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Turnaround Principals

New training models have emerged for preparing school leaders to transform low-achieving schools.
Professor Mark Hampton, standing, of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, leads a workshop on strategic planning for school teams participating in the UVa School Turnaround Specialist Program.

The Obama administration has grand hopes for turning around the nation's lowest-performing schools, in part by allocating $3.5 billion for School Improvement Grants. Unfortunately, there simply aren't enough qualified principals to replace those mandated to be fired under two of the four school improvement models that the federal government says districts must follow to tap into that funding.

Both the transformational and turnaround models of Obama's school restructuring plan begin with a directive to replace the principal, and in the latter case, at least half the teaching staff as well. And with the other two options—the close/consolidate model, which closes schools and transfers students to higher performing schools, and the restart model, which closes schools and reopens them as charters—principals are also likely to find themselves out of work.

Gail Connelly, CEO of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, applauds the "unprecedented level of federal financial resources" now available for innovative school reform, but says the shortage of principals in certain districts is a serious and escalating problem and one likely to continue for the foreseeable future. For example, a 2009 study, "Tenure and Retention of Newly Hired Principals in Texas" reveals that about only half of newly hired high school principals stay for three years, and a 2003 report from the University of Washington, "A Matter of Definition: Is There Truly a Shortage of School Principals?" found many superintendents reporting a dearth of principals possessing the necessary strong leadership qualities.

With 74 percent of schools eligible for improvement grants opting for the transformational model—which calls for a comprehensive overhaul of instruction, evaluation systems and other school operations in addition to replacing the principal—the need for effective administrators is a pervasive problem, Connelly says. But it's especially dire in the persistently low-performing schools where pressures and challenges are high and strong leadership is crucial, she adds.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visits with principal Nancy Guzman, of Sterling Elementary School, last fall.

Across the board, expectations for traditional principals have evolved over the years. No longer are principals regarded as performers of largely managerial duties. Today's principals need skills in analyzing data to drive successful instruction, developing public relations systems to ensure the community is informed of school goals and achievements, researching education trends and best practices, and facilitating continuous improvement by enabling staff to participate in communities of learning.

While turnaround principals must also possess these skills, an urban, high-poverty, high-minority, often transient district environment adds new layers of challenges for leaders who must adapt quickly and make headway with a student population and community most likely mired in academic failure.

Training the Turnaround Leader

Recognizing the problems in pockets of American education today, universities, nonprofits and other organizations have developed turnaround principal initiatives over the past decade to help improve schools labeled as failing under No Child Left Behind. These programs, which train teachers for future principal jobs as well as assistant principals and principals primarily in office up to three years, focus on skills that principals need to address the particular challenges of struggling schools.

Here are a few examples.

New Leaders for New Schools

Founded in 2000, the nonprofit New Leaders for New Schools principal turnaround program purposefully recruits candidates who reflect a diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. The 15-month program includes best practices from both the education and business worlds, with summer coursework and a yearlong residency in which candidates serve as assistant principals in high-need, urban public schools, helping teachers improve instructional practices and receive ongoing coaching from both the host principal and a coach that the program provides.

Like other turnaround programs, the New Leaders for New Schools program has a laser focus on using data to help students improve rapidly. "[In] making progress, being better is not good enough," says CEO Jean Desravines. "It's about all students achieving at a high level."

Jennifer Henry, the program's regional director and a participant in the first cohort of turnaround principals, says crucial skills include the ability to create very quick cycles of improvement. "If data shows an approach is not working, stop that immediately and accelerate things that are working," she says.

Also key are flexibility, agility, a strong vision for the school, frequent observations and the ability to have "courageous conversations—in other words, straight talk with staff about data showing that their instruction might need changing or improvement.

The New Leaders for New Schools program, which started with 13 candidates in three cities, has expanded to more than 700 leaders in 12 urban centers across the country. Recognizing "the significant gap between supply and demand" in the number of principals equipped to lead turnaround schools, Desravines says his organization aims to scale up from training 400 leaders over the last four years to 4,000 leaders in the next four years. The training expansion plan, due to launch in fall 2011, will identify 40 or 50 potential leaders from among public school teachers and assistant principals and grow their abilities to become effective principals.

Urban Education Leadership

At the University of Illinois, the Urban Education Leadership (UEL) program began offering a three-year doctoral program in 2001, combining coursework and supervised practical experience with a heavy reliance on site-based coaching by principals with proven track records in transforming urban schools.

With a dual purpose to transform both K12 schools and higher-education school-leadership programs, the UEL program draws candidates from new principals, assistant principals and educators who have demonstrated success in classroom instruction and in areas of adult leadership, such as becoming the chairperson of the school site council or mentoring colleagues. Experienced principals may also apply, but few do, says Steve Tozer, coordinator of the doctor of education degree program in Urban Education Leadership and professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies.

A New Leaders for New Schools principal, assists a student at Dodge Renaissance Academy in Chicago Public Schools.

The program's core emphasizes data-based strategic planning, literacy instruction, technology for instructional and information management use, business management, assessment, the role of race and ethnicity in a school's culture, bilingual education and other leadership skills.

In speaking of turnaround principals, Tozer notes the term "turnaround" no longer simply indicates a goal but has come to be synonymous with the federal government's turnaround model, which requires firing a school's teaching staff, as well as principals. "We do not advocate firing school faculty," says Tozer. "The program focuses on replacing principals only." Of 22 elementary schools in the Chicago area where UEL has placed turnaround principals, 17 of those have achieved improved test scores using existing staff, he says.

