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You Can't Do It Alone: A Communications and Engagement Manual for School Leaders Committed to Reform

reviewed by Jean A. Patterson - June 14, 2013

coverTitle: You Can't Do It Alone: A Communications and Engagement Manual for School Leaders Committed to Reform
Author(s): Jean Johnson
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1610483014, Pages: 184, Year: 2011
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When I received this book for review, my initial thought was to sigh and say to myself, here is yet another “how-to” guidebook for school administrators premised on anecdotes and personal experiences, with little to no scholarly literature or empirical evidence.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover a book filled with practical information, strategies, and advice (but not platitudes) culled mostly from 20 years of survey and focus group data collected by the Public Agenda, a non-profit research and engagement organization.  The Public Agenda data are supplemented with data and research reports from other sources.  The intended audience for this book is practicing school administrators, and it is composed of 14 fairly brief chapters and an epilogue. Much of the information is presented as lists and bullet points to make it easier for busy school administrators to use.

The first chapter outlines the two main goals of the book. The first goal is to present a synthesis of Public Agenda’s extensive body of research from surveys and focus groups with many different stakeholders in public education, including principals and superintendents, teachers, parents, students, employers, and the general public.  Chapter Two sets the stage for the chapters to come by framing four main reasons school leaders need to find effective ways to outreach and engage their multiple publics, beginning with a nod to the book’s title that schools cannot meet the educational needs of all children without sufficient resources and support from a variety of sectors. The second and related reason is the overwhelming nature of the work principals and teachers are expected to accomplish.  Consequently, teachers are stressed, which is the third reason. The fourth and perhaps most crucial reason is the public’s lack of knowledge and understanding of the first three reasons.  Chapters Three-Ten present the attitudes and perceptions of these stakeholder groups toward the challenges confronting U.S. public education and are used to build the argument for the need to more effectively engage key stakeholders as partners in the process of improving schools.  Each of these 8 chapters includes findings from Public Agenda’s research, presented as “Key Messages from the Opinion Research” followed by a list of “Takeaways” with questions and conclusions for school leaders to consider.  Chapters Three-Five include perceptions about the state of public education from teachers at various stages of their careers, Chapter Six focuses on opinions of school leaders, and Chapters Seven-Eight examine the general public’s perceptions.  Chapters Nine and Ten look at specific educational problems from the perspectives of multiple stakeholders, including parents, teachers, and students.  Chapter Nine takes on the topic of student behavior and school environment whereas Chapter Ten looks at perceptions of the public’s resistance to change, particularly as it concerns their own chronically low performing schools, and especially those schools facing drastic measures such as reconstitution or closure.  Chapters Eleven-Thirteen offer a model for engagement and specific steps that leaders can take to start informing and then engaging their constituents in genuine and meaningful dialogue and “choicework” about making and coping with change. Chapter Fourteen returns to perceptions of school leaders about concerns they believe need to be addressed to improve public education.

School leadership, especially in high poverty schools, is more complex and challenging than ever.  Principals are expected to provide instructional leadership while also attending to many other responsibilities related to the operational and administrative aspects of running a school.  Instructional leadership in many cases falls to the bottom of a principal’s priority list.  This book acknowledges that  while instructional leadership is desirable, the context of many urban and high poverty schools makes it difficult for principals to be instructional leaders.  This is a refreshing change from most books of this type that imply if the principal follows the author’s advice, all will be well.  Many popular notions in education are abstract ideas that sound good but are difficult to put into practice. Johnson illustrates the gaps between general agreements about an abstract idea; for example, that more U.S. students should pursue advanced study of science and math, with the reality of what it really means to do something about it.  Instead of offering a checklist of solutions, the author uses the data to show those gaps in perception and their implications for school leadership practice.

Chapters Eleven-Thirteen present what Johnson calls an Alternative Model of the Informed Public developed from Public Agenda’s decades of research.  She breaks down and explains the process of how the public becomes informed about issues and copes with the need to change and then further elaborates the framework, which she describes as the heart and soul of Public Agenda’s work with groups: dialogue (versus debate) and “choicework.”  Guidelines are provided for engaging people in a “choicework” exercise, where participants are provided with 3-4 choices to discuss and wrestle with, which allows them to fully explore and become better informed about the issues the choices represent.  Participants also feel they have a voice in decisions, without having decisions imposed upon them.  Johnson then turns to applying the model and specific actions that school leaders can take to use the framework, first to help the public and their constituents better understand the issues and then ways that leaders can engage their school publics.  Examples are provided from school districts across the U.S. that have used Public Agenda’s framework. These examples also illustrate how the book does not advocate a one-size-fits-all approach to public engagement but is intended to be responsive to local needs.  Materials and resources for engaging the public are available to download free of charge from Public Agenda’s website.

The techniques of dialogue and choicework Johnson presents in these three chapters might seem counterintuitive in an information-saturated society, but in many ways are consistent with what organizational theorist Karl Weick (1995) pointed out a number of years ago.  He observed there are so many events and activities happening simultaneously in most organizations that individuals have a difficult time sorting and sifting through them to make meaning.  Reducing confusion does not require more information; it requires leaders who can provide values, priorities, and clarity about what is important. In today’s information-saturated world, Weick’s advice still holds true. As the subtitle indicates, this book is a communication manual for school leaders committed to reform, and lives up to its billing. I would recommend it to practicing administrators and to faculty teaching in school leadership preparation programs.


Weick, K.E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 14, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17152, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:49:41 AM

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