Books That Made a Difference

The School Administrator asked several current and former superintendents who were known to be prolific readers to identify a book that has had a powerful impact on their thinking as it applies to running a school system or educating children.


The assignment allowed them to select any book they had encountered during their lifetimes so long as the ideas still had a resonating effect.

As readers will note, some reached back to their formative years for a title while a few had difficulty narrowing down their choices.

(Information on how to order the works they picked.)


Waiting for a Miracle by James P. Comer

Few books that I have read sum up the lessons of both a life and a career as successfully as does James Comer’s Waiting for a Miracle (Dutton, 1997). At the end of his book, Comer summarizes these lessons by saying, "Schools can’t solve our problems, but we can." His lessons resonate with my own experience and my work as a teacher, principal and district administrator.

Comer, a child psychiatrist and member of the Yale medical school faculty for 30 years, begins the book by describing his own upbringing in a caring family with high expectations for their children and tough but fair discipline to reinforce those expectations. He goes on to tell how his childhood development served him as he moved through his schooling and into his professional career.

Generalizing from his life story, Comer describes three interrelated networks, all of which must function well for the individual to realize his or her potential. The first is the network of family and friends, churches and clubs that nurture a child from the dependency of infancy through the increasing independence and responsibility of adolescence and early adulthood. The second is the network of school and workplace. The third network, he says, is made up of "policies and practices established by business, political and other leaders."

Much of Comer’s career has been devoted to connecting the first and second networks. His School Development Program, now being implemented in 650 schools across the country, has been particularly successful in building a partnership between parents, administrators and teachers that is devoted to creating the conditions under which children can learn and grow successfully.

When he turns his attention to the second and third networks--schools, the workplace and the policy environment in which they operate--Comer reminds us of two pervasive myths that continue to undermine confidence in the idea that all children can be successful learners.

One of them is the myth that white people are successful and people of color are not. The other is that success is exclusively the result of genetically determined intelligence and will.

The first of these myths is relatively easy to dispel, as Comer does when he cites the successful careers of African-American leaders in many fields. The second is more difficult to attack because it is so fundamental to our culture of individualism. That culture leads us to believe that individuals succeed because they are bright and driven. It also leads us to believe the inverse of that idea: If individuals fail, it is because they lack intelligence and drive. In doing so, it utterly ignores the role that opportunity or its absence plays in individual success or failure.

Comer argues that we must begin to engage in what he calls "human capital development" to ensure that opportunities are available where they are needed. Human capital must indeed be developed in the home, the community, the workplace and the civic realm. It is critically important that it also be developed in our schools.

For individuals to realize their potential, they must be given the opportunity to learn well. That opportunity will only be available when there are high and rising expectations for academic achievement in place for everyone involved in schooling--for students, of course, but also for parents, teachers, administrators, board members, government officials, policy makers and legislators at every level.

As Comer so wisely points out, it’s not a miracle that will solve our problems. Rather, it’s high expectations and hard work.

Ramón Cortines is interim director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Box 1985, Providence, R.I. 02912. He is former chancellor of New York City Public Schools and superintendent in San Francisco, Calif.


Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

I love books because they lure me to think beyond my current borders. Of all I’ve read, the most provocative--the one that opened me to the perilous world of unimagined possibility--was Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Herder and Herder, 1972).

In 1972 I was a traditionally trained physics teacher doing postdoctoral work at the University of Maryland so I could gain an administrative credential in education. I was a teacher balking at the constraints of bureaucracy, an unfocused reformer trying to do what I thought was right for kids and learning.

I came across Pedagogy of the Oppressed and read it straight through. Freire knew my world and my problem: How could I move people to become self-motivating learners? He told me I couldn’t move them; I could only help them learn to move themselves.

Freire’s thoughts were seditious. They didn’t transform me overnight, but they planted seeds of a new way of thinking. I discovered that the learner and his or her mindset is more fundamental than the curriculum, not more important, just more fundamental. I learned that one’s stance in the world determines what can be learned, that learning depends on environment and emotion as well as on presentation, text and materials.

I was and still am a "hard knowledge" kind of guy, but I began to understand the subtleties required to lead the horse, not just to water, but to drink.

In a succession of jobs leading to the superintendency, I have tried--provoked over and over by Freire--to extend and apply his insight. I have learned from W. Edwards Deming, Peter Senge, Renate and Geoffrey Caine, Pat Dolan and so many others, but always within the fundamental context of Freire, always asking myself how my actions and decisions advanced the empowerment of people, whatever their title.

