Shortage of Principals for School Turnarounds, Urban K-12 Leaders Say

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 24, 2014 5 min read
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Without a deeper bench of principals who specialize in overhauling chronically failing schools, the Obama administration’s efforts to turn around low-performing schools will have a fleeting impact, city K-12 leaders told federal education officials today.

Four years into the administration’s $5.5 billion School Improvement Grant program, or SIG, leaders in urban districts told the federal folks who wrote the rules for the school turnaround program that principal supply and capacity remain among the most pressing challenges for school districts.

Top officials from the U.S. Department of Education did not disagree.

Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education in the department, acknowledged that the SIG program—which puts principals jobs in jeopardy if schools don’t improve quickly enough—may not have zeroed in enough on the school leadership piece of the turnaround puzzle.

“My fear is that we have not placed enough of a laser light on the building principal,” she said in remarks to superintendents, administrators, and school board members gathered here for the annual legislative conference of the Council of the Great City Schools.

Scott Sargrad, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives for the department, said one of the chief lessons from the 1,400 SIG schools has been that the pipeline of “high-quality, turnaround principals is not huge.”

Ray Hart, the director of research for the Council, said surveys and interviews of district administrators are turning up not just principal shortage issues, but other challenges related to the role of school leaders in turnarounds.

“The individuals who are writing the SIG grants for schools are the principals who are being replaced,” he said. When new principals come in, they are either stuck with implementing a plan they didn’t write, or they are trying to make changes to it, he noted. And in districts where superintendents know which principals they should move into the turnaround schools, there are concerns about what happens to the progress achieved in those leaders’ former schools once they are moved.

Congress recently opened the door to some changes to the troubled SIG program, which many educators have decried as too rigid. Under a new spending bill, lawmakers allowed states to try out two additional options beyond the four original turnaround models. One would allow low-performing schools to partner with organizations that have a track record of leading turnarounds. The other would permit states to pitch turnaround ideas directly to the Education Department for approval.

But in the two months since the bill passed, the department is still thinking through how to put those new options into practice, Sargrad said. The department hopes to work with its research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, on what sort of standards to set for turnaround organizations, he said. And the feds are still pondering criteria for the state proposal option.

The department also hasn’t figured out how and if ESEA waivers will be impacted by those changes to SIG. Some background on this: To win a waiver from some mandates of the NCLB law, states had to submit proposals for turning around their lowest-performing schools that closely mirrored the “transformation” model under SIG, which calls for replacing principals, extending learning time, and experimenting with merit pay. Presumably, under the two new models enacted by Congress, states wouldn’t necessarily have to use their SIG grants to do any of those things. The question is whether the department would ultimately decide to give more wiggle room to schools that are getting the big, multimillion dollar SIG grants to do turnaround around work than it does to other low-performing schools under the waivers? We still don’t know.

Urban district leaders also got updates from federal officials on school meal policies that will be changing significantly in the coming months for districts that opt in.

As of July, the schools and districts will no longer have to use individual applications to determine which students are eligible to receive free and reduced-price meals. A new approach—called the “Community Eligibility Provision” and piloted in 11 states—will allow schools with large shares of poor students to offer free school meals to all students. Eligibility of schools to participate will be determined by categories of students—such as those who are homeless, those in families receiving food stamps, or those in families that get Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF.

In an evaluation of the 11 states where districts have piloted the community eligibility provision, participation in school meal programs has increased, said Margaret Appelbaum, an official with the Food and Nutrition Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Participation, on average, rose 5 percent for school lunch, and 9 percent for school breakfast, she said.

Other happenings from the Council legislative conference today included a lifetime achievement award for California Congressman George Miller, a Democrat with a 40-year record of championing K-12 issues, who is retiring at the end of the year.

Also, Delisle trotted out an anecdote from the field that she may want to retire, at least for this group of urban educators who heard the same story last year during their legislative conference.

She recalled a visit she made to a middle school in the second year of its turnaround efforts and how kids in a keyboarding class had cut out pictures of computers and glued them on construction paper, while a short distance away, in the same district, 3rd graders were working with QR codes and iPads.

It sounded really familiar to me, and sure enough, it was the same tale from a year ago.

Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote then.

“Delisle said that during her stop at a middle school midway through its second year of the SIG program, she observed a ‘keyboarding’ or typing class, which she was surprised was still a course offering. The teacher, she said, wanted to show off projects that students had recently completed. Students had cut out pictures of computer screens and keyboards and pasted them on large sheets of construction paper. This school, she said, had already spent about $2.5 million of its federal turnaround money, a good chunk of it on an external provider hired to steer the improvement effort.

‘I looked at the principal and the external provider and said, ‘Working on a lot of rigor, eh?’ ' she said.

But just a few miles away in the same district at an elementary school undergoing turnaround, she saw an entirely different scene. Third graders, she said, were in a classroom with two teachers (one of them a special education specialist) and using iPads and QR codes, (a symbol used by smartphones and other devices to link to online content) to research possible answers to the question: ‘How can mankind change the course of history?’

‘Every kid in America should have the QR code and not the cutouts,’ she said.”

Assistant Editor Alyson Klein contributed to this report.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.