Book Reviews

My second book review was published on March 31, 2016.  With the end of the school year and all of its craziness coming up I’ll be waiting until this summer for my next review.

Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders

Ronald Williamson and Barbara R. Blackburn

Routledge, 2013

Reviewed by Bret Olson

There aren’t many schools in the world who aren’t looking to improve and grow.  Often times the focus of school growth is centered around the idea of creating a more rigorous academic environment for student learning.  Every school leader aims to increase the learning capacity of their students but the question is, how?

Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders is the third book in a series on rigor by Williamson and Blackburn.  Having focused on strategies for teachers in their first book and school leaders in their second, this author duo heard the cry from school leaders for more tools and examples to draw from.  The result is Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders, which acts as a step by step guide to increasing rigor in your school.

Creating a Vision

Every school has a mission and vision, they are at the heart of what we do as educational institutions.  Williamson and Blackburn believe strongly that in order to create change toward a culture of rigor you must start with a vision.  Walking you through the steps (as they do with every aspect of this process) of creating a personal vision starts you on a journey of exploration and self-reflection that will guide your understanding of how rigor can be built within your personal context.  Rigor doesn’t happen overnight, nor does change.  Understanding the change process and the time it takes to be successful is crucial to successfully creating a more rigorous environment; Williamson and Blackburn provide a strong explanation of how to create this plan.

Tools, Tools, and More Tools

Williamson and Blackburn clearly set out to provide strategies and resources for school leaders to use as they work to implement change toward rigor.  The description of this book as a “toolkit” couldn’t be more accurate.  You can’t go more than two or three pages without being given another example of a useful tool.  Without a doubt, if you’re looking for specific and useful strategies and resources for creating a culture of rigor in your school then look no further than Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders.  

Change Takes Time

These authors are very clear to share throughout this book that change doesn’t happen quickly.  When reading this book, if you’re expecting a “quick fix” solution you’ll most likely be frustrated or overwhelmed.  Williamson and Blackburn never purport to have a magic spell for creating a more rigorous school.  However, if you’re willing and able to dedicate the time and effort necessary to achieve a long-term goal then this book can lead the way.  Working chapter by chapter, the authors walk the reader through the entire change process and what is required along the way.  In addition, the strategies and tools provided will allow you to focus on the task at hand without spending time to invent your own resources.  Reading this book won’t provide you “the answer” but rather it will provide you a roadmap for success; it’s your responsibility to apply the lessons and tools provided to reach your goal of a more rigorous academic climate.

A Rigorous Route to Rigor  

Many books provide theories, philosophies, and mandates for change but do little to provide the necessary help for achieving success.  Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders comes ready made for those who desire change but need assistance in developing and implementing a plan for something so important as increasing rigor in a school.  With myriad resources and tools to guide school leaders toward a more rigorous school, there is something here for everyone looking to make a change.  Whether you aim to follow through with a long term plan or you’re looking for simple tools for a shorter term target, Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders provides school leaders with a wealth of knowledge and resources.

Bret is an Associate Principal at Academia Cotopaxi, a school for children of international families living in Quito, Ecuador.  Previously, Bret worked as a Vice Principal in Shanghai, China and taught elementary in Milan, Italy.  Bret was a Teach For America corps member in Houston, Texas prior to moving overseas.  Bret earned his B.A at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and M. Ed. at Lehigh University, studying Educational Leadership.  Bret shares his educational thoughts via his professional website and on Twitter @The1sWhoDo.

 

My first book review was published on September 17, 2015. 

Insights:  How Expert Principals Make Difficult Decisions

Dionne V. McLaughlin

Corwin, 2015

Reviewed by Bret Olson

As an assistant principal I face many difficult decisions but rarely am I forced to face these situations in isolation, thanks to my outstanding senior leadership.  However, with an eye toward the future I am constantly in search of opportunities to involve myself in situations which allow me to learn and grow.  Insights gives the reader exactly that, real-life scenarios and reflections from expert principals.  The chance to read the experiences and thoughts of these veteran school leaders has allowed me to grow as a leader.  

Dionne McLaughlin’s approach to helping novice and aspiring principals learn and grow creates an easy-to-read guide to strategic decision making processes.  While this book should not be used as a replacement for a mentor principal it plays a very similar role; guiding novice and aspiring leaders through the difficult decision making process.  Case studies from principals in five diverse districts in Massachusetts, Maryland, and North Carolina serve as an excellent basis for McLaughlin’s discussion of the decision making process.   

Setting the Stage For Success

Part I of Insights provides an excellent introduction to the strategic decision making process used by expert principals.  By throwing the reader directly into the fire with two intriguing case studies, McLaughlin engages right from the start.  The accompanying reflection questions and resources allow the reader to immediately interact as though they are involved in the conversation.  (Side note: These case studies and reflection questions make this book a perfect book chat or classroom resource!)  The first half of Insights sets the tone for the novice or aspiring school leader by helping build a foundation on which to base their own strategic decision making process.  

McLaughlin walks the readers through the detailed process of making difficult decisions from beginning to end.  Using case studies and anecdotes to highlight her recommendations she sheds light on potential pitfalls, gives tips, and shares useful strategies for success.  From weighing the problem and the potential options, to evaluating our core values, to understanding and considering the school/community culture; McLaughlin shows us how to consider the big picture while maintaining a focus on the human side of the decision making process.  By the end of Part I you should have a very clear understanding of the path ahead as it relates to facing down difficult decisions.  

Making Real-Life Difficult Decisions

Part II brings the reader front and center and asks them to consider real-life scenarios as McLaughlin presents case studies from both her experiences and from other expert principals.  She covers some of the most common difficult decisions school leaders face and gives the reader a real opportunity to reflect and ponder the potential options.  Since these are real scenarios there are real conclusions.  However, McLaughlin wisely places these conclusions in the back of the book, forcing the reader to take the time to think about the issues at hand before jumping straight to the “answer”.  Part II highlights some of the most common difficult decisions that arise in schools across the country.  From student issues, to decisions about faculty, staff, and policy, McLaughlin gives the reader a behind the scenes view of how expert principals operate in the face of extreme adversity.

Lite Reading

While I was impressed with the overall content presented by McLaughlin I couldn’t help but feel a little short-changed.  Despite the fact that most of the important topics were covered it seemed like there was still more that could’ve been included in this fairly short book.  McLaughlin drew on the stories of 21 expert principals, which made me wonder what she could’ve included had she interviewed a few more school leaders.  With such rich and enlightening case studies I walk away from this book wishing there would’ve been more examples included.

Insights, Insightful!  

Despite any misgivings about the lack of examples, McLaughlin does a great job of introducing the strategic decision making process for novice and aspiring school leaders.  The case studies, reflection questions, and relevant supporting documents help the reader delve into the scenarios presented.  Throughout this book McLaughlin encourages the reader to apply the strategic decision making process by providing a clear and easy-to-use framework.  She explains each step along the way and then gives us an opportunity to explore our own thoughts using the aforementioned reflection questions.  This process of continually directing the reader through the decision making process is what makes this book a useful tool for any novice or aspiring principal.

Bret is an Associate Principal at Academia Cotopaxi, a school for children of international families living in Quito, Ecuador.  Previously, Bret worked as a Vice Principal in Shanghai, China and taught elementary in Milan, Italy.  Bret was a Teach For America corps member in Houston, Texas prior to moving overseas.  Bret earned his B.A at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and M. Ed. at Lehigh University, studying Educational Leadership.  Bret shares his educational thoughts via his professional website.

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