This is scary stuff, most of all for me, for I never can tell where this orientation to learning and to leadership will take me. It lessens certainty, to which we pretend. It undermines control, to which we aspire. People (and organizations) awakened to their own powers are an unpredictable lot. They don’t always take you where you thought you wanted to go. They come to think for themselves, and then all you can do is hope you helped them discover the vision, principles and habits that all seekers need for a compass.

Freire pointed my way; T.S. Eliot helps me understand from where I’ve come. In his Four Quartets, my latest mentor says something from the vantage of the end of his life that I find illuminating:

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose,
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured,
And is altered in fulfillment.

There are days when I wonder whether a more direct "Charge! Follow me!" approach would have wrought more good, more progress and helped more kids and educators. After all, what’s a leader for, if not to lead?

When I had the opportunity to stand in the presence of Paulo Freire shortly before he died--not to meet him but to be in his presence--I considered how he had led me by opening me to a new understanding. As people respectfully flocked around him, I thought I saw what purpose had "broken" from the fulfillment of his life, one larger and bolder than he ever could have imagined. Not a bad man to learn from and imitate, I concluded, as I returned to the work--the hardest I’ve ever attempted.

Tom McGarry is superintendent of the Longmeadow School District, 127 Grassy Cutter Road, Longmeadow, Mass. 01106. E-mail: mcgarry@meol.mass.edu


Experience and Education by John Dewey

"In education, product substitution has replaced the need for personal renaissance."
-- John R. Champlin, former superintendent

It was Henry Ford who almost snuffed out my desire to read. Growing up in Detroit in the late 1950s, my parents believed that working with your hands was a virtue and meddling with the stuff in books was only excellent preparation for unemployment.

The literature of my youth spanned the broad spectrum of intellectualism from Reader’s Digest to Mad Magazine. I learned to read in graduate school because, for the first time, I encountered some ideas that challenged my thinking. I learned to actually think about what I read in my mid-30s.

However, any serious understanding of the implications and social responsibility of acquiring knowledge emerged just 10 years ago when my interest in reading and thinking about what was really going on in schools grew exponentially. I still keep a small book in my personal professional library that in the early ‘80s caused me to begin a personal journey of renewal.

The book is John Dewey’s 90-page classic, Experience and Education, written in 1938. I rejected some of what Dewey proposed in this book, but his words stirred something inside me that remains to this day and grows more intense each year as I confront the challenges of leadership. That something is the propensity to ask the question, "What would public schools look like if they actually worked well for everyone involved in the enterprise," and the desire to actually find an answer.

It was Dewey who said, "To discover what is really simple and to act upon the discovery is an exceedingly difficult task." My own experiences in education and the phrase "some assembly required" have taught me Dewey’s lesson, but it is the theoretical constructs of more current thinkers that have taken me beyond a significant emotional experience with an educational icon to a commitment to personal renaissance.

My journey of renewal has not been accomplished through the high-tech world of cyberspace, but through the old-fashioned medium of books. It was William Glasser’s book, Control Theory in the Classroom, and Thomas Guskey’s work, Implementing Mastery Learning, that provided a more current philosophical perspective for me to think about the nature of public education and, of course, magnified my need to ask even more questions about current practices in our schools and classrooms.

Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and Stephen Covey’s Principle-Centered Leadership helped me understand my responsibility to exercise the moral imperative of leadership in my daily work and gave me the courage to openly and systematically search for the answers to the questions inside me.

These books have been the collective catalyst for additional reading and training in the areas of systems thinking, collaborative leadership, learning theory and change. The additional reading and training inspired me to develop a quality systems model and personal philosophical perspective that I have used for the past eight years.

This personal mental model has changed the way I think about schools, make decisions, solve problems and approach my leadership role. It also has interrupted the business as usual thinking in the school systems and office environments in which I have worked.

From John Dewey I learned the importance of establishing a mental model of how schools should work. Glasser’s writings taught me the importance of relationships within the organization. Guskey unlocked some of the tricks and secrets of effective instructional design, delivery and student achievement. Covey and Senge identified what it takes to provide leadership for quality.

The leader of any organization needs to be thoughtful and reflective about what he or she believes. The country song lyric, "You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything," is a simple reminder of the need for leaders in our public schools to establish and intentionally practice a research-based philosophical perspective.

And if you’re not into philosophy or country music, let me put it to you this way: I double dog dare you to read these books and not change the way you do business in your school district!

