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Failure Is Not an Option: 6 Principles That Advance Student Achievement in Highly Effective Schools

reviewed by Holly Yettick - July 12, 2013

coverTitle: Failure Is Not an Option: 6 Principles That Advance Student Achievement in Highly Effective Schools
Author(s): Alan M. Blankstein
Publisher: Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks
ISBN: 1452268274, Pages: 352, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

It is not easy to be a principal. That much should be clear to anybody who opens the third edition of Failure is Not an Option: 6 Principles that Advance Student Achievement in Highly Effective Schools, Alan Blanksteins book on school leadership. Overwhelmed educators may be relieved to hear what Blankstein has to say, especially since it probably confirms what many already believe: when it comes to improving student achievement, the answer is not to be found in Cadillac-driving consultants or inscrutable academic articles or even in Blankstein himself. The answer is in the room. (In fact, Blankstein has authored another book by that title, a 2011 work entitled The Answer is in the Room: How Effective Schools Scale Up Success.) With relentless optimism, Blankstein explains how to use what you already possess to become better than you ever were. In a sense, the book captures the post-recession zeitgeist by embracing an education-sector DIY approach in which student achievement is the currency, or, more accurately, the Bitcoin.

As the subtitle implies, Blanksteins book is organized around six principles for increasing student achievement by changing the cultures of schools. However, before diving into the reforms themselves, Blankstein follows his own advice by expending a great deal of effort (four entire chapters of a ten-chapter book) on laying the groundwork for change.

The book opens with some heavy cheerleading in the form of a vignette comparing educational leadership to the Chilean minister who spearheaded the rescue of 33 men from certain death in a collapsed mine during the 2010 disaster in Copiapó. Readers are urged to adapt a similar, failure is not an option attitude lest their students be condemned to lives of low wages, drug abuse and incarceration.  

This sense of moral purpose (p. 4) instilled, Blankstein moves on in Chapter Three to avoiding common pitfalls that leaders face when implementing reforms. As is the case throughout the book, there is a list. (Example: Obstacle 6: The mandates are in the way. Possible solutions: Work with the school district toward acceptance of data on teacher performance based on the school principles of learning. Use buffering strategies to protect staff.) Obstacles dispensed with and explained, Blankstein turns to developing a learning community by building relational trust via such strategies as (again, there is a list) confronting inappropriate behavior and finding common ground.

The groundwork laid, Blankstein is ready to discuss the establishment of common mission, vision, values, and goals. This is the first of the six principles that form the core content of the book. Especially helpful is a feature, found throughout the book, called What good looks like. In this chapter (Chapter Five), the feature takes the form of several sample mission statements that adhere to varying degrees to Blanksteins guidelines, which call for mission statements that define what the organization wishes to accomplish, explain how to measure progress toward this stated goal and goal and specify what will be done to ensure success. These real-world examples are enlightening to the point that I found myself both noticing and evaluating the mission statements I came across in daily life. Since change and reform would appear to be central to the mission statement of the book, I appreciated that these examples got under my skin to this degree by de-familiarizing something that has become such a ubiquitous aspect of the American landscape.

In principles 2, 3 and 4, Blankstein shifts his focus from broader, organizational goals to focus on school leaders roles in encouraging the improvement of essential teaching and learning activities. These principles include:


Ensuring achievement for all students by preventing failure and intervening with struggling students. Incorporated into this section is advice for interacting with teachers who do not truly believe that all students can learn at a high level.


Encouraging ongoing professional development via teacher collaboration.


Using data to improve instruction.  Blanksteins definition of data extends beyond test scores to include student engagement in extracurriculars,  observations of daily school activities and student work on assignments.

Principle 5 addresses strategies for building family and community engagement. The chapter devoted to this principle is written by Pedro Noguera, a New York University education professor and expert on this topic. (Noguera also wrote the forward to the book.) The final principle entails building sustainable leadership capacity so that the fate of the reforms does not depend on a single, charismatic leader. The chapter addressing this principle is also coauthored, this time by Blankstein, Boston College education professor Andy Hargreaves and educational leadership consultant Dean Fink.

In addition to using bulleted lists and what good looks like, Blankstein also illustrates his principles with numerous case studies contributed by practioners. Thirteen videos featuring said practitioners are available online. (Dont worry if you cant figure out how to use the smart phone-friendly barcodes; you can also go directly to the website and enter a password found inside the book.) Also online are forms found in the book (classroom observation sheets, checklists for using formative and summative assessments), which can be downloaded and emailed directly to teachers. The online resources should appeal not only to practitioners but also to instructors in educational leadership courses, who might consider using the book and its tools as a central text.

Educational research is featured throughout the book, which also includes a bibliography with suggestions for further reading. Also incorporated are theories of popular business gurus such as Peter Senge and W. Edwards Deming. Here, Blankstein shows his business chops: He founded the professional development company that subsequently became Solution Tree.

The videos (which come with discussion questions) are new to the third edition, as are the online downloadables and Nogueras chapter. Additionally, the third edition incorporates case studies relevant to implementing the Common Core and teacher merit pay. Response to intervention is also discussed.

Although Failure is Not an Option appears to be a single paperback book, it is actually a tool-filled kit geared toward convincing teachers to implement change, then showing them how to do it. As such, Blanksteins approach is pragmatic rather than revolutionary. For instance, educators are not advised to protest reforms that contradict their experiences, knowledge or beliefs. Instead, the book focuses on teaching educators to cope in an era in which reform has become the norm by doing ones best to implement whatever comes down the pike in a coherent manner that improves the odds that the changes might actually improve student achievement.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 12, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17176, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 3:10:07 PM

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About the Author
  • Holly Yettick
    University of Colorado, Denver
    E-mail Author
    HOLLY YETTICK is a postdoctoral fellow at the Buechner Institute for Governance located in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. At the Buechner Institute, she has studied the Denver Public Schools choice process and contributed to a report analyzing fiscal and administrative aspects of No Child Left Behind for a working group convened by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado. Her research interests also include news media coverage of education and equity-based school reforms.
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