Tozer says a primary key to success in urban, high-poverty schools is principal-empowered staff collaboration, or what he calls the "deprivatization" of teaching. Instead of working alone behind closed doors, teachers need to meet regularly to agree upon goals, instruction and assessment. "You can't have five different algebra teachers giving five different exams. Then it becomes the luck of the draw," he says, especially in schools where high turnover means many inexperienced teachers. "Principals need to create structures where teachers have shared release time."

The UEL program is getting results. Out of 10 high-poverty schools with 80 percent African-American student populations, Tozer says, nine performed above the norm on the Chicago Public Schools benchmark test in the most recent two years under UEL principals who had been on the job between one and four years.

And although UEL-trained principals are in only 45 schools so far, those schools also show improved student attendance, reduced high school dropout rates and an increased number of freshmen on track for graduating. Ron Huberman, Chicago Public Schools' former CEO, states that UEL did "a tremendous job at fostering a team atmosphere that promotes open communication among students, parents, teachers and the principal."

U.Va. Turnaround Program

New Leaders for New Schools principals in training collaborate in small groups during Summer Foundations, a month-long training session.

Begun by Virginia Sen. Mark Warner in 2003 when he was governor, the University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program (STSP) is a two-year program that helps districts develop and sustain leadership capacity through large-scale organizational changes and principal preparation training.

William Robinson, senior director for the program, says that such reform projects are often viewed by district personnel as an "extra layer" of work or bureaucracy and that when that happens, the effects are not lasting. "We focus on broad issues, such as a district's alignment and use of formative assessment data, processes and tools to create action plans, and in particular, systems for identifying highly effective teachers to train for administrative positions," he says.

Helping identify transformational principals is a major part of the work, says Robinson, who agrees with the U.S. Department of Education's method of replacing principals who have been in low-performing schools for more than three years. The program, which does not train more experienced principals, uses a competency-based model for choosing leaders rather than traditional methods, which were often political or based on resumes or seniority, says Robinson.

Once the program begins, STSP provides on-site support for the executive education of principals, including how to establish a culture of high expectations, build effective coalitions, identify opportunities for innovation, and develop strategic plans. Principals are coached through multiple site visits per year, are given suggestions for professional development resources and provided with strategies on how to run effective data-analysis meetings with teachers to monitor and measure the need for midcourse corrections.

To streamline the process, STSP works directly with a district point person or "shepherd," who acts as a liaison, communicating needs and mentorship advice between principals and STSP coaches.

Key to the effort, says Robinson, is district leadership providing the shepherd with the autonomy and latitude to make decisions in order to respond quickly to the needs of principals based on data, such as with the Cincinnati Public Schools, where shepherd Laura Mitchell, who is also the deputy superintendent, severed certain partnerships and forged new ones. "Organizations that couldn't show results, or didn't want the accountability, are no longer working with us," she says.

New Leader Principal Robert Spencer observes a class at Aspire Capitol Heights Academy, a pre-K8 turnaround school in Sacramento, Calif.

Mitchell recently also created a partnership with the Cincinnati business community, matching top business leaders with school principals for ongoing coaching and sharing. The specialist program, which is running in four states serving 87 schools across 13 districts, is seeing success. For example, an STSP partnership with Cincinnati's Elementary Initiative, a program designed to improve 16 low-performing schools, resulted in an improvement in 80 percent of the schools, with 13 making "significant gains in two years," says Mitchell.

Cincinnati Public Schools became the first urban public school district in Ohio to achieve the state's ranking of "Effective," and Superintendent Mary Ronan reports that the success of the initiative also contributed to developing a groundbreaking teacher contract. "We saw an outpouring of public support, with the community making it clear that they wanted the district to have the flexibility to expand our successes," she says. "The new contract includes increased flexibility for the administration and, for the first time, includes student achievement as a factor in teacher evaluations."

Perspective on Turnarounds

Despite what appears to be widespread acceptance of replacing school leaders in turnaround efforts, not all education experts agree with what NAESP'S Connelly calls the "ready, aim, fire" approach. Mel Riddile, high school services director for the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the organization's 2006 National High School Principal of the Year, says that principals should be evaluated fairly and given an opportunity to improve.

School Improvement Grants or Race to the Top funds "should not be used as an excuse to get rid of people," he says. "If the principal deserves to be fired, why didn't the district carry out that responsibility a long time ago?"

A pioneer turnaround principal himself, Riddile took over the failing J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, Va., back in 1997 and, using the existing staff, turned it into a national model in four years. Riddile's own unique approach included collaborative planning and decision making among teachers, who developed common syllabi, pacing guides and assessment tools.

Technology also played a major role, with Riddile using discretionary money to buy used computer equipment from businesses and software from Scholastic and Plato to augment the reading program. Additionally, he freed teachers of all nonteaching assignments, such as cafeteria duty, to allow them to focus on instruction.

During that time, school scores on the state course exams went from 32 percent in algebra to 98 percent, from 27 percent in U.S. history to 96 percent, and from 64 percent to 95 percent in high school reading. "If we're going to improve schools, we've got to do it with the people we've already got. Principals aren't hanging on trees out there," says Riddile.

Important characteristics for turnaround principals, says Riddile, include being team oriented as opposed to having a top-down principal-staff hierarchy; being an ongoing learner in all curricula; having the courage to say no to projects not consistent with the school's identified goals; and focusing on the same two to three goals every year. "In the course of transforming the school, we changed the mindsets of teachers about what we believed and expected of kids," he says. "We were able to instill a faith in both students and teachers that if they worked harder, they would get better. And they did."

Susan McLester is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, Calif.