Kentucky.

Hurst examined the superintendent’s role as a political strategist as it plays out on Twitter. His findings reflect the engagement between superintendents and their communities via social media.

The study analyzed the nature of superintendents’ communications on Twitter and interviewed a subset of participants using their own tweets as prompts.

Copies of “The Superintendent’s Feed: An Analysis of Superintendents’ Engagement in Political Discourse on Twitter” are accessible from ProQuest at 800-521-0600 or

Why I Wrote this Book ...

“This book, my second work of poetry, is about love and what it offers and takes away. It’s about the necessary conversations so love doesn’t fail, and if love fails what a heart feels. I wrote this book so people in love can share it with one another.”

William D. Sroufe, division superintendent, Patrick County Public Schools, Stuart, Va., on writing Starting a Conversation: Poems and Prose (self-published, 2017)


Early Childhood Education

Nearly 60 years’ worth of data support the idea that high-quality, early childhood education programs lead to increased graduation rates, while reducing special education placement and grade retention, according to a new report from the American Educational Research Association.

Teaching Technology

A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that teachers using off-the-shelf online lessons may increase student achievement.

The lessons allowed teachers more time to perform other tasks and provided improvements in lesson quality.

Teacher Feedback

A new report from the American Institutes for Research found that even small amounts of the right kind of feedback to teachers and principals can have an effect on student achievement in math.

Cardiac Response

Designed to help educate parents, educators and coaches about sudden cardiac arrest in youth, the Parent Heart Watch has created a cardiac emergency response plan toolkit.

The toolkit is easily customizable and includes guidelines for developing and training a response-ready team, practice drills, letters for parents and facility users, and evaluation materials.

Effective Superintendents

Coalitions and reputation are a crucial part of efficacy as a superintendent, according to a paper published by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

The authors recommend ways in which to build relationships within and outside of the school district, as well as establishing a professional reputation that can be used as a tool to maximize power.

Healthy Kids

A new initiative, Parents for Healthy Kids, supports parents nationwide to make healthy changes in their children’s schools.

The initiative offers a website, online community, grants, trainings and fact sheets to educate and empower parents in improving physical activity and nutrition in schools.

Graduate Papers

The annual Kenneth E. Clark Student Research Award recognizes outstanding unpublished papers by undergraduate and graduate students. Submissions may be empirically or conceptually based on some aspect of leadership or leadership development.

Entries are due on May 1. Details are available at Contact for assistance.

Tech Use

The National Bureau of Economic Research has released a paper looking at how technology can help or hinder how students learn.

The authors found computer-assisted learning was an effective strategy when equipped with personalization features, particularly in math.

Dual Language

Students randomly assigned to programs that provide instruction in two languages from kindergarten onward outperformed peers on state reading tests in a study presented by the RAND Corporation.

Legislative Conference

AASA and ASBO are co-hosting their annual Legislative Advocacy Conference in Washington, D.C., July 10-12.

Conference topics will include the fall elections, news media and education policy, appropriations, the higher education act and education technology.

New Toolkit

AASA has developed a package of turnkey materials to help superintendents communicate to key stakeholders. In addition, the kit contains a social media guide for educators to use and share with colleagues and community.

For more about the I Love Public Education campaign, visit