Book Reviews

School Administrator, May 2015

Book - 50  Myths50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools

by David Berliner and Gene Glass, Teachers College Press, New York, N.Y., 2014, 250 pp., $27.95 softcover

As an educator, I feel like I should be giving high fives, standing ovations and ringing church bells for David Berliner and Gene Glass’ latest “feel good” book about public education. 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools basically trashes almost any form of choice or “out of the box” thinking to improve public education.

The authors are great researchers and professors, yet they enlisted 19 of their universities’ graduate students to address 28 of the 50 so-called myths and lies that they present as absolute fact. Right from the start, the book off loads most responsibility for student learning by stating, “The biggest causes of school problems lie outside of the education system. Some might call this conclusion a copout; we call it reality.”

Throughout the book. Berliner and Glass point to the claims that traditional public schools are universally failing when that is not so. They are correct about that. They acknowledge, though, that we are failing the students in our poorest communities and frequently cite poverty as the overwhelming cause of school failure. It is no secret that Berliner, Glass and their associate Alex Molnar are great believers in redistribution of wealth.

50 Myths and Lies provides no real solutions for the performance of schools in poverty other than the standard offerings – more money, lower class size, better paid teachers, more local school decision making -- all of which may help, but they go on to slam the efforts of others who are trying to make a difference. These other educational advocates think that education is one of the primary ways to improve the lives of young people, especially those in poverty.

The authors’ claim that Teach for America’s content-based teachers do not get better results generally than regular public schools (although they note sometimes they do) and they do not hesitate to wish for Teach for America to disappear.

The book claims charter schools are not the “silver bullet” for universal literacy and numeracy but recognizes some do better and some do worse than the traditional public schools. While I fully support our public school system as someone who has spent of most of my career in public education, I am a strong believer in Winston Churchill’s statement, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts." Rather than bash so many initiatives using one-sided arguments and one-sided research, a more tempered view to determine what can be derived from these other efforts may be a good place for a new book using the research from both sides of these arguments.

Berliner and Glass are right that our public schools do not deserve the pervasive criticism that they get as many schools and many teachers do an excellent job. Berliner and Glass cite the fact that our poorest schools often have the least experienced and least capable teachers assigned to them but they fail to mention that teacher unions often negotiate guarantees that seniority is the basis by which teachers are assigned.  New teachers get the worst classes. In terms of the unions, the authors advocate for unions but fail to mention that unions represent teachers and by golly they should do that job well.  Educational policy, lower taxes, and even improved education are not their primary cause; the welfare of their members is their primary purpose. That’s not a bad thing but one needs to understand their role.

This book is valuable for those interested in understanding the divisive issues in education but this is not the irrefutable research to support the status quo or the elimination of other people’s efforts to change and improve the educational experience.

Berliner and Glass are probably right that poverty’s numerous impacts on families and the education of their children are devastating, but schools cannot use that as their excuse for not continually trying to improve and considering other good ideas that might make a difference. The authors conclude that “there are at least five good reasons why education is not the answer to a nation’s poverty”.  Instead they advocate that poverty is addressed by changing the tax structure, reforming collective bargaining regulations, supporting infrastructure investments, improving bank the availability of credit, increasing the minimum wage, changing the immigration laws and other items listed under Myth 48; these are part of the approach for redistribution of wealth. 

For those as supportive of public education as Berliner and Glass to state in their book that “once the myth of education’s omnipotence is put to rest, faster progress will be made toward reducing poverty…” seems contrary to the primary premise of their book.

This book does is not the affirmation of success of our current education system as many have stated in other reviews. The authors have other underlying social policy that they are most interested in promoting and should other education initiatives in fact change the economic picture for those now living in poverty; their ideas for more overarching social legislation would diminish the need for those reforms. The sarcasm, innuendo, the undocumented assumptions made in the book and the black and white nature of their arguments do not befit these respected professors. 

Reviewed by Philip E. Geiger, senior vice president, MAXIMUS K-12 Education, Reston, Va.


Book - Big CityBig-City School Reforms: Lessons from New York, Toronto and London

by Michael Fullan and Alan Boyle, Teachers College Press, New York, N.Y., 2014, 178 pp. with index, $27.95 softcover

Author Michael Fullan is well known to parties interested in educational administration around the world. From his professorship at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, he has contributed to the professional literature as a writer and researcher. His involvement as a consultant for urban school systems has increased over the last two decades. His coauthor Alan Boyle has primarily worked in the United Kingdom.

    In Big-City School Reforms: Lessons from New York, Toronto and London, Fullan has elaborated upon a relatively new concept and  new terms in the lexicon of educational administration. What is most likely to stick is the idea of “push-pull” purposeful actions relative to reforms by the political or school system administration. The push-pull theory was introduced in another book Fullan coauthored, Professional Capital.

