Reading & Resources

School Administrator, October 2019

Book Reviews
The Achievement Gap: A Poverty Crisis, Not an Education Crisis
by Michele Wages,
Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Md., 2018, 77 pp., $20 softcover

One in every seven children is born into poverty in the United States. That bleak statistic leads to a series of other disheartening likelihoods for these children, not the least of which is poor academic performance. In her book, The Achievement Gap: A Poverty Crisis, Not an Education Crisis, Michele Wages (who serves as an instructional coordinator and assistant professor) unveils a series of statistics about today’s youth that should make every American cringe. From housing to nutrition to gangs, Wages offers a realistic perspective on the societal factors that impact children and lead to an achievement gap that begins at birth.

The premise of Wages’ book is that blaming education alone for the achievement gap is overly simplistic. She states that “school improvement has to be complimented with policies that narrow these social class differences, or education in the United States will continue to diminish.” She does an excellent job of unpacking the root causes of the achievement gap through the lens of poverty as well as race. For example, she outlines how a policy in the post-World War II era that prohibited federal housing loans to African Americans in white neighborhoods led to concentrations of African Americans in urban areas. This thorough examination of contributing factors to the achievement gap is compelling, yet her book does little to offer any genuine solutions.

A chapter devoted to government policy related to poverty outlines current practices, but offers no research or evidence of effectiveness regarding these policies. The chapter entitled “What Needs to Be Done?” focuses entirely on educational strategies that are well known to most educators working with students from impoverished backgrounds. It was disappointing that, after clearly identifying the many factors related to the achievement gap, Wages returned to solutions focused entirely on education. The complexity of eliminating the achievement gap will indeed require solid educational solutions coupled with social policy that breaks the vicious cycle of poverty. This book does an excellent job of defining the problem without offering any new perspective on potential solutions. 

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

Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great
by Carmine Gallo,
St. Martin’s Press, New York, N.Y., 2018, 244 pp. with index, $27.99 hardcover

I see three compelling reasons for superintendents and other educational leaders to read Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great. One, the book is packed with strategies for mastering the art of persuasion and becoming a more effective communicator. Two, it makes a strong case that people today, especially young people, must develop the best possible communication skills for succeeding in the highly competitive, globally connected workplace. Three, the future of public education in the U.S. depends on our individual and collective ability to advocate for it and convince the public to support it.

The book’s bestselling author, Carmine Gallo, also wrote Talk Like TED and The Storyteller’s Secret. He advises the corporate leaders of some of the world’s leading brands including Google, Intel, LinkedIn, Allstate and Coca-Cola. He also writes for and, is a popular keynote speaker and teaches executive education at Harvard University. 

Gallo challenges the outdated and misguided notion that communication is a “soft skill,” which implies lesser importance than, say, performing mathematical calculations or conducting a scientific experiment. Rather, the power of making emotional connections through persuasive communication is the “winning ticket” as the world rapidly shifts to automation, big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Gallo cites example after example of people who have advanced to the five-star level in their profession, industry or avocation because they were five-star communicators—they learned how to inspire and motivate others to act.

The implications for America’s public education system—its leaders, teachers and students—are broad and deep. Think of the superintendent who mobilizes diverse groups of stakeholders to come together as partners and pursue a hopeful vision for community schools. Think of the teacher who engages and empowers learners by having them create impactful signature stories. Think of the student who presents her latest coding project at a demonstration of learning and captivates the audience with a pictorial essay that contains no PowerPoint bullets.

The lead paragraph of my book review applies one of Gallo’s communication secrets. It’s the classic rule of three, which dates back to Aristotle and his contemporary Greek orators. Neuroscience now shows what they knew by intuition—that the average person can hold three or four ideas in short-term memory. If you want to know all of the communication secrets, you should read Five Stars.

Reviewed by Tom Hagley Jr., chief of staff, Vancouver Public Schools, Vancouver, Wash.

Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust
by Edgar H. Schein
and Peter Schein, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Oakland, Calif., 2018, 160 pp. with index, $19.95 softcover

The authors of Humble Leadership, a father-son team, identify the “humbleness” of leadership and state that it is impossible for one person to have all the answers to the complexities of the day. The core assumption of their leadership model places relationship- and trust-building as the crucial element of effective leadership. 

The Scheins build a leadership paradigm that emphasizes trust, collaboration and teamwork. Additionally, they delve deeply into a concept they refer to as “personization,” where a leader’s goal is to work with the whole person, not just the employee. Multiple examples of this approach are weaved throughout the book, from the military to start-up tech companies. 

Especially insightful were the examples of leadership skills in the future—how to lead without a physical presence and person-to-person contact. While written for the business world, the books’ viewpoints are applicable to K-12 education. The last chapter describes the steps to implement this process in the workplace. This is an excellent book to read with your colleagues.

Reviewed by Rob Clark, interim superintendent, Sequim School District, Sequim, Wash.

