A recent event at the Fordham Institute focused on whether bad schools really ever get better. As a former teacher with many contacts still working in elementary schools, the event reminded me of the critical importance of strong school principals and what happens when they leave or are moved to other jobs.
To illustrate what I mean, consider this story about a real but “unnamed” elementary school in Florida. For easy reading, we’ll just call the school Sunshine Elementary School.
Florida grades its schools A-F based on students’ performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in reading, math and writing. After bouncing between an “F” and a “D” for several years, Sunshine received a new principal. The principal (we’ll call her Mrs. Smith) was a dynamic leader and after three years of steady gains moved the school to an “A.” Because of her success, the principal was moved to another “low-performing” school and several teachers went with her.
A new principal (Mr. Jackson) was assigned to Sunshine. Mr. Jackson had not previously worked in a low-performing school nor had he ever lead an elementary school. In fact, he was a first year principal. In general, the teachers did not feel supported and the students did not get along with him. During his tenure, the school plummeted to a “D” and then again down to an “F.” He was reassigned and a new principal (Mrs. Jones) replaced him.
The teachers felt like Mrs. Jones was a breath of fresh air. She regularly stated the importance of placing strong teachers in the early grades. She was firm but fair. She visited classrooms frequently and met with teachers on a regular basis to discuss their strengths and weaknesses. She established community partnerships to connect children and families to services. The students recognized her as “strict” but caring, and respected her. The school again was on the path toward improving making an “A” and then a “B” during her two years. After Mrs. Jones’ second year, she was offered and accepted a position to assist other low-performing schools around the state transform.
This year, Sunshine, once again, has a new principal. The students don’t like her and teacher morale is down. Once again, behavior problems are on the rise; they dropped significantly under Mrs. Jones’ tenure. The atmosphere in the school is tense. How will Sunshine Elementary School perform this year?
This year’s school grades won’t be published until the summer, but looking at the history, the school’s grade will likely fall again. Leadership matters and keeping strong, capable leaders in the schools with the most challenges is key. Of course, a strong principal is not the only factor that matters, but it is a factor that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. But are there enough of them?
A recent New York Times’ article by Sam Dillon discusses leadership challenges and questions if there are enough principals who have been prepared to turnaround schools. Many traditional education schools have educational leadership programs; however, they don’t necessarily focus on how to turn around struggling schools. Dillon writes, “Because leading schools out of chronic failure is harder than managing a successful school –often requiring more creative problem-solving abilities and stronger leadership, among other skills – the supply of principals capable of doing the work is tiny.”
There are a few programs that do focus on leading struggling schools such as New Leaders for New Schools and University of Virginia’s School Turnaround Specialist Program (both mentioned in Dillon’s article) that have had success training leaders.
The impetus behind the Fordham Institute’s event was the release of a recent report – “Are Bad Schools Immortal?” written by David A. Stuit. He tracked 2,000 low-performing schools, traditional and charter, in 10 states and found that a mere 1.4 percent of district schools and less than one percent of charter schools could be deemed “turnarounds.” Worse, after five years, 72 percent of charters and 80 percent of district schools remained low-performing.
A key piece of the Obama Administration’s education agenda has been turning around low-performing schools. But there is no proven strategy for how to go about doing it. The Department of Education cites research on the four options proposed in the Administration’s Blueprint for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but examples of success are sparse. Fordham concluded that it is easier to a close low-performing schools and this is where policymakers focus their efforts. But is that really the answer?
Perhaps focusing on improving and retaining good principals is where the federal government should make investments. Targeted programs that prepare leaders to turnaround schools should be studied and if they are truly successful expanded or replicated. This is one area where the Obama Administration could make more of a dent in its focus on turning around “low-performing” schools.