Tough Times for Principal-Based Turnaround Efforts

An interesting cluster of pieces on much-heralded school leadership reform efforts in New York and Virginia suggest just how important – and just how difficult – it is to find effective school leaders and turn around struggling schools.


On Friday, the Times’ David Herszenhorn overviewed the emergence of national and local donors funding NYC school reform efforts (to the tune of $311 million a year): New York City's Big Donors Find New Cause: Public Schools.

Bloomberg's efforts may indeed have received "the warmest embrace from leaders of corporations and foundations" (as Herszenhorn writes). However, a pair of NYT pieces by Elissa Gootman published just a few days beforehand might make some of the big-bucks folks wonder about their investments.

The Gootman pieces raise lots questions about the effectiveness of the $70 million principal leadership academy – one of the largest most widely-publicized of the foundation-supported efforts:City Officials Put Academy for Principals Under Review, Academy for Principals to Become a Private Nonprofit Group.

"Two and a half years after the academy was created as the most expensive and ambitious principal-training program in the country, its record is decidedly mixed," writes Gootman. I wonder how the funders feel about that?

Of the 180 candidates who entered the academy, only 113 are now working as principals – which may or may not be better than the success rate for other relatively new types of principal recruitment and training programs like New Leaders for New Schools.

Still, the Denver Post reports that the district superintendent plans on adopting the plan.

For an up-close look at just how hard it is to turn around a struggling school and how even the best-considered plans aren't always workable, check out the most recent of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer The Turnaround Specialist, Part II, which aired last week and is available for viewing online (along with the transcript and the first installment).

Focused on Virginia’s much-publicized (and privately funded) program to hire and train “turnaround specialists” for low-performing schools, the NewsHour segment focuses on a low-income middle school in Richmond and shows some things that many will not have seen on camera before: student disorder in the halls, faculty resistance to a new principal’s ideas, and the tough tradeoffs between school discipline and quality instruction. The show got amazing access before they got kicked out (temporarily, I'm told).


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