Dance of the principal lemons

Removing the principal of a persistently low-performing school is one of the steps required in most federally funded school improvement efforts. The “new” principal should have the skills and personality to lead a drastic improvement and to create a sustainable environment for continued improvement, after the federal funds are removed. As discussed in a recent EdWeek article, Ousted Principals Quickly Find New Education Jobs, many schools and districts have been able to shift people around to meet the federal requirements, while not making some of the tough decisions that are needed for the best interest of students, i.e. removing an underperforming principal from school administration.

Some principals (like some teachers) may need to leave the profession altogether, but others simply need to work in a different environment. They might be great principals in a new school, but they cannot meet the extreme needs and changes required in a persistently low-performing school. In such cases, these principals could be placed within another school in the district and thrive.

Too often, these principals, who were not effective in a low-performing school, receive positions in another low-performing or struggling school, and sometimes they’re even hired as a district’s “turnaround officer.” He or she has shown that he/she does not have the skills, knowledge, and/or temperament to lead a turnaround, and simply moving that person to a position with more authority is not effective. This dance of the lemons hurts the children in these schools, harms the teachers who need strong instructional and administrative leaders, and adversely impacts the profession as a whole.

Schools and districts struggle to find appropriate turnaround principals to replace the removed staff, and this is especially apparent in rural areas. Leading a school turnaround (or the federal transformation model) is not easy work and it takes a special person, or team, to do it well. There are a number of principal training programs that are being used to build stronger capacity within schools and districts (UVA’s School Turnaround Specialist Program is one such program) and some districts and states are building their own “Grow your Own” turnaround principal training programs. Other states and districts are using external consultants or Lead Turnaround Partners to supplement the local staff and to guide the school and district through the many requirements of the various federal improvement models. Only consultants & lead partners that have experience in transforming schools and knowledge of a persistently low-performing school should be hired.

There are not any easy answers for how to implement successful school improvement efforts, but it is clear that simply moving around staff who don’t have the skills or personalities to do this challenging work will not help the situation. Superintendents and school boards need to make the tough decisions and that may require removing staff from both a school building, and more challenging, the district.

State Education Agencies also play a role here, and they must ensure that the School Improvement Grants are used effectively. This oversight role includes paying attention to who is leading the improvement efforts both at the school and within the district, and possibly not granting 2011-12 SIG funds to schools or divisions who have found and taken advantage of such loopholes.

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