Improving Education in a World of Politics: Recommendations and Strategies for Effective Political Participation
by M. Scott Norton,
Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Md., 2018, 144 pp., $25 softcover 

The interconnection between education laws, policies and practices, and political events is significant and becoming ever-more complicated. In Improving Education in a World of Politics, M. Scott Norton, a former superintendent and current professor emeritus from Arizona State University, explores the important community and governmental relationships that school leaders must cultivate to help shape the legal framework and subsequent policy actions that govern those of the school systems. These factors help school leaders identify the nonpartisan political nature of their community and its school-related views.

Norton identifies the importance of school leaders taking a proactive, savvy approach to understanding their community and knowing about how decision-makers operate. He provides an overview of power base identification and how to analyze such structures. 

Some of Norton’s opinions are not validated by the referenced evidence and some of the suggested actions may hinder the capacity of school leaders to effectively engage the formal and informal political world. For example, he suggests that schools are closed systems due to overly restrictive internal communication protocols without noting that these protocols are wisely used to provide message consistency and assure factual presentations to the public. His view that principals and teachers need to freely communicate with the public creates unnecessary chaos. A better alternative is to incorporate staff views into a coordinated, disciplined district communication protocol.

Improving Education in a World of Politics rightly affirms that school administrator preparation programs must include coursework and subsequent attention to why, when and how school leaders engage the political processes at the local, state and federal levels. This work, however, must be read with caution as some of the strategies it contains may not work to the benefit of schools and their leaders.

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


Is My School a Better School BECAUSE I Lead It?
by Baruti K. Kafele,
ASCD, Alexandria, Va., 2018, 70 pp., $15.95 softcover

In his book, Is My School a Better School BECAUSE I Lead It?, Baruti K. Kafele explores the art of self-reflection in a way that will enhance your leadership ability. Kafele, has been a highly regarded educator in New Jersey for more than 20 years, a distinguished master teacher. He is one of the most sought-after educational speaker and is the author of eight books including four best sellers. 

This very short book provides 35 thought-provoking questions that all great leaders address at some point in their careers. It is for principals or assistant principals, but is easily applied to every leadership position inside and outside of education. While most leadership classes and books emphasize the need to reflect, few offer a process and underlying philosophy to guide busy leaders. This book takes you along a journey of introspection that will enhance your leadership skills by providing a process and questions for your insightful self-reflection regimen.

Kafele describes himself as a “discomfort speaker” instead of a “motivational” one because this type of self-reflection and introspection does make one uncomfortable if one answers the questions honestly. The students in my leadership classes hear often the old saw about “knowing thyself” before you can be an effective leader. Kafele points out you must not only understand yourself from many different perspectives, but you must “be you” and not try to emulate someone else. 

This book will enlighten you and provide you with self-confidence and a strong sense of mission that will always keep you a step ahead in the leadership game.

Reviewed by Jim D. Hattabaugh, educational consultant, Fort Smith, Ark.

Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Our Children Thrive
by Pasi Sahlberg
and ​William Doyle, Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y., 2019, 442 pp. with index, $24.95 hardcover

Let the Children Play is written by Finnish educator and education policy professor at the Gonski Institute for Education, Pasi Sahlberg, and New York Times bestselling author and TV producer William Doyle. It brings to life that the success of all children is based on their ability to be creative and assists the reader to understand why “play” is essential to how children learn. We are living in a time where the education space is fixated on testing, ranking, standardizing and sorting children. The authors offer a different vision for transforming education which benefit children in a multitude of ways.

Sahlberg and Doyle clearly articulate the reality around the world and that, throughout time, play has always been a universal feature of childhood. The authors believe play is on the endangered species list and is soon to be extinct if parents, teachers, citizens and policymakers don’t fight for a child’s right to play.

The book takes us on the journey of two fathers (Sahlberg and Doyle) who traveled thousands of miles globally seeking answers from the likes of Gloria Ladson-Billings, Diane Ravitch, John Merrow and scores of other renowned educators. Sahlberg and Doyle logged thousands of hours on actual playgrounds seeking an answer to a simple question, “What would happen if we build our schools of today and tomorrow on a foundation of play?”

The authors do an excellent job of showcasing Finland-style and global play experiments, and highlighting hundreds of research studies that support the power of play. This includes the authors’ recommendations for what play in the schools of tomorrow should include. Most importantly, Let the Children Play provides the reader with real examples of how a parent, educator or “change-maker” can fight for a child’s right to play.

In short, the book convincingly shows the reader that all children deserve to grow physically, emotionally, academically and socially—the benefits of real play nurture the soul as well as the development of the whole child. What’s more important than that?

Reviewed by Michael J. Hynes, superintendent, Port Washington Union Free School District, Port Washington, N.Y.

The Make-or-Break Year: Solving the Dropout Crisis One Ninth Grader at a Time
by Emily Krone Phillips,
The New Press, New York, N.Y., 2019, 337 pp., $27.99 hardcover

My first teaching assignment, some 40 years ago, was at a junior high school structured to house just ninth graders. The central office administration believed that by isolating this grade level in one building, the high school graduation rate would increase. In The Make-or-Break Year, Emily Krone Phillips outlines the approach taken in Chicago Public Schools to achieve this same goal.

