The “Sink or Swim” Reality: Learning From Turnaround Principal Preparation

By Aaron Butler, Ph.D., Senior Turnaround Consultant at AIR, Jul 28, 2014

With Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s announcement of the Excellent Educators for All initiative earlier this month, putting excellent principals at the helm of high-need schools remains critical. Because turning around the nation’s chronically low-performing schools continues to perplex teachers, school and district leaders, and policymakers, let’s consider the experiences and lessons learned from the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program.

Beginning in 2010, these federal grants were awarded to turn around the nation’s low-performing schools through four models for improvement—transformation, turnaround, restart, and closure. All four options had one thing in common: replacing the school principal.

Despite the infusion of hundreds of thousands to millions of SIG dollars into many low-performing schools and districts, the improvement results have been mixed at best. One glaring weakness, as shown by a 2012 study by Center on Education Policy, is that the SIG program’s requirement to replace the principal does not guarantee that the new principal will be better equipped than the previous one to turn the school around. Often, it’s sink or swim for these new principals facing the complex challenges of poor classroom instruction, low staff and student morale, poor community perception, inconsistently used data systems, and lack of a challenging curriculum.

To better prepare the new principals, state- and district-level leaders should make leadership development and coaching a budget priority and support two other strategies:

  • Leadership pipeline or training programs that zero in on school turnaround and transformation
  • Ongoing leadership coaching for principals to enhance their abilities to lead school turnaround and transformation

Traditional leadership preparation programs, whether in conjunction with other training or alone, aren’t enough. As a study in the NCPEA International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation points out, too many university-based leadership preparation programs don’t fully prepare school leaders to boost student achievement. The intense demands placed on turnaround principals to make dramatic gains in student achievement in three or fewer years make the gap between the amount or type of preparation and readiness to lead even wider.

The best new approaches to development and training for turnaround school leaders are results-oriented and support a principal’s specific needs. As discussed in an article by the Reform Support Network, several states—Delaware, Florida, New York, Ohio, and others―are already developing principal pipeline and coaching programs. Meanwhile, the recent Turnaround School Leaders Program grant, proposed by the U.S. Department of Education, will fund districts to develop a principal pipeline program just for school turnaround leaders.

State and district leaders looking to improve principal preparation programs also would benefit from borrowing change management principles from outside of education. John Kotter, leadership expert and author of the book Leading Change, addresses the need for a new type of change leadership to address the escalating pace and complexities of the 21st century. In the education arena, Public Impact identifies turnaround competencies embodied by successful turnaround leaders. Schools, districts, and other organizations need leaders who can develop and communicate a vision, develop and manage plans and budgets that maximize resources, solve complex problems, and motivate their staff to be increasingly more effective.

Leadership principles and competencies that are integrated into the curriculum of principal development and coaching programs―and supported through ongoing coaching―can challenge principals to focus on how their thinking and actions impact their ability to turn around a school.

Leadership can make or break any organization. Great leaders clarify and communicate their vision for the organization and work relentlessly to improve results. However, when they come to a new school, they need support systems to:

  • Develop a shared purpose and mission for their schools.
  • Clearly communicate their theory of change to improve the teaching and learning environment.
  • Manage resources and monitor progress of all school initiatives.
  • Collaborate with families and community members.

Besides providing this support, states also may want to develop a pipeline of turnaround principals who are lent to schools for two to three years to get the turnaround ball rolling. Then these schools can be transitioned to a principal who is skilled at sustaining the turnaround. States and districts should consider such creative options to ensure that the upcoming generation of school leaders is prepared to make a positive impact amid a turbulent environment.

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Now it’s your turn. We want to hear your thoughts:

  • What lessons has your state learned about high-need school leadership from SIG, and how can they be incorporated into your revised comprehensive educator equity plan?
  • What can districts do to provide ongoing support and feedback for principals?
  • What actions will help ensure that principal-preparation programs in your state integrate components required of turnaround leaders and emphasize accountability?

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