Here is how these terms are applied: “Actions that push are insistent, relentless, in your face, nonnegotiable. Change would not happen on a significant scale if there were no leaders who strongly challenged the status quo. But if that is all you needed, change would be easy. The problem is that ‘being right’ is not a strategy, not to mention that you will be more wrong than right if you are only pushy. Actions that ‘pull’ are intended to attract people to a process or situation, and to listen and learn from them as well as influence them. Pull actions can be resisted, but when they are used well, they are seductive because they tap into the twin human conditions of intrinsic motivation and social participation.” (p. 10)

Above all else, Fullan has evolved into a pragmatist. He wants results prior to drawing his lessons from any research or practice. He states: “[A]ll successfully system reform is a judicious mixture of push and pull actions. What <I>judicious<I> means in a given situation begs the question of what to do. … This is why we always link strategies to evidence of outcomes. … Does it work in the situation you are in? ... And finally, the model of change we offer here fits big systems that have urgent problems. There are other models that may be appropriate for other circumstances.” (pp. 10-11)

The three cities described in this report have their educational policies, programs and reform approaches dissected from approximately 2002 through 2012. The analysis on each is succinct and easily digested. These views are from a systemwide perspective and developed at a high level. The Push-Pull Purposeful Actions Evident in Big City Reforms model (p. 144) is used to produce a series of scores for New York City, Toronto and London.

The highest “push” score is given to London at 24 out of 30 with Toronto receiving a 22 and New York a 21.  Both London and Toronto had 25 out of 30 on “pull” with New York having a 12 on “pull.” Thus, London has the highest overall reform score of 49, followed closely by Toronto’s 47 and trailed by New York’s 33. While there may be some bias towards the two cities that engaged the authors the most professionally as consultants. The analysis is informative and reveals more political conflict and resistance in New York.

Consequently, according to the authors: “… it is clear that in New York City the new mayor Bill de Blasio and his chancellor will have to virtually start from scratch, as there is almost no sustainability from the last decade of strategies. The good news is that there are considerable pockets of capacity and professional power that exist in the schools and clusters, and probably substantial pent-up moral imperative commitments if the system can shift its strategies toward the pull factors buttressed by the sense of urgency for city improvement. We believe that there is considerable potential- a latent appetite, if you will – for NYC to take off in this next period under the right leadership, which would integrate the push and pull forces for ‘raising the bar and closing the gap’ in student learning.” (pp. 144-145)

What is said here about NYC could probably be repeated for many urban areas in the United States. Urban superintendents and those who help design systemwide strategies in cities or study them will find a meaningful conceptual framework in Big City School Reforms. The bottom line for educational reform may be to add a little more pull to the push.

Reviewed by Art Stellar, vice president of National Education Foundation, McLean, Va.


Book - DrivenDriven to Distraction at Work:  How to Focus and Be More Productive

by Edward M. Hallowell, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, Mass., 2015, 239 pp., $26 softcover

School administrators are notorious multi-taskers.  We also tweet, blog, surf, text and trade e-mail, often well before arriving at work and on into the evening.  In Driven to Distraction at Work:  How to Focus and Be More Productive, Edward Hallowell, a child and adult psychiatrist and leading authority on ADD and ADHD, breaks down the six most common distractions at work, provides methods for addressing them and then offers how-to’s on managing and maintaining our ability to focus.

    Although the book is an easy read, I found myself skipping over the character illustrations in Part I about Les, Jean, Ashley and others (because I don’t need to read about the tribulations of others in these areas when I know what my own challenges at work are with regards to distractions).  Instead, I thumbed right to the end of each of the six chapters on common work distractions to get to the tips about what to do about those distractions. 

Part II delves in to managing and maintaining the ability to focus.  Hallowell provides solid ideas about healthy living – eating right, exercising, meditating and connecting with others.

The job of a school administrator is unique and while the book focuses on the work environment, it isn’t specific or sympathetic to the distinctive pressures of school and district administration. Perhaps that is Hallowell’s point – one can always make excuses for distraction.  He is absolutely right.  Unfortunately, there were no big a-ha’s for me.

For the typical harried education administrator, the answers remain simple – unplug once in a while, stop multi-tasking because the ability to do quality work when one multi-tasks is a myth, be present, keep the focus on your priorities and take good physical and emotional care of yourself. I couldn’t help but feel that the distractions, tips and reminders could have been distilled in to an article instead of a book. 

Reviewed by Marilyn King, deputy superintendent of instruction, Bozeman, Mont.


Book - Making ExternalMaking External Experts Work

by Thomas F. Evert and Amy E. Van Deuren, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Md., 2012, 139 pp., $23.95 softcover

The authors, one a long-time superintendent and the other a law professor who served as a school board member, have managed to write an authoritative book on the use of external experts rather than letting you watch the red flags go up when you say you want to hire a consultant in your district.

