Principals of Turnaround Schools

Few dispute that turning around a chronically low performing school requires, at the minimum, a principal dead-set on that mission with the expertise, experience, and fortitude to do the job. In short, a savvy marathoner knowledgeable in the ways of teachers, students, and school politics who can go the distance. Of course, a cadre of teachers equally determined and equipped with the moxie necessary to engage and manage students is essential also. For this post, however, I want to concentrate on the question of whether such principals are in sufficient supply to staff the schools that need to be turned around and, even more important, keep them turned around.

Clearly a number of principals have applied electric paddles to the hearts of nearly dead, failing schools. And then, having revived their schools, these principals–marathoners that they are–have stayed the course and made them, through intense working partnership with teachers and parents into healthy, achieving schools. Such principals are super-stars. But such school leaders are outliers–the Michael Phelps of the swimming world, not typical principals (or swimmers) who inhabit the bell-shaped curve. That fact, however, gets ignored.

Consider the work of Karin Chenoweth who, in a recent book, has nicely profiled such super-stars. Elementary school principals, Barbara Adderley and Deb Gustafson turned around persistently failing schools. I profiled Edna in an earlier posting (September 25,2009). Journalist Linda Perlstein wrote about Ernestine McKnight in Tyler Heights, Annapolis (MD). Such herculean and successful efforts do demonstrate that turnarounds can occur. But they do not prove that a majority of principals can copy what super-stars do. Nor do these instances show whether outliers stick around long enough to keep their school turned around after they leave.

And they do leave. Promoted to a regional superintendent in Washington,D.C., Adderley is helping Michelle Rhee in her efforts to resuscitate an entire district. McKnight exited Tyler Heights for a post in the Maryland state department of education. What’s worse is that principal turnover in moving from one school to another or even exiting the job runs high.

The question, however, is not whether super stars move up the career ladder or whether turnover is increasing–both patterns have been evident for decades–but whether such principals are in sufficient supply to turn around 5,000 “dropout factories” in the hyped-up Race To the Top much less whether there are thousands more who can take command of those persistently mediocre schools that slip into failure.

In a recent blog for Harvard Education Publishing Group, Chenoweth refuted critics who have called Race to the Top’s reform agenda “education’s moon shot.” According to Chenoweth, “if we learn from Adderley, Gustafson, and all the other educators who have succeeded in turning around seemingly hopeless schools it will look more like a drive across country—occasionally grueling, but achievable with the knowledge and resources we currently have.” If typical principals fail to turn their schools around the problem is presumably a lack of will power and simple grit.

I don’t believe that. Nor would Gerald Leader, a professor emeritus at Boston University. Leader worked with five Boston area principals for over ten years. With a lot of help, three of the principals created communities among teachers and, over time, penetrated classroom instruction and student learning sufficiently to improve student achievement. Two experienced principals who also had lots of help from outside organizations failed to create the cooperative arrangements that influenced classroom instruction. According to Leader (who, coincidentally, also blogs for Harvard Education Publishing Group), even these veteran principals needed “more extensive skills” and an “expanded knowledge repertoire.” None of this would click with Chenoweth who thinks turning around failing schools is similar to a grueling cross-country road trip.

So what’s the point? By pointing to super-stars like Adderley, Gustafson, and McKnight who turned around schools, writers give policymakers license to say that all principals can do that–the fallacy of making policy on the basis of outliers. Listen to blogger Eduwonkette parse that too common logic:

” 1) Some schools with high concentrations of minority and poor students are getting exceptional results, 2) If some schools with high concentrations of minority and poor students are getting good results, poverty must not affect academic achievement – at least not in ways that can’t be overcome by good schools, and 3) If some schools can get exceptional results in spite of the challenges their students face, all schools should be able to.”

Typical principals–the Harry’s of the world (September 25, 2009 post)– and the ones that Leader worked with–are mere mortals, not super-stars. They are the marathoners who need help, not policymakers’ faulty generalizations based on outliers.*

*I want to thank Arthur Evenchik for suggesting this post on turnaround schools and principals and his helpful edits. Of course, he bears no responsibility for my interpretation.



Filed under school leaders

6 responses to “Principals of Turnaround Schools

  1. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his recent book “Outliers” high level performance is often the result of a serendipitous combination of talent and environments that afford the development of that talent. For this reason, I think we need to be careful in assuming that those who have attained a great degree in success in one context will be successful in another, even if it looks similar. The UK experience in the 1990s, where “super heads” were parachuted in to lead school turnarounds, was almost uniformly disappointing, but we should not have been surprised. Many of those “super heads” had been successful in their previous assignments because of the affordances that those assignments provided them. Put them in a different environment, with different affordances, and they are likely to be less successful. The same point is made by Jim Collins about the corporate sector in “From Good to Great”. It’s just another example of regression to the mean.

  2. Karin Chenoweth

    Thank you, Dr. Cuban, for this discussion. But I want to take issue with the way you characterize my argument: “If typical principals fail to turn their schools around the problem is presumably a lack of will power and simple grit.”

    Will power and grit have their place (although I use different words to describe them), but they are not the point. The analogy I make in It’s Being Done is to the development of human flight. Certainly “will power and simple grit” were part of the Wright Brothers’ story. But once they demonstrated the possibilities, the real challenges were in disseminating the knowledge that they had developed and the continual improvement of that knowledge by the engineering profession.

    In How It’s Being Done, I try to explore in some depth the knowledge that principals such as Barbara Adderley and Deb Gustafson have developed. They argue that they are not superhuman but rather that they know what to do. “If you know what to do you can make change,” Adderley says. It seems to me the challenge now is the dissemination of that knowledge and the perfection of it by the field of education.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Karin, for your comment. We are both skating around a deeper issue concerning “the dissemination of that knowledge and the perfection of it by the field of education.” That issue is your assumption that a Barbara Adderley and Deb Gustafson plopped down in largely low-income, minority schools in other districts will replicate what they did earlier. That assumes that school-site and district differences in cultures, capacities of teachers and administrators to do the job, and other contextual features simply wash out, leaving the only problem as dissemination of knowledge. If that is your assumption, then we continue to differ on principals in turnaround schools.

  3. Richard

    I agree with you Larry. Superstars are few and far between. What you don’t mention are the ideas that go with that: just give the principal the power to hire and fire teachers at will. Power held can be power abused. Do we ever look at schools where an incompetent principal shows up? My guess is that you will find that is the teachers who are already there who keep the school achieving despite the “good intentions” of someone who should not be principal at all. Hiring and firing at in those schools could be based on a “who is with me and who is against me” criteria. How many really talented teachers would leave under that scenario. To me, then, this whole issue is even more complicated if you look at the “flip side.”

  4. rob

    the issue no one is looking at is if these gains at turnaround schools are even sustained. A close look at the data reveals many dips…..

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