Professional Development

Va. Principal Cadre Aims To Fix Schools

By Jeff Archer — April 28, 2004 5 min read
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Borrowing a strategy from the corporate world, Virginia plans to form an elite cadre of principals armed with the skills needed to jump-start improvement in low-performing schools.

In what’s being pitched as a national model, state officials last week picked the University of Virginia to run a training program that will let an experienced school leader earn a credential as a “turnaround specialist.”

“It cannot be someone who’s timid,” said Linda M. Wallinger, the state education official overseeing the effort. “It has to be someone who is competent in what they do, who focuses on where the organization needs to go, who can come in and assess the areas of improvement and not be afraid to act on those areas.”

The move in Virginia is a new twist on an increasingly popular strategy: moving strong principals to weak schools. Maryland now pays $125,000 annually to a handful of proven principals who agree to spend three years leading schools in Baltimore. The Palm Beach County, Fla., district has revised its pay scale for school administrators to better reward those in the toughest jobs.

And the United Kingdom has experimented with designating highly effective school leaders as “superheads,” charged with helping to set low-achieving schools on the path toward improvement. (The title refers to “head teacher,” as principals there are called.)

Some analysts question how much difference one principal can make. But a poll last year by the opinion-research group Public Agenda showed that 78 percent of superintendents in large districts believed that transferring successful principals to struggling schools was an “excellent way” to improve performance.

“Obviously, if you have an area with problems, you want your best problem-solvers there,” said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, an Arlington, Va.-based group made up primarily of superintendents.

Organizers hope to select the first 10 principals for the Virginia initiative in the coming weeks. Participants will attend summer workshops given jointly by the university’s business and education schools before taking leadership positions at low- performing schools next fall, either as principals or as administrators working in support of principals. The goal is for the specialists to stay at a school for three years.

A Business Model

Virginia’s specialist credential grew out of a proposal outlined last fall by Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat who was elected in 2001 after spending most of his career as a high- tech entrepreneur. In the corporate sector, turnaround specialists make up a distinct niche of consultants brought in temporarily to radically restructure companies on the brink of financial collapse.

Likewise, the thinking is that rescuing a low-performing school requires distinctive expertise.

“That really involves a whole new set of skills, and it sometimes involves a different personality,” said Ms. Wallinger, who directs the office of program administration and accountability at the Virginia Department of Education.

The agency last week was preparing to contract with the Partnership for Leaders in Education—a new venture of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Darden Graduate School of Business Administration—to run the program. The partnership began last year by giving executive-training sessions to district leaders.

Candidates for the principal-specialist certification must already hold credentials as regular administrators. They will begin this summer by spending several days in residence at the university in Charlottesville, studying management and data analysis. Officials from districts intending to hire them also will attend workshops.

Continuing support for the principals will come from a group called School Turnaround, an initiative of the Rensselaerville Institute, a nonprofit group based in Rensselaerville, N.Y., that works with human-service organizations to do strategic planning aimed at improving performance. Participants will become certified after the first year in their new jobs.

“As opposed to credentials that are just given after someone sits in the classroom and completes a set of coursework, our credential will be rewarded based on outcomes,” said Tierney T. Fairchild, the executive director of the university’s partnership.

Despite plans to recruit just 10 principals this year, state officials said they view the program as a pilot that could be expanded. They also see it as a potential model for a national program of specialized certification of principals, akin to that offered in the business world by a Chicago-based group called the Association of Certified Turnaround Professionals.

At a cost of $710,000 for the first year, the pilot is receiving financial support from the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, which also underwrites coverage of leadership in Education Week.

Not everyone, however, sees so much promise in such tactics. The same Public Agenda poll that showed strong support among superintendents for moving principals around also suggested that principals themselves hold far less faith that the practice can be effective.

‘Superman’ Strategy?

“I’m skeptical of the superman-person coming in with guns blazing and bringing about the changes that we need,” said Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, based in Alexandria, Va. “I don’t think that kind of change is going to bring about sustained improvement.”

Organizers of Virginia’s new specialist program counter that much of what participants will be learning to do is to create structures that last after they depart. The organizers also say districts that hire the principals will sign agreements to give them added support and flexibility, such as additional staff members or greater discretion in evaluating teachers.

Principal Stephen Gibson agrees turning around a school is tough work, but he says it can be done. He’s now in his second year leading Baltimore’s Hamilton Middle School, where he transferred as part of Maryland’s distinguished-principals fellowship program. Previously, he led one of the state’s highest-performing middle schools, in the affluent suburb of Howard County.

Since coming to Hamilton, the 48-year old administrator has had the school building repaired, overhauled teachers’ professional development, and resurrected the school’s PTA. He’s also given new leadership responsibilities to staff members already at the school.

The payoff: The passing rates of students at the school on state tests has shot up by 70 percent or more in most subjects and in most grades.

“The very first thing was to develop a sense of collaborative leadership,” Mr. Gibson said. “I had to put in place a leadership team to let people know that one single entity is not the answer.”

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