Through research, educators in Chicago developed Freshmen on Track (FOT). Not a canned program that can be purchased, but rather a shift in perspective, FOT encouraged a change in mindset for teachers to prevent student failure by looking at data and then providing support through targeted structures. The focus was not so much on academic skills as it was on academic behaviors, such as completing assignments, regular classroom attendance and persisting at tasks.

Teachers were asked to concentrate on classroom grades rather than standardized test scores. Furthermore, grades earned by students should reflect what it is they need to know. FOT is about pinpointing a freshman's social development and academic needs in order to be successful through high school. Over time, this approach yielded positive results, significantly increasing graduation rates at participating high schools.

The author was objective in reporting the challenges of implementing FOT, citing faculty resistance and funding limitations as well as leadership turnover. In spite of these hurdles, FOT is certainly promising to any school building or district leader faced with similar challenges. The Make-or-Break Year is an insightful study of an issue that has plagued American education for the last half century and would be a welcome addition to any school administrator's book shelf.

Reviewed by Marc Space, retired superintendent, Grants, N.M. 

Outside Money in School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics
by Jeffrey R. Henig, Rebecca Jacobsen
and Sarah Reckhow, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2019, 231 pp. with index, $33 softcover

In the last seven or eight years, education writers have discovered the increasing flow of money going into local school board elections with large contributions coming from the “outside.” Defining what is outside money is tricky, however. In this volume, if the financial contributor resides outside the community where the election is being held, that is outside money. Millions and millions of dollars are now being spent in some high-profile, mostly urban school board elections.

The money itself is not new, as school board campaigns have long consumed funds. The donations were traditionally from candidates, unions or residents wanting to advocate for a friend or a single educational issue. An emerging trend is that more individuals or organizations are putting up large sums for candidates running on a nationalized change platform. The media often portrays these campaigns as “educational reformers” versus unions, which makes the conflict clear. The rhetoric compares to the typical political fare with the educational differences obscured.

The authors, university professors specializing in school policy and politics, have managed to get a handle on this phenomenon by studying five school districts in depth. These communities are Bridgeport, Conn.; Denver, Colo.; Indianapolis, Ind.; Los Angeles, Calif.; and New Orleans, La. Forty-three other school board elections covered by media accounts were analyzed by these three professors. In addition, they have followed key financial and philosophical contributors and their networks. Obviously, these are not drawn from a random sampling of all the 14,000 districts in the United States. The populations of the selected districts – and the districts experiencing the major influxes of outside funds in school politics – are overwhelmingly poor, minority and Democratic voters.

While there are minor indications that the authors favor traditional public schools and unions, they present an evenhanded approach in this debate. Readers will have to make up their own minds about these issues. Those who live in places where school board elections are becoming increasingly contentious might want to read this book to better understand what may be happening in their local school board election.

Reviewed by Art Stellar, vice president, National Education Foundation, Hingham, Mass.


Superintendent Trustworthiness
An interpretive doctoral study of elementary school principals’ experiences and perceptions examined how they make sense of superintendent trustworthiness.

Justin V. Benna at the University of New Hampshire discovered four broad, interrelated and frequently paradoxical themes capture superintendent characteristics relating to trustworthiness. These themes identified ways in which the principals perceived (1) the nature and strength of a superintendent’s support; (2) the extent to and ways in which a superintendent engenders a sense of principal autonomy in school-level leadership; (3) a superintendent’s presence in the work of the principal and her/his school; and (4) a superintendent’s openness.

The study concluded a principal’s perception of superintendent trustworthiness was found to be complementary to but not required for a principal’s own sense of efficacy as a school leader.

Copies of “Superintendent Trustworthiness: An Interpretive Qualitative Study of New Hampshire Public Elementary School Principals’ Experiences and Perceptions” are available or 800-521-0600.


High School Graduation
The American Youth Policy Forum has released a new report and four practice briefs that highlight successful schools and programs in Kentucky that promote high school graduation.

Condition of Education
The National Center for Education Statistics released its latest annual report on important developments and trends in education, including a finding that public schools spent $12,330 per student in 2015-16, the most recent year studied.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education has released a research brief on the homeschool movement and found that homeschoolers are becoming more demographically diverse.

Learning Barriers
A new report from UCLA analyzed what states are doing to improve how schools address barriers to learning and teaching and re-engage disconnected students. It offers suggestions for how legislators can address these problems.

Aspiring Superintendents
AASA’s Aspiring Superintendent Academy® Blended Learning Model is accepting applications through Jan. 10, 2020 for a second cohort. The program features experiential learning about the superintendency.

A kickoff meeting will be held next Feb. 13-14 at AASA’s National Conference on Education in San Diego.

Systemwide Innovation
The Innovative and Transformational Leadership Network, run by AASA and the Successful Practices Network, has created a new cohort that is accepting district applicants through February.

The program supports district leadership teams in building capacity for innovation in their school systems. This network is open to AASA members and nonmembers.