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Resourceful Leadership: Tradeoffs and Tough Decisions on the Road to School Improvement

reviewed by Erik Johnson - October 17, 2008

coverTitle: Resourceful Leadership: Tradeoffs and Tough Decisions on the Road to School Improvement
Author(s): Elizabeth City
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1891792865, Pages: 206, Year: 2008
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Resourceful Leadership: Tradeoffs and Tough Decisions on the Road to School Improvement is a boots-on-the-ground report of urban secondary schooling. It seeks to debunk the resource-centric educational discourse if not shibboleth that more is better. School reform professional Karen Hawley Miles prefaces Elizabeth Citys work citing the author that, perhaps the most important resources are the intangible ones (p. xi). This comparative case study looks to identify practical strategies and techniques for school district managers, principals, and teachers while casting an eye toward all too common resource limitations. The text relates the down to earth story of two small urban high schools in their first year of operation within a larger secondary school. The latter institution saw its student population separated into four themed smaller schools. They share central facilities in a day school version of house system student groupings adapted from the British colonial model. The books introduction, six numbered chapters, concluding chapter, and two appendices foremost ask the reader to consider the merits of intangible over tangible resource potentials for policy-makers, administrators, and facilitators. Key components in school reform discussed are money, time, and people. So-called intangibles deriving from the people factor are enumerated: personal vision, hope, trust, ideas, and energy. In league with enhanced temporal investments, they are seen here as the real game-changers and school improvement resources. The first two numbered chapters embrace a change and improvement challenge, the next few chapters parse each of the literatures three aforementioned school reform components, and finally the resource use and concluding chapters suggest direction for interested educational policy leaders.

As part of a review of extant research, the resource use discussion begins by stressing the importance of quality over quantity including hiring teachers well with a merit-based eye toward retention practices. One illustration relates that, teacher time to student time (p. 15) ratios are relatively higher at top-performing schools; students are said to be better off with teachers who arrive significantly early on class days and who leave concomitantly later. Schools with substantively longer work days for teachers are said to better serve students in two ways. First, the teachers may spend more time preparing for classes or in advisory meetings with students on site. Second, those schools with longer days may benefit by drawing from a pool of applicants accepting of, or better yet attracted to, increased working hours on campus in service of individual and community student needs. Here the term quality can connote consistently maintained and stronger one-on-one teacher-student relationships, ideally looped or lasting more than one school year. City again challenges the orthodoxy in citing empirical data testing lowered teacher workloads as panacea. Yet solutions borne of her five human intangibles carry a price. Success is paid for with the currency of continuous communication, particularly between administration and faculty as to: decision-making and the implementation of strategy, expectations of growth, positive learning relationships as quality measure, creativity, and initiative. Needs for personal commitment to community in addition demand greater amounts of and greater quality face time. The seven-day work weeks of the two school principals depicted are testament to that pledge.

This case study analysis paints a picture incorporating tenets of Knowless andragogy (1968). Perhaps suggested by this observation is that the hiring and leadership appraisal processes contain some form of community commitment inventory reflecting andragogical precepts. For example, are job applicants and leaders ample self-directed learners? Are they temporally habituated to personal community investment? Are they motivated to improve and extend themselves in the service of others? And if they are willing to consider change, is it additive or generative change and not just change for changes sake? The book explains practical considerations regarding school schedule construction. Its equation includes frustration with truncated work days as well as teacher-student advisory time constraints; their sum infers a logic that leads to schools hiring a variety of learning coaches. Familiar schools v. district debates are seen kindled over the control and flexibility of monetary resources. The theme of broadened student involvement in academic event competitions arose here as generative (pp. 117, 154). Modest financial investments returned outsized gains, that holy grail of engaged learners. Likewise, both themed schools known respectively as Health High and Tech High anecdotally evinced similar event-like project success effects. Chapter sixs district level resource use focus recognizes the challenges that individual schools can face. One-size-fits-all policy-making apparatuses likely carry good intentions toward small school educating, but they may have neither the proper tools nor the time to best help. Smaller school leaders are given some clues for positively tapping district resources.  

Dissonant voices may cite potential difficulties in transferring lessons learned here to more highly populated, suburban, or rural schools; they may challenge the nature of the data sources and recommendations that follow; and they can certainly cite examples whereby increased financial resources have been paramount in achieving superior learning outcomes. Otherwise, some may note a fit among research and practice applications from adult learning literature concepts. The secondary school improvement pattern presented in this work sports a Tylerian (1949) rational model flow, one that saw interesting program planning literature challenges in the 60s and 70s (Chan, 1977). Such value issue and judgment concerns have led to considered responses. These include the prospect of democratically negotiating stakeholder processes, goals, and outcomes (Cervero & Wilson, 2006) reflecting holistic awareness, understanding, and actions. This type of approach could lend equitable inclusion to even the most basic of educative leadership practices. Another example, the Action Learning Pyramid paradigm (Yorks, ONeil, & Marsick, 1999), speaks directly to Citys constituent needs. Its application can help determine and guide adult educational leaders knowledge construction. Schons reflection-in-action (1983), Mezirows transformative learning (2000), and other attendant models can further inform the outcomes sought by educational decision-makers. Integrating such frames may assist policy makers in raising the level of practical discourses.

The book concludes with ideas for investments in instructional change, management, and leadership that can pay dividends in improved learning processes that drive school performance outcomes. At least two practical success themes emerged. One is the exemplar of performance-fueling students learning engagement through events such as robotics competitions and writing contests. Next and paramount appears the value of more personally focused and larger quantities of time expended by leaders, teachers, students, and coaches.

Resourceful Leadership succeeds in highlighting the issue of improving urban secondary school learning outcomes with existing resources for educational policy-makers, leaders, and front-line educators. Interestingly, like Nietzsche through Schopenhauer in Untimely Meditations (1997), Citys self-educative path here appears to have resulted from a similar lack of intent. Approaching her research task in social science fashion with a school reform lens and over 200 potential data categories for encoding, the author nonetheless listened to the evidence and did not let her methodology put a straitjacket on the analytical process. Its product aims to show that it is how not necessarily how much resources should be used that has the greatest impact on secondary school performance outcomes. Her text may serve as a touchstone engendering community of practice threads within and among school districts, particularly for those open to garnering greater educational returns from existing resource portfolios.                


Cervero, R. & Wilson, A. (2006). Working the planning table: Negotiating democratically for adult, continuing and workplace education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Chan, B. (1977). After Tyler, what? A current issue in curriculum theory. Education Journal, 6, 21-31.

Knowles, M. (1968). Andragogy, not pedagogy. Adult Leadership, 16(10), 350-386.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to think like an adult: Core concepts of transformation theory. In J. Mezirow (Ed.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 1-33). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass   

Nietzsche, F. (1997). Schopenhauer as educator. In D. Breazeale (Ed.), Untimely meditations (pp. 127-194). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1874)

Schon, D. (1983). The Reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.   

Tyler, R. (1949). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Yorks, L., ONeil, J., & Marsick, V. (1999). Action learning: Theoretical bases and varieties of practice. In L. Yorks, J. ONeil, & V. Marsick (Eds.), Action learning: Successful strategies for individual, team, and organizational development (pp. 1-18). Baton Rouge, LA: Academy of Human Resource Development.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 17, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15420, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 11:22:32 PM

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About the Author
  • Erik Johnson
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    ERIK JOHNSON is a Consultant and doctoral student in the Department of Organization and Leadership's AEGIS program at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research interests include workforce development and organizational learning, team innovation and performance, and transformative learning and leadership.
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