Tom Hicks is superintendent of the Carman-Ainsworth Community Schools, G-3475 W. Court St., Flint, Mich. 48532. E-mail: thicks@carman.k12.mi.us


The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery

Reading is a little like breathing to me. I read constantly. Thus, when asked to pick just one book that’s had a major impact on my professional life, I expected it to be a daunting task.

I was surprised when The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (Harcourt Brace, 1991) quickly came to mind. It is, I grant you, an unlikely choice for a school superintendent of six years.

I first encountered The Little Prince as Le Petit Prince in French class during my freshman year at the University of Michigan. I was immersed in the life of the little prince as he shared his travels and explorations with his pilot friend. Like the protagonist, I, too, was on a great adventure, having left behind all that was familiar to me in the east Texas town where I had grown up.

My great fascination with the little prince was intensified no doubt by my feelings of alienation as I struggled to understand and to be understood on a large Midwestern (Yankee, to my parents) university campus. My strong Southern accent served to make every spoken encounter something of a challenge. So much was this the case that after my first presentation in a speech class, the professor complained he had not understood a word I had said. Conversing and reading in French with an accent strengthened my identification with the little prince and his longing for what was familiar to him.

Also, like the little prince and his pilot friend, I was attempting to distinguish between "matters of consequence" and those of "no consequence." I came to agree that matters of consequence were those of true, lasting value and authenticity. They were worth our caring, deserving of our acceptance of responsibility.

When I graduated with a degree in history, it was imperative to me that I do something that was a matter of consequence. I studied an additional year for a teaching certificate because children, teaching and learning seemed to me to be matters of consequence. As an administrator and a school superintendent, I imagine in these roles the possibilities to guarantee that matters of consequence are addressed.

Moreover, I discovered a guide for relating to others in the little prince's recognition that what is essential is invisible to the eye. Occasionally, I am tempted to act expeditiously--to just get the job done! However, whenever I am tempted to slip into my most administrative, bureaucratic mode, my eye catches the inscription, "What is essential is invisible to the eye" on the paperweight sitting on my desk. In relating to students, board members, staff, parents and community, I know at the core that I first must listen and learn because, as my favorite character puts it, "one sees not with the eyes, but with the heart."

Pi Irwin is superintendent of the Glen Ellyn School District No. 41, 793 N. Main St., Glen Ellyn, Ill. 60137. E-mail: irwinpi@aol.com


Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald A. Heifetz

Ronald Heifetz not only turned on the lights, he also turned up the heat on me and nine superintendent colleagues at a Danforth Foundation Forum at Harvard a few years ago as we sat before him to review case studies on the work of leadership.

The cases were prepared by the 10 district leaders for intense examination under the critical eye of Heifetz, author of Leadership Without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press, 1994) and a more recent Harvard Business Review article ("The Work of Leadership," January-February 1997). The cases just as easily could have been drawn from my own leadership experiences as superintendent in Madison, Wis., since 1992.

Madison has become an increasingly urban, capital city district with a tradition of high achievement staring down the barrel of exponentially increasing poverty among its children, aging facilities and newly imposed caps on state revenue.

In Heifetz’s work I have encountered a leadership model that does not require the leader alone to "divine where the company was going," to have the one right fix and resolution for every crisis du jour. I have found a model for leading that addresses the need to build the capacity for learning among me, our school board, our children, our parents, our staff and our community.

At last, in Heifetz's work I have a model for leading that includes reflective learning ("to identify the patterns, the context for change or create one"). This is a leadership approach where, as he puts it, "the solutions to adaptive challenge reside not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence of employees at all levels."

Finally, I have in my hands a change model that recognizes the need for heat as well as light; a model that defines my role as "regulating the distress of adaptive work ... letting the organization feel external pressures with a range it can stand"; a model that addresses "work avoidance" with strategies for honoring differences and engaging in dialogue while keeping very "disciplined attention" on the tough questions; and a model for building everyone's learning and leadership capacity.

To achieve success, Heifetz says, a leader must "give the work back to the people ... whose values, beliefs and behaviors" must realize the loss brought by the change as well as the satisfaction of realizing both personal and organizational growth.

Adaptive leadership, he says, binds the people together by powerfully articulating their values, hopes and pains; weaving these hopes into some image of the future; and providing the energy, strategy and faith so that the visions can be realized.

