School turnaround experts in educational leadership are becoming ever more popular in certain parts of the country. A recent NPR report on the use of Turnaround for Children in the Bronx provides an interesting overview on the situation creating this need as well as some insight into their approach.
The keys to success are clear (especially when studied in hindsight):
- Focus on behavior. Don’t allow classrooms to be disrupted. Learning does not happen when behavior problems arise. Teach teachers how to deal with these issues quickly and effectively. Ensure that school administrators do their best to support teachers.
- Separate academic issues from social / emotional issues. Schools must be able to sort through the issues and directly address the most significant issues first. Doctors call this triage. Do not try to do it all at once. Focus on where you will get the best return on your time.
- Individualize needs of students. This may be the most difficult part especially for large urban schools. Different students, different families have vastly different needs. Some have money problems, others have logistical issues. For some there are large cultural and language barriers. Understand this up front and focus on getting these students and families matched with the resources that can help. Quickly.
- Do it with existing staff. There are not enough quailified teachers. Period. Most schools and school districts do not have the luxury of replacing staff en masse. And while some may disagree, I content that most teachers are in it for the right reason. Focus on getting rid of the few bad apples if you need to. But work with the staff you’ve got.
So, if it is so straightforward (and let me assure you, in most cases it is), why do we need outsiders to do it for us? Or do we? There are some reasons for and against and I understand the emotionally charged nature of this topic. But I will offer an opinion: We need outsiders to do the work. Period.
In fact, schools use outsiders (by the classic definition) all the time. A school in need usually gets a new principal. He or she is – for the first two years anyway – effectively an outsider. They come in with few sacred cows or internal political issues. Their agenda is simple: do a good job as measured by student performance. Unfortunately a few things happen along the way that derail these efforts.
First, a new principal may be just that: a new principal. A school in need of turnaround is rarely a great environment for a first year principal. While some new principals are more afraid of following a great principal (perhaps rightly so though for different reasons), entering the treacherous water of a school in need is no place to learn.
Second, the district agenda and biases are still in play. A principal, though new to the school or even the district, is still subjected to many of the same machinations of the school district that the last principal was. This may be good though oftentimes it means business as usually. For turnaround situations, the status quo is rarely a positive.
Third, even experienced principals might lack the experience or the approach of a turnaround expert. Let us be honest. Turning a school around requires a certain stubborness, a thickness of skin, but also a perspective and approach that only comes from experience. Unfortunately most great principals I know end up at the central office never to return to school leadership. And so few principals, even great ones, have a full depth and breadth of experience in turning schools around.
So of course, bringing in a new principal is not the same as bringing in a true outsider. A true outsider would be unfettered from the cultural bonds that restrict his or her ability to make change. They are not worried about the perceptions of staff beyond the immediate term. They have the breadth and depth of experience. But not all of these will play as advantages either.
A lack of connection with the community will be felt by anyone who is clearly there on a temporary basis. And staff and students will feel this as well. As while turnaround organizations clearly have some resources and expertise to leverage, no two situations are exactly alike. These factors need be considered as well.
The best approach may be simply a blend of internal leadership talent supplemented by outside expertise. And regardless of whether an outsider is used or not their lessons can be applied to all: Focus on the areas where you can improve school effectiveness by the largest margin.