Evert and Van Deuren, in Making External Experts Work, fully support maximizing the use of internal resources first, but they recognize there will be times when a fresh look or alternative approach by an established authority not directly involved in the day-to-day operations of the district can make a significant impact.

The book begins with a short set of questions that should be asked before engaging an external expert to make clear why an external resource needs to be hired, what the objective to be accomplished will be, when the task will be accomplished, what the cost will be, and how success will be measured.

The authors then walk the reader through detailed descriptions of how six different external experts were used to advance the programs of a school district, some with short-term and specific tasks and others with long-term tasks that helped define the way the district addressed problem solving and strategic planning.

The authors explore leadership lessons learned during the process with a realization that success was based on three foundational areas for the superintendent. Know yourself and your context, develop and implement an agenda and long-range plan, and realize that the professional development of the superintendent is as much or more important than the professional development of other staff.

They then conclude with nine useful recommendations for any superintendent who is seeking to gain Board support for the appropriate use of external experts to make a positive impact on the work of the district.

Reviewed by Bob Schultz, adjunct faculty member in the teacher and administrator credentialing and master’s programs, Brandman University, Irvine, Calif.


Book - The MentorThe Mentor: Leading with Love: The Ultimate Resource

by Jan Hammond and Rita Senor, Universe LLC, Bloomington, Ind., 2014, 185 pp. with index, $14.95 softcover

The Mentor: Leading with Love: The Ultimate Resource is a fitting read for all educators who want to build their leadership capacity. 

The book, co-authored by Jan Hammond, associate professor at Long Island University’s department of educational leadership, and Rita Senor, a retired school administrator in New York and a consultant on leadership motivation, is written in an informal conversational style. They tell the story of an interim superintendent who works for a year in a school district fraught with personnel, social and political issues. Part of the interim’s responsibility is the mentoring of the first-year middle school principal.

Chapter One outlines the work done in September, and the final chapter reviews what happens by the end of the school year. Each intervening chapter relates month by month what the superintendent does to mentor the leadership team to develop a positive learning culture.

At leadership retreats, the superintendent teaches them “the 3 C’s – Chart of Change.”  Step one is caring, step 2 is changed consciousness, and step 3 is commitment. The district leader works with the site leadership to incorporate three models into short- and long-term goals for the school: Model 1:  Sustained Energy; Model 2:  Expanded Leadership Spiral; and Model 3:  Linkage Leadership.

The book shares in detail the interim superintendent‘s one-on-one conversations with key stakeholders to demonstrate how he mentors and supports each individual to move the school from a toxic culture to a positive one focusing on teaching and learning. We can see how the superintendent is helping the rookie principal grow into becoming an effective transformational leader.

Throughout a difficult year dealing with the board of education and personnel matters, the superintendent shows courage, integrity and candor.  He remains calm and is a superior role model who shows unconditional love.

The subtitle of the book, “Leading with Love:  the Ultimate Resource,” says it all. New paradigms balancing work and people demonstrate for the next generation of leaders ethical standards in mentoring. This is a great read especially for beginning principals and leaders.

Reviewed by Diane E. Reed, associate professor and director, Graduate Educational Leadership Program, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, N.Y.


Book - Who Kidnapped ExcellenceWho Kidnapped Excellence? What Stops Us from Giving and Being Our Best

by Harry Paul, John Britt, Ed Jent and Ken Blanchard, Barrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, Calif., 2014, 149 pp., $22.95 hardcover

Who Kidnapped Excellence? What Stops Us from Giving and Being Our Best has an appropriate message for school leaders. The book discusses the fundamentals of success in any business or school -- excellence, passion, competence, flexibility, communication, ownership and leadership. It’s an easy and fast read.

The book is framed around a parable that uses the kidnapping of “a character named Excellence” to make the point that organizations can easily lose their effectiveness without realizing it until the “ransom note” arrives indicating that excellence has vanished. Authors Harry Paul, John Britt and Ed Jent surely had fun crafting a story line to promote these classic organizational qualities, but the book is a push to read with any degree of depth.

The authors have taken a set of meaningful qualities we want to see in any organization and stretched the description of them into a tale that could be presented in a more succinct but perhaps less entertaining manner.

What’s obvious from the title is the authors’ use of the allegory of Excellence’s kidnapping to determine how things can go wrong with little notice, replaced by antithetical personnel N. Different, N. Ept, N.Flexibililty, Miss Communication and Poser. Placing the simple but important message within this mystery gives the authors a chance to further explain each character’s importance and to demonstrate how easy it is to lose excellence in an organization.

Reading this for insightful revelations or new research or demonstrated practices would be disappointing, but reading it as a fun book to make a few simple but meaningful observations is fine.

Not unlike other books written in a similar manner where the allegory is contorted to make it work to make one’s points, some readers will find this book light and breezy but not something to use with the staff to create new ideas or new ways of doing things.

Reviewed by Philip E. Geiger, senior vice president, MAXIMUS K-12 Education, Reston, Va.


Why I Wrote This Book...

“As a counselor and teacher I realized that children I worked with were empowered to take control of their own well-being and classroom learning when they became aware of their purpose and dreams for their lives. I turned my own experiences into a teaching and learning method and intervention strategy so other educators and mental health professionals could impact the quality of children’s lives and experience the satisfaction that comes with making a profound difference in the lives of children.”

Henry G. Brzycki, President, The Brzycki Group and the Center for the Self in Schools, State College, Pa., and AASA member since 2014, on writing The Self in Schooling: Theory and Practice: How to Create Happy, Healthy, Flourishing Children in the 21st Century (BG Publishing, 2014) 



Turnaround Roles

A doctoral dissertation at Morehead State University evaluated the role of the superintendent in the turnaround process in persistently low-achieving school districts.

The 2014 study by James Evans Jr. identified common threads, principles and suggestions on turnaround processes. Evans, a superintendent in Kentucky at the time of the research, adopted a case study approach for his capstone project, which involved surveying all of the state’s superintendents.

The findings helped in identifying effective improvement strategies for school superintendents.

Copies of “Role of Superintendent in District Turnaround” are available from ProQuest at 800-521-0600 or

Bits & Pieces

Global Reforms

The OECD has published its 2015 edition of “Education Policy Outlook: Making Reforms Happen.”
    This comparative review of policy trends explores different countries’ experiences implementing education reform and offers strategies for facilitating future changes.
    Read the full report at     

Early Warnings

The National Center for Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance and REL Northwest have released a guide that reviews studies of various early warning systems used to identify students at risk of dropping out of school.
    The results of several studies are presented, along with a discussion of how to build an early intervention warning team, establish warning indicators and design data reports.
    Find the guide at

Kindergarten Fade-Out

By the end of kindergarten, children who attended preschool no longer outperform their peers in reading and math, according to a report from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.
    Results suggest the rate of fade-out effects may increase over time, and they are evident regardless of kindergarten class size and length of day.
    The paper is available at

Problem Behaviors

A German study examined the effectiveness of the teacher’s module of the Prevention Program for Externalizing Problem Behavior, which aims to help teachers deal effectively with problem behaviors in children such as hyperactivity and aggression.
    The findings indicate that training reduces problem behavior and teacher burdens and improves teacher reactions.
    Read the abstract at

Performance Assessments

A white paper by McREL International and Measured Progress encourages the use of curriculum-embedded performance assessments, or CEPAs, to rebalance the formula schools use for student assessment.
    The paper, “Re-balancing Assessment,” asserts that CEPAs use real-time feedback, personalized learning and real-world application to help students develop foundational knowledge and deeper learning.
    Read the white paper at

Digital Advocacy

AASA has joined forces with the Consortium for School Networking and the National School Boards Association to help school system leaders inform and strengthen their digital advocacy efforts.
    The goal of the partnership is to create and share knowledge, resources and networks to help all schools provide a technology-based learning environment for children.
    Learn more at 

Testing and Health

The Public Health Law Center has published an impact assessment of how K-12 school design affects student health.
    The report, “Building Healthy Schools,” provides recommendations regarding school siting, transportation, nutrition and physical activity.
    Access the full report at

Early Childhood Costs

A Duke University study on the effects of two early childhood initiatives in North Carolina found that students who attended the programs were less likely to be placed in special education in the 3rd grade.
    In addition to helping students, this practice alleviates the financial burden of special education programs that are double the cost of the state’s regular education programs.
Read the report at

Urban Superintendents Academy

AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and Howard University have launched a partnership to bolster the effectiveness of school district leadership in urban areas. The AASA/Howard University Urban Superintendents Academy is a collaboration to prepare individuals for certification and success in leadership posts.
    The partnership also is designed to expand the pool of underrepresented superintendent groups.
    For more information, visit 

Award Deadlines

Application deadlines are approaching for several annual AASA awards and scholarship programs.
    The recognition programs deal with school architecture, distinguished service, graduate study in educational administration, advancement of women and minorities in education leadership and school district communications.
    Submission deadlines and further details are available on the AASA website or by contacting Paula Dearden at 703-875-0717 or

New Superintendents

The AASA New Superintendents E-Journal is a quarterly electronic newsletter written specifically for those who are in their first months and years of the superintendency. The journal has ceased publication with the April 2015 issue. Back issues of the publication can be accessed at