Cheryl Wilhoyte, former superintendent in Madison, Wis., is the executive vice president for operating schools of The Edison Project, 521 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10175. E-mail: Cheryl_Wilhoyte@edisonproject.com


Flight of the Buffalo by James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer

Over the years, I have had many encounters with books that had an impact on my professional thinking. Book titles from my graduate student days in the late 1960s and early 1970s that instantaneously pop into my recall file include several whose impressions are profound and lasting: Summerhill by Alexander S. Neill, Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman, Crisis in the Classroom by Charles E. Silberman and Free Schools, by Jonathan Kozol.

These fascinating works formed the foundation of my educational inquiries. Their focus on schooling inequities and the urgent need for radical change was a common theme, with which I continue to identify. My fascination with the change process was vividly established by a book called Dynamics of Change. (The author’s name remains lodged in my dormant memory cells.)

Books that have captivated my long-term attention address a common theme of change, and decades later I am continually drawn to books that challenge my thinking about the status of the American public school system through conceptual models that extend beyond educational institutions. Margaret Wheatly’s books on chaos theory provided the most recent mind-stretching journey to understanding the significance of cognitive dis-equilibrium.

Ultimately, the fundamental questions remain the same: So what? What have I learned and what do I do with what I have learned? How is knowledge and insight gained and applied? Is there an impact on my role as a leader, a teacher, a parent and an administrator? My own response surfaces the common notion of responsibility and how attributions for success and failure are ascribed. Who is assuming responsibility for attributes we profess we want for our children to be successful in the 21st century if adults around them do not have it? What does it mean to say we want responsible citizens for the next millennium if we do not model the same?

Several months ago I received a copy of James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer’s book, Flight of the Buffalo (Warner Books, 1994). I was immediately drawn to the storytelling format and self-reflections on leadership experiences. It reawakened in me the critical understanding that efforts to change systems and organizations must start with one’s self.

Often, leadership role expectations lead to simplistic identification of problems to be fixed in others. My experiences in public education are representative of the consistent and considerable efforts to change and fix teachers, administrators, parents and students. (There are also attempts to fix school board members!)

The metaphor of buffaloes describes the head buffalo, like the autocratic leader, as the commander and controller of decision making who is responsible for ultimate successes and failures. This traditional model generates a pattern of waiting-to-be-told-what-to-do behavior and no ownership of decision outcomes with the followers. These individuals readily succumb to victimization, much like buffalo herds that were easy targets for the early settlers when they stood around and waited for their leaders who already were slaughtered.

The moral of Flight of the Buffalo is the need to change leadership roles from "the boss" to team leadership and to shift responsibility to those who are doing the work to create an environment for continuous learning capacity, individual ownership and accountability.

In my quest to become an effective leader, Belasco and Stayer remind me that I must look for barriers from within. I must accept responsibility to fix myself first, an ongoing learning process. Yet the recognition that my leadership role does not have to be all knowing and brilliant is a frightening realization to conquer.

Libby Gil is superintendent of the Chula Vista Elementary School District, 84 E. J St., Chula Vista, Calif. 91910-6199. E-mail: lgil@cvesd.k12.ca.us


Miscellaneous titles

Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon and Schuster, 1989) has been must reading for all administrators and supervisors in my school district. I also have given copies to my children and some of their friends.

Covey's second habit, "Begin with the end in mind," is crucial at a time when public education is criticized for not focusing on end results. His seventh habit, "Sharpen the saw," stresses that undergirding any leader must be physical, social/emotional, mental and spiritual well-being.

In addition, a trio of World War II-era authors have been instrumental in helping me understand and define my own values.

Man's Search for Meaning (Simon and Schuster, 1959) "is the primary motivation in life," wrote Viktor Frankl in his 1946 book. Frankl, a Vienna psychiatrist who survived some of the worst Nazi concentration camps, stresses that the last of the human freedoms is the ability to choose one's own attitude regardless of the circumstances. Life, Frankl tells us, ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to problems and tasks before each individual.

At about the same time, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the son of a German psychiatrist, returned from America to his native country to oppose the Nazis. He first was imprisoned, then hanged at the age of 39 for his faith and opposition. Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship (Touchstone, 1959) stressed that individuals must say "no" to sin and "yes" to the sinner. "Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes," he writes.

A third writer from that era, C. S. Lewis, professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge University, authored numerous books that I have devoured, ranging from the Narnia Chronicles for children, Perelandra science-fiction stories for all ages and non-fiction discussions of faith. In Mere Christianity (Macmillian, 1943) Lewis writes, "If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and in the end, despair."

From these three writers, I learned individual accountability and responsibility, courage to act, correction without condemnation and an eternal perspective. All of these concepts have served as an overlay during many years of decision-making.

Three small books that amplify that theme today are Leadership Is an Art (Banton Doubleday Dell, 1989) and Leadership Jazz (Banton Doubleday Dell, 1992) by Max De Pree, former CEO of the Herman Miller Furniture company, and The Soul of the Firm (Harper Collins, 1996) by C. William Pollard, former CEO of ServiceMaster. Both industry leaders stress that truth cannot be compromised. Everyone must be treated with dignity and worth, and efforts must be directed toward excellence as defined by multiple constituencies. Servant leadership and love are critical, and decisions must be based on moral reference points.

In a similar vein but with a different format, Leading With Soul (Jossey-Bass, 1995) by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal uses fiction to illustrate the importance of employee satisfaction and meaningful participation to corporate success. Bolman and Deal write that when you are in touch with your soul, you are in a position to give others in your organization the gifts of leadership, authorship, love, power and significance.

Uniting many of these leadership characteristics together is a recent book by James Kouzes and Barry Posner titled The Leadership Challenge (Jossey-Bass, 1995), which my administrative team has just finished. I first learned about it in a conversation with a Wal-Mart executive on an airplane. Based on years of research, the authors suggest that the most effective leaders challenge the process, inspire others with a shared vision, enable others to act, model the way and encourage the heart (or soul).

Their survey of several thousand successful executives identified the most admired characteristics of organizational leaders. The study’s findings summarize in four words the leadership qualities addressed by my selected authors: honest, forward-looking, inspiring, competent.

Roland Smith is superintendent of the Rogers Public Schools, 212 S. 3rd St., Rogers, Ark. 72756. E-mail: rsmith@admin.nwsc.k12.ar.us


The Functions of the Executive by Chester I. Barnard

The book that has had the most powerful impact on my professional life is Chester Barnard's classic, The Functions of the Executive (Harvard University Press, 1964). The book’s concepts of leadership have shaped my thinking and behavior as a superintendent, an executive in a non-profit training and research organization and a university administrator.

From the beginning, my parents and the stalwart Calvinists who were my maternal grandparents saw to it that I was imbued with a strong sense of responsibility. This inculcation blended with my burgeoning ego needs to produce interest in leadership that continues to the present.

My activities in school and college, church, Boy Scouts and high school and college ROTC led to serious consideration of leadership. What I was learning was honed by formal study of leadership at The Infantry School after college, and my career goal became to lead a school as a principal.

The students, faculty and community of the high school I eventually led were more patient with me than I realized at the time, but the principalship was so fulfilling that my goal shifted to the superintendency. A doctoral program at Harvard in the early 1960s became the preparation I sought, and that is where I was introduced to The Functions of the Executive, almost 30 years after Barnard wrote his prescient book.

Reading and reflecting on Barnard's ideas helped integrate the things I thought I had learned about leadership up to that time.

The Functions of the Executive is densely packed with compelling ideas about leadership and organizational behavior. Consider these: "Cooperation is the process that creates purposeful organizational behavior." "Leadership creates cooperation." "Leadership has technical and moral aspects, and the moral aspects must produce the condition of 'responsibility.'" My Calvinist value inculcation strongly identified with that assertion.

"Responsibility," wrote Barnard, "is the property of an individual by which whatever morality exists in him [sic] becomes effective in conduct." But that isn't enough, Barnard argued. One also must possess ability to cope with moral complexity, and coping requires clear understanding of what one believes and values.

Values are the frame in which Barnard analyzed the entire concept of leadership. Executive responsibility is, he wrote, "that capacity of leaders by which, reflecting attitudes, ideals, hopes, derived largely from without themselves, they are compelled to bind the wills of men [sic] to the accomplishment of purposes beyond their immediate ends, beyond their times."

As I have reflected on my work over the years, I have come to see that values determine leadership and that leadership is the strategic factor in cooperation. During my 30-year career, I have attempted to create cooperation through leadership in five complex organizations: three large school districts, a private-sector think tank and a university.

Whatever success I may have realized as a leader has been directly commensurate with the clarity of my values and how well I helped others understand my beliefs. Knowing that I have to constantly clarify and rethink my value orientations is my great debt to Chester Barnard and his powerful book.

Linton Deck is director of the Center for Support of Professional Practice in Education, Vanderbilt University, Box 7, Peabody Station, Nashville, Tenn. 37203. E-mail: linton.deck@vanderbilt.edu. He served for 14 years as a superintendent in three school districts.