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What’s in your Fav Five? Literature every school leader should know

By LeaderTalk Contributor — February 23, 2009 4 min read

Every semester I review (or create for the first time) the readings I require for the classes I teach. I am always thinking about a good blend of theoretical and pragmatic readings for my principal preparation courses. The polemic notions that programs either teach too much or too little theory bothers me. Ask a pre-service principal candidate if they should be reading Weber, Parsons, and Callahan and they will complain the preparation program is “out of touch” or does not understand what they will be asked to do as school leaders. On the other end of the spectrum are too many normative models or pragmatic books that are free of theoretical underpinning. For example, reading about professional learning communities through authors like DuFour is helpful, but understanding the theories of professional development (Huberman), joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and shared repertoire (Wenger), and so on will the future school leader understand the functions, or dysfunctions, of the organizations they will soon be asked to work in and manage).

So as I look at my syllabi for principal certification courses I think about what students need to know to practice their practice. For future school leaders that includes an understanding of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. They also will need to master management skills such as teacher evaluation procedures, school safety plans, etc. (yes I said it, management—becoming a naughty word in my circles, but people are fired for mismanagement long before leadership performance). Leaders also need to understand how to manage conflict and work with others in their school, within their district, and with the surrounding community. I could go on of course.

Last week LeaderTalk Blogger Jon Becker threw out the “Mt. Rushmore” of our field challenge. I have a similar challenge: Can we name the anchor readings in our field? That is, for pre-service principals candidates, what are the must reads? Do we have a “Fav Five” (that’s Top Five for the non-hip) that we can lean on?

Allow me to create an initial list, my “Fav Five”:

Surprisingly, students in education are not necessarily students of education. A dose of educational history is often warranted. On my speed dial you will find Fav Five #1:

Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Distributed leadership is an overused concept—rarely do authors provide details of what these practices look like in action. To help students understand the concept through live in schools I dial up Fav Five #2:

Halverson, R. (2003). Systems of practice: How leaders use artifacts to create professional community in schools. Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 11(37), 1-35.

How about general leadership skills? For me, I want to help students understand how they build organizational capacity (knowledge and skill for their teaches) and simultaneously deal with issues of organizational coherence. So much to choose from—so I will cheat a bit here and provide my two readings that pop-up when I press Fav Five #3:

Elmore, R. (2000). Building a new structure for school leadership. Washington, D.C.: Albert Shanker Institute.

Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

To link management and leadership I dial in Fav Five #4:

Gosling, J., & Mintzberg, H. (2003). The five minds of a manager. Harvard Business Review, 81(11), 54-63.

Finally, for a great account of the problems associated with instructional practices I am fond of my Fav Five #5:

Cohen, D. K. (1988). Teaching practice: Plus que ca change... In P. Jackson (Ed.), Contributing to educational change: Perspectives on research and practice (pp. 27-84). Berkeley, CA: McCutchan Publishing Corporation.

This was a difficult task—narrowing my list to just five (I know, I have six). I could go on and on, just ask my students! The list above does not have educational policy, accountability, school data, etc. literature. What make this task difficult is the limitation of documenting only a handful of readings-- from the King James edition to the bottom-line anchors, the readings you would have with you if you were stranded on an island and had to teach your mates about becoming a school principal (either I need to be committed on that one or I just named the sequel hit to Lost).

I finish with a set of questions:

What’s missing?

What readings actively contributed to your pre-service learning?

What readings are on your shelf that you often reach for? That is, what’s in your Fav Five?

Next month I will post a summary of results from our LeaderTalk community and issues a new challenge of creating a Fav Five for doctoral students in educational leadership programs.

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Matt Militello
North Carolina State University

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.