To the Editor:
Daniel L. Duke, in his recent Commentary on the research he and colleagues at the University of Virginia have been doing on “school turnaround specialists,” once again points out that the correct unit of analysis and focus of change, if we hope to improve education, is the school, not the school district (“Turning Schools Around,” Feb. 21, 2007). Mr. Duke highlights his program’s findings, and while this is very useful, the point not stressed is identification of the appropriate entity upon which to focus efforts.
A number of articles have been written lately arguing that districts should be the focus of turnaround efforts. Lost in this argument, however, is the commonly held understanding that principals, usually in a line relationship to superintendents and, therefore, CEOs of their respective organizations, can make or break any district change effort. This is seen over and over in initiatives of all sorts. Further, each individual school has its own unique history and culture that must be considered in any reform effort (Mr. Duke knows this well, as demonstrated in his book The School That Refused to Die).
While I don’t downplay the importance of districtwide change efforts, the proper role for superintendents and other central-office administrators is to select building-level leaders who are committed to the district’s initiatives and possess the ability to implement them in their respective schools. (A primary finding of Mr. Duke’s research is that there is no substitute for leadership at the building level.) Unfortunately, most superintendents “inherit” building-level administrators when they arrive.
School districts, moreover, are loosely coupled organizations. Despite recent efforts to tighten the accountability screws on principals and their schools (via use of school-level achievement scores, reconstitution of schools, or performance-based principal-evaluation systems), they remain essentially islands within the larger sea.
Mr. Duke’s research on the process of turning schools around and those that do this is very useful. Now we must take the key findings and ensure that school systems and superintendents apply them in the most productive way, and at the appropriate organizational level, to accomplish real reform.
William D. Silky
Professor of Educational Administration
State University of New York
College at Oswego
A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Turnaround’ Essay Shows Need